Arguing with Edith Stein

OK, so the title of this post may be somewhat provocative, not to say presumptuous. After all, Edith Stein was an eminent philosopher, a brilliant writer, and an actual saint. And I’m…none of those things. She’s also a heroine of mine, someone whose life story has been an inspiration to me, especially since my return to faith. Indeed, I started writing this post on 9th August, Edith Stein’s feast day in the Church calendar. So, in a sense, this post feels a little bit like arguing with family.

A more accurate – but less eye-catching – title for this post might have been ‘Reflections on reading Edith Stein’s Essays on Woman as a man.’ And specifically, as a man who researches and writes about men and care. As for ‘arguing with’: it might be more appropriate to describe this post as an attempt to make sense of some of Stein’s key ideas about sexual difference – ideas to which I responded negatively on first coming across them – and their implications for thinking about men and masculinity.

Edith Stein as a young woman

But before going any further, perhaps there’s a need for some background information about Stein, for those who are not familiar with her biography or her work. Edith Stein was born into a Jewish family in 1891, in what was then Breslau, Germany, but is now Wroclaw in Poland. For a vivid account of her early life, I’d recommend her autobiographical account Life in a Jewish Family, though with the caveat that some details have been challenged by members of her family: see, for example her niece Susanne M. Batzdorff’s Aunt Edith: The Jewish Heritage of a Catholic Saint.

Stein studied philosophy in Göttingen under Edmund Husserl, the founding father of phenomenology, and worked for a time as his assistant at the University of Freiburg. In 1922, she was received into the Catholic Church, then spent some years as a teacher and lecturer before becoming a Carmelite nun, taking the name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. In 1939, in the face of the growing threat to Jews from the Nazi regime, she was transferred to a monastery in the Netherlands. However, following the Nazi occupation of that country, and the public condemnation of anti-Jewish policies by the Catholic Church, Jewish converts to Christianity, including Edith and her sister Rosa, were deported to Auschwitz, where Edith was murdered on 9th August 1942. Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1998.

Edith Stein’s contributions to philosophy include her influential thesis On the Problem of Empathy and her attempt to reconcile phenomenology and Thomist ideas in her major work Finite and Eternal Being. However, it was in her lectures and articles on women’s education and vocation, published after her death as Essays on Woman, that Stein set out her central ideas about sexual difference, particularly in the two essays entitled ‘The ethos of women’s professions’ and ‘The separate vocations of man and woman according to nature and grace’. These are the essays I’ll be referring to in this post.

So why should contemporary researchers, interested in issues of gender and care, take seriously the writings of an early twentieth-century Catholic nun? Well, firstly because those ideas might be helpful in developing an alternative, faith-based feminism (and male pro-feminism), and a way of thinking about sex and gender that’s compatible with a consistent life ethic, of the kind that I’ve been exploring in recent posts. But also because Stein is regarded by a number of modern feminist commentators as a feminist pioneer, someone who argued for women’s suffrage and promoted women’s education at a time when support for such ideas was by no means universal. In addition, there have been claims that her philosophical work, particularly in her writings on empathy, represents a potentially significant contribution to contemporary care theory. US care ethicist Maurice Hamington (2004) suggests that Stein’s work on empathy is helpful in understanding the part played by imagination in care, while the Czech philosopher and ethicist Petr Urban (2022) argues that Stein’s ‘ethical thought makes her a forerunner of some recent developments in feminist ethics, particularly ethics of care’.

Petr Urban (via

In fact, it was coming across articles by Petr Urban about Stein’s ideas on sexual difference, as well as conference papers of his discussing her thought as a resource for an ethic of care, that first alerted me to her work in these fields. Incidentally, it was Petr’s articles that also introduced me to the work of Finnish philosopher Sara Heinämaa on sexual difference, ideas that I’ve found extremely helpful in my own recent thinking. Reading Petr’s papers, and the essays by Stein to which they referred, I was intrigued, but also somewhat disconcerted, as a male reader, and as someone with a firm belief in men’s capacity for care. It wasn’t so much what Stein wrote about women that perturbed me, so much as the implications of what she wrote for men, or rather what they implied about men by default.

For example, in her essay on ‘The ethos of women’s professions’, Stein argues that, although women and men share ‘a basic human nature’, a woman’s ‘faculties’ differ from those of men,‘therefore a differing type of soul must exist as well’. She continues:

Woman naturally seeks to embrace that which is living, personal, and whole. To cherish, guard, protect, nourish and advance growth is her natural, maternal yearning.

Stein elaborates on these distinctive feminine qualities elsewhere in the essay, and also in her essay on ‘The separate vocations of man and woman’, where she writes:

True feminine qualities are required wherever feeling, intuition, empathy, and adaptability come into play. Above all, this activity involves the total person in caring for, cultivating, helping, understanding, and in encouraging the gifts of the other.

According to Stein, these ‘natural’ feminine qualities equip a woman not only for motherhood, but also for her additional vocation as a ‘companion’. 

To grasp what Stein believes about men’s ‘natural’ qualities, one has to read what she says about women as if in a mirror. Although she doesn’t say so explicitly, the implication of what she writes is surely that men do not possess these innate qualities: they (we) do not have an instinctive feel for all that is ‘living, personal and whole’, they are not characterised by ‘feeling, intuition, empathy and adaptability’. And they don’t have an innate capacity for activities which involve the ‘total person’, such as caring for others.

Stein doesn’t have a great deal to say directly about men’s innate qualities (perhaps not surprisingly, given that her focus is on women’s vocation), except for one or two brief sentences. For example, in the first essay she writes:

Man is consumed by ‘his enterprise’, and he expects others will be interested and helpful; generally, it is difficult for him to become involved in other beings and their concerns.

And in the second essay we read that ‘masculine vocations’ tend to require not only ‘bodily strength’ but also ‘the ability for predominantly abstract thought, and independent creativity’.

As I read these lines, they just didn’t seem to align with my own experience, or the experiences of men I knew, or those of the ‘hands on’ fathers and male care professionals whom I’d interviewed as part of my research. Didn’t these men have an innate regard for what is ‘living, personal and whole’? Were they constitutionally, because of their sex, unable to respond as a ‘total person’ in their caring? And in their care for others, did these men (did we) find it difficult to ‘become involved in other beings and their concerns’? Speaking personally, as I read these essays by Stein I felt put into a box that didn’t feel at all comfortable or familiar.

