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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: February 2013

18 - Feminism and race theory



One of the more abiding criticisms of phenomenology is that it is grounded in a fundamental effacement of difference, and that its retreat to the basic structures of experience all too often occurs at the expense of those differences that mark bodies in ways that are ethically and politically meaningful. In relation to Merleau-Ponty's thought in particular, feminists and race theorists have argued that his descriptions of the anonymous body are tacitly male and white, although they present themselves as universal and general. There is little doubt that this is indeed true, but theorists interested in giving voice to gender-and race-specific experiences have nonetheless drawn widely on Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology. Merleau-Ponty's legacy has been a provocative one in critical discourses on race and gender, and writers in both feminist theory and the philosophy of race have extensively engaged his writings. While Merleau-Ponty has been criticized for his neglect of racial and sexual specificity in his descriptions of the lived body, his work has also been enthusiastically appropriated by those interested in giving voice to experiences of raced and sexed embodiment that have been notably neglected in the history of philosophy.

Merleau-Ponty, feminism and the body

An appropriate place to begin an analysis of Merleau-Ponty's influence on feminist theory would be his relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, who is considered the founding figure of French feminism. When de Beauvoir famously claims that one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman, she makes tacit reference to the existential phenomenological belief that existence precedes essence, or that identity is an expressive and temporal unfolding, and not an essential or objective “truth”.

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