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Second Read, Anderson

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 11 months ago

Anderson, Round Two 


Kate -- Standpoint epitemology and the virgin birth


Admittedly, I am having a difficult time getting my head around “rational religious beliefs” and an epistemology of religion, so let me apologize in advance if this is an overly narrow engagement, or if the answer is so flagrantly obvious as to not merit 20 minutes worth of discussion.  My hope is that in exploring this ambiguity we can shed some light on how and why she is using standpoint epistemology, and what, if any, the broader implications beyond religion her use might have.


On page 131, Anderson uses the example of the virgin birth in Christianity to illustrate what an application of feminist standpoint epistemology might bring to a feminist philosophy of religion.  She begins by explaining it with what she sees as a weak notion of objectivity, wherein the question of a male deity being incarnated and born to an embodied virgin woman is thought through critically.  Following this line of thought, she argues, would lead one to wonder what exactly was being symbolized, and think through alternative explanations for why a virgin mother plays such a strong role in Christian religions belief.  By contrast, she argues, standpoint epistemology allows for a stronger objectivity that can produce an entirely different standard by which to judge rational religious belief.


To obtain strong objectivity within standpoint epistemology, the subject shifts away from the privileged point of view to think from the lives of others.  Then, the subject turns the critical gaze their standpoint to examine the assumptions and beliefs that inhere in that position.  “Instead of justifying true belief and refuting skepticism in the manner of conventional epistemology, feminist standpoint epistemologists aim to gain knowledge by scrutinizing the credentials of knowledge claimants and putting knowledge claims under communal criticism from the perspective of the outsider” (131).  From here, however, she concludes that standpoint epistemology would “reject any knowledge claim which is biased against half of the human race.” 


As I read her here, she is arguing that from a standpoint perspective, that knowledge – virgin mother giving birth to reincarnated deity – is impossible knowledge by virtue of the fact that it has constructed a discourse about women that has been biased against them.  So my question is – is that really what she is arguing standpoint epistemology does?  Is it the case that from a feminist standpoint, knowledge (or beliefs) that could result in problematic discourse for women are not possible?  I see a major, and important difference, between a) critically assessing, calling into question, and denaturalizing the position of the knower, and b) having an a priori normative commitment to what is possible to be known.  What is at issue for me here is that she seems to be arguing that standpoint requires (a) which necessarily leads to (b).  That is, by virtue of critically assessing and problematizing knowers, potentially unjust knowledge can never be valid.


This seems a dubious claim to me, but perhaps I’m missing the point.  It seems to me that the problem of the virgin birth is the value associated with virginity, and the resulting privileging of disembodiment.  But is that a necessary outcome of that event (were it to have been agreed upon to have happened?).  I would argue that it does not necessarily follow that disembodiment would be privileged by virtue of that story being considered “true,” and that for a feminist standpoint epistemologist to intervene, they would have to deny the fact of the event.  Rather, a feminist standpoint epistemologists intervention could be around knowledge produced about the importance, relevance, and interpretation of that event, though that seems more similar to what Anderson calls a “weak objectivity.” 




Hillary A. Jones

Second Reading of Anderson, On Yearning, Desire, and Pleasures


Anderson’s central solution focuses on yearning.  She uses the examples of Mirabai, and Antigone to elucidate the ways that women’s desire challenge patriarchy.  She suggests that she seeks “a new utopian vision for female and male expressions of religious belief freed of the fixed-gender hierarchy of patriarchal appropriations of myth” (22).  By turning to religious devotion and dissenting women who refuse to follow the orders of the patriarchal order and instead mime actions back, Anderson uncovers how Mirabai and Antigone can use religious devotion to unsettle patriarchal epistemology.


She focuses on how the females rejecting “male prerogatives” with their choices not to marry and to bury a brother are acts of rationality, choice, and devotion (22).  She refers to yearning as a “rational passion” that encourages us to think from the standpoint of outsiders (22).  Mobilizing hooks’s discussion of the lived experiences of marginalized women, Anderson illustrates how working to acknowledge and honor other rationalities is liberating. 


