Key Concepts of Michele Le Doeuff

A philosopher by profession and training Michele Le Doeuff‘s The Philosophical Imaginary (1989) argued that philosophy has a specific imaginary level intrinsic to itself. This imaginary level sets the conditions of what can be constructed as rationality within it. For Le Doeuff, images such as islands, fog, stormy seas in philosophical texts are not merely metaphorical. These images function to close off the text, making it self-contained. Images in philosophy are explained within philosophy’s meta-discourse (discourse about itself) in two ways: (1) as the mark of the return of a primitive or child-like form of thought, (2) as possessing an intuitive self-evident clarity which communicates the thoughts of the speaker/philosopher to the reader/listener. These images are perceived as means of communication to an uncultivated reader. But for Le Doeuff, the real effect of the image is hidden. Images help dogmatisation, positing the “that is the way it is” condition to forestall any counter argument. It is presumed that the good reader will bypass such illustrations. Images, then, are a means whereby philosophy can be unphilosophical by closing off the subject of discussion. This is almost the closure of philosophy itself.

Le Doeuff does not accept the Irigaray argument that the language of philosophy is masculinist (and therefore prevents the woman from speaking). Le Doeuff argues that reason and rationality are not inherently masculine. There are a plurality of rationalities, and not a single hegemonic one. There has been, Le Doeuff admits, a systemic structure which has prevented women from taking to philosophy. The reduction of woman to her sex has alienated her from philosophy (Le Doeuff’s target here is Rousseau, who announced that abstract truths are not for women). To deconstruct the sexism of philosophy, Le Doeuff resorts to the very conditions of philosophy itself: its need for openness and dialogue, its self-reflexivity and sell-questioning tradition.

The historical practice of philosophy has misrecognised the role of images, has emphasiseds abstractedness, has rejected the true openness (“wandering”) of thought, has treated the woman as the Other, and has been rigid in its style and method. Women have always been seen as devotees of great male philosophers, rarely as independent thinkers. What distinguishes a man is his independence as person and thinker. But women like Simone de Beauvoir use the male’s text to address women’s question. Thus The Second Sex adapts Sartrean existentialism to address the issue of morality. De Beauvoir, for Le Doeuff with her own twist to Sartrean philosophy stops being a devotee. For Le Doeuff philosophy is a liberating force. Philosophy offers a model of autonomy and independence of thought.

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