Generations of college students know philosophy as a subject dominated by the writings of men, from ancient Greece onward. The stereotypical figure in its history: Sage with beard.
In recent decades, scholars of English literature and other fields have pushed to broaden their curriculum through the inclusion of previously neglected works of women.
Here, two professors from Duke and Columbia universities argue that it’s time for philosophy to reckon with its own gender problem.
By Andrew Janiak and Christia Mercer
“Blessed are you, reader, if you do not belong to the sex of those who are deprived” a proper education “so that ignorance, slavery, and the capacity to play the fool are established as woman’s only happiness.” So wrote the philosopher Marie de Gournay in the early 17th century.
If you, reader, have never heard of de Gournay or the early modern debate about virtue, reason, and education, you are not alone. You have been deprived a proper education and played the fool by historians of philosophy.
This spring, W.W. Norton & Co. published “The Norton Introduction to Philosophy,” a 1,168-page textbook, edited by prominent philosophers from Princeton University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and elsewhere. Beginning with Plato’s “Meno” and Aristotle’s “Politics,” passing through medieval and early modern treatises to contemporary debates, this textbook provides excerpts and commentary on 2,400 years of canonical texts, organized around central philosophical problems. It is philosophically astute, thoughtfully laid out — and contains no writings by women before the mid-20th century.
The Norton Introduction is not exceptional. Hackett’s recent “Modern Philosophy” (2009) includes “leading thinkers of the period” but not a single woman. And Anthony Kenny’s “A New History of Western Philosophy” (2012), deemed “wonderfully authoritative” by the Times Higher Education Supplement, includes only great men in its grandiose “new” account.
Most readers will respond to the absence of women in these histories as an unfortunate result of centuries of educational deprivation. As de Gournay poignantly notes, women “achieve levels of excellence” less often than men because of their “lack of good education.” Although a handful of women attended ancient academies, they could only rarely enroll in European universities, participate in scientific societies, or teach in churches, temples or mosques. Most consumers of contemporary philosophy textbooks will begrudgingly accept the absence of women in philosophy prior to the 20th century. But they would be dead wrong to do so.
In May 1643, the great French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes began to correspond with a European princess, Elisabeth of Bohemia. Like so many women writing in the early modern period, the princess begins their exchange with excuses for bothering the famous author. Describing herself as “an ignorant and intractable person” with a “disordered style,” Elisabeth expresses her interest in the great man’s views about mind and body.
After a few pleasantries, she pivots to a devastating criticism of his proposals, from which he does not fully recover. Elisabeth’s insightful comments over the course of their six-year exchange influenced Descartes’ developing views about the soul. Given that there is a fine edition and translation of their correspondence and that the history of the mind-body problem is incomplete without her criticisms, it seems inexcusable to exclude Elisabeth from the history of philosophy.
To return to de Gournay’s biting critique of her contemporaries: “The vulgar man” who “lacks the intelligence required to recognize a blow delivered by a female hand” nonetheless “will always win the contest either because he has a beard or because he has a proud simulated ability.”
But women did not merely criticize their male peers. They wrote treatises of their own, becoming central players in philosophy and science.
Two English women, Margaret Cavendish and Anne Conway, philosophized about nature, virtue, suffering, community and toleration in the 17th century. Conway, who was admired in England and on the European continent, also incisively criticizes Descartes while promoting a philosophy of peace that would appeal to people of all faiths.
In the summer of 1734, a young French aristocrat, Émilie Du Châtelet, stuffed her belongings into a sumptuous carriage and made the long, bumpy journey from her fashionable apartments in Paris to a run-down chateau in Cirey. As a woman, Châtelet was officially excluded from French university life, barred from membership in the Royal Academy of Sciences and even prevented from joining intellectual conversations in Parisian cafes. Escaping the confines of Paris, she fashioned her chateau into a major intellectual hub for European mathematicians, scientists and philosophers.
Châtelet and her guests discussed math and physics, ran experiments, wrote philosophy and debated through the night. Six years after creating her own intellectual space, Châtelet published her 400-page treatise, “Foundations of Physics.” Her book was debated throughout Europe, reprinted in Paris, London and Amsterdam and translated in Leipzig and Venice. Châtelet’s ideas became so authoritative that whole passages of her work were included without attribution in the most important publication of the French Enlightenment, Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopedia. Châtelet’s reputation quietly dissipated while generations of scholars unknowingly studied her treatment of space, motion, and gravity.