Nancy Dallavalle (via

While I was in the process of writing this post, I discovered the work of the Catholic feminist writer Nancy Dallavalle,  an associate professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut. In a 1998 article, Dallavalle criticised Pope John Paul II’s 1988 text, Mulieris dignitatem (‘The dignity of women’) – which is heavily influenced by Edith Stein’s ideas – in which he describes women’s innate capacity for ‘community’, but in Dallavalle’s opinion fails to present ‘any positive description of a male psycho-physical structure’, except to assert men’s deficiency in this capacity: ‘Men, in other words do not “naturally” care for others’. This omission, and the implicitly negative picture of masculinity, Dallavalle believes, significantly weakens John Paul’s account of sexual difference, and I suggest something similar could be said about Edith Stein’s account.

This is not the only criticism that could be, or indeed has been made, of Edith Stein’s notions of sexual difference. Sarah Borden (2007) sums up the criticisms of some later feminists as follows:

The claim that women’s ‘genius’…lies in their personal and relational capacities, as an orientation toward concrete, actual persons and their holistic development, is precisely the view of women that has caused trouble all these years. This view is, in fact, the reason the women’s movement and feminism were born. The critics might insist that, although Stein might claim that she is not limiting women to the nursery and home, yet that would be precisely the effect. In arguing that women’s genius lies in persons and attention to persons, Stein they would say has in essence put women back in children’s wards and the low-paying jobs and blocked their path to higher education or positions of leadership. One might argue that no matter what Stein may say about not limiting roles or jobs, this will be the inevitable result of allowing such gender distinctions into our discussion. The objectors might further argue that Stein’s descriptions also play into the hands of the worst stereotypes about women—seeing women as submissive, as secondary, simply the assistants to the more important work, and the ones who clean up all the dirty work when the day is done. Women care about people, so let them be the martyrs for all the men.

In her defence, it should be said that Edith Stein was writing at a time when women were still defined largely by negative traits, and by the ways in which they didn’t measure up to the positive qualities that were associated with men. For example, women’s supposed emotionality was generally seen as a weakness, not as the kind of strength and resource described by Stein. Her writings could be seen as an attempt to reclaim the positive value of these traditionally ‘feminine’ qualities.

Moreover, in the very essays from which I’ve been quoting, Edith Stein anticipates these later criticisms and makes it clear that she is certainly not arguing for women’s exclusion from certain professions or their confinement to ‘traditional’ roles. In fact, quite the opposite. On the one hand, she argues that ‘certain abiding attitudes are unique to the feminine soul and form a woman’s professional life from within’ and that ‘the very nature of woman draws her to certain professions’. But in the same essay she also suggests that ‘there is no profession which cannot be practised by a woman’:

Indeed no woman is only woman; like a man, she has her individual specificity and talent, and this talent gives her the capability of doing professional work, be it artistic, scientific, technical, etc.

Furthermore, she explicitly challenges the traditionalist view that a woman’s ‘natural’ place is in the home:

Obviously now, because of the development of the last decades and of recent years, we must consider as closed the historical epoch which made an absolute differentiation between the duties of the sexes, i.e. that woman should assume the domestic duties and the man the struggle for a livelihood.

Elsewhere, she elaborates:

Should certain positions be reserved for only men, others for only women, and perhaps a few open for both? I believe that this question…must be answered negatively. The strong individual differences existing within both sexes must be taken into account. Many women have masculine characteristics just as many men share feminine ones. Consequently, every so-called ‘masculine’ occupation may be exercised by man women as well as many ‘feminine’ occupations by certain men.

I have to admit that this last passage left me feeling somewhat puzzled. Doesn’t this contradict Stein’s earlier argument to the effect that women and men possess distinctive, innate qualities that fit them for different kinds of activity? Don’t those statements become meaningless if you then go on to say that, in fact, men can display ‘feminine’ characteristics and women ‘masculine’ ones?  Are these different qualities innate in men and women – or aren’t they?  And although Stein uses the term ‘so-called’ to describe masculine and feminine occupations, there is still an underlying sense that she thinks of care work (for example) as ‘feminine’, even when it’s undertaken by a man.

I tried to articulate some of this sense of confusion, as well as my initially negative response to Stein’s ideas about sexual difference, in an email to Petr Urban, back in 2017. He was kind enough to reply, and we entered into a brief email discussion, which we continued in person when we met in the following year at the inaugural conference of the Care Ethics Research Consortium in Portland, Oregon. I’ll try to summarise Petr’s response to my queries by referring to a recent paper of his which makes many of the same points that he made in our conversation. In this paper, he argues that it is on the ‘experiential, phenomenal level that [Stein] finds the core differences between man and woman.’ He continues:

Stein obviously does not think of ‘woman’s peculiarity’ in terms of exclusive traits and faculties. The personal traits in question are primarily human ones, and all faculties that are present in woman’s personality are also present in man’s personality. Nonetheless, Stein argues, the human traits may generally appear in different degrees and relationships in man and woman.

This makes a lot of sense, though I’m not sure about that ‘obviously’, or that the casual, as opposed to the philosophically sophisticated reader, would pick up this more nuanced meaning from Stein’s own writings. I find Petr’s interpretation of Stein’s thinking to mean that the same qualities exist in ‘different degrees and relationships’ in men and women a helpful one, and certainly one that I find sympathetic, but I’m not sure how explicit it is in Stein’s work.

Later in the same article, Petr refers to an earlier paper of his, in which he provided ‘a detailed argument in favour of a phenomenological reading of Stein’s “dual anthropology” by stressing that Stein conceives of the sexual difference as a difference between two related styles of intentional life rather than a difference between two separate essences (regardless of if it is ontologically or biologically defined).’ He continues: ‘From the phenomenological perspective it seems plausible to read Stein’s descriptions of woman’s specific capacities and attitudes as describing a particular life form that can be shared by women and men alike’ (my emphases).

Sara Heinämaa (via

This is somewhat similar to the distinction made by Sara Heinämaa, when she argues (2013) that a phenomenological account of sexual difference offers an alternative to both ‘naturalist’ (i.e. essentialist) and ‘constructivist’ (or social constructionist) theories of gender. Heinämaa writes:

Whereas gender-theories aim at explaining observed differences between men’s and women’s behaviours, dispositions, accomplishments, and positions, by the interplay of social, cultural, and biological forces, phenomenology studies how the sense of sexual difference is established in personal and interpersonal experiences in the first place.

I have to admit that, as a non-philosopher, I still struggle to understand what this means, just as I’m not quite sure I fully comprehend Petr’s description of gender identity as a ‘style of intentional life’.  I’m still waiting for the lightbulb moment when all of this begins to make sense. In my simplistic way, I still want to know whether these authors (and indeed Edith Stein) believe that the differences between men and women are innate, or learned, or somehow both, or neither?

