Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir, Ruth Edith Hagengruber (Eds.): Methodological Reflections on Women’s Contribution and Influence in the History of Philosophy

Methodological Reflections on Women’s Contribution and Influence in the History of Philosophy Book Cover Methodological Reflections on Women’s Contribution and Influence in the History of Philosophy
Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences, Vol. 3
Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir, Ruth Edith Hagengruber (Eds.)
Springer
2020
Hardback 93,59 € ebook 74,89 €
XX, 193

Reviewed by: Theresa Helke (Smith College)

Introduction

This book is about the inclusion and exclusion of women in the philosophical canon, and in philosophical curricula. Among the questions it seeks to answer are the following two:

  • What methodologies have caused the exclusion of women in philosophy?
  • What methodologies have made it possible for them to become a part of the history of philosophy?

These are important questions. Granted, in the twenty-first century, women are allowed to study philosophy at universities just as men are. Case in point, I did, at institutions in the US, UK, and Singapore. And unlike Maria van Schurman, Dutch polymath and the first woman to study at a Dutch university, no one required me to sit in a separate cubicle, hearing lectures through holes which one had drilled in the auditorium’s wall and covered with a plastered fabric, lest my presence distract. (Pieta van Beek (2010), “The first female university student”, p. 60)

However, women remain underrepresented in philosophy. For example, in the US, women constituted 27 percent of the faculty members in philosophy departments in fall 2017, the smallest share among the disciplines included in the survey. Women made up 25 percent of tenured faculty members, 48 percent of faculty members on the tenure track and 15 percent of those off the tenure track. [Endnote 1]

Similarly, women remain underrepresented when it comes to philosophy-degree recipients. In the US in 2014, 31 percent of philosophy BAs went to women, 27 of philosophy MAs, and 31 of PhDs. [Endnote 2]

While it’s not clear from these numbers whether there’s a higher attrition rate among women or whether departments admit fewer women than people of other genders to start, my own anecdata as a graduate student in philosophy supports the idea that there are generally fewer women. For example, for the first half of one semester, a seemingly-oblivious professor would address the room as “Ladies and gentlemen”. During the second, having noticed the gender distribution, he changed the salutation to “Lady and gentlemen”.

But beyond the actual data on faculty members and degree recipients, women remain underrepresented as authors of works in the canon. And it’s to this which the editors refer when they ask about the exclusion and inclusion of women. Indeed, the reader is to understand the methodologies to which the title alludes – at least I’m taking “methodological reflections” to mean reflections on methodologies – as “the theoretical analysis of the methods applied in the research of women thinkers in the past” (p. viii).

In other words, the book focuses on the absence of women’s works from the canon, more than the absence of women in e.g. graduate programmes.

And, as histories suggest, women’s works are absent from the canon. In 2015, W.W. Norton & Co. published The Norton Introduction to Philosophy, a 1,168-page textbook. Prominent philosophers from Princeton University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and elsewhere edited it. As Andrew Janiak and Christia Mercer pointed out in the Washington Post, the “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.” [Endnote 3] In short, the textbook suggests that during the first two millennia and three centuries which it covers, no women had an idea worthy of inclusion in the canon; until the 1950s, a group without women had the monopoly on good ideas.

Identifying which methodologies have led to the exclusion of women in philosophy, and which to the inclusion, we can begin to redress the gender imbalance in histories. (And some say, that will help redress the gender imbalance in classrooms. [Endnote 4]) Hence, the importance of the two questions which the collection seeks to answer. Again,

  • What methodologies have caused the exclusion of women in philosophy?
  • What methodologies have made it possible for them to become a part of the history of philosophy?

In this review, I’ll offer first a reconstruction of the collection, focusing on an exemplary chapter, and second an analysis.

Reconstruction

Methodological reflections takes off with a synoptic introduction. [Endnote 5] In the cockpit are two co-pilots with extensive flight hours.

