Feminist historians and feminist historiography have begun to make headway
into the discipline of history. Historians such as Joan Scott are said to offer
a fresh, innovative perspective on historical inquiry.
This paper examines Scotts Gender and the Politics of History
in which she lays out her arguments and proscriptions for a feminist theory
of history. It is the contention of this paper that rather than any new or unique
ideas, Scotts historiography represents a regression to the ideas and
notions advocated by the idealist philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Scott merely updates and adds a few twists on George Berkeley’s extreme skepticism.
Idealism is highly suspect when applied to the direct experience of
the world, and, this paper will argue, all but incoherent when applied to historical
inquiry. As a counter to Scotts idealism, the works of Scottish philosopher
Thomas Reid will be examined. Reid was a severe critic of the idealists and
offered an alternative which is easily adapted to a historical context to not
only refute Scotts idealism, but also to point the way to how a positive
historiography might be formulated.
The Role of Gender and Knowledge
For Scott, as with most feminist scholars, gender is the key concept.
Scott defines gender as a special type of knowledge about sexual differences.
To understand how this differs from standard ideas of gender or sex requires
understanding Scotts peculiar theory of knowledge.
Borrowing from French philosopher Michel Foucault, Scott makes several
claims about knowledge. First, “such knowledge is not absolute or true,
but always relative.” Knowledge, especially historical knowledge, in this
sense is not to be mistaken for apprehending in the mind facts and ideas which
correspond to things existing in the world. Instead knowledge in this sense
involves little more than knowing the socially-agreed up on “correct”
answers to specific questions.
Second, since it is not absolute and does not correspond to anything
actually existing in the world, knowledge must be wholly socially constructed
by institutions and power relationships within society. The interaction between
these various institutions of meaning creation means knowledge is “produced
in complex ways within large epistemic frames that themselves have an (at least
quasi-) autonomous history.”
The upshot of these first two claims is that according to Scotts
view, knowledge cannot exist absent social organization. Knowledge exists only
in a social context.
After wading through all of Scotts jargon, this boils down to
little more than the One Way Street theory of knowledge. There is, of course,
no inherent property which requires that some roads be one way rather than two-way,
nor no way to determine which roads are actually one-way rather than two-way
without appropriate signs. That a particular road is designated one way is in
all cases socially constructed knowledge — it is impossible for such knowledge
to exist a priori. What Scott asks us to believe is that almost all
knowledge is constructed in this way — exclusively through the agreed upon
arbitrary conventions developed over long period of time through the interactions
of people and institutions in particular societies.
It is this theoretical structure which leads Scott to conclude that the
concept of gender completely excludes any real biological differences between
men and women. In Scotts view, physical and/or psychological differences
between men and women in and of themselves imply nothing about the concepts
of “man” and “woman” — any conceptual difference assigned
to the concepts by historians is entirely socially constructed. “These
meanings vary across cultures, social groups, and time since nothing about the
body, including womens reproductive organs, determines unequivocally how
social divisions will be shaped.”
Rather than sexual difference being used to explain patterns of social
organization, it is social organization which instead explains sexual difference.
Since history and historical inquiry are part of the social organization, it
too is responsible in part for determining the particular context of sexual
difference. A chief goal of feminist historiography, then, is to deconstruct
existing history and historiography to analyze how “historys representations
of the past construct gender for the present.”
One of the things that jumps out at the critical reader of Scotts
book is how boldly she not only concedes but actually celebrates the fact that
the aforementioned principles are adopted by feminist historians mainly because
they serve overtly political goals. Not since the nationalist historians argued
that history was a tool to be used to promote the state/nation have historians
been as bold as feminist theorists are outlining the imperative that history
serve political ends.
Claiming that most historians in the United States are not trained to
analyze the theories of history they use, Scott explains how she delved into
theoretical considerations to alleviate her “frustration” at the lack
of progress in womens history.
My motive was and is one I share with other feminists and it is avowedly
political: to point out and change inequalities between women and men. It is
a motive, moreover, that feminists share with those concerned to change the
representation of other groups left out of history because of race, ethnicity
and class as well as gender.
It is not enough, for example, to merely update histories to correct
for past bias which may have excluded women from consideration for not other
reason than that they were women. Instead the whole edifice of history, including
the very concept of categorizing people as “men” or “women”
must be challenged as discriminatory in and of itself (Scott 4). As Scott puts
it, “a more radical feminist politics (and a more radical feminist history)
seems to me to require a more radical epistemology.”
