Beyond the philosophical toolbox:

Adopting the feminist philosophical approach in mainstream philosophy

The Philosophical Toolbox

Philosophy is characterised by a remarkable diversity of methods. From conceptual analysis and phenomenology to Taoist intuitionism or Sufist mysticism, philosophers throughout the ages and around the globe have developed a myriad of ways of doing philosophy. A common way of thinking about this diversity of philosophical methods is as a toolbox. Thought this way, each method is a different tool that can be taken up and wielded for a different purpose or to yield a different result.

Who is the philosopher who uses this toolbox? The immediate image that suggests itself is the philosophical handyman. Brawny and bearded, sweat beading on his brow, he carefully crafts his philosophical projects like any other masculine stereotype might craft a table or a house. In the preface to their compendium of philosophical concepts and methods, The Philosopher’s Toolkit [1],Julian Baggini and Peter Fosl paint a similar – though markedly less working-class – picture: the philosopher is surgeon, master woodworker, or sculptor, employing their instruments with care and precision just as any practitioner in these male-dominated spheres might.

The past century or so has seen the philosophical handyman challenged by the rise of a new figure: the feminist philosopher. The entry of women into academic philosophical circles gave them access to the tools of the philosophical trade that had previously been exclusively granted to their instrument-wielding better halves. Taking up these tools and combining them with feminist commitments, feminist philosophers reimagined and reworked the philosophical field. In the process, they developed a new way of doing philosophy. This feminist philosophical approach, I will argue, is one that all philosophers should adopt.

The feminist philosophical approach

Feminist philosophers are a diverse bunch, arising in many different sub-disciplines of philosophy, considering a vast range of topics, and using a wide set of methodologies. [2] [3] You could find a feminist philosopher working on representations of femininity in continental metaphysics. [4] Or they could be browsing dusty shelves for volumes of eighteenth-century medical texts on the female reproductive system. [5] Perhaps they are considering the gender biases that inform contemporary understandings of quantum mechanics. [6] Or maybe they are engaged in debates about the ethics of commercial surrogacy. [7] They might not even be talking specifically about women or gender at all, but, for instance, about the role of the emotions in ethics and politics. [8]

“Feminist philosophers will recognise and often utilise gender as an important lens of inquiry and will seek to produce philosophy that is socially responsible.”

There is therefore a particularly feminist way of doing philosophy: feminist philosophers will recognise and often utilise gender as an important lens of inquiry and will seek to produce philosophy that is socially responsible. I will call this the feminist philosophical approach.

Despite their differences, feminist philosophers share two key commitments that shape the approach they take to any philosophical inquiry. First is an intellectual commitment. Feminist philosophers believe that gender is an important lens of analysis in philosophy. Whether they are turning to women thinkers throughout history who have been written out of the history of philosophy books, or theorising from the day to day travails of care in intimate relationships typically experienced by women, feminist philosophers are broadly committed to the importance of thinking about gender differences within and in relation to philosophy. [9] Second is an ethical and political commitment. Feminist philosophers, like feminists more broadly, are concerned with contesting women’s oppression and fighting for gender justice. Feminist philosophers therefore aim to ensure that the philosophy they produce does not rely on or reproduce oppressive gender stereotypes, for instance. Feminist philosophers also typically practice “engaged” philosophy that takes responsibility for its role in society and aims to have positive effects on people. [10]

Feminist philosophical methods

Iris Marion Young

Taking this feminist philosophical approach, feminists have transformed the philosophical toolbox with which they began. Take Iris Marion Young, who challenged the traditional reduction of gender as a phenomenologically irrelevant category by applying the phenomenological method to investigate the effects of gender oppression on women’s perception and movement. [11] Or consider Marilyn Frye, whose analysis of the false universalisation present in analytic philosophy saw her transforming conceptual analysis by relying on concrete experiences of women rather than on abstract, purportedly universal experiences. [12]

Feminist philosophers have also developed their own original feminist philosophical methods. Luce Irigaray’s mimetic method, for instance, appropriates the representations of femininity throughout the history of philosophy in order to reflect on and ultimately force a shift in thinking about sexual difference. [13] And Michelle Le Dœuff’s method of reading a philosophical text through an examination of its underlying assumptions – its “philosophical imaginary” – has been extremely influential both within and outside of feminist philosophy. [14]

We have therefore seen the development of what I will call, not a little bit ironically and certainly in the spirit of Irigaray’s mimetic method, the feminist philosophical “sewing box”. Like the traditional philosophical toolbox, the feminist philosophical sewing box contains a range of tools for constructing philosophical works. Unlike the toolbox, however, it contains a new set of specifically feminist philosophical methods that are attentive to gender and oppression. And, just as a seamstress can do all sorts of things a handyman could never dream of, feminist philosophers can use their new set of methodological resources to produce different kinds of philosophy.

This is not to say that feminist philosophers have abandoned the traditional philosophical toolbox altogether. Feminist philosophers continue to employ the paternal tools alongside their new feminist ones. The feminist philosophical sewing box, we could say, has been added to philosophical toolbox, expanding the craft room that is philosophy.

However, feminists always use the traditional philosophical methods in the spirit of the dual commitments that make up the feminist philosophical approach. In particular, feminist philosophers employ the traditional methods with greater attention to underlying assumptions and more responsibility for the effects that philosophy might have on society. They also tend to combine traditional tools in unusual and productive ways, often drawing on traditions as diverse as Lacanian psychoanalysis and Piercian pragmatism to engage in their feminist philosophical. [15] As a result, the traditional philosophical tools are employed in a more inclusive and more self-aware and critical manner.

