The Female in Aristotle's Biology: Reason or Rationalization

The Female in Aristotle's Biology: Reason or Rationalization

by Robert Mayhew

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While Aristotle's writings on biology are considered to be among his best, the comments he makes about females in these works are widely regarded as the nadir of his philosophical oeuvre. Among many claims, Aristotle is said to have declared that females contribute nothing substantial to generation; that they have fewer teeth than males; that they are less spirited


While Aristotle's writings on biology are considered to be among his best, the comments he makes about females in these works are widely regarded as the nadir of his philosophical oeuvre. Among many claims, Aristotle is said to have declared that females contribute nothing substantial to generation; that they have fewer teeth than males; that they are less spirited than males; and that woman are analogous to eunuchs. In The Female in Aristotle's Biology, Robert Mayhew aims not to defend Aristotle's ideas about females but to defend Aristotle against the common charge that his writings on female species were motivated by ideological bias.

Mayhew points out that the tools of modern science and scientific experimentation were not available to the Greeks during Aristotle's time and that, consequently, Aristotle had relied not only on empirical observations when writing about living organisms but also on a fair amount of speculation. Further, he argues that Aristotle's remarks about females in his biological writings did not tend to promote the inferior status of ancient Greek women.

Written with passion and precision, The Female in Aristotle's Biology will be of enormous value to students of philosophy, the history of science, and classical literature.

Editorial Reviews

Isis - R. J. Hankinson
“Mayhew’s main treatment is divided under five headings: entomology, embryology, eunuchs and women, anatomy, and ‘the softer and less spirited sex.’ . . . Mayhew’s account is in general careful and informed by close reading of the actual texts. . . . It vindicates Aristotle (to a large extent: Mayhew allows that occasionally Aristotle may have been guilty of a careless reliance on chauvinistic idées reçues) of the charges of misogynistic rationalization.”

Journal of the History of Biology - Marguerite Deslauriers
“A book on the female in Aristotle’s biology is welcome. Mayhew treats a range of issues in separate chapters: on sexual difference in bees and wasps; on the contributions of male and female parents to conception; on the analogy drawn between eunuchs and females; on scattered comments about anatomical differences (other than in generative organs) between male and female; and on differences in character that might be based on biological differences.”

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Chapter One

Aristotle's remarks on females are, along with his defense of slavery, generally regarded as the nadir of his philosophy and science. The problem is not simply that he is wrong (as he was in maintaining that the sun and other celestial objects orbit the earth); nor is it simply that there are gaps in his reasoning. The problem, many believe, is that his views about the female are the product not of honest (though mistaken) science but of ideological bias-specifically, of a misogynist ideology typical of ancient Greek men.

For example, Eva Keuls, in The Reign of the Phallus, calls Aristotle "one of the fiercest misogynists of all times" (1993, 405). Maryanne Cline Horowitz, in her article "Aristotle and Women," refers to Aristotle as a "supposed 'empiricist'" and sees a connection between what she calls "Aristotle's biological and political sexism" (1976, 205, 207). Not only do his remarks on women represent "sex prejudice" (205), they are dangerous as well, she claims, because they are the source of "many of the standard Western arguments for the inferiority of womankind and for the political subordination of women to men in home and in society" (183).

In the same spirit (though working at a higher level of Aristotle scholarship), G. E. R. Lloyd, in Science, Folklore and Ideology, writes that it "is fairly evidently the case" that Aristotle's "account of women in particular and of the female sex in general provides some kind of rationalisation or accommodation of widespread Greek social attitudes" (1983, 95). A few pages later, he concludes: "The quality of Aristotle's research on the differences between the sexes is uneven and in the confrontation between theory and observational data the complexity of the latter is not allowed seriously to undermine the former.... Yet even if his research had been more comprehensive, careful and exact, his preconception of the superiority of the male sex would have survived intact-at least so long as he accepted the ideological presuppositions of his contemporaries concerning the differences between men and women" (1983, 104). Malcolm Schofield, who defends Aristotle's theory of natural slavery against the charge of ideological bias (though not the theory itself, of course), asserts that Aristotle's remarks on women represent "a classic instance of false consciousness" (1990, 11).

Aristotle's conception of the female is, in general and in many details, false. But frequently, too little care is taken over rigorous scholarship on the part of some of his fiercest critics. Often, there is little concern for what precisely his views are on a particular issue. Nor is there much concern with presenting support for the claim that his arguments about females are little more than rationalization.

There is a great deal of confusion over what Aristotle says in his biological writings about females and whether what he says about them there is ideological. This may in part be a result of the fact that, until fairly recently, scholars of ancient philosophy have tended to neglect Aristotle's biological works (the three most important being his History of Animals, Parts of Animals, and Generation of Animals). In this monograph, I investigate Aristotle's most notorious claims from the biology about females and attempt to determine whether they are products of honest science or of bias and ideology.