In conclusion, I should make it clear that I’m not at all averse to the notion that there are innate differences between the sexes. As I’ve tried to suggest in my recent posts, I’ve moved from a position of believing that gender differences, particularly in relation to the capacity to care, are wholly socially constructed, to an acceptance that significant differences between men’s and women’s care might exist, and to trying to find ways to articulate those differences in a way that is compatible with my unchanged belief in gender equality. I suppose I wish that, instead of claiming that women have an innate and exclusive propensity for ‘caring for, cultivating, helping, understanding, and in encouraging the gifts of the other’, which by implication men don’t have, Edith Stein had asserted that women and men both care, but care differently – because we are different.

I’m prepared to accept that this difference may well derive, at least in part, from what Stein calls woman’s ‘primary’ maternal vocation. As she writes: ‘Only the person blinded by the passion of controversy could deny that woman in soul and body is formed for a particular purpose.’ I’m certainly willing to agree (in a way that I wasn’t in my social constructionist days) that, in Stein’s words, ‘because of the close bodily tie between child and mother, because of woman’s specific tendency to sympathise and to serve another life’, women’s care – particularly for children – will tend to have a distinctive quality that men’s care lacks. But this doesn’t mean that men have no capacity for care, or that their caring is somehow deficient: it’s just different. Just as, according to Stein, women have a ‘natural, maternal yearning’ which inclines them to ‘cherish, guard, protect, nourish and advance growth’, so surely men can have a natural paternal yearning, a yearning that may express itself in different ways, but which ‘inclines’ them (us) towards the same things.

To end on a more positive note. Needless to say, my quarrel (if that’s what it is) with some of Edith Stein’s ideas doesn’t take away from my enormous admiration for her as a philosopher (not to mention as a spiritual model and guide). I’m already finding her work on empathy a valuable resource in my ongoing project exploring personalist thinking as a resource for an ethic of care, and I plan to write more on this in future posts.

A personal postscript

One of my side projects over the past few years, unrelated to my academic work, has been researching the life and work of Theodor Kern (1900-1969), a painter and sculptor who was born in Salzburg, Austria but spent the second half of his life in Hitchin, the English market town where we’ve lived for the past twenty years or so. My website about Kern can be found here. In addition to my intererest in his art, and the way it expresses his Catholic faith, I was intrigued to discover that, when living in Vienna, Kern had been a close friend of the philosopher and anti-Nazi activist Dietrich von Hildebrand, and indeed had helped him (and others) to escape from Austria following the Nazi Anschluss of 1938, activities which eventually led to Kern’s own flight to England. I’ve long been an admirer of von Hildebrand’s writings and in the past few years have enjoyed attending (virtually) the lectures and seminars organised by the Hildebrand Project, based in Steubenville, Ohio. One of the project’s leading lights is Professor John F Crosby, a former student of von Hildebrand and himself an eminent exponent of personalism, whose writings I’ve found immensely helpful in framing my own thinking in recent years. 

Stephen Schwarz (via

One of the pleasures of researching Theodor Kern has been making contact with people who knew him, people who were also part of the circle around von Hildebrand – including John Crosby, who kindly shared with me his own reminiscences of meeting the artist at the annual meetings of a religious community to which they both belonged. I had a particularly helpful exchange with another US-based philosophy professor, Stephen Schwarz, whose German-born father Balduin Schwarz was also a student and associate of Dietrich von Hildebrand, and also a vociferous opponent of Nazism who was forced to flee his native country. 

In one of his emails to me, Stephen shared the following story:

My father and Edith Stein were colleagues in the philosophy department at the Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in Münster, in the Spring Semester 1933.  They were also close personal friends.  She came to visit my parents at regular intervals, for extensive talks with my father over tea, about Christ, philosophy and the current horrible political situation.  But before the serious discussions she always made it a point to go to the baby room and hold little baby Stephen, born November 8th of the previous year...This is surely one of the greatest blessings of my life.


Borden, S. (2007) ‘Foreword’, in Padua, M.M., Contemplating woman in the philosophy of Edith Stein, Manila: Far Eastern University.

Dallavalle, N. (1998) ‘Neither idolatry nor iconoclasm: A critical essentialism for Catholic feminist theology’, Horizons, 25 (1).

Hamington, M. (2004) Embodied Care: Jane Addams, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Feminist Care Ethics, Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Heinämaa, S. (2013) ‘Sex, gender and embodiment’, in Zahavi, D. (ed.) Handbook in Contemporary Phenomenology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 216-242

Stein, E. (2017) Essays on Woman, Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications

Urban, P. (2016) ‘Edith Stein’s Phenomenology of Woman’s Personality and Value’, in Alles Wesentliche Lässt Sich Nicht Schreiben’: Leben und Denken Edith Steins im Spiegel Ihres Gesamtwerks‘, Regh, S., Speer, A., eds., Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: Verlag Herder 2016; 538–555.

Urban, P. (2022) ‘Care Ethics and the Feminist Personalism of Edith Stein’, Philosophies, 7:60


‘To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’

John Henry Newman

‘Time may change me
But I can’t trace time.’

David Bowie

I thought I’d write something about the ways my thinking has changed during my time as an academic. This will probably be of little interest to anybody besides me, so feel free to scroll past this post, if you find the intellectual navel-gazing of an ageing academic a less than appealing prospect. However, since I’ve always believed that one of the purposes of a blog is to provide its author with a space to work out what he or she actually thinks, I won’t be too bothered if the main (or indeed only) audience for this post is me. At the same time, I feel I owe it to the readers of this blog (and I know there are one or two, from time to time) to explain the thinking behind the things I write here: to clarify where I’m coming from intellectually, as it were.

Another reason for wanting to clear the intellectual decks, so to speak, is that I feel I’ve held back from writing about some of the things that currently interest me, for fear of alienating or alarming my (few) readers. I want to be more honest, going forward: there are some issues I want to write about here, and some debates I want to engage in more openly, which require me to come clean about my intellectual opinions and how they’ve changed over time.

So, where to begin? I was reflecting recently, in a conversation with some colleagues, that it’s an astonishing thirty-one years since I became an academic. I joined The Open University, back in January 1991, as a Lecturer in Community Education, after a decade of frontline work organising and teaching in education projects with marginalised groups and communities. Before that, I’d been a student of English Literature, first at Cambridge University and then at Manchester, with a year’s break in between doing full-time voluntary work (see this post), which, arguably, turned out to be more influential than my academic studies in determining my future career.

Paulo Freire (via

I came to the OU, and entered academic life, fortified by a fairly familiar amalgam of philosophical and political opinions. My work in community education had been informed by a passionate desire to extend educational opportunities to adults who, for whatever reason, had been excluded from them. I’d been inspired, at least initially, by the de-schooling philosophy of Ivan Illich and more especially by the ideas of the radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who criticised the dominant ‘banking’ model of education which regarded students as empty vessels to be filled, and proposed instead a dialogic model in which learning builds on the everyday knowledge and experience of those he called ‘the oppressed’. 

