Volume 33, 2017
Power and Public Reason
“Non-Idealizing Abstraction” as Ideology
Non-Ideal Theory, Intersectionality, and the Power Dynamics of Oppression
Recently, social and political philosophers have shown increased interest in the ideological nature of ideal theory and the importance of non-ideal theory. Charles Mills, who sparked recent critiques of ideal theory, invokes the notion of “non-idealizing abstractions” and argues that these are helpful when applying non-ideal theory. In contrast, I argue that the notion of non-idealizing abstractions is not a helpful tool for non-ideal theory. I suspect that it pays insufficient attention to the actual power dynamics of oppression, which significantly influence judgments about whose experiences and interests are worth being reflected by an abstraction. Failing to take account of the power differences among the oppressed, what Mills considers non-idealizing abstractions falls into ideology, which cannot reflect the experiences or interests of less-privileged minorities, and only concerns those of more-privileged minorities. I examine cases in which the concept of “patriarchy,” which Mills alleges to be a non-idealizing abstraction, functions as what I refer to as the “Colonialist Concept of Patriarchy” that marginalizes Third World women’s experiences of intersectional oppression. I suggest that a more suitable and less ideological way to apply non-ideal theory should avoid asserting that an abstraction is “non-idealizing” and should, instead, protect “resignifiability” of the abstraction.