The entry on ideology in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins: "'Ideology' did not begin as a term of abuse, and in current usage it often so far escapes any implications of exposé or denunciation that it embraces any subjectively coherent set of political beliefs. In mid-career, however, in the use that Karl Marx gave it, 'ideology' signified a false consciousness of social and economic realities, a collective illusion shared by members of a given social class." The term "ideology" has at least two major senses nowadays. First, there is a general, nonpejorative sense that is widespread outside of academia (and, to my mind, is perfectly legitimate). For example, one common, nontechnical dictionary defines "ideology" as "the body of doctrine or thought that guides an individual, social movement, institution, or group." In this sense, to speak of someone's ideology is in no way to suggest that it was arrived at through dishonesty, evasion, bias, or rationalization. Second, there is a pejorative use of the term (derived from Marx) that is especially widespread in academic circles.

Since I am not a Marxist (neither in politics nor as an historian of ideas), in this monograph I generally avoid using "ideology" in the pejorative sense. Instead, I prefer to speak of ideological bias or rationalization. I'll be investigating whether certain claims made in Aristotle's biology are honest (however mistaken) or the result of ideological rationalization. People are capable of rationalization on all sorts of issues. A man who lies to his wife about his infidelity can, I imagine, come up with all kinds of lame arguments (for himself and anyone who asks) in defense of his actions. But it would be inaccurate, in my view, to call his ideas on marital fidelity ideologically biased.

One step closer to ideological rationalization is what I would call intellectual rationalization. This would cover rationalization in defense of one's fundamental beliefs (in contrast, say, to the narrow issue of one's marital fidelity). For example, if a person generates a host of weak "arguments" in defense of the immortality of the soul, and he does so, it turns out, not simply out of philosophical ineptness but because he wants very much to chat with dead relatives or famous dead people when he dies, that is intellectual rationalization.

What I am calling "ideological rationalization" is a subclass of intellectual rationalization, involving one's own social and political beliefs and interests. It does not refer (as "ideology" sometimes does) solely to the defense of the views of those in power. Rather, it refers to social and political beliefs, and the "arguments" in defense of those beliefs, that turn out to be (for whatever reason) mere rationalization.

Suppose we conclude that a member of the aristocracy defended monarchy, with pretty shabby arguments, because of his social class. Or suppose a wealthy heir defended capitalism with weak arguments because of his economic status. In such cases, we would surely suspect ideological bias and have real doubts about the integrity of the person and his motives in presenting such poor arguments. But in my view, it is also bias if, say, a philosopher attacks capitalism with weak arguments that are merely a cloak for his genuine motives-for example, it turns out that he condemns capitalism because doing so is the academic status quo, or fashionable among intellectuals, or out of envy for the rich and successful. Similarly, if an ancient Greek philosopher concluded-with little concern for evidence and/ or with pitifully weak arguments-that women are inferior to men, and he did so in order to justify the superior social status of men, that is ideological rationalization. But in the same way, if a modern historian or classicist concludes-with little concern for evidence and with pitifully weak arguments-that certain ancient Greek philosophers and scientists were misogynist, and he does so in order to justify his reading of history, say, or his political agenda, that too is ideological rationalization.


I do not believe that every thinker is guilty of rationalization. In fact, everyone is (or should be) capable of objectivity. (More on this later.) But this does not imply that a scientist works in a cultural vacuum, under no influence from his intellectual, historical, and social context.

There are numerous ways in which a cultural context limits or tends to limit a scientist. The nature of the debate and the key issues inherited by a scientist will tend to affect how he approaches an issue, as will the state of the evidence and the period of scientific development in which a scientist works. This last is especially important: Is science primitive or relatively advanced? Is the thinker making the first steps in a science-emerging from a culture of myth and folklore-or is he preceded by decades or centuries of sophisticated methodology and breathtaking scientific achievements? Does the thinker live in a culture in which, for example, earth, air, fire, and water are generally regarded as the basic constituents of physical reality, or is he working in the age of atomic theory and electron microscopes? Further, the nature of society and social roles-for example, the status of women-can create obstacles for the scientist. All of this is part of a thinker's cultural context.

In Aristotle's case, take for example the discussion of the female's role in generation. In part because of how the issue was treated by scientists and nonscientists before and contemporary with Aristotle, he discussed generation in part in terms of whether the female contributed seed to generation. Further, without a microscope, it was simply the case that there were certain conclusions about the nature of generation that he could not reach. And given the ancient conception of the female as inferior to the male, there may well have been pressures on Aristotle to view the issue in a certain way-pressures not exerted on a geneticist working in the twenty-first century. (Whether or to what extent the Greek conception of the female as inferior had an effect on Aristotle's conclusions about the female's role in generation is discussed in chap. 3.)

