The Philosophy Faculty’s introduction of the feminist philosophy undergraduate paper represents a necessary and long-awaited step towards the diversification of Oxford’s undergrad philosophy offering. The overwhelming student interest in the paper’s test-run next Michaelmas is a further indicator of the demand for the course.
The common claim that philosophy is about timeless truths – and that therefore situation-induced, feminist philosophy holds no legitimate place in the study of philosophy – presupposes that philosophising consists of objective and value-free thinking.
But philosophising on any matter can never be wholly impartial or unbiased – philosophical theories always contain traces of their authors. And this must be recognised: one of the most important things taught to first years is to interpret thinkers in terms of their historical contexts. By doing so, the hope is that we can somewhat accommodate for the natural bias that underlies human thought.
As a first-year PPEist, every single one of my philosophy lectures and tutorials over the past two terms have been delivered by male academics. Furthermore, all of the philosophers whose works we’ll have studied before Prelims are male, and most, if not all, come from Western European or American backgrounds.
I understand that the particular range of philosophers I’m studying at the moment is fairly typical of an introductory philosophy course. However, keeping in mind the aforementioned issue of inherent subjectivity when it comes to philosophical thought, the relatively homogenous composition of my Oxford introduction to philosophy unfortunately doesn’t bode well for the dynamic development of my perspective as a student. Nor does it ensure that my fellow students and I are learning from objective philosophical sources, or, even better, admittedly subjective ones that have been diversified to the point of near objectivity.
Accordingly, this paper constitutes more than just a move towards addressing the pressing need for more feminist and intersectional viewpoints within the undergraduate course at Oxford. Its introduction also opens the door for other incredibly pertinent, yet previously neglected areas of philosophical study, for example post-colonial philosophy or the study of Islamic and Buddhist philosophical traditions.
Moreover, the introduction of a paper specifically focused on feminist philosophy, rather a push for the addition of feminist elements to existing courses, is important because the study of feminist philosophy draws on methods for the philosophical analysis of other concepts related to identity, such as race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and religion. The paper will thus broaden inroads into these areas of study, which are currently under-represented within the undergraduate philosophical canon here at Oxford.
Other universities have already moved in this direction: Cambridge already offers a module on Mill’s text, On the Subjection of Women, within their undergraduate philosophy course, whilst Durham’s course includes a ‘Gender, Film, and Society’ module.
It’s important to remember that many students who go through the undergraduate philosophy course here will go on to contribute in big ways to society, be it through public policy, the media, or politics. This being the case, it is essential that these future leaders are provided with a university course that encourages broad and balanced ways of thinking about the world. The introduction of a feminist philosophy paper is a commendable step towards this end.