However, over time I had come to believe that a purely Freirean approach was inadequate for overcoming educational exclusion. Claiming to start from where people were in their lives, in my view it risked leaving them there, rather than helping them gain access to powerful bodies of knowledge. I’d also become increasingly concerned about a trend I’d noticed in adult education, in part inspired by Freire and Illich: a move away from its historic concern with widening access to knowledge, whether of the arts, or history, or science, and towards a more process- and skills-oriented approach, one that spoke about ‘learners’ rather than students, and appeared to devalue the role of the educator: in fact, it was becoming de rigeur to talk, not about teachers or tutors, but instead about facilitators of learning.

Raymond Williams (via

As someone from a modest socio-economic background, whose parents had made the transition away from their working-class roots when we moved from the East End of London to suburban Essex in my childhood, and as the first person in my family to go to university, I was deeply grateful for the possibilities that education had opened up for me, and as an educator I wanted nothing more than to extend similar opportunities to others. I was concerned that the new, ‘personal development’ orientation of adult education, with its implicit hostility to bodies of knowledge, smacked somewhat of privileged educators pulling up the ladder behind them. My own educational philosophy had been inspired by the long tradition of radical adult education in Britain, and particularly by the work of the cultural theorist Raymond Williams, who had been one of my lecturers at Cambridge, with his emphasis on culture as a common heritage which should be made accessible to all.

Stuart Hall (via

One of my jobs before joining The Open University was organising an education project in Stoke Newington, a poor, multicultural borough in north London. In my lunch break I used to browse the shelves of Centerprise, the community centre and radical bookshop close to where I worked, where I first came across the writings of Stuart Hall and his Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, becoming an avid reader of his articles on contemporary politics and culture in the magazine Marxism Today. (For my later reflections on Hall’s political thinking, and my encounters with him at the OU, see here). It was through Hall that I was introduced to the writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (I bought my copy of his Prison Notebooks in the Centerprise shop), whose ideas about education and its role in social change would be a major influence on my own thinking. Gramsci’s approach to education could be summed up in the title of Harold Entwistle’s classic book Antonio Gramsci: Conservative Schooling for Radical PoliticsThe Italian thinker pointed out that an emphasis on process and feelings had actually been a hallmark of Mussolini’s education policy and argued that the purpose of a truly radical education was rather to introduce students to the breadth of human culture and empower them to become critical contributors to it. Around this time, I also began to read the work of the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, with its emphasis on dialogue and discourse as the key to understanding social processes.

Antonio Gramsci (via

These influences formed part of my broader political philosophy. I’d been a ‘soft’ leftist in my youth, identifying with the Tribunite wing of the Labour Party. I didn’t read Marx properly until much later, in my late twenties, around the same time that I also began to read feminist writers like Germaine Greer. I’d always felt personally constrained by conventional gender roles, so I was a natural and enthusiastic convert to a pro-feminist worldview. At the same time, my experience of working in multicultural north London had confirmed me as an avowed anti-racist.

On joining The Open University, I found a sympathetic mentor in my colleague Andy Northedge, with whom I worked developing the OU’s first pre-degree ‘access’ courses, firstly in social sciences and then in the arts and humanities. Andy, the author of the bestselling Good Study Guide, helped me to refine and elaborate my thinking about the role of discourse in learning, introducing me to the ideas of thinkers like Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner. I distilled some of this thinking in a book chapter co-written with Andy’s partner, Ellie Chambers, in which we argued that the OU’s access model transcended the opposition between traditional ‘subject-centred’ and Freirean ‘student-centred’ models of learning, proposing instead a discourse-based model which brought ‘everyday’ and academic forms of understanding into critical dialogue.

When the OU’s community education programme was eventually wound up, and we were absorbed into our sister department of health and social care, I felt a need to re-equip myself intellectually for my new role, so I began studying psychology via the OU’s own courses in my spare time, working first for an Advanced Diploma in Child Development and then for a Masters degree in Psychology.  Via the latter, I became interested in critical social psychology, and particularly in discourse analysis: it helped that one of the doyennes of the subject, Margaret Wetherell, was a professor of psychology at the OU at this time. 

Margaret Wetherell (via

It’s perhaps not surprising that someone whose original academic training was in English Literature should be attracted to a form of psychology that foregrounded language: engaging in discourse analysis did occasionally remind me of doing literary criticism as an undergraduate. However, my interest in discourse was also part of the generally social constructionist view of the world that I held at the time. I drew on these perspectives as I started working on courses designed for people working in health and social care, developing a particular focus on work with children and young people. At the same time, I began to develop my own research interests in men, masculinity and care, rooted both in my intellectual commitment to gender equality, and in my personal experience as a new, ‘hands on’ father. My first, small-scale research project involved interviewing men working in childcare, and was informed by a Foucauldian interest in how social discourses around masculinity and care framed these men’s experiences. I used a similar approach in my second study, interviewing ‘involved’ fathers about their care for their children. Over time, my research interests expanded to include the processes that led to men opting to be involved in ‘care’, which then prompted an interest in the shaping of young masculine identities. I led a team that undertook a major study of the role of gender in work with young men using social care services, and on the back of that, was invited to lead the UK strand of a three-country study of young men, masculinity and wellbeing. 

During the time that I was working on these research studies, my thinking was informed by the ground-breaking work on masculinities of writers like Raewyn Connell, and on gender more generally by theorists such as Judith Butler. I don’t think I was ever a fully paid-up poststructuralist, however. This was partly because my left-wing politics retained a humanist core and I was sceptical about what I saw as the anti-humanism of poststructuralism. To the extent that I was a Marxist, it was the humanist early Marx that I was drawn to, and the historian E. P. Thompson’s classic critique of Louis Althusser and his school, in The Poverty of Theory, remained an intellectual touchstone for me.

Via Twitter

Over time, I became increasingly dissatisfied with discourse analysis as a tool for making sense of the data from my research. Around this time, in the early 2000s, there were some fascinating debates at the OU between Margie Wetherell and another professor of psychology, Wendy Hollway, whose own work had moved from an early emphasis on social discourses to a position increasingly informed by psychoanalysis. I recall conversations with Wendy in which she argued that it was important to understand what motivated particular individuals to invest in specific social discourses. For her the missing link was the work of psychoanalytic feminists such as Jessica Benjamin.  Influenced by Wendy, I began to read and draw on Benjamin’s ideas, and my shift to a psychosocial perspective was further enhanced by working with other Open University colleagues like Mary Jane Kehily and Peter Redman, whose research adopted a similar approach. Although I’ve since become more sceptical about the claims of psychoanalysis, Wendy Hollway’s book The Capacity to Care: Gender and Ethical Subjectivity remains a key influence.

