Contradiction of terms : feminist theory, philosophy and transdisciplinarity

Sandford, Stella (2015) Contradiction of terms : feminist theory, philosophy and transdisciplinarity. Theory, Culture & Society, 32(5-6), pp. 159-182. ISSN (print) 0263-2764


What happens when well-defined disciplines meet or are confronted with transdisciplinary discourses and concepts, where transdisciplinary concepts are analytical tools rather than specifications of a field of objects or a class of entities? Or, if disciplines reject transdisciplinary discourses and concepts as having no part to play in their practice, why do they so reject them? This essay addresses these questions through a discussion of the relationship between philosophy – the most tightly policed discipline in the humanities – and what I will argue is the emblematically transdisciplinary practice of feminist theory, via a discussion of interdisciplinarity and related terms in gender studies. It argues that the tendency of philosophy to reject feminist theory in fact correctly intuited that the two defining features of feminist theory – its constitutive tie to a political agenda for social change and the transdisciplinary character of many of its central concepts – are indeed at odds with, and pose a threat to, the traditional insularity of the discipline of philosophy. It argues, further, that feminist theory operates with what we should now recognise as a set of transdisciplinary concepts – including, sex, gender, woman, sexuality and sexual difference – and that the use of these concepts (particularly ‘gender’) in feminist philosophy has been the most far-reaching continuation in the late 20th/early 21st centuries of the critique of philosophy initiated by Marx and pursued by ‘critical theory’. This puts feminist philosophy in a difficult position: its transdisciplinary aspects open it up to an unavoidable contradiction. Nonetheless, this is a contradiction that can and must be endured and made productive. In order to draw out the specificity of the concept of transdisciplinarity at issue the essay begins with a discussion of attempts to define inter- and transdisciplinarity, particularly in gender studies. Arguing for the transdisciplinary origin of the concept of gender, it then suggests one way of understanding its function as a critical concept, before making explicit how this leads to the historical antagonism between traditional philosophy and the critical, transdisciplinary concept of gender and with feminist theory more generally.

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