Hegel on the difference between men and women

In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel explores the role of family and marriage in the stability of the state. For Hegel, the critical element of a marriage is opposite sexes which complement each other; for example, it is fitting that men rule women because they are physiologically adapted for different kinds of engagement with the world. He writes:

“The difference between men and women is like that between animals and plants.  Men correspond to animals, while women correspond to plants because their development is more placid and the principle that underlines it is the rather vague unity of feeling…. Women are educated – who knows how? – as it were by breathing in ideas, by living rather than acquiring knowledge.”

This translation is by T. M. Knox, and is the version cited in both Carol Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat and Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight. There’s a less dramatically punctuated translation by H.B. Nisbet, which paints a slightly more active picture of women learning through experience (i.e. interacting with her immediate surroundings) rather than literal osmosis like a sea sponge. But in both cases the binary opposition of men and women is clear: men act, women receive; men can think abstractly and objectively, while women can only know immediate particulars.

I take a particular pleasure in reading this quote aloud to my study partners when I need to blow off steam: it seems so egregiously misogynist that it’s always good for a laugh. Hegel’s mysticization of the female mind (“who knows how?”) is also strangely appealing: I wish that I did indeed learn like a plant, effortlessly, drawing in knowledge through my pores, breathing out ideas like oxygen, flowering. But on the other hand, Hegel is not positing something radical or groundbreaking here; to prop up his philosophy of the role of marriage, he’s repackaging a few of his era’s commonly held beliefs about sexual difference–ones that still have impact in certain quarters.

You may be wondering what this has to do with food, or perhaps why the quote showed up in two feminist studies which engaged food issues from very different angles. The connection is linked to some of those binary pairs discussed in the last search term sampler. Carole Adams includes this Hegel quote in a series of historical texts that see male and female as binary opposites, and compare them with the binary pair of animal and plant. In Hegel’s imagination, women are fundamentally plantlike: less active and less mobile than men, consequently less evolved and sophisticated than their male counterparts. In Adams’ analysis, this categorization of plants as the marked (or inferior) half of that binary is a clue to the contemporary culinary narratives that associate meat-eating with men. Susan Bordo also sees Hegel’s man:animal::woman:plant analogy as a part of an enduring set of overlapping binary pairs, but she is more interested in the oppositions of active to passive and mind to body. Unbearable Weight is a collection of essays that applies feminist theory to contemporary cultural body issues–anorexia, motherhood, appetite–and in each, she traces the structural logic of seemingly extreme or anomalous behavior. For example, if we assume (as Hegel does) that women are more passive and more placid than man, it’s easier to erase a woman’s ambition and agency in matters such as negotiating pay, desiring sex, or gestating a child. If we assume (as Hegel does) than men are objective thinkers and women are more susceptible to the influence of personal experience and anecdata, then we might–just as an example!–celebrate a man’s new book on sexual assault, a topic that women have written eloquently about for years with far less acclaim and no little danger. In the introduction to these essays, Bordo examines the paradox of these binaries: like Hegel, numerous philosophers have associated male with activity and female with passivity; at the same time, philosophical tradition associates the mind with control, abstract thought, and maleness while the body is associated with lack of control, feelings and urges, and femaleness. You’d think those conceptual pairs would contradict, but they are both present in Hegel’s figuration of female knowledge as passive yet hands-on, defined in opposition to both activity and abstraction.

That’s the way of binary thinking: it’s slippery (like a sea sponge). The connotations carried by the marked half of a pair depend entirely on how the default half is defined by the default definition makers. If men are active, women are passive. If men are authority, women need to be controlled. If men think, women feel; if men have needs unmet, women are hard and have no feelings. If men are animals, women are plants; if men are men, women are animals. It’s maddeningly simplistic, but then, so are stereotypes.

2 responses to “Hegel on the difference between men and women

  1. I wish I had this at hand when Jay Bernstein lectured about how all this fuss about Hegel being a misogynistic ignorant was just something we all imagined by mis-interpreting his portrayal of Antigone…

    Whatever. Thanks for posting this!

    • Haha, yes, I’m sure it’s merely a misunderstanding and not at all a long tradition of misogyny in philosophies of the mind. That’s definitely not a thing.
      Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ve been enjoying better lectures!

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