Wendy Hollway (via

At the same time, my disillusionment with poststructuralism and move away from the relativism of social constructionism was part of a wider shift in my political outlook. I was becoming uneasy with some of the directions being taken by the contemporary Left, which in my view were inextricable from the influence of postmodernism. Two egregious examples were Michel Foucault’s lauding of the autocratic mullahs’ regime in Iran, and Judith Butler’s notorious claim that the misogynist, antisemitic terrorist group Hamas was part of the ‘global Left’. At the party political level, I had become disillusioned during the 1980s with the dogmatism and diehard oppositionalism of the Bennite ‘hard’ left, which I had once supported. I welcomed the election of Tony Blair as Labour leader: in fact, it prompted me to re-join the party, having allowed my membership to lapse during the long years of intra-party factionalism. I was a critical supporter of Blair’s ‘New Labour’, praising its attempts to make Labour electable again and relevant to the changed social and economic realities of the ‘New Times’ so accurately described by Stuart Hall and other reformists on the Left, though I was less enthusiastic about some aspects of Blairite social policy. 

Norman Geras (via

I had also grown wary, particularly after the events of September 11th 2001, of the radical Left’s embrace of a kneejerk anti-Americanism and naive ‘anti-imperialism‘ which seemed to view authoritarian regimes elsewhere as preferable to our own admittedly flawed democracies: a perspective that would eventually go mainstream when one of its leading proponents, Jeremy Corbyn, became leader of the Labour Party. In 2007 I started a political blog, Martin In The Margins, and became part of a group of bloggers that gathered around the late Norman Geras, a retired Marxist professor and pioneering political blogger, who developed cogent arguments for an anti-totalitarian leftism which eventually coalesced into the Euston Manifesto, and also found expression in the short-lived online journal Democratiya

However, this post wasn’t supposed to be about politics, except as an adjunct to explaining the shifts in my intellectual position. For those who are interested, I’ve written more extensively about my personal political journey elsewhere. But perhaps I should bring the political story up to date, before moving on: suffice it to say that I’ve joined the ranks of the politically homeless, unable to identify fully with the platform of any single party, though I find myself in sympathy with many of the ideas of Blue Labour. And if a UK equivalent of the American Solidarity Party were to come along, I’d probably vote for it…

…which is kind of a neat segue into talking about (takes a deep breath) religion (if you look up the ASP’s platform, you’ll see why). Alongside my political journey, I’d been on a spiritual journey as well, and it’s impossible to write about the shifts in my intellectual perspective without bringing up the subject of religious belief. I acknowledge that some of my readers may tune out at this point. However, for me, it’s difficult to disentangle the religious from the intellectual and political.

I was brought up in a devoutly nonconformist Christian home: my parents are active Methodists, and as a teenager I underwent the standard evangelical conversion. At university, I went through a time of profound questioning, but instead of leaving Christianity behind altogether, I eventually found myself drawn towards Catholicism. The appeal was philosophical and aesthetic, as well as spiritual. In addition to the intellectual tradition of the Church and the beauty of its sacramental life, it was the radical faith of Catholic Worker movement founder Dorothy Day, of the Trappist monk and peace activist Thomas Merton, and of the Latin American liberation theologians, that appealed, and didn’t seem at all incompatible with my left-wing commitments. 

Dorothy Day (via

However, I drifted away from my new faith once I left university and started work: or rather, I simply stopped practising it, as I came under the influence of Marxism, feminism, and a whole host of other appealing –isms that seemed to leave no room for faith. I was never able to completely shake off my religious background, though. I remember, at the end of a course on literature and social history that I was teaching for the Workers’ Educational Association – a course which in my view had been solidly secular in its approach – a sweet elderly couple thanked me and told me how much they appreciated that everything I’d said had been inspired by a deeply Christian perspective. 

Despite the secular humanist socialist-feminist beliefs that animated my work in adult education, and later in academia, an interest in spirituality, and the search for a spiritual grounding for my life and work, never entirely left me (perhaps there’s a permanent god-shaped hole in everyone who has once believed) and in my middle years I experimented with Buddhism and eastern spirituality. I certainly gained a good deal from meditation and similar spiritual practices, but in time I concluded that the unworldliness of Buddhism was out of sync with my abiding interest in the social, the cultural and the historical. I wanted to celebrate the world, and maybe change it, but certainly not escape from it. I also came to believe that a good deal of western Buddhism was actually a stripped down, exoticised version of Christian spirituality, with the more difficult and challenging bits left out.

At an intellectual level, I also came to believe that many of the ideas we take for granted in western thought, and which in fact are foundational for ‘progressive’ thinking, such as a belief in the value of the individual human person, and the sense that history has a trajectory and purpose, rather than being an endless, meaningless cycle of events, have their roots in a Judaeo-Christian worldview and are inexplicable without it. Vestiges of these ideas remained after Christianity lost its historical influence and can even be seen as underlying the Enlightenment, despite its formal opposition to traditional religion. However, as even the Enlightenment has been increasingly undermined by postmodern thinking, those foundations have begun to crumble. Increasingly, I came to the view that only a religious, and specifically a Christian worldview, could provide a stable basis for holding on to a humanist perspective. This intellectual questioning, together with my personal yearning for a spiritual grounding for my life, would eventually lead me back to Christianity and to Catholicism, though the process of return has not been without its bumps along the way, with the secular humanist ‘me’ continuing to argue with my newly rediscovered spiritual self.

Edith Stein (via

As a tentative religious believer and recovering social constructionist, I began to look around for an alternative – and realist – intellectual grounding for my academic work. I became very interested in phenomenology, which I discovered initially mainly through twentieth-century Catholic philosophers, such as Edith Stein and Dietrich von Hildebrand, who had been shaped by this philosophical perspective, which is rooted in the work of the twentieth-century German thinker Edmund Husserl. According to Robert Sokolowski, author of one of the best introductions to the subject, ‘phenomenology is the study of human experience and of the way things present themselves to us in and through experience’ and, by contrast with postmodernism, ‘insists that identity and intelligibility are available in things.’ Also, by contrast with the dominant philosophical tradition that has come down to us from Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, et al, which assumes ‘that when we are conscious, we are primarily aware of ourselves or our own ideas’, phenomenology argues that ‘we are not trapped in our own subjectivity’, that the mind is not isolated from the world. Perhaps you can see the appeal of this kind of thinking to someone like me, recoiling from the relativism and anti-realism of postmodernism and poststructuralism, and searching for a philosophical correlate for a renewed spiritual intuition of the ‘givenness’ of the world. I should add here, though, that I am by no means a trained philosopher and that reading philosophical writings, still less making sense of them and applying them to my academic work, remains a struggle for me.

