Subjection of Women

Topics: Sociology, Science, Social influence Pages: 8 (2966 words) Published: April 23, 2005
proach to understanding the properties of persons (their traits, desires, abilities, interests) which is not only very popular and historically important, but also intuitively plausible. It begins with a division of human properties into three categories. Natural properties are those persons have in virtue of being members of a natural kind, and they originate in the structures definitive of the species. Other properties are unnatural, in that they result from abnormal structures. And some properties are nonnatural (or social) in that they represent replacements, modifications, or extensions brought about by the social environment operating on the basic structures.1 Such is the ontology. It suggests immediately the epistemology for assigning observed properties to the three categories, in particular to the natural and the nonnatural. The central epistemological thesis is a counterfactual: natural properties are those that persons would exhibit were they never influenced by a social environment. John Stuart Mill, in his The Subjection of Women, asserts this view: "the artificial state superinduced by society disguises the natural tendencies of the thing which is the subject of observation. . . ." Suppose "all artificial causes of difference to be withdrawn," the "natural character would be revealed."2 The central epistemological thesis implies two methodological rules and a corollary for discovering which properties are natural and which are nonnatural. First, the natural properties are those which are common among persons who live in different social environments. Properties which are observed in all types of social environment are just those properties which are most resistant to social influences and which would be observed regardless of social influences. Similarly, if observed properties vary as social environments vary, this is evidence for their being nonnatural. (Mill does, I think, assert the first rule in the Logic.)3 Second, the properties of persons who live in environments containing relatively few social influences are more likely to be natural than those of persons who live in environments containing many. But most important for Mill is the corollary, which says that differences in natural properties between two sub-groups of the species are those differences which are observed even though people in both sub-groups are not only influenced by the same social environment but are also subjected to the least possible amount of social influence.4 The corollary is expressed in this passage from The Subjection of Women concerning "literary women": "their sentiments are compounded of a small element of individual observation and consciousness, and a very large one of acquired associations. This . . . will remain true . . . as long as social institutions do not admit the same free development of originality in women which is possible to men. When that time comes . . . we shall see . . . as much as it is necessary to know of the nature of women."5 Note that Mill speaks of the "free" development of women. In the history of philosophy a social doctrine has usually been attached to those ontological and epistemological theses, the doctrine that persons are free (or have freedom) to the extent that they are not constrained, either in their behavior or in their development, by social influences. The liberal doctrine of "equal maximal liberty," then, is both a methodological rule for the discovery of the natural as well as a political principle limiting one sort of social influence. Mill elaborates and defends the political doctrine in On Liberty and employs it in The Subjection of Women, which also contains the epistemology. Another statement of the corollary from the latter work more clearly connects the discovery of the natural with freedom: "no one can safely pronounce that if women's nature were left to choose its direction as freely as men's, and if no artificial bent were attempted to be given to it except that...
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