Her specific examples to illustrate yearning center on bhakti and Mirabai (especially 171-175).  Yearning counters patriarchy, she argues, by challenging the three main ways it endangers women: appropriation theistic devotion for the male, devaluing female desire, and excluding marginalized peoples’ knowledges (173).  Yearning that illustrates theistic devotion and knowledge that is deemed bodily, passive, or feminine then becomes resistance to the patriarchal order.  Choosing not to marry a prince and live a life of theistic devotion, Mirabai satisfies her desire for devotion, although her choice does not seem to make sense to others in her social milieu (as Code would term it).


If we read Anderson against McWhorter’s example of line dancing, we see another example of yearning.  By choosing to value the embodied knowledge that emerges from her experiences learning line dancing, McWhorter challenges patriarchy in the third way Anderson set forth.  If you remember, though, McWhorter’s desire to learn to line dance began because of her desire to meet hot women.  Her yearning was a desire for connection with an other person, which she hoped to have yield a different form of bodily knowledge.  She discovers the joy of her body’s knowledge as a side-effect of her yearning, but the pleasure she gains from dancing, being in synchronicity with the other dances, and her body’s ability to generate knowledge becomes a different form of joy.  I suspect she yearns for the connection to the community of dancers, to the connection to her body, and to meet hot women all simultaneously here.  What counts as theistic devotion?  Are the hours of practice and agony McWhorter undergoes to become comfortable in her body line dancing an example of devotion?  I think so, and I find her devotion a strong example of yearning in action.  McWhorter’s bodily knowledge counters the active/passive divide Anderson tackles, as well as challenging the patriarchal order Anderson sets forth. 


Finally, Mirabai and Antigone both experience alienation from their original social communities as part of their devotion.  McWhorter discovers her connection to a social position (Whiteness) that makes her profoundly uncomfortable as part of her line dancing experience.  Anderson discusses how Hindu goddesses, such as Kali, often incorporate both creative and destructive forces.  Does yearning for connection with some necessarily alienate us from other connections?

Evan Seehausen


Anderson and Transcendence


In A Feminist Philosophy of Religion, Pamela Sue Anderson discusses the liberatory possibilities of religion. She argues that by reexamining myths and uncovering otherness without reducing it, religious understanding can allow for a disruption of dominant oppressive systems. While I agree that such an approach is necessary, as a pretty staunch (and very Christian-influenced) nontheist, this read was a struggle for me. My understanding of religious beliefs was that they always rested upon transcendent ideals or beings. I wanted to see an example of a new belief of that type that would somehow redeem the idea of religious practice, an example which Anderson did not provide. She does not do so because she is looking to reshape that understanding of religious belief. In doing so, she moves the focus from ahistorical ideals, which ultimately support dogmatic (and often oppressive) systems of belief, to embodied, historical subjects.

Pamela Sue Anderson makes it clear that she’s not interested in practicing theology and creating a new feminist-friendly diety. That should not necessarily be seen as a weakness. In “Myth, Mimesis, and Religious Belief”, she shows that making claims about a transcendent god is a problematic venture. At the very least, such claims not only attempt to reach beyond the realm of experience that many Christian philosophers of religion use to try to justify those beliefs. However, Anderson pushes that critique further and questions the empiricist’s ability to produce adequate knowledge in the first place. Ultimately, they lack the necessary “self-reflexive principles for scrutinizing the rational beliefs of embodied beings” (129). Anderson then goes on to question the very ideal of a transcendent god as the site of perfect knowledge or reason. (129-131)

            Anderson questions that ideal by examining the Christian myth of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. By situating the myth historically and examining the systems of oppression that it supports, she shows the problems with an uncritical acceptance of that myth. That myth reveals two of the oppressive elements of the dominant Christian understanding. By having an unembodied deity become manifest through a virgin birth, privileges not only an impossible ideal of femininity (one that is also rife with denial of feminine desire and agency) but also an impossible ideal of knowledge. It encourages an appeal to knowledge that transcends embodied experience while ignoring the embodied experience of actual women. (129-135) In contrast to that sort of belief, Anderson encourages an understanding that is grounded historically and predicated upon our ability to consider multiple points of view, especially those that have been obscured by dominant systems of power (78-9 [among others]).