The first, Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir, is professor of philosophy at the University of Iceland. Past research projects include “Gender, Power and Violence: Interdisciplinary, Transnational and Philosophical Inquiries into War, Conflict and Crisis”. Current ones include “Feminist philosophy and the transformation of philosophy” and “Women in the history of philosophy”. She served on the editorial board of Wagadu: A Journal of Transnational Women’s and Gender Studies, and chaired the board of the United Nations University Gender Equality Studies Training programme at her university. The list of her prior publications is long, and features not only articles but also books. [Endnote 6]

The second co-editor, Ruth Edith Hagengruber, is professor of philosophy at Paderborn University, Germany. She founded the Research Area Eco Tech Gender at her university, and the Center for the History of Women Philosophers, the latter of which she also directs. Along with Mary Ellen Waithe, author of a valuable contribution to the collection (more below), and a third person Gianni Paganini, Hagengruber edits the Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences series. It publishes monographs, handbooks, collections, anthologies, and dissertations. The reviewed collection is one among others.

Beyond this series, Hagengruber’s prior publications include the books Emilie du Châtelet between Leibniz and Newton, and (with Sarah Hutton, a contributor to the collection under review) Women Philosophers in Early Modern Philosophy; also (with Karen Green, another contributor) the article “The History of Women’s Ideas”. [Endnote 7] In sum, like Thorgeirsdottir, Hagengruber is a seasoned philosopher.

The flight path is clear – the book will proceed in four stages:

  1. “Methodology”
  2. “Rewriting the history”
  3. “Reflecting the content”
  4. “Celebrating women philosophers in art”

The pilots introduce us to the different crew members who’ll be on duty for each stage (the pilots will also be speaking to us again (Chapters 4, 6, and 13)).

In part I, as one expects in a safety briefing, the crew tells us what to do in case of emergency. Indeed, the authors reflect on the canonical exclusion which led to the current situation, and methodologies of inclusion in the writing of the history of philosophy to remedy it.

In part II, the next set of authors examine how a “sexual difference” present already in the early stages of philosophical tradition informed the development of philosophical culture and discourse in subsequent stages.

In part III, the third set of authors focus on twentieth-century philosophers who influenced the course of contemporary philosophy: among them, Simone de Beauvoir and Hannah Arendt.

And in part IV, Thorgeirsdottir offers a preface to nine images by artist Catrine Val, and those images appear.

The plane doesn’t spend equal times flying over each of the regions. If a chapter is an hour, the flight time is fourteen hours. Of those, the reader spends the most flying over “Reflecting content” (five chapters), and the fewest flying over “Celebrating women philosophers in art” (two chapters).

Here’s a full table of contents:

Full Table of Contents

Part I: Methodology

Chapter 1: “Sex, lies,and bigotry: The canon of Philosophy”, Mary Ellen Waithe

Chapter 2: “The recognition project: Feminist history of philosophy”, Charlotte Witt

Chapter 3: “‘Context’ and ‘fortuna’ in the history of women philosophers: A diachronic perspective”, Sarah Hutton

Chapter 4: “The stolen history – Retrieving the history of women philosophers and its methodical implications”, Ruth Edith Hagengruber (ed.)

Part II: Rewriting the history

Chapter 5: “The goddess and diotima: Their role in Parmenides’ poem and Plato’s Symposium”, Vigdis Songe-Møller

Chapter 6: “The torn robe of Philosophy: Philosophy as a woman in the consolation of Philosophy by Boethius”, Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir (ed.)

Chapter 7: “A journey of transformative living: A female Daoist reflection”, Robin R. Wang

Part III: Reflecting the content

Chapter 8: “Reconsidering Beauvoir’s Hegelianism”, Karen Green

Chapter 9: “Simone de Beauvoir and the ‘Lunacy Known as “Philosophical System”’, Tove Pettersen

Chapter 10: “Arendt, natality, and the refugee crisis”, Robin May Schott

Chapter 11: “The feminine voice in Philosophy”, Naoko Saito

Chapter 12: “Iris Murdoch on pure consciousness and morality”, Nora Hämäläinen

Part IV: Celebrating women philosophers in art

Chapter 13: “Celebrating women thinkers”, Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir (ed.)