Cultural context sets limits to what a scientist can do and creates certain obstacles that may be difficult or even impossible to overcome. The important point for this study, however, is that a scientist is not trapped in this context. The content of his scientific theories is not determined or set in advance by this context. One's cultural context does not make objectivity impossible-at least not for those who aren't ideologically biased. In fact, a scientist is quite capable of radically reassessing the views of his predecessors and of his culture. A lack of objectivity is not an inevitable consequence of working in a certain cultural context; it is the result of evasion, dishonesty, or other human failings.

Schofield writes that ideological bias (what he calls "ideology") involves "false consciousness: someone holding such a belief will typically labour under a delusion or practice insincerity or both" (1990, 3). I would use stronger language: ideological bias always involves evasion and/or dishonesty-psychological or cognitive states that are under one's control. To accuse a thinker of ideological rationalization is to imply that he could have done otherwise, that he could have come to other conclusions if he had not evaded, been dishonest, engaged in rationalization, and so forth. (The difference between the Marxist sense of "ideology" and my use of "ideological rationalization" is more than mere terminology. I reject the use of "ideology" in the Marxist sense ultimately because it is rooted in Marxist determinism, which-it should be clear-I also reject.)

I maintain that "social causation"-being influenced by one's cultural context-is not automatically evidence of ideological rationalization. For example, one reason that, while almost all educated people today accept the view that women can philosophize, most people living around the Mediterranean in the fourth century B.C. did not is that the latter had few if any examples of women philosophizing. If this kind of influence-that is, the enormous lack of evidence for some belief-is included in the meaning of "social causation," then in my view that, by itself, is not evidence of rationalization. So as I see it, an ancient Greek denying the possibility of female philosophers would not necessarily-or at least not obviously-involve any such "false consciousness." On the contrary, we might conclude, after further investigation, that a particular thinker who holds an obnoxious belief is excused of the charge of bias because of the cultural context within which he was working.

Of course, if a thinker is cleared of such a charge, that does not mean that his ideas were formed (or even deformed) without any influence from the cultural context within which he was working. We shall see that Aristotle's biology was at times influenced in this way. What I reject is the following conclusion, succinctly stated by Lloyd: "The value-laden-ness, including at times the ideological slant, of much of [Aristotle's] work in the life sciences, so far from being fortuitous, or a mere residue from traditional assumptions, corresponds to one of the primary motivations of the Aristotelian enterprise" (1983, 215). This passage makes a useful distinction between what I would consider a thinker's cultural context-from which there is usually a "residue from traditional assumptions"-and ideological rationalization, which describes a particular thinker's primary and biased motivations. I hope to show-contra Lloyd and others-that although there are residues from traditional assumptions to be found in Aristotle's biology, little therein is the result of rationalization.


In each of the following chapters (save the conclusion), I discuss one of Aristotle's claims (or sets of claims) from the biology about women or females generally. I usually proceed by raising two questions: (1) What exactly does Aristotle claim? (2) Is there any evidence that Aristotle's claim, and the arguments in support of it, are the product of rationalization? The first question is straightforward. The second, however, raises a complex cluster of questions.

Looking for evidence of ideological rationalization involves, at some level, an investigation into the motives that led a person to conclude what he did. There are two pitfalls here that need to be avoided. First, moral courtesy (for lack of a better expression) demands that we avoid psychologizing-guessing at what psychological state (or problem) might have led Aristotle to hold a given position. This is best avoided by not assuming too hastily that if Aristotle is mistaken on some issue-even on an issue with social implications-it must be owing to intellectual dishonesty.

A second and related pitfall is the precariousness of the attempt to test for rationalization. We lack direct access to the beliefs and motives of a thinker, and especially an ancient one, who is not around to discuss his ideas. It is difficult to determine what may have led a person to hold a particular idea; the often sketchy evidence exacerbates this difficulty. The best approach that I have found-one that avoids psychologizing while providing a pretty reliable guide with which to investigate ideological bias-was developed by Charles Kahn (1990, 29). I present his "ideology test" here, though I have revised it somewhat.

An ideological interpretation of some claim is appropriate when the following conditions hold: 1. the claim does in fact tend to promote a specific ideological agenda or justify social interests (i.e., interests of class, social position, gender, etc.); 2. the claim exhibits one of the following two features: a. it rests upon arbitrary or implausible assumptions and/or is supported by unusually bad arguments; b. it conflicts with other fundamental principles held by the same thinker.


Excerpted from THE FEMALE IN ARISTOTLE'S BIOLOGY by ROBERT MAYHEW Copyright © 2004 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Robert Mayhew is an associate professor of philosophy at Seton Hall University. He is the author of Aristotle's Criticism of Plato's Republic.

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