            It seems, then that Anderson’s feminist philosophy of religion successfully disrupts the common thread of dominant theories of philosophy of religion. In doing so, she demonstrates the importance of mimesis. Though she starts from the perspective of a more empiricist, Christian understanding of philosophy of religion, she disrupts that narrative by bringing in examples of actual embodied women and by playing out its internal inconsistencies. In doing so, she turns the very idea of religion on its head. Moving away from the possibility of knowing that which is beyond what is embodied humanity, she makes myths the main focus of the philosophy of religion. Those myths, which provide narratives about embodiment and rationality, do still continue to serve as possible sites of transcendence (135). What we attempt to transcend is present oppressive conditions. As such, Anderson has transformed the concept of religion itself in order to accomplish her liberatory ends.




Hagit Barkai


Feminist philosophy of religion / Pamela Sue Anderson

Second Reading: Yearning at the Edge of the Sublime


In chapter 4, Pamela Sue Anderson argues for the use of myth and mimesis as a tool for rethinking the patriarchal structures of philosophy and religion, in the hope that by creating new versions of myths, a connection to ‘our history’ will be made (159). Taking-off from Harding’s idea of beginning an understanding at the margins of the ‘knowledge-interest’, Anderson demonstrates this creation in chapter 5, by using female mythical characters that mark a position on the margins, to investigate Harding’s proposal of ‘reinventing ourselves as others’. These figures mark ‘outsiders within’(168), and ‘yearning’ is constructed by Anderson as ‘desire of outsiders within’ and a blend between active rationality and passive desire, thus constituting desire as the unconscious condition for rational passion (175).


In the work Anderson does with myth, the notions that are tied to yearning are devotion and arguably, sacrifice: Ruth shows devotion to Naomi and Naomi’s God and leaves her people and native land and Mirabai gives up princely life out her devotion to the one god Krishna (173). Antigone, who is marginalized by her sex, gives up her life in her devotion for moral/religious  duties of burial. In the work of bell hooks, yearning is a desire of the marginal for a real possibility of justice. This is at the same time a place of devotion for divinity and of a rational passion (174).


Anderson argues that conceptions of reason that are contrasted to desire are too thin to apply to religious beliefs of an embodied person, and places yearning for truth, justice or beauty as a combination of reason and desire (241).  Reading yearning for truth as the basis of religious belief, I had the question – is the formation of yearning getting dangerously close to a desire for the sublime, or in Sylviane Agacinski’s term, the sentiment of the sublime? - Close because of the affinity between religious belief and the infinite, and dangerous because the sentiment of the sublime involves a condemnation of finitude (Agacinski, p. 299 in Feminism and the History of Philosophy).


In a later discussion of the book ((in The Case for A Feminist Philosophy of Religion: Transforming Philosophy's Imagery and Myths, Pamela Sue Anderson, Ars Disputandi, issue 1, 2001), Anderson indeed pushes the concept of yearning and asks:  “Is this yearning only a disguised form of the philosophical aspiration to be infinite? Can we yearn for truth, or crave infinitude, while acknowledging our self-consciously held and embodied locations?” In seeking a separation between yearning and the aspiration to be infinite, Anderson relies on the suggestion made by Adrian Moor that there is a difference between craving for infinitude and the aspiration to be infinite. Through the notion of yearning, she tries to mark a possibility of “craving for infinitude while acknowledging embodied locations” (There). Yearning then is contrasted to the aspirationto be all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good, or immortal.


Looking back at the refigurations of ‘reinventing oneself as other’ through marginal positions of woman, I feel that bell hooks’ strive for real justice from a marginal position is a place of yearning that answer the criteria of remaining located in the embodies persons, not only in terms of the origin of the desire, but also in that the justice that is yearned toward is not infinite or absolute, but a concrete correction of an unjust situation. However the question that remains is: in what way is this yearning for justice a ‘craving for infinitude’?