Via Twitter

I’ve found phenomenology a useful tool in my academic work: for example, the work of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty on embodiment has proved helpful in my continuing quest to understand the relationship between gender and care, while the writings of the Finnish philosopher Sara Heinämaa have reframed my thinking about sexual difference more broadly. My interest in phenomenology seems to be part of a wider trend: I’ve noticed an increasing number of postgraduate research students opting to use Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis, or IPA (which some purists would argue is not ‘real’ phenomenology), for their research, whereas a decade ago their predecessors were all mad keen on discourse analysis.

At the same time that my intellectual outlook changed, so my academic research interests began to shift. Although I was writing a book on men’s care for children, and still working on research projects on aspects of fatherhood, I was also beginning to develop an interest in the field of care ethics. I corresponded with a number of care ethicists and contributed a paper on the development of caring masculinities to the inaugural conference of the international Care Ethics Research Consortium. More recently, I’ve written a chapter for a new book on care ethics, spirituality and religious traditions which is due out in the next month or so.

In time, my reading in phenomenology led me to personalism, a philosophical tradition which in part grew out of phenomenology, so that many phenomenologists – Stein and Hildebrand would be leading examples – were also personalists. Personalists draw on the philosophical resources of phenomenology, existentialism, and in some instances Judeo-Christian religious traditions, to emphasise what the American personalist philosopher John F. Crosby terms ‘the unconditional worth in all human persons’. As I wrote in a post last year, personalism offers a corrective to some of the depersonalising tendencies of contemporary society, and to the devaluing of the human person.

My research and writing continue to have two strands, one empirical the other more theoretical. In the former, I’m continuing to explore men’s involvement in care, for example, through my current project on fathers and perinatal loss (see the previous post). In the latter, I’m exploring the potential of personalist thought for developing an ethic of care. Although I’ve found the work of feminist care ethicists like Joan Tronto, Virginia Held and Eva Feder Kittay, enlightening, I also find myself arguing with some aspects of their work. Rather than remaining a perpetually negative critic, however, I’ve been casting around for alternative foundations for an understanding of care. I’m interested in developing a dialogue between personalism and feminist care ethics, identifying aspects in common, such as a shared relational view of the self, but perhaps supplying a normative perspective that mainstream care ethics currently lacks, as well as a deeper insight into the nature, and value, of the human person.  

My inner debates continue, and I’m sure there’ll be more ch-ch-changes in my thinking before I’m done. Now that I’ve set out some of the background to my current thinking, I want to use this blog as a space to work through some of the issues around care, gender, identity and personhood that continue to interest and exercise me.

The personal and the professional

My recent appearance on the ‘Now and Men’ podcast has prompted me to reflect further on the relationship between the personal and the professional. As I noted in the previous post, the most challenging part of the interview for me was when Sandy Ruxton and Stephen Burrell probed me about the connection between my beliefs about masculinity and gender equality, and my personal experience as a boy and a man. I think I found this difficult because, most of the time, we’re not consciously aware of the ways in which our life experience has shaped our thinking: perhaps it’s something that other people who know us can see more clearly than we can ourselves?

These further reflections have also been prompted by the recent publication of Sandy and Stephen’s own book, co-edited with others, on Men’s Activism to End Violence against Women: Voices from Spain, Sweden and the UK, which is based on interviews with men who are engaged in some way in combatting gender-based violence. You can hear Sandy and Stephen talking about the book’s contents in the post-interview part of the podcast. The emphasis of the book is very much on the relationship between personal experience and practical action, in this case in the cause of gender equality.

It’s a relationship that perhaps doesn’t attract enough academic attention. When Heather Montgomery, Rachel Thomson and I co-edited Critical Practice with Children and Young People, the core text for a module in the Open University’s Masters in Childhood and Youth Studies, we decided to dedicate the third and final section of the book to the personal context of practice. The section included chapters by a mixture of practitioners and academics, who provided often quite moving reflections on the complex, iterative connections between their personal lives and their professional practice. It included accounts of mothers becoming teachers (and vice versa), youth workers who were also committed feminists, and an academic in the field of educational inclusion who is also the father of a son with a learning disability. In my interview for the ‘Now and Men’ podcast, I spoke about how becoming a father was the main catalyst for my own academic interest in men’s care for children, and how thankful I was to be working in an academic department – the OU’s School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care – where this connection between personal experience and academic passion is not only allowed, but is actually quite normal, with colleagues’ ground-breaking research often motivated, at least in part, by their personal experience, or the experience of those close to them, of disability, discrimination, illness or loss.

Sandy Ruxton

However, my own recent ruminations have focused less on the influence of experiences of this kind and more on the ways in which personal relationships, and in particular friendships, have intertwined in often unexpected ways, in the development of my own career, first as a practitioner in community education and later as a university teacher and researcher. Sandy mentioned one example of this in the podcast, recalling that he and I first met some thirty-five years ago, when we worked together on an education project for ex-offenders in Basildon, Essex. I’ve written about this experience elsewhere, in a post on this blog about my work with offenders and in prisons. The Basildon job, managing a new scheme set up by NACRO, was my first full-time post after university, after a series of part-time teaching jobs in adult and further education. Sandy came to work for the project as course organiser and we worked together for a year or so, with our colleague Debbie Amas (now a social work lecturer at Anglia Ruskin), running classes and activities in community centres around the new town, before I went off to set up a similar scheme in Hackney. Sandy also eventually moved on to other jobs, and for a number of years our paths only crossed intermittently. 

Then, soon after I came to work at the OU, and I began to develop a research interest in the topic of men and care, I found myself at a seminar in London on ‘Men and their children’ and was surprised to see that Sandy, now working as a freelance researcher, was not only one of the organisers and key speakers, but had been involved in writing an important policy report on the topic. As far as I can recall, we’d never really spoken about masculinity or gender issues when working together in Basildon, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that our research interests had converged in this way.

It was an even bigger surprise when, browsing the Internet some time later, I came across an academic debate about men’s role in families between Sandy and another old friend of mine. Before going to work in community education, I’d been a postgraduate student at Manchester University. In my first year, I found myself living in the Moberly Tower, a rather grim block for postgraduates on the university campus. My neighbours on the top floor included two students who quickly became my close friends. Nigel Rapport, Keith Pringle and I had all been undergraduates at Cambridge, though at different times and different colleges, and we hadn’t known each other before arriving in Manchester. I was studying for a PhD in the Arts Faculty, and Nigel in Anthropology, while Keith, after a number of years working as a civil servant, was studying Social Administration with a view to switching to a career in social work. 

