Proceedings of the XXIII World Congress of Philosophy

Volume 29, 2018

Philosophical Approaches to Gender

Martina Reuter
Pages 83-87

Mary Wollstonecraft’s Critique of J-J Rousseau

It is well known that Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a fierce critique of J-J Rousseau’s views on the nature and education of women, but the philosophical foundation of this critique has not yet been sufficiently explored. Wendy Gunther-Canada, for example, assumes that Wollstonecraft is attacking Rousseau’s biological determinism. I will argue that Gunther-Canada’s assumption is based on an anachronistic understanding of Wollstonecraft’s critical project and fails to capture its philosophical significance. Gunther-Canada’s distinction between social and biological differences belongs to a much later feminist terminology and does not capture either Rousseau’s or Wollstonecraft’s use of the term “natural”, which has strong metaphysical rather than biological connotations. Wollstonecraft’s critique of Rousseau’s views on women is best understood when it is seen in relation to her critique of his pessimistic view on the possibility of civilization. Wollstonecraft largely agrees with Rousseau’s critical diagnosis of present civilization, but she disagrees with his pessimism. Her own optimism is rooted in a belief in the human capacity of reason and in Providence based on reason. I argue that it is against this background that we must understand the different epistemological, moral and political aspects of Wollstonecraft’s critique of Rousseau’s conception of men’s and women’s complementary virtues.