The examples of Ruth, Mirabai and perhaps even Antigone, move closer to ‘craving for infinitude’ through the devotion to God (or moral duties), and are located and embodied in the position of the marginal woman, but the question that remains here is in what way does the embodied location inform the devotion? Is this devotion different in any way from ‘an aspiration to be infinite’? Based on these examples, I think that if there is a difference between ‘craving for infinite’ and ‘aspiration to be infinite’ it is problematic because it is based on the notion of sacrifice, and resembles therefore to the sentiment of the sublime’s condemnation of finitude, more directly in Antigone’s case, and in Ruth and Mirabai’s case implicitly, by allowing life of devotion only at the price of denying one’s original-location and history.


 Nathalie Nya


Anderson questions the rationality of religious beliefs by claiming that reason is not gender neutral.  She notes, “rationality has come to seem inadequate insofar as it has been equated with masculinity and the male subject, while excluding femininity as its opposite (31).”  By questioning the gender neutrality of reason, Anderson becomes concerned with the relation of women to reason. 


To Anderson, feminine notions have been excluded from the traditional conception of reason.  This exclusion means “that femininity, in turn, has been equated with irrationality while the configurations of the femininity, in turn, has been equated with irrationality while the configurations of the female other in symbol and myth reflect the unconscious condition of masculine embodiment and so of the rational subject’s very own materiality (32).”   Her aim then is to disrupt our conception of reason in order to create a new version of reason that is inclusive of both female and male beliefs.  Thus Anderson wants to scrutinize the construction of “religious” beliefs prior to its justification of religious practices.  Given the proposal, what would be the significance of desiring religious beliefs?



Anderson response would be that the female other has been excluded from the justification of belief.  Because of this, the material content (symbol and myth) that is associated with the female subject has been peripheral to religious justification.  By excluding notions associated with the female subject from the justification of religious beliefs, religious justification is insufficiently reasonable as well as inauthentic.  Anderson seems to argue that there is something essential about being a woman that is yet to be defined and it is the thing that is lacking within the traditional conception of reason and within the justification of “religious” beliefs.  Within her conception of reason, both men and women play essential roles. 


While I understand the goal of Anderson’s project in light of her philosophical views, I am unclear as to how it is that a better conception of reason might enable someone to desire religious beliefs and thereby become religious.  Can a better conception of religious symbols and myth sufficient enough to make someone religious?  Based on Anderson’s book, there is a direct relation between divine power and knowledge.  But can we really assume religious belief in terms of reason and gender roles?

Kristin Rawls


            In her discussion of the utility of standpoint epistemology for feminist philosophers of religion, Anderson is mindful of relations of domination between Western feminists and feminists who are marginalized along the lines of race, class, or ethnicity.  For this reason, she incorporates hooks’ warnings about standpoint epistemology into her account—and alludes, with hooks, to the difficulties in an epistemology that privileges the Western feminist to say to the non-Western feminst: “’Only tell me about your pain.  I want to know your story.  And then I will tell it back to you in a new way’” (120).  Anderson suggests that the deployment of standpoint epistemology in the feminist philosophy of religion must avoid this pitfall by remaining aware of relations of domination between differently situated women.  Also, she suggestst that such work must rise to “the task of collapsing any remaining hierarchy of binary terms such as ‘colonizer’/ ‘colonized’” (120).  I am concerned that Anderson fails to circumvent the problem of which hooks warns inasmuch as she uncritically accepts some elements of Harding’s standpoint epistemology. 



            Specifically, Anderson takes up the notions of an epistemology “characterized by a willingness to think from the lives of marginalized others and by a certain self-reflexivity” which enables one to “reinvent oneself as other” (78).  In spite of the warning she includes from hooks, Anderson repeatedly endorses this methodology throughout the book and never fully interrogates what it means for a privileged white woman to “think from the margins” or to “reinvent oneself as other.”  I would suggest that the process of mechanistically inserting oneself into the shoes of “the other” to facilitate one’s own transformation instrumentalizes the so-called other as one’s point of access to “greater knowledge of reality” (79).  Moreover, it does this within a historical context that entails relations of domination, oppression, and certainly misrepresentation of differently situated women. 