I kept in touch with both Nigel and Keith after our time in Manchester came to an end. Nigel took up a series of academic posts in Canada, before returning to the UK and eventually being appointed as Professor of Anthropology (now emeritus) at St Andrews. Keith practised as a social worker in his native North-East and, as already mentioned, I wound up organising education projects with socially disadvantaged groups and communities, first in Essex and later in London, Oxford and Milton Keynes. Then, about the time that I joined the OU, initially as a Lecturer in Community Education, Keith also made the transition to academic life, teaching social work at Middlesbrough University.

Keith Pringle

However, I wasn’t aware that Keith had also developed an academic interest in men and masculinities until I came across his discussion, in the pages of a journal, with Sandy. It was an odd experience to see two of my old friends, not only having research interests in the same area as me, but engaging in debate with each other. In time I would find myself quoting Keith in my own writings, commissioning him to write a chapter for an edited book, and inviting him to give a seminar at the OU, on one of his occasional visits to the UK from Sweden, where he had become a professor (now emeritus). None of this could have been predicted on the basis of our experience as fellow students in Manchester some decades before.

As for Sandy and me, our newly-discovered shared interest in men and masculinities meant that we kept in touch more regularly and eventually developed a research proposal together, which became the ESRC-funded ‘Beyond Male Role Models’ project, an Open University/Action for Children collaboration that also involved my then-OU colleague Professor Brigid Featherstone, as well as three early career researchers: Mike Ward, now a senior lecturer at Cardiff University and the editor of the journal Boyhood Studies, Anna Tarrant, now an associate professor at Lincoln, and Gareth Terry, now a senior research lecturer at AUT University in his native New Zealand. Since that study came to an end, Sandy and I have worked together again, on Promundo’s international ‘Man Box’ study, and have published together on a number of occasions. Most recently, Sandy contributed an article to the special issue of Genealogy that I edited, later reissued in book form, on ‘Fathers and forefathers: men and their children in genealogical perspective’, after we discovered another shared interest, in family history, and particularly its intersection with our academic research interests (another striking example of the interweaving of the personal and the professional), all of this stemming from a friendship forged when working together with ex-offenders in Essex in the early 1980s.

Nigel Rapport

As for the other member of our Manchester trio, I suppose Nigel Rapport was the person whose academic path I would have least expected to cross with mine later on. So I was intrigued, when I began to follow Nigel’s latest work on recently, to notice some surprising synchronicities, including a shared interest in theories of care. I’ve written in other posts on this blog about my developing interest in care ethics: I gave a paper at the inaugural conference of the international Care Ethics Research Consortium in Portland, Oregon, in 2018, and I’ve contributed a chapter to a book on care ethics, religion and spiritual traditions which is due to be published in 2022. In a paper published on ‘The action and inaction of care: Care and the personal preserve’, Nigel references a number of the key names in feminist care ethics, such as Carol Gilligan and Joan Tronto (a speaker at the Portland conference) who have influenced my own thinking, though I think our approaches might diverge somewhat: Nigel has developed the intriguing theory of what he terms ‘cosmopolitan politesse’, while I’m more interested in the ways in which care arises from embodied and embedded relationships. However, the very fact that we have both arrived at this focus on care ethics, despite our very different academic starting-points, is itself quite remarkable.

What do I conclude from all of this? When I first met Keith and Nigel as students, or first worked with Sandy, all those years ago, there was no way I could have predicted that we would end up working on similar areas of research. However, these coincidental convergences must surely have something to do with the fact that people often end up as friends who, at some deep level, share a similar outlook on life and are tuned into the same influences in the Zeitgeist, even if their ideas are still undeveloped and embryonic at the time they first become friends. Conversely, it must also be true that friendships can prompt and inspire new directions, perhaps at an unconscious level, in the development of individual ideas and interests. 

In this post, I’ve focused on three male friendships that have been important to me, both personally and professionally. However, it would be misleading to give the impression that all of the key influences on my thinking and practice, whether as a community educator or as an academic, have been men. In fact, most of the people I’ve worked with, in both phases of my career, have been women, and many of the important influences on me have been female. But maybe that’s a subject for another post…


I can’t leave the subject of my time as a student in Manchester, and its connections with my later career, without mentioning two other friends – in this case women – who, like me, ended up in the caring professions and then as academics in the care field, despite having studied very different subjects at university. Through Nigel I got to know his sister Frances, who was studying art at what was then Manchester Polytechnic. Who would have predicted back then that she would end up as a Professor of Health Implementation Science at Macquarrie University in Australia? Just as unforeseeable was the fact that my fellow English student Helen Scholar, whose postgraduate specialism was in an obscure area of medieval literature, would become a probation officer and then a lecturer in social work at Salford. But maybe no more surprising than the fact that I, with my half-finished PhD in twentieth-century religious poetry, would go to work in education projects with ex-offenders and end up as a senior lecturer in a School of Health and Social Care..

Personhood and the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the ways in which our society treats particular groups of people, and by implication, the extent to which we value – or don’t value – particular human lives.

For example, I was shocked to learn, at a recent seminar given by my Open University colleague Professor Jane Seale, that at the height of the pandemic there were more than a few instances of medical staff placing ‘do not resuscitate’ notices on patients with learning disabilities – without the patients’ or their relatives’ consent. It has also become apparent that, despite being one of the groups most likely to die or become seriously ill after contracting COVID-19, people with learning disabilities were not regarded as a priority for vaccination. These stories are only now coming to light and finally beginning to get some coverage in the media.

The underlying message seems to be that some lives are considered less worth saving – and implicitly less worth living – than others. This is just the kind of thing that disability campaigners, including some of my colleagues in the School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care at the OU, have been fighting against for years.

Campaigner Heidi Crowter (via

And disabled people themselves, including those with learning disabilities, are increasingly active in that struggle. A recent example is the Don’t Screen Us Out campaign, in which people with learning disabilities, supported by their relatives and friends, are pushing back against government plans to introduce automatic screening of babies for Down’s Syndrome up to the time of birth. This is against a background of the news that, in countries such as Iceland, virtually no babies are now being born with Down’s Syndrome: not because a ‘cure’ has suddenly been found, but because those children are routinely disposed of before they have a chance to be born. Here in the UK, Richard Dawkins recently stirred controversy by arguing in an interview that it would be ‘wise and sensible’ to abort babies with Down’s syndrome to ‘increase the amount of happiness in the world’.

A similar kind of utilitarian assessment of the value – or lack of value – of certain human lives is also evident in some of the attitudes to older people that have been highlighted by the pandemic. A few months ago, I listened to an online debate from the United States, discussing which groups should be prioritised for vaccination against coronavirus. One speaker argued forcefully that people of working age should be first in line, since the most important priority was to get the economy going again, and that older Americans, especially those who were economically inactive, should go to the back of the queue. Never mind that the elderly were most likely to become seriously ill or die if they caught the virus. Thankfully, a different approach was adopted here in the UK, with vulnerable older people being prioritised in the vaccine roll-out, though the scandalous treatment of some care home residents during the recent lockdowns should caution against any complacency about British attitudes to the elderly.

