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.
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:
- “Rewriting the history”
- “Reflecting the content”
- “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:
- 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);
- 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
- 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.
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:
- Capturing quiet outrage
- Illustrating concepts
- 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 a way that doesn’t alienate.
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.
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:
- More diversity;
- More clarity; and
- Fewer photos.
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?
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.
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 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).)
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 any 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.
 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
 Reference: https://uni.hi.is/sigrthor/publications/
 Reference: Peg Brand, “Feminism and aesthetics” https://philarchive.org/archive/BRAFAAv1
 Reference: Gary Gutting, “Feminism and the future of philosophy” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/18/opinion/feminist-philosophy-future.html
 Reference: https://uh.edu/~cfreelan/SWIP/GradPrograms.htm
 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
The first installment of the eleven-volume Collected Writings of John Sallis series from Indiana University Press is a new edition of Sallis’s watershed Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s Timaeus. First published in 1999, the book is now well known among scholars of Plato, phenomenology, and the history of philosophy broadly. In it, Sallis offers a reading of Plato’s influential Timaeus dialogue centering around the chōra, that elusive ‘third kind’ (triton genos) that receptively mediates between being and becoming, is apprehendable only by a kind of ‘bastard reasoning,’ and always appears without ever showing itself. The Greek word ‘chōra’ has a broad semantic range that entails notions of place and political space (compare ‘territory,’) but Sallis finds in its role in this dialogue a new and far-reaching metaphysical principle or anti-principle, a kind of ‘being beyond being’ that marks the limit of metaphysics. More than a mere Plato commentary, Sallis’s book is thus an attempt to recover lost insights into the history of metaphysics and accounts of the limits of human rationality.
What follows in this review is a discussion of Sallis’s reading and its value both to Plato studies and phenomenology. Those interested specifically in details surrounding this new volume—which, aside from its outer packaging and minor front matter, is strictly a reprinting and not an expanded edition—should skip ahead to the final paragraph of the review.
Beginning especially with the landmark Being and Logos in 1975, Sallis’s work has offered new directions for Plato research. Up until this time, there were two main interpretations of Plato developing within Anglo-American scholarship. The first was a Plato taken to be philosophically juvenile and fundamentally mistaken by the analytic philosophers. Although these readers demonstrated that then-recent developments in analytic philosophy could serve as profoundly valuable resources for unpacking the ancient texts, the understanding that emerged from this analysis was largely dismissive of the philosophical viability of Plato’s thinking. Perhaps best represented by the critical interpretations of Gregory Vlastos beginning in the 1940s, these commentators understood Plato’s dialogues to express nascent ethical and metaphysical arguments characterized by thickets of confusion that must be untangled and corrected by enlightened modern commentators.
The second was the conservative esotericist Plato of the Straussians. According to those who developed this interpretation, Plato had littered his dialogues with clues leading to a political agenda that must be untangled in a different sense, that is, through interpretive engagement with that lying just below the surface of the text in dramatic details, mythical allusions, and underdeveloped philosophical threads that point to a kind of political critique relevant both to ancient Athens and us today. In short, the analytic Plato required correction while the Straussian Plato was to correct us.
By contrast, Sallis’s Plato is a distinctly ancient Greek anticipation of the philosophical interests of continental philosophers like Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, and Gadamer. For Sallis, reading Plato entails tracing a self-showing (phainesthai) of the truth (alētheia) as it makes itself manifest through the movement of the text. Similarly to the Straussians, Sallis’s key interpretative method for developing this conception of Plato is slow and careful reading, attending to the dramatic and implicit content of the dialogues as closely as the more explicitly “philosophical” stretches. Sallis furthermore challenges and rejects many of the familiar and reigning 20th century interpretations of Plato, including that Plato wrote his dialogues in a “developmental” order that could be discovered by us or that Plato held “doctrines” of things like recollection that are spoken in the dialogues by the “mouthpiece” Socrates in some kind of straightforward manner. Indeed, one of Sallis’s aims in Chorology is to undermine the charge of simple metaphysical dualism through which readers have long understood Plato and his so-called and oft-misunderstood “doctrine of forms” by pointing to the chōra as a third kind that dissolves the very notion of the binary.
This reading served as a paradigm changer for continentally oriented philosophers interested in Plato, as the dialogues thus understood are full of philosophical riches discoverable by close and careful reading that, far from being thickets of confusion, in fact have much to offer us in our own time. But unlike him of the Straussians, Sallis’s Plato offers a programmatic for grasping the nature of the things themselves through noetic analysis that is necessarily bound up with a critique of the limits of human inquiry in general. In short, on Sallis’s view, Plato teaches us that things show themselves to us through their look, but that this look is always partial, pointing beyond itself to that which continues to lie hidden.
Sallis’s interpretation of Plato might arguably find its fullest realization here in his monograph on Plato’s Timaeus, the riches of which demonstrate the value of this kind of orientation. In the Timaeus, we find Socrates regrouping with the old Critias, accomplished general Hermocrates, and wise Timaeus on a day following a discussion of a well-ordered polis that seems strikingly similar to that of the Republic. After short discourses on yesterday’s findings by Socrates (Tim. 17a-19b) and a mythical archaic city from Critias (Tim. 20c-27d), the bulk of the dialogue (Tim. 27d-92c) comprises Timaeus’ extended discussion of the origin and composition of the cosmos. The influence of the Timaeus in the history of philosophy is difficult to overstate, given this dialogue’s import