De Gournay asks, “How unjust is the way in which women are usually treated in conversations, insofar as they are included at all?” Using a skeptical methodology and cuttingly sharp wit, de Gournay’s writings made her one of the most prominent voices for the equality of women in early modern France, as well as the brunt of vitriolic attacks and mean-spirited jokes. Although the edition and translation of her most important essays would make them easy to incorporate into a course on any number of topics, textbook writers have not seen fit to include them. Like so many other early modern women whose works were debated and discussed, scholars have ignored de Gournay’s significance.
Finding a place for Elisabeth, Cavendish, Conway, Châtelet, and other prominent early modern women in our courses and research is especially easy because their writings treat standard philosophical topics.
But what about other topics? Philosophy’s past is full of questions that went in and out of vogue.
From Plato’s “Republic” through the early modern period, questions about the relation between justice and education were central to philosophy. Unsurprisingly, it is marginalized authors such as de Gournay who often treat these questions most astutely. Treatises on toleration, abolition and dignity — written by women and former slaves — are also abundant in early modern Europe, as are discussions of rights, community, self-respect and freedom among 19th century African Americans. Anna Julia Cooper’s “A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South,” published in 1892, is full of philosophically rich provocations. Given our students’ concerns with education, toleration, justice and dignity, it seems obvious that our courses should contain historical discussions of these issues.
“The Norton Introduction to Philosophy” epitomizes a problem professional philosophers have been unable to solve. Our discipline has a lower percentage of women and people of color than any other in the humanities and social sciences; it ranks only slightly better than engineering, computer science and physics. Although more than 56 percent of undergraduates are now women, federal data show that women earn only 30 percent of bachelor’s degrees in philosophy. The biggest drop in the proportion of women in philosophy occurs between students enrolled in introductory philosophy classes and philosophy majors. Given the low percentage of undergraduate women in the subject, it should come as no surprise that the share of women is low among graduate students (30 percent) and professors (17 percent).
We think that part of the explanation for this sad state of affairs is that academic philosophers have not made proper use of philosophy’s rich and diverse past.
During the 1970s and 1980s, after the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism challenged institutions throughout the country, the canon in many academic fields was questioned, pedagogy was rethought, research reimagined. This did not happen in philosophy. While other humanists and social scientists increasingly recognized the historical contingency of their topics and texts and then reaped the benefits of innovative scholarship, philosophers have remained stuck in old-fashioned views about history and its central problems.
The traditional story about great men facing great problems persists; it underlies “The Norton Introduction” and its cousins. Whether the tenacity of this story is due to willful disregard or benign neglect, it’s time for a change. We are hopeful that a proper study of philosophy’s past will benefit our students and enrich our discipline. In the words of de Gournay, let’s make sure that “patently poor teaching does not make matters worse.” Let’s no longer play the fool.
We are optimistic about philosophy’s future. We sense an eagerness to rethink the way philosophy is taught and practiced. As academic philosophers grapple with the lack of diversity in their discipline and as teachers of philosophy struggle to design courses that speak to their students’ interests, there is a palpable need for change. Most young philosophers recognize that undergraduates are more likely to engage with philosophy when it is taught in a way that includes a diversity of voices, while maintaining standards of rigor. They are keen to explore new philosophical materials and benefit from long-forgotten perspectives. Like the editors of “The Norton Introduction” and its peers, they just need some help.
Our new Web site, Project Vox, and just-launched series, “Oxford New Histories of Philosophy,” will help those seeking change. By offering historical information and philosophically astute analyses of the most significant women in the history of philosophy, and by including sample syllabi showing how to use that material in courses, Project Vox facilitates the inclusion of women in our courses.
By assuming that our philosophical past can help invigorate our courses and even our discipline, our new book series will make long-ignored materials available, alongside philosophically astute analyses, so that instructors can rethink their courses and speak to a new generation of students eager to discover the full breadth and variety of philosophy. Returning to the words of de Gournay, we must no longer let “the man with the beard” with his “simulated ability” use his position of power “to deceive bystanders” and “divert” our attention from what matters.
Teaching a broader range of texts and topics in philosophy courses might not render the discipline either more interesting or more diverse. But we bet that it will. Who wants to try?
Andrew Janiak is Creed C. Black Associate Professor of Philosophy at Duke University and co-leader of Project Vox. Christia Mercer is Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. They are co-editors, with Professor Eileen O’Neill at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, of the “Oxford New Histories of Philosophy.”