Image via Twitter: original source unknown

A worryingly utilitarian attitude to older people – and old age – has also been evident in some of the views expressed by Dr Ezekiel Emanuel, chosen by US President Joe Biden to play a leading role in his coronoavirus task force. Responding to news of Emanuel’s appointment, Jennifer Frey, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, acknowledged that he is a ‘well-credentialed expert—a Harvard-trained physician and political philosopher, a prolific researcher in medical ethics, and the current chair of the department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania’, but contended that ‘his attitudes toward the elderly and disabled ought to be disqualifying’.

Professor Frey’s objections were based on an article that Dr Emanuel wrote in the Atlantic in 2014, in which he expressed the hope that he would die before he grew old and was ‘no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, and even pathetic’, going on to question whether, as we age, ‘our consumption is worth our contribution.’ Frey comments: ‘For Dr. Emanuel, it seems, a human life is valuable and meaningful to the extent that it is productive and creative; whereas children are potentially useful workers, old people are simply past their prime.’

In a follow-up interview in 2019, Emanuel was asked what he thought about healthy elderly people who still enjoy activities such as spending time with their families or engaging in enjoyable hobbies. In response, he lamented that ‘when I look at what those people “do,” almost all of it is what I classify as play. It’s not meaningful work.’ He went on to conclude that if a person’s life is devoted to such activities it’s ‘probably not a meaningful life.’ Frey pushes back against this reductive definition of a ‘meaningful’ life, arguing that ‘such attitudes towards the elderly are inhuman because based upon a profound self-deception’. Her counter-argument is worth quoting in full:

As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has forcefully argued in his book Dependent Rational Animals, we humans are not essentially independent or autonomous. To the contrary, we can only reach our potential within communities where we can depend on the care and help of others throughout our lives. This dependence is especially manifest at the beginning and end of our lives, when we are most vulnerable and weak. But even in the prime of our lives we must recognize the networks of dependence that make our flourishing possible. […]

When we acknowledge our human vulnerability and interdependence—then we should be able to recognize that the disabled or infirm are not ‘other’ from us at all, since their immediate vulnerability and need was once and, if we are lucky, at some point will again be our own. Because we are dependent rational animals who can only flourish within communities of reciprocal care, we need to develop what Professor MacIntyre calls ‘the virtues of acknowledged dependence.’ These virtues are dispositions to recognize and appreciate our vulnerabilities and dependencies and to respond to them appropriately.

In Professor MacIntyre’s view, vulnerability and weakness are essential to human life; therefore, we should not fear but embrace our dependence, since it affords all of us the opportunity to cultivate and exercise virtues that center around the essential work of caring for others, without which none of us could develop properly or flourish.

Alasdair MacIntyre (via

MaIcintyre’s argument that care and dependence are central to what it means to be human finds an echo in the work of feminist care ethicists, such as Eva Feder Kittay, who I was privileged to hear speak at the inaugural conference of the Care Ethics Research Consortium in Portland, Oregon, a few years ago. Drawing on her personal experience of caring for a profoundly disabled daughter, Kittay argues that ‘being a person has little to do with rationality and everything to do with relationships – to our world and those in it.’ Elsewhere, she elaborates on this:

I propose that being a person means having the capacity to be in certain relationships with other persons, to sustain contact with other persons, to shape one’s world and the world of others, and to have a life that another person can conceive of as an imaginative possibility for him- or herself. It is a definition that brings our relationships (real and imaginative) with others to the center of any conception of personhood. We do not become a person without the engagement of other persons – their care, as well as their recognition of the uniqueness and the connectedness of our human agency, and the distinctiveness of our particularly human relations to others and of the world we fashion.

MacIntyre’s and Kittay’s placing of relationships, and especially relationships of care and dependence, at the heart of what it means to be a person reminds me of the lovely piece by comedian Jeremy McLellan, on welcoming people with intellectual disabilities, that I’ve quoted before, and which ends with the salutary reminder: ‘We are all burdens. We were once burdens, and we will be burdens again’.

Eva Feder Kittay with her daughter Sesha (via

I completely endorse Kittay’s and MacIntyre’s emphasis on relationships and interdependence. But I’d probably go further and suggest that a tendency to use ‘capacity’ of any kind to define personhood might land us in trouble in certain circumstances. What about a person who is incapable of relating to others at all, if such a person can be imagined? Should they be treated as less than a person and denied the basic rights that we regard as fundamental to all human beings?

I would suggest that we need a deeper understanding of what constitutes ‘personhood’, and that perhaps we might find this in the rich philosophical tradition of personalism, whose potential as a resource for care ethics I’m currently exploring as part of my academic research. Historically, personalist philosophy evolved as a response to the horrors of the twentieth century, and in particular to the radical denial of the rights of the human person under Nazism, which reduced individuals to a racial category. Communism similarly subjugated the autonomous individual to the needs of the collective, whether a social class or the state. But it could be argued that depersonalisation is also a feature of modern ‘liberal’ societies too, which have a tendency to reduce persons to their roles as workers or consumers.

By contrast, personalists draw on the philosophical resources of phenomenology, existentialism, and in some instances Judeo-Christian religious traditions, to emphasise what the philosopher John F. Crosby terms ‘the unconditional worth in all human persons’. I’m hoping to explore connections between personalism and an ethic of care in future posts on this blog, but for now, I’ll end with this quotation from the leading French personalist, Emmanuel Mounier, which stands as a corrective to some of the reductive and depersonalising attitudes to the vulnerable that have been highlighted by the current pandemic (N.B. Mounier was writing in the 1940s and was bound by the conventions of his time: I’ve substituted ‘human being’ for ‘man’ and ‘humankind’ for ‘mankind’):

Personalism…includes among its leading ideas, the affirmation of the unity of humankind, both in space and time…It is against every form of racialism or of caste, against the ‘elimination of the abnormal’, the contempt of the foreigner, against the totalitarians’ denigration of political adversaries – in short, it is altogether against the fabrication of scapegoats. Any human being, however different, or even degraded, remains a human being, for whom we ought to make a human way of life possible.


Kittay, E.F. (2002) ‘When caring is just and justice is caring’, in Eva Feder Kittay and Ellen K Feder, The Subject of Care: Feminist Perspectives on Dependency, Lanham, Maryland: Rowan and Littlefield

MacIntyre, Alasdair (2009) Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues, London: Bloomsbury Academic

Mounier, E. (1952) Personalism, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul