Review of Mary Wollstonecraft and Feminist Republicanism – Lena Halldenius

Mary Wollstonecraft and Feminist Republicanism

Independence, Rights and the Experience of Unfreedom

The Enlightenment World: 30

Lena Halldenius

192pp: 234x156mm: March 2015
HB 978 1 84893 536 5: £60/$99
eBook: £24 (incl. VAT) £20 (excl. VAT)

This excellent monograph is the first to offer a book-length treatment of Wollstonecraft’s feminist philosophy as belonging to the republican tradition (rather than the liberal one). It builds on the author’s previous work as well as on her collaborations with other scholars who also read Wollstonecraft as a Republican (Coffee, Skinner and Pettit) to make a detailed an convincing case for the central argument, that “the key [to Wollstonecraft’s philosophy], I maintain, is her claim that to live unfreely is to live in an unequal state of dependence under the arbitrary power of others, and that such inequality – in all aspects of life – destroys people: without equality, no liberty; without liberty, no virtue; without virtue, no progress.” 130. 

The idea of liberty as ‘personal independence in a free state’ is put forward and analyzed in chapter 2. Halldenius shows that independence is a social phenomenon, which is only meaningful and valuable within a context in which there is equality amongst citizens. That is, liberty as independence is a relational concept predicated on the idea that all citizens are equal.

Chapter 3 discusses the extent to which Wollstonecraft’s use of rights is not Lockean and to should be read in relation to her account of freedom. Here Halldenius disagrees with previous interpretations, notably Virgina Sapiro’s and Nathalie Taylor’s. This chapter is also the occasion, for Halldenius to address a point that is often made regarding the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, namely that Wollstonecraft doesn’t seem to be talking much about rights at all. But, Halldenius says, this claim relies on a “narrow view of the concept of right to think that mind, virtue, duties and social practices have nothing to do with it.” 34.

Chapter 4, to my mind makes the most important and original contribution in the book, focusing on the centrality of lived experience in Wollstonecraft’s philosophy, and offering insightful philosophical analyses of the novels Mary and Maria. Halldenius justifies this move which some might describe as bold by saying that “the form of the novel is well suited for conveying aspects of living that are largely hidden from view in our everyday dealings with each other, things that we do not fully understand or have no name for but which still condition what we do and how we think about ourselves.” 51.

The chapter comprises a section on each novel followed by one on “husbands and wives, owners and properties, masters and slaves” in which she argues that “[o]ne message from which Wollstonecraft never wavers is that institutionally constituted and sanctioned roles and expectations have a profound effect on people’s self-perception, on social relationships and on agency.” 74.

Chapter 5 discusses the claims – among others – that Wollstonecraft sees nature as the source of moral knowledge in the two novels and that she believes that respect for mankind is principle of action. In that chapter Halldenius makes a genuine effort to pick out what is distinctive about Wollstonecraft’s moral theory, and to draw a more general picture from there – as opposed to trying to understand her as belonging to one particular school of thought. This is an interesting approach – one that deserves to be taken more often, as it suggests that Wollstonecraft, rather than patching her moral argument together from what influences she picked up here and there, well and truly developed her own system. And Halldenius is quite firm on this: saying that Wollstonecraft was ‘unsystematic’ is not only inaccurate, but also belittling, as it can often be taken to mean, in context, that as a thinker she was slapdash and inconsistent.

In Chapter 6 Halldenius tackles the relationship between Wollstonecraft’s thought and the revolution and the ideals of the enlightenment. She considers the inevitability of violent uprisings and the short-term inevitability of their failure, drawing a contrast between the philosophers of the French revolution who looked at the long term but were not above sacrificing present generations, to the politicians who thought only of the interest at hand.

Wollstonecraft, she argues, puts these observations together with the legacy of the Enlightenment’s conception of society as a vehicle for improvement and presents gradual change as both radical and transformative, involving educating the poor and reforming civic and economic life.

Hopefully this book marks the beginning of a new sort of Wollstonecraft scholarship, one which is happy to take her seriously as a moral and political thinker, and not just as an interesting anomaly, whose timely rants against the oppression of women and the poor made her fashionable for a short while. Halldenius shows that Wollstonecraft has much to offer as a moral and political philosopher, provided we read her in the right context (i.e. a republican rather than a liberal one) and provided, especially, that we take her seriously as a thinker, not assuming that her ideas are borrowed and unconnected, but seeing how the arguments run across her works, both her philosophical discussions and her literary treatments of women’s ‘lived experience’.

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One Response to Review of Mary Wollstonecraft and Feminist Republicanism – Lena Halldenius

  1. Pingback: Halldenius’s Wollstonecraft in THE Books of 2015 | Feminist History of Philosophy

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