Chapter 14: “Catrine Val: Female wisdom in Philosophy”

Consideration of each chapter in the collection would make this review far too long, but it might be useful to cite one as an example of the value of the volume.

An exemplary chapter

The first, and a chapter to which I referred approvingly above, is “Sex, lies, and bigotry: The canon of philoosphy”. In it, Waithe argues for the following two points: most historians of philosophy omitted women’s contributions from their histories either out of ineptness or bigotry; and to remedy the consequences of such a failure replicating itself in the university curricula of recent centuries, one can suspend for the next two centuries the teaching of men’s contributions to the discipline and teach works by women only (!).

Among the many valuable frameworks which Waithe offers, I’ll cite two. I’ll call them “the three sets” and “the two methodologies”.

The three sets

Waithe distinguishes between three sets of philosophical works, and these help one articulate the problem at the heart of the volume. The three sets are the following:

  1. The Compendium (“C”): all philosophical works. By definition, historians of philosophy can’t know each member of this set. Beyond Pythagoras and Poincaré’s contributions, the C includes “works that are lost but whose titles are remembered in our histories, works that are completely unknown but that are philosophical, works that have been forgotten or omitted from our histories, and recent works that have not yet withstood the test of time” (p. 4);
  2. The historical canon (“HC”): a subset of the C. Its members are in the philosophy curricula of many institutions. The HC includes “significant works, insights, arguments and their authors, important schools, movements, milestones, and the comparatively minor players whose contributions sharpened the debates or provided historical continuity to movements” (p. 4); and
  3. The true canon (“TC”): also a subset of the C. The TC’s members are the works which merit inclusion in the historical canon (p. 4).

So much for the three sets. The problem which philosophy faces – and here we get to the nub of the collection – is that the HC and TC aren’t co-extensive. Today, the HC does not include members of the C which are in the TC, and does include members of the C which are not in the TC.

As Waithe explains, at the moment, the HC is a portion of the C preselected for gender and race. Focusing on the gender aspect, she writes:

Contemporary source materials are derived from the previous HC, updated, one hopes, by recent important writings and their authors. Newer source materials and educational programs of the discipline were mostly based upon that HC, perpetuating the preselection for gender even if entries of the most recent contributions to the discipline did not completely preselect for it. In the early twenty-first century we have an HC that is generally segregated according to gender but with token newbies added on top. Karen Warren referred to this practice as “add women and stir.” (p. 8)

In other words, the HC is trapped in a vicious cycle: start with a set of texts none of whose authors are women; improve the reputation of these texts by studying them; and the next generation will start with the set of now-more-reputable texts none of whose authors are women. Sure, you can add a text by a woman, but you’re still left without much gender diversity.

How to explain the fact that philosophy hasn’t broken out of the vicious cycle, Waithe asks? The answer to this question relates to the second valuable framework which Waithe offers.

The two methodologies

Waithe describes two methodologies in the context of answering why philosophy hasn’t broken out of the vicious cycle – a non-trivial question.

Certainly, one can’t answer it by saying that philosophical works by women don’t exist, or that there’s only one woman writing. According to Waithe, recovery and restoration projects of the last three decades have located about one thousand works, and nearly two hundred women (p. 8). The philosophical works by women exist today thanks to successive generations of scholars and librarians carefully preserving them in multiple copies (p. 6).

