This is a paper I wrote for my phenomenology class and I will post it in two parts (one today and one next Monday). When I first wrote this I felt really confident that my answer to the above question would be “no,” but the more I discuss this topic with other people the more I am unsure of my own conclusion. I would be interested to hear what you think on the subject…
This is surely a society of taxonomists; everyone has essential characteristics that supposedly fits them neatly into one or more categories. There is an endless list of slots into which all people are subjected to: liberals, Christians, type-A personalities, etc. Women are of course no exception. Moreover, it seems that “woman” has become a category unto itself, to some people at least. Who hasn’t heard these generalizations? All women really just want to get married, or they are all drama-queens, or perhaps you have heard that all women love to shop. Of course these claims do not just come out of thin air, women often present themselves within the boundary of this stereotype. But the real question is not whether or not women do actually have these stereotypical features, but rather it is necessary that they be this way, do they have an essential nature?
To understand the way women are, we would be well served to examine the way women are given to us, our experience of women. One of the first philosophers to take this question seriously was Simone de Beauvior. It is her contention that no such “thing” exists. Before explaining her particular view, I will first given an account of how Husserl and Merleau-Ponty motivated her phenomenology of women. Next I will show why de Beauvior rejects some attempts at defining an eidos of women and then give her positive view. By examining these arguments I hope to show that no such eidetic intuition of women exists; rather she is, like all people, a product of her situation.
Before any of that, it would be appropriate to explain exactly what is an eidetic intuition and an eidos. Intuition in the phenomenological sense is the direct perception of the world and the things in it, understanding how both of these things show themselves to us. The ‘eidetic’ part of this has to do with the essence or form of a thing. An eidos is not immediately given in a single perception, but it comes over time as we experience many things in the manifold of appearances. There are three steps involved in reaching a true eidetic understanding of something. The first stage is a vague understanding of similarities among a group of things. “At this stage we discover a rather weak kind if identity called typicality” (Sokolowski 178). At the next level we realize that such things are not just similar, but they are the same in a particular way. We come to understand a feature of an object as an “empirical universal” (Sokolowski 178). This understanding is still contingent on experience, it is still falsifiable.
The last step is when our understanding of the thing moves beyond our perceptions. “In our third and final stage, we strive to reach a feature that it would be inconceivable for the thing to be without. We try to move beyond empirical to eidetic universals, to necessities and not just regularities”(Sokolowski 178). Again, this emphasizes that eidetic intuitions only come after a period of rigorous thought. We switch from simply grouping experiences to understanding something that can not be given in experience alone. Thus, “imaginative variation”(Sokolowski 178) is a tool for determining the eidos of a thing because we need to consider all the possible ways a thing could be until it is not itself anymore. One can add and remove a number of parts of an object in order to see what is precisely necessary for the thing to be what it is. All three steps are what make up the eidetic reduction.
At this point the category of women may seem to be presupposing an eidos. However, it seems that our usage of the term “woman” is at the level of an empirical universal. We understand that most women we encounter have a collection of biological traits, and oftentimes we (wrongly) try to use these traits to justify an eidetic intuition of women. This is a weak identity ascription because the sameness we appeal to is not something that we can find in all women. Most people would say that something like breasts, uteri, and ovaries are necessary features of a woman. This statement is fundamentally incorrect when we consider cancer victims. They may have had all of those organs removed, but they are still women. There are even women who have more then two X chromosomes. The term “women” is a lingual necessity to differentiate the sexes for basic communication needs. It would be wrong to infer that just because we need this distinction for practical reasons that there something essential in all women that it refers to. The apparent classification of women does not beg the question of an eidos because it is just a linguistically useful empirical universal.
In order to understand where the problem of the sexes came from and de Beauvior’s motivation for writing on it, I should first examine the phenomenology that led up to it. The human body is unique in that it is not just a body (in the physical sense). In addition, it is also a meeting place of the mental and physical, or body and consciousness. Husserl describes this concept as the lived body. The lived body is our perception of a conscious body, we intuit it as not just a physical object but also a something that is a thinking thing. Although this may remind one of the Cartesian distinction between body and mind, it is very different. A major reason why this is so is because of the way we perceive the body. We do not perceive a body and then a mind, instead we intuit them as one, at the same time.
Husserl identifies three major attributes of the lived body. The first aspect of the lived body is that it has “fields of sensation”(Heinamaa 29) given to it. This is a fancy way of saying that these bodies feel and respond to external stimuli. This is why Husserl refers to lived bodies as datives of manifestation or beings to which things are manifest. The second feature is that the lived body is given as a mobile entity; it is free to move within the world and to cause motion. So lived bodies are not just capable of taking in things in the world, but are also able to interact with those things. Lastly, the body is a “fixed point of perceptions” (Heinamaa 29), it is the basis from which all of one’s experience is understood. All of these things are evident by just observing the type of life of a lived body has.
The lived body is not just as it is physically given, but its mental life is important to understanding it as well. By looking at the body from a phenomenological viewpoint we see that “it is the basis for meaningfulness of action, for its directions and purposes…the living body presents itself originally as an expression of psychic life” (Heinamaa 32). Lived bodies are different from other objects in the world because they are able to have a view of the world. When we think about lived bodies, we notice that they are the means for “expression” (Heinamaa 32) and communication. The interwoven body and consciousness are moments or non-separable parts of the lived body, and are both involved in all activity. The lived body’s ability to express is what gives meaning to human life. There is no part of the lived body that is specific to any activity; one lived body is not different from another except in terms of its different experiences. This is a significant claim because it shows that what we would call the essence of a woman is directly related to her situation in the world. That claim confounds the typical understanding of an essence because it makes essence relative to the society one was born in. There may be stable aspects of a personality, but they are not necessary, like an eidos, to that particular body.
Merleau-Ponty expands on Husserl’s phenomenology of the body. He attempts to give a view that is prior to a scientific understanding of the body, a view that treats the body as it is perceived and as a perceiver. Merleau-Ponty also sees the body as an expression of the way in which one relates to the world, it is world directed. “The meaning of the body does not reside behind or above its visible, audible, or tactile elements; it appears in the relations between them” (Heinamaa 38). Within the manifold of appearances is where the essence of the lived body as a dative of manifestation can be found. The lived body is the basic part of the world to which all meaning is given because it is the thing to which things appear. Meaning therefore only occurs because of a lived body’s response to the world.
Heinamaa explains Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of the body via his “gesture theory of expression” (Heinamaa 39). There are two parts to this theory, the first is says that gestures do not refer to immaterial features of the world. This dissolves the idea of an inherent meaning behind physical things that we do not have perceptual access to. The second part of his argument says that there is, in fact, meaning behind gestures. However, the meaning of some act comes from that which is perceptually given to us. So, there is a relation of meaning in gestures, but it is only between two physical things. For example, I would show sadness by crying. Because meanings do not come from or refer to some immutable immaterial part of the universe, they are dynamic. The lived body, its actions, and their resulting meanings are all intertwined. Thus, for Merleau-Ponty, certain aggregates of certain gestures in the body come from a “style” (Heinamaa 40) of being.
This is important for understanding de Beauvior because of the enigmatic way Merleau-Ponty conceives of lived bodies. Because lived bodies as such are not described by what Plato would call a form, they are always capable of change and recreation. “His suggestion is that when studying perception, we should not ask what causes it or constitutes its basis, but instead inquire into the manner in which it changes, varies and relates to other forms of activity and passivity, such as motility, speech, and sexuality”( Heinamaa 41). By refusing to posit essence as the means for interpreting a person, Merleau-Ponty opens the door for us to try to understand women not as a type of people, but rather as people who live a type of life. More importantly, his dismissal of concrete person-types allows for a flexible understanding of women.
In Destiny, a chapter from the Second Sex, de Beauvior examines and rejects three common ways of trying to pinpoint an essential nature of women. The first method is biological or physiological. By giving a strictly physiological description of the female body, proponents of this ideology attempt to prove that women’s natural weakness (when compared to men) is what makes women less successful and therefore less actualized members of society. Other things, such a maternity, have been used for the same ends, but there is only time to discuss one. De Beauvior points out that this critique is no longer relevant in many developed or modern societies. The advantage gained by men’s physical superiority is neutralized because of the enormous burdens that modern tools have erased. Put more phenomenological, our way of being is now different because our world is different. Previously many crucial tools in life were so useless to women that they were tantamount to being broken. Take for example a metal working, a job that once required an enormous degree of strength now only requires the knowledge of machines. Part of our nature comes from our activity, and now that many activities are open to women their nature is open to proportional change. If intellectual pursuits are not an option for someone, then it should be no surprise that this person is not an academic. This does not imply that a person is incapable of doing what society does not offer them, only that they are unlikely to do such things.