Friday, December 05, 2008

Three Approaches to Social Change

I've been doing the feminist philosophy section in my intro course, and since it's a short section and feminist philosophy is extremely diverse, I'm always trying to find ways that are relatively easy ways of handling the field that nonetheless do justice to its diversity. One thing I've done is to suggest that, when people recognize something about society that is seriously amiss and in need of change, and the problem is not easy to solve, there's a regular pattern of people splitting up into three groups.

(1) One, which we might call a reformationist approach, evaluates the problem as a failure to apply consistently some set of principles underlying the society; in other words, they want to keep the basic character of the society the same and use its inbuilt resources to solve the problem, or at least alleviate it.

(2) Another, which we might call a transformationist approach, occurs when people come to the conclusion that it's society itself that is the problem: the society's own means of improvement are unable to correct the problem and, in fact, continue to propagate it. This group holds that we need to rethink society throughout.

(3) And a third group can generally be found that holds that reformation and transformation alike face the practical problem of being unable to do what they are wanting to do; in order to fix the problem such people want (unlike the reformationist but like the transformationist) an entirely new way of doing things but (like the reformationist but unlike the transformationist) think that simply restructuring society as a whole is not practicable, even if we are doing it piecemeal. So they handle it by advocating a breakaway system, within which a better society can be built, and whose benefits can then begin to filter out into society at large. These might be called separationists.

So, in other words: When there's something wrong with the system, you can improve the system using its basic principles, replace the system by replacing its basic principles, or build a break-off system with its own principles. Really, of course, there's a spectrum here; each of these admits of degrees and varieties, although the clustering into groups is noticeable. No doubt this could be refined, but it's definitely a pattern that can be found repeatedly in feminist thought itself, and it accounts for many of the arguments among feminists. To take just one of several examples that I use, arguments between "liberal" feminists, who accept the basic principles of a liberal society and build their projects on those, and "radical" feminists, who think those principles (however good relative to those of other societies we've had so far) are simply not good enough, are arguments against reformationists and transformationists within a liberal society. And the pattern is fairly robust historically; Astell in the early modern period builds a moderately separationist proposal for women's education, while Masham opposes it with a firmly reformationist one.

But, as I said, I think this is actually quite general (although details may need to be refined); these are just the sorts of approaches spread out into in response to something they all recognize as needing change. The relative strength of each approach will vary from case to case; for instance, it seems to me that, while there have been feminist separationisms (like Astell on education) and will likely continue to be, it has generally been and probably will continue to be a very small minority. But in other cases, separation may well dominate. In any case, I think this sort of spread is probably almost inevitable. When we're dealing with a problem that's simultaneously very important and very difficult to solve, it will often be a judgment call whether the system itself is salvageable; thus the split between reformationists and transformationists. Then, since it is very difficult to solve, if the system is not itself salvageable, it will be a judgment call whether you should stay in the system and replace its principles bit by bit or start anew somewhere. Thus the split between transformationists and separationists.

It works well for giving students a basic sense of both the richness and diversity of feminist philosophy. But there are bound to be some weaknesses in it. Does anyone have any suggestions as to possible problems and objections that might be raised against it?

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