(As I learnt and found particularly interesting, some pre-seventeenth-century works by women survived the censorship of various Inquisitions thanks to humility formulas. Such formulas appeared usually in the first pages of the women’s writing. They denied that the author claimed any authoritativeness with respect to the subject of their work. Waithe cites the example of Julian of Norwich who states in the “Short Version” of her work that “I am a woman, lewd, feeble and frail…” with nothing important to say, and then in the “Long Version” continues for hundreds of pages to develop a metaphysics and epistemology of religion incorporating her view of “Christ, our Mother”. These texts exist today, as do others.)

So texts by women exist.

Moreover, it’s not that no one has known about them: “(competent) historians of philosophy from antiquity until the eighteenth century” have known about them, Waithe tells us (p. 6).

Rather, if philosophy hasn’t broken out of the vicious cycle, it’s because of methodology.

Waithe describes two methodologies, each with different outcomes. The first is the “Lazy Boy Methodology”. It’s the one which historians of philosophy adopted; it’s the one which has led to the exclusion of women from the HC. Historians following this methodology engaged in scant primary research themselves. Instead, they copied, translated, combined, and edited the source materials which their predecessors had published and to which they easily had access.

And the second is the “Female Detective Methodology”. It’s the one which we should adopt; it’s the one which will lead to the inclusion of women in the HC, and a movement toward aligning the HC and the TC. Historians following this methodology will ask the right questions (e.g. “Does the absence of women in a history’s index mean that the work mentions none?”), question the veracity of the answers they receive, and dig further until they uncover the truth.

Offering i.a. these two frameworks – i.e. the three sets and the two methodologies – Waithe’s chapter is an example of the value of this volume.

So much for a survol or flying over the book. I turn to an assessment of it.

Assessment

The book does many things well, I think, and a few which I’d change. I’ll highlight three things in each category.

What it does well

Three features of this volume deserve mentions as outstanding virtues – beyond Waithe’s three sets, and two methodologies:

  1. Capturing quiet outrage
  2. Illustrating concepts
  3. Generally being accessible to people without PhDs in feminist theory

Capturing quiet outrage

I read a strong moral emotion in some contributions, and appreciated the humour with which I saw authors expressing it. Consider a passage from Charlotte Witt’s chapter. Just as I cite The Norton Introduction to Philosophy as a recent example of a history which minimally includes women, Witt cites The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, published in 1967. Having noted that, among the articles on over 900 philosophers, only three are on women, she writes: “George Eliot, Madame de Staël and Saint Teresa of Avila; two novelists and a saint”.

While Witt doesn’t write “FFS”, she doesn’t need to. To me at least, the indignation is clear. It’s there in the phrasing of the second main clause, the descriptor “philosopher” conspicuously absent.

No, instead of expressing annoyance, Witt anticipates a rebuttal and draws an ironic conclusion:

And, lest you think that the list of 900 includes only philosophical heavy hitters, the editor tells us: “We have also made it a point to rescue from obscurity unjustly neglected figures, and in such cases, where the reader would find it almost impossi- ble to obtain reliable information in standard histories or in general encyclopedias we have been particularly generous in our space allotments” … . In that effort, not a single woman philosopher was considered worthy of an entry. The world of the 1967 Encyclopedia of Philosophy is one in which there literally were not any women philosophers of any note. (p. 23)

In this passage, Witt’s quoting the editor and spelling out what the quote suggests made me smile.

I think this capturing of quiet outrage, and use of humor, is important. The capturing of outrage can validate emotions which some readers might already be experiencing. At the same time, it can awaken readers, who are otherwise indifferent to the lack of gender diversity in the historical canon, to the current injustice. And both of these are important. So too is the way in which authors communicate. Certainly not in angry ALL CAPS. The text benefits from authors who, like Witt, can communicate in such a way that doesn’t alienate.

Illustrating concepts

As you may have inferred, I’m partial to a metaphor, and a number of authors – including Robin R. Wang, Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir, and Karen Green – deliver. Here are some examples from Green, whose mastery of the genre is worth noting.

