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Thinking, Feeling, and Being a Woman

6:00:00 AMHannah Bruckner




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In my previous blog post, The Head and the Heart, I began to explore the topic of affectivity and the role of emotion in the life of mankind. The original question posed in my last post is simple, yet distressing: does it make a woman less feminine if she finds herself more of a thinker than a feeler?  And on the opposite pole, is there anything unbalanced about a woman who allows herself to be utterly dominated and controlled by her emotions?
Perhaps the appropriate starting place is with Aristotle, as synthesized in Prudence Allen’s work, The Concept of Woman.  In Aristotle’s school of thought, woman was said to be an inferior, even deformed, version of man.  While man is associated with form, activity, and the highest elements, woman is associated with matter, passivity, and the lowest elements (and it is important to note that for thinkers during the time of Aristotle, matter and passivity were considered to be less noble when compared to the superiority of form and activity). This theory of sex polarity as presented by Aristotle and promulgated by thinkers for centuries was opposed by thinkers such as Edith Stein, who opted for a theory of sex complementarity. In seeking to remedy this error of sex polarity, Stein attempted to present man and woman as both containing characteristic strengths and weaknesses that serve to highlight the strengths in the other in an utterly complementary manner. Allen claims that Stein takes this theory of complementarity too far by presenting man and woman as two incomplete halves when separated, and as a united whole when brought together.  According to Allen, Stein presents man as possessing a certain set of traits, while woman possesses the complementary set, with no overlap.  I would like to push Allen’s interpretation a little bit here, and propose that perhaps she misunderstood Stein’s concept of complementarity.

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In Stein’s own words from her work, Essays on Woman, she claims that “the emotions have been seen as the center of woman’s soul.” Emotions, for Stein, are what help us take in perceived information and form opinions and ideas around it.  Emotionality is the way in which one takes in the world and all that happens in it.  With this being the center of woman’s soul, it naturally follows that woman finds herself acting as a relational being, taking in the world and others around her and then responding to it.  It follows that “the soul perceives its own being in the stirrings of the emotions.  Through the emotions it comes to know how it is and what it is” (Essays on Woman).  Thus, woman is not only enabled to be relational through her emotionality, but also to come to a deeper and more developed understanding of herself as a person.
This is the great strength of woman: the emotional life.
According to Stein, man’s strength lies in cognition and his creative abilities. Interestingly, she then goes on to say that man finds himself more prone to a one-sided activation of his faculties than woman. In a line that can be grievously misinterpreted when taken out of context or stretched too far, for Stein, it follows that woman is therefore “less qualified for the outstanding achievements in an objective field, achievements which are always purchased by a one-sided concentration of all spiritual faculties” (Essays on Woman).  This seems to be where Allen’s problem lies with Stein.
However, if one continues along with Stein, she points out that the intellectual and cognitive life is obviously not absent within woman (just as the emotional life is clearly not absent in man)!  Rather, both sexes do possess both sets of characteristics to differing degrees. In fact, woman’s emotionality is unhelpful in her development as a person if it is not directed and informed by the intellect.  Stein does not claim that woman is incapable of success in objective fields.  Rather, she seems to be suggesting that woman is naturally more drawn to fields that require a balance of both her intellect and emotions rather than to those fields which require a one-sided activation of the faculties. This does not, however, exclude the possibility that many women are in fact drawn to objective fields. The ability of woman to learn to govern her emotions by training her intellect enables her to do so.

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For Stein, “intellect is the light which illuminates [the emotion’s] path, and without this light, emotion changes back and forth” (Essays on Woman). She is clearly not advocating for a thoughtless, frivolous femininity with wild emotional impulses.  She is an advocate of balance and reason in dealing with the heart’s emotions and showcasing the interdependence of the intellect and emotions. For this reason, she points out that “emotional formation will have to be centrally placed in the woman’s formation” and that the “training of the practical intellect is…essential for the cultivation of proper emotions” (Essays on Woman).
The heart and the head.

The emotions and the intellect.
Any attempt to isolate one from the other is unbalanced. They are utterly interdependent. So, I would answer that women who would label themselves as “thinkers” are in no way less feminine than women who would characterize themselves as “feelers.” In fact, the thinkers seem to me to be well-disposed to properly ordering and governing their emotions through use of the intellectual gifts that they have been given, thus enabling them to enjoy the fullness of their emotional center in the fulfillment of their person.

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