The feminist approach in mainstream philosophy

So the feminist philosophical approach both introduces new methodological tools and modifies the way in which traditional methods are used. Broadly speaking, then, the feminist approach is a way of doing things with the methods of philosophy, or a “meta-methodology”.

We now have two ways a philosopher could operate in the philosophical craft room. When a feminist philosopher enters the craft room they adopt the feminist philosophical approach, using the tools in both toolbox and sewing box to craft philosophy that will be socially responsible and attentive to gender and sexual difference.

A non-feminist philosophical handyman, on the other hand, would fixate on the “hard tools” of traditional philosophy. Not only neglecting the range of new possibilities opened up by the feminist philosophical sewing box, they would also fail to adopt the commitments of the feminist philosophical approach. As a result, the philosophical handyman tends to construct philosophy that does not assess its own assumptions about gender and does not contest oppression.

These two kinds of philosophers can certainly operate side by side in the philosophical craft room, if not entirely peaceably. So why should all philosophers adopt the feminist approach?

“If all practitioners in the philosophical craft room adopted the feminist approach, philosophy would therefore better live up to its own standards and gain an expanded scope and set of methodological resources.”

There are two reasons. The first is philosophical: simply put, taking the feminist approach improves philosophical practice. Feminist philosophers’ self-reflexive critique has uncovered in philosophy a consistent thread of limitations in thought and faulty reasoning about women. Experience has therefore shown us that greater attention to questions of gender and social responsibility help to reveal and revise philosophical errors, aiding philosophers in producing work that more nearly approximates its ideals. Feminist philosophy also provides a new set of methods and opens up new lines of inquiry into gender-specific areas like pregnancy and breastfeeding. These inquiries have important implications for all sorts of key philosophical questions, such as the nature of identity and the limits of ethical obligation. If all practitioners in the philosophical craft room adopted the feminist approach, philosophy would therefore better live up to its own standards and gain an expanded scope and set of methodological resources.

The second reason is ethical and political: the feminist approach ensures that philosophers take responsibility for their own social and political effects. For a long time philosophy was responsible for perpetuating, rather than challenging, the oppression of women. Philosophers from Aristotle to Kant have described women as the less rational, less competent sex. Others have simply failed to consider the lives of women at all, preferring to project men’s experiences and ways of thinking onto humanity as a whole. These philosophical practices all had real world effects, implicitly or explicitly reinforcing the unjustified exclusion and oppression of women. It is therefore not viable to object that philosophy, as impartial and rational philosophical inquiry, should not or need not involve adopting a political sensibility like feminism. Philosophy is already an institution of knowledge and culture within society that has social and political effects, and philosophers can either perpetuate or challenge the oppression of women. It is therefore incumbent on philosophers to reverse philosophy’s oppressive tendencies. Taking the feminist approach, philosophers will produce philosophy that opposes gender-based oppression, creating a more ethically and politically responsible philosophical practice.

The philosophical apprenticeship

Therefore, all philosophers in the philosophical craft room should adopt a feminist philosophical approach to improve their own practice—philosophically, ethically, and politically. This is not to say that every philosopher should spend all their time thinking about gender or writing about sexual difference, nor does it mean that they should use only the methods they find in the feminist philosophical sewing box. But it does mean that philosophers will consider questions of gender in their work and will have access to feminist philosophical methods to do so. And it means that philosophers will no longer leave gender biases in their work unexamined, for example, nor would they continue to present typically male experiences as putative universals.

Of course, important questions remain about the status of feminism and the potentially exclusionary and oppressive category of gender itself. Moreover, philosophers face similar challenges and opportunities with respect to race, sexuality, and class, for instance. But, just as philosophy can grow through its feminist developments, engaging with these critical issues will further expand and improve philosophical practice. Indeed, adopting the feminist philosophical approach is truly only a first step in the longer apprenticeship towards a more responsible and more self-critical philosophical craft.


[1] Baggini, Julian, and Peter S. Fosl. The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A compendium of philosophical concepts and methods (2nd ed.). Chichester and Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

[2] Tuana, Nancy, “Approaches to Feminism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/feminism-approaches/.

[3] Gardner, Catherine Villanueva. The A to Z of Feminist Philosophy. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2009.

[4] Chanter, Tina. Time, death, and the feminine: Levinas with Heidegger. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

[5] Tuana, Nancy. “Coming to understand: Orgasm and the epistemology of ignorance.” Hypatia 19, no. 1 (2004): 194-232.

[6] Harrell, Maralee. “On the Possibility of Feminist Philosophy of Physics.” In Meta-Philosophical Reflection on Feminist Philosophies of Science, pp. 15-34. New York: Springer International Publishing, 2016.

[7] Pande, Amrita. Wombs in labor: Transnational commercial surrogacy in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

[8] La Caze, Marguerite. Wonder and generosity: their role in ethics and politics. Ithaca: SUNY Press, 2013.

[9] Kittay, Eva Feder and Linda Martín Alcoff, “Introduction: Defining Feminist Philosophy”, The Blackwell Guide to Feminist Philosophy, Eva Feder Kittay and Linda Martín Alcoff (eds.), Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

[10] Garry, Ann, “Analytic Feminism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/femapproach-analytic/.

[11] Young, Iris Marion. Throwing like a girl. Bloomington: Indiana Press, 1990.

[12] cited in Kittay and Alcoff, 5

[13] Donovan, Sarah. “Luce Irigaray.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://www.iep.utm.edu/irigaray/. N.d. Accessed 8 May 2017.

[14] Le Dœuff, Michèle. The Philosophical Imaginary. Trans. Colin Gordon. London and New York: Continuum, 2002.

[15] Tuana, Nancy, “Approaches to Feminism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/feminism-approaches/.