Acknowledging that even inserting women into the history of ideas through their relationship with men is progress, Green writes “To be added as minor jewels, glittering along the chain of masculine links is already an advance” (p. 118, I’ve added the italics).

Continuing with this jewelry imagery, she highlights the historical oversight of Christine de Pizan, Madeleine de Scudéry, and Catharine Macaulay:

It now seems, that what appears to be, from Le Doeuff’s point of view, an acceptance of philosophical subordination and failure of nerve on the part of women, is more properly seen as an artefact of the Hegelian history of ideas, which only admits women as danglers off the links in the philosophical chain of ideas, in virtue of their relationship to a male philosopher. (p. 119, again, I’ve added the italics)

Through this metaphor, and to use showbiz ones myself, it’s clear how those compiling histories misrepresented women who played a leading role in the history of ideas. The compilers represented them as groupies of illustrious men; these women were no such thing: they were original thinkers.

Later, Green uses a couple of other metaphors, which I’ll cite in passing:

First, to describe a methodology which would recognize the contributions to philosophy of both men and women, she draws on a metaphor which evokes the structure of a DNA molecule:

What we need, as an alternative, is a cultural double helix, a sophisticated history in which we recognize both the evolution and development of men’s ideas and the evolution and development of women’s ideas, as well as the complex interaction between them. (p. 121, I’ve added the italics)

And second, to state what action we need to take: referencing Wittgenstein’s metaphor about learning and the penultimate proposition of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “The Hegelian history of ideas, indeed, provided the ladder. It is time to kick it away” (p. 122).

These images help the reader follow the arguments, and understand the history.

Being accessible

The third and final virtue which I’ll mention, and briefly so, is that each chapter offers enough context that an educator could assign any as a stand-alone reading in an undergraduate course.

There are many other virtues, but I’ll stop here and move to what I’d change.

What I’d change

I appreciate that a book can’t be all things to all people. That said, I’d have liked to see:

  1. More diversity;
  2. More clarity; and
  3. Fewer photos.

More diversity

I’d include more voices, or at least acknowledge the absence of other voices. The book left me asking myself questions the way a visit to Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar left Pete Wells doing so [Endnote 8]:

  • Putting aside racial diversity when it comes to contributors, why did the editors include at least two pieces on de Beauvoir?
  • Why not feature one of the “nearly two hundred women” which, Waithe claims, recovery and restoration projects have located?

I acknowledge that featuring all women is not the object of the book. I also acknowledge that commissioning philosophical texts on women other than de Beauvoir might be more of a challenge. But if we’re looking to include more women’s voices in philosophy, why not include more women’s voices in philosophy?

More clarity

I’d resolve the confusion between gender and sex. Throughout the book, authors appear to use the terms woman and female interchangeably, even though – as feminist theory tells us – they don’t necessarily denote the same thing. A woman is a being with a certain gender, and gender is a socially achieved status. Conversely, a female is a being with a certain sex, and sex is a biologically ascribed status. To quote de Beauvoir’s first line in the second volume of The Second Sex (and to gloss over much hermeneutics), “On ne naît pas femme: on le devient”. While one might be born a female, one isn’t born a woman. One becomes a woman.

Consider the following sentence from the book, in which the confusion of gender and sex is apparent: “The ideology of sexual difference that has permeated the philosophical tradition [and that] may explain the prejudiced view of women as lesser thinkers than males is not applicable to the study of women in the history of philosophy.” (viii)

Here, we have i.a. a term referring to sex (“sexual difference”), and then a comparison of the members of one gender (“women”) with the members of a sex (“males”). Maybe I’m missing something: a TERF disclaimer?! Either way, I’d resolve the confusion between gender and sex.