            I think the dangers of appropriation and misrepresentation are most clearly apparent in Anderson’s exercise of mimesis with respect to the Hindu legend of Mirabai.  In order to circumvent what she sees as Gandhi’s patriarchal Western interpretation of Mira, Anderson, as she explains, wants to “[configure]” and “[refigure]” the story in ways that will be empowering to women (190).  Specifically, Anderson reads “Mira’s dissent as a rejection of patriarchal authority which aimed to transcend unequal social, economic, political, and religious relationships” (188).  Although I am not prepared to formally articulate my objections, this exercise gives me an uneasy feeling for anecdotal reasons.  It reminds me of the uncomfortable feelings I had as a teenager when I saw white, well-educated, bourgeois, liberal churchgoers appropriate and badly mimic the rituals, traditions, and myths of the “other”—say, by superficially copying a Native American prayer ritual for its emancipatory utility.  I was not then—and am not now—convinced that it is acceptable for members of a dominant culture to take up such rituals and then refigure them in ways that they deem acceptable and emancipatory.  It seems to me not to get around the problem of “[telling your story] back to you in a new way” that fails to undermine the relations of domination that make the retelling possible in the first place.

Lisa Beane

Anderson discussion paper


As I was re-reading Anderson, I was frequently reminded of Code’s Ecological Thinking, so it made me wonder what thinking about these texts alongside one another might illuminate about each one.  Of course, both authors are engaged in epistemological projects, so it could be that all the epistemology-talk is making it seem as though they speak to one another more than they do.  But at least to my thinking, considering Anderson’s discussion of yearning alongside Code is helpful for thinking through the potential for yearning to incorporate women’s voices into religion in a way that challenges patriarchal domination.


What thinking about Anderson’s book alongside Code’s made unclear for me was the extent to which yearning in response to domination is a collective, transformative activity.  For Code, better knowledge requires collaboration and attentiveness to a variety of ways of knowing.  To some extent, it also requires believing others’ accounts of their experiences; in her discussion of Susan Brison’s account of her own rape, Code explains how imaginative empathy is a non-oppressive way of fostering understanding across differences.  This is part of how Code thinks we can be more ‘responsible knowers’ in an attempt to make knowledge serve everyone well.


It seems as though Anderson wants yearning to make us more ‘responsible believers’ in a sense, too; that is, she wants us to be able to think about religious belief apart from patriarchal domination.  She makes multiple references to bell hooks’ notion that “yearning should offer the place of possibility, of common ground where all differences meet and engage one another” (202).  In Anderson’s telling of Ruth’s story, she wants to suggest that Ruth is an outsider within Jewish history rather than merely a female foreigner whose otherness is erased or consumed by patriarchy.  But it is not clear to me why we should understand Ruth’s yearning to be devoted to the Jewish God as a common ground where differences are engaging.  Is Ruth somehow transforming this religious community, or is the community somehow making her more open to difference?  Unlike Code’s discussion of Brison, which is useful for understanding how imaginative empathy might help us engage with difference more responsibly, I think Anderson leaves us wondering whether the protagonists in her myths have managed to engage more responsibly with their religious traditions.


In the end, it is hard for me to see how to reconcile what Anderson says about yearning as creating a space for engaging difference with the examples she chooses.  Ruth seems to be responding to (and perhaps even resisting) patriarchal traditions, but I am not sure what she offers with regard to overcoming domination and creating a framework for “communal awareness of concrete differences” (181).


All of this leaves me with a number of questions we might want to discuss.  What is the relationship between knowledge and belief (at least in these two texts)?  To what extent can yearning be useful for transforming patriarchy and overcoming domination?  In Anderson’s text, what is the relationship between individual believers and communities of believers, and who or what is it exactly that we need to transform?

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