Scott asserts that traditional historical methodology cannot effectively
deal with the problem of gender because no “unanimity” exists for
the category of gender as it, she suggests, does for class (through Marx’s model
of economic determination and historical change) as well as a whole host of
sociolinguistic determinations and definitions that defy description of the
subject, and therefore, prevent any accurate histories from addressing it.
For the most part, the attempts of historians to theorize about gender
have remained within traditional social scientific frameworks, using long-standing
formulations that provide universal causal explanations. These theories have
been limited at best because they tend to contain reductive or overly simple
generalizations that undercut not only history’s disciplinary sense of the complexity
of social causations but also feminist commitments to analyses that will lead
The suggested analyses employed by feminist historians are only three:
the feminist attempt to discover and define the origins of the patriarchy, the
Marxist tradition of economic action and reaction, and the psychoanalysis of
history popularized by the French post-structuralists and the American object-relations
theorists. None of these, however, can be shown to consistently give the sort
of explanation that the scientific methodologically writing of history requires.
What This Means for Historiography
Taken together Scotts position would dramatically change history
— perhaps render it both impossible and irrelevant. As Scott concedes, her
theories render history little more than a discipline entirely self-reflective
of the particular historian.
It [Scotts attack on objectivity] also undermines the historians
ability to claim neutral mastery or to present any particular story as if it
were complete, universal, and objectively determined. Instead, if one grants
that meanings are constructed through exclusions, one must acknowledge and take
responsibility for the exclusions involved in ones own project. Such a
reflexive, self-critical approach makes apparent the particularistic status
of any historical knowledge and the historians active role as a producer
of knowledge. It undermines claims for authority based on totalizing explanations,
essentialized categories of analysis (be they human nature, race, class, sex,
or “the oppressed”, or synthetic narratives that assume an inherent
unity for the past.
What is left of history, however, if there is not basis for any objective
knowledge? Scott claims that this sort of deconstruction does not necessarily
lead to the destruction of history as well, writing,
Although deconstruction has been labeled ‘nihilistic’ and ‘destructive’
by its critics, these epithets seem to me to be substitutes for serious evaluations
of its possibilities. It may be that some deconstructive critics pursue an endless
exposure of contradiction and are thereby unable to endorse or comfortably advocate
a political program of their own. But there are also evident examples of a politics
empowered by this approach, politics that are not only critical of existing
social hierarchies but able to point out the premises of their operations; politics
that are self-consciously critical of their own justifications and exclusions
… Their advantage is an ability to address institutional and intellectual
questions in the same way, to refuse such oppositions as those between materialism
and idealism, subjects studied and disciplinary studies of them, by approaching
all of these as aspects of the production of knowledge and power — conceived
not as a unitary process but as multiple and conflicting processes.
Certainly, however, history is left with little when the subject itself
shifts and twists in the wind, unable to be pinned down, and therefore, analyzed.
…’women’ is historically, discoursively constructed, and always
relatively to other categories which themselves change; ‘women’ is a volatile
collectivity in which female persons can be very differently positioned, so
that the apparent continuity of the subject of; ‘women’ isn’t to be relied on;
‘women’ is both synchronically and diachronically erratic as a collectivity,
while for the individual, ‘ being a woman’ is also inconstant, and can’t provide
an ontological foundation.
The Case Against Scotts Feminist Theory of History
Is what Scott is proposing a reasonable alternative historiography? The
answer must be no. Despite her claims to the contrary it is hard to see how
the philosophical framework she suggests leads to anything but nihilism.
Like the idealists alluded to in the beginning of this paper, Scott and
her ilk end up arguing that there is no reliable based for any sort of certainty
about knowledge. As George Berkeley asserted,
…it follows, there is not any other substance than spirit, or that
which perceives … But say you, though the ideas themselves do not exist without
the mind, yet there may be things like them whereof they are copies or resemblances,
which things exist without the mind, in an unthinking substance. I answer, an
idea can be like nothing but an idea; a colour or figure can be like nothing
but another colour or figure. If we look but ever so little into our thoughts,
we shall find it impossible for us to conceive a likeness except only between
Whereas the idealists criticized sensory perception because the senses
are demonstrably fallible, Scott asks us to essentially reject the idea that
true historical knowledge is possible since the perception/creation of knowledge
almost always occurs in a social context and such knowledge is also demonstrably
fallible. Just as it is an enormous leap from the position that our senses sometimes
deceive us to the qualitatively different claim that we should never trust them,
so it is not clear that merely because some knowledge perceived/created in a
social context in the past has been erroneous and some knowledge is likely to
prove erroneous in the future, therefore we should reject even the possibility
that any true knowledge can exist in a social construct.