Fewer photos

I’d cut the photos. Like the last hour of a flight from London to Singapore, the last chapter is the one with which I struggled most. I couldn’t justify the presence of the images in the collection. The editors write:

we thank Catrine Val for the permission to include some of her suggestive pictures of women philosophers of the past. In her photographs[,] Catrine Val imagines how women philosophers and their ideas can be interpreted in art. These pictures and many more from her work on Philosopher Female Wisdom were exhibited at the University of Helsinki during the conference this book grew out of. (ix)

In other words, they express thanks and provide some context. (Note the sex-gender confusion here too: seemingly, holders of the “philosopher female wisdom” are the “women philosophers”.)

But again, this had me asking Wellsian questions:

  • Suggestive?
  • Suggestive of what?

I read “suggestive” here as “making someone think of sex and sexual relationships”, and that’s the last thing which I think the book wants to do when it comes to women in philosophy.

Maybe the editors meant evocative, and so in a PG sense. But even then, it’s not clear to me what the images evoke, and how that supports the work which the book is trying to do about the exclusion and inclusion of women in the canon.

To be clear: I don’t mean these questions, or those above when talking about the confusion between gender and sex, in the antagonising spirit I see in the New York Times restaurant review. I just mean to express my lack of understanding.

If any of the photos evokes anything to me, it’s that of the photographer dressed up as Iris Murdoch. The pose on the rock brings to mind the Oscar Wilde Memorial Sculpture in Merrion Square in Dublin. But that’s neither here nor there. To channel Witt and use damning descriptors: he was a poet and a playwright.

There are other issues. People like Caroline Criado Perez will find the book’s use of the term “women philosophers” troublesome: it suggests “philosophers” doesn’t include women, and does nothing to challenge the idea that men are the default. (As Criado Perez points out, one sees this idea, for example, in the names of the Wikipedia pages on England’s two national football teams: “England national football team” and “England women’s national football team” (as ever, I’ve added the italics).)

Personal findings

None of the issues should discount the excellent work. Methodological Reflections offers an important contribution to feminist philosophy and history of philosophy.

There’s a growing interest in at least feminist philosophy – or rather, some US departments are recognizing the interest in such philosophy. [Endnotes 9, 10, 11] Certainly, there are jobs for candidates with an AOS or AOC in “Feminist philosophy and ethics” or “History of philosophy”. One need only look at PhilJobs alerts.

I think one should applaud the pilots upon their landing the plane. And Methodological Reflections should appear in the syllabus of at least one course in e.g. a top Western undergraduate philosophy programme. This book is for anyone who wishes that the philosophical canon not remain a conservation area colonised by shoals of (white) men. [Endnote 12] And such books should appear on syllabi.

I wish this collection clear skies.


[1] Reference: https://www.amacad.org/humanities-indicators/profile-philosophy-departments-hds-3

[2] Reference: https://dailynous.com/2016/04/18/philosophy-degrees-how-many-are-awarded-and-to-whom/

[3] Reference: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2015/04/28/philosophys-gender-bias-for-too-long-scholars-say-women-have-been-ignored/

[4] Reference: https://www.chronicle.com/article/wanted-female-philosophers-in-the-classroom-and-in-the-canon/

[5] Thanks: Dwight Garner for the idea to use the flight metaphor https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/08/books/review-home-fire-kamila-shamsie.html

[6] Reference: https://uni.hi.is/sigrthor/publications/

[7] Reference: https://kw.uni-paderborn.de/fach-philosophie/prof-dr-hagengruber/

[8] Reference: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/14/dining/reviews/restaurant-review-guys-american-kitchen-bar-in-times-square.html

[9] Reference: Peg Brand, “Feminism and aesthetics” https://philarchive.org/archive/BRAFAAv1

[10] Reference: Gary Gutting, “Feminism and the future of philosophy” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/18/opinion/feminist-philosophy-future.html

[11] Reference: https://uh.edu/~cfreelan/SWIP/GradPrograms.htm

[12] Thanks: Marina O’Loughlin for the idea to talk about a conservation area https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/times2/the-rose-deal-review-kent-mlv72fdzz