Deconstructionist and postmodern arguments rarely even attempt to justify
the logical leap from the rather mundane proposition that bias among historians
exists to the radical proposition that the presence of such bias makes a true
history impossible. Scott in fact seems to confuse things by imagining the two
separate propositions are identical or at the very least naturally follow from
each other. They do not.
The obvious criticisms of using this as a basis for historiography is
that those who promote it are never able to do so consistently. When Scott claims
that “such knowledge is not absolute or true, but always
relative” (emphasis added), she begs the question of just how committed
to the true relativism of knowledge even hardcore deconstructionists can be.
Consider how Scott tries to get out of the box of hardcore skepticism.
After saying all knowledge is socially constructed she runs the risk of having
critics turn her own analytical tools against her and point out that her own
claims about history are equally invalid or valid as the “patriarchal”
histories she is seeking to overturn. The best she can do is argue that the
nihilistic treadmill of successive deconstructions is actually an advantage.
It is precisely by exposing the illusion of the permanence or enduring
truth of any particular knowledge of sexual difference that feminism necessarily
historicizes history and politics and opens the way for change. If gender is
to be rethought, if new knowledge about sexual difference is to be produced
(knowledge that calls into question even the primacy of the male/female opposition),
then we must also be willing to rethink the history of politics and the politics
But of course any knowledge produced by this sort of cyclical synthesis
is also simply not true. In an effort to escape the “oppressive” edifice
of permanent truth, Scott creates a historical framework in which the carpet
is ripped out from under historians only to be replaced and ripped out again
ad nauseum with no hope of improvement. That Scott is unwilling to
characterize this process as nihilistic suggest it is she who is unwilling to
truly examine closely the framework she creates.
The other major problem with Scotts theory of history is that it
is non-falsifiable. The principle of falsification for scientific theories holds
that no theory should be able to explain all possible outcomes; as defined by
Ronald Pine discussing philosophy and the scientific method,
…a scientific theory must be refutable in principle; a circumstance
or a set of circumstances must potentially exist such that if observed it would
logically prove the theory wrong.
The problem with such theories is that there is simply no way to demonstrate
whether they are correct or not by appealing to the evidence, because no matter
what is offered the theory will be able to explain it.
Any historiographical theory which does not adhere to this requirement
does not deserve to be considered a valid historiographical theory. Marxist
historiography or cyclical historiographical explanations are falsifiable, for
example. It is possible to examine evidence from the world and compare it to
those respective historiographical frameworks and in principle at least prove
them wrong. Many people, including this writer, for example, believe that both
the Marxist and cyclical theories of history have been falsified. Obviously
others disagree, but at least in principle neither theory explains all possible
The feminist theory Scott advocates lacks this feature. It is simply
impossible under any circumstances to demonstrate through evidentiary means
that the theory is false. By effectively explaining any and all such outcomes,
this sort of postmodernist theory should not be considered as a valid historiographical
Scott makes excellent use of this particular aspect of her theory. Early
on she claims that sex differences are not biological but are socially constructed.
It is possible to provide a wealth of data and information that cast doubt on
that claim, but Scott can dismiss such evidence easily by simply noting that
any evidence offered in rebuttal is also “social constructed” and
not actually true.
Of course it is also not false which brings up the flip-side of this
problem for Scott. Just as her opponents can never prove her theory false, similarly
she can never demonstrate their theories to be false. Consider, for example,
a historian who might argue that sexual difference is a result of females
average lower physical performance in the areas of strength and endurance. Scott
can never consistently say these theories are false — the most she can claim
is they are alternative socially constructed theories which have exactly the
same truth value as her own.
After cutting through her jargon and logic, this is where Scotts
theory leaves us. The feminist theorists who adopts Scotts framework can
never demonstrate that her theory is true while an objective theory of history
is false, and must inevitably concede that all possible explanations of history
are equally valid or invalid.
If this is not nihilism, at the very least it should be an extremely
uncomfortable position to end up holding.
An Alternative to the Feminist-Idealist Historiography
Thomas Reid (1710-96) is known as the founder of the “Scottish School
of Common Sense” and is best known for his critique of the idealists such
as Berkeley who, like Scott, attempted to undercut the very idea of knowledge
based on a reality accessible to human beings.
Many of Reid’s criticisms apply amazingly well to the postmodernist/deconstructionist
effort to deny any true reality. In his Essay on the Intellectual Powers,
Reid laid out a theory of judgment that provides an excellent foundational model
for any historiographical theory.
To formulate any theory of knowledge, according to Reid, we must begin
with first principles. But how do we judge first principles to determine whether
or not they are correct? Reid holds, and I believe quite correctly, that we
use a “common sense” faculty to judge first principles as believable
We may observe that opinions which contradict first principles, are
distinguished, from other errors, by this: — That they are not only false but
absurd; and, to discountenance absurdity, Nature hath given us a particular
emotion — to wit, that of ridicule… .
Contrary to the arguments of people such as Scott, people do appear to
inherit certain fundamental non-primitive cognitive functions, and although
there is no room here to make a sociobiological and cognitive defense of Reid’s
claim, it is difficult to imagine how such basically held beliefs, such as the
law of non-contradiction, could ever arise if they must do so entirely in a
Reid provides a lengthy discussion on how people can inspect first principles
and determine if they are true or false, but only one need concern us here —
the ad absurdum argument. As Reid explains it,
In this kind of proof, which is very common in mathematics, we suppose
the contradictory proposition to be true. We trace the consequences of that
supposition in a train of reasoning; and, if we find any of its necessary consequences
to be manifestly absurd, we conclude the supposition from which it followed
to be false; and, therefore its contradictory to be true.
I believe this has already been done with Scott’s version of feminist
history, but merely demonstrating her theory to be absurd doesn’t provide an
alternative to show how historical inquiry should proceed. Fortunately, Reid
provides the way to a positive theory of knowledge which serves this goal admirably.
Reid notes that there are two sorts of truths. The first is necessary
truth, and one hopes even Scott would not be willing to deny that a necessary
truth is necessarily true. That one-third of 33 is 11 is a necessary truth.
What historians must deal with, however, are contingent truths. They
may or may not be true, and they may or may not be true over time. A statement
such as, “Bill Clinton is the president of the United States,” is
an example of a contingent truth. The statement may be either true or false,
and its truth value will change over time (it may be true today, but will likely
not be true in 2002).
The feminist-idealist approach to the non-necessary nature of contingent
truths is simply to throw their hands up in the air and declare the existence
of truths impossible.
Instead, Reid argues that one of the first principles relating to contingent
truths is that we can rely upon the faculties of reason to distinguish between
truth and error.
Another first principle is — That the natural faculties, by which
we distinguish truth from error, are not fallacious. If any man should demand
a proof of this, it is impossible to satisfy him. For, suppose it should be
mathematically demonstrated, this would signify nothing in this case; because,
to judge of a demonstration, a man must trust his faculties, and take for granted
the very thing in question.
This does not guarantee that any particular claim about a historical
fact is correct, but it does guarantee that it is at least theoretically possible
to discern whether or not a given statement about history is true or false.
At this point we have arrived at the antithesis of Scott’s claims about
historiography. If this analysis is sound, it follows that there do exist a
set of statements about history which are objectively better than all other
combinations of statements, since we can always judge competing explanations
of history and, at least in theory, objectively value the truth of statements
such as “History X is a superior explanation of events than history Y.”
Numerous obstacles both psychological and material may prevent historians
from ever reaching that plateau, but to dismiss it as a chimera and instead
attempt to construct a meaningful theory of non-meaning as Scott does takes
history in the wrong direction. Rather than take future historiographies into
the wasteland of postmodernism and deconstructionism, instead history must remain
informed by objective, scientific (thought not necessarily positivist) theories
of knowledge in order to remain relevant.
Berkeley, George. “Principles of Human Knowledge, part 1.”
Central Readings in the History of Modern Philosophy, Robert Cummins
and David Owen, ed. Belmont CA: Wadsworth Publishing, Co., 1992.
Breisach, Ernst. Historiography. 2d ed. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1994.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An archaeology of the human
sciences. New York: Vintage Press, 1973.
Lehrer, Keith. Thomas Reid. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Pine, Ronald C. Science and the Human Prospect. Belmont CA: Wadsworth
Publishing Co., 1989.
Reid, Thomas. Inquiry and Essays. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing
Co., Inc., 1983.
Riley, Denise. Am I that Name?: Feminism and the category of ‘women’
in history. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.
Scott, Joan Wallach. Gender and the Politics of History. New York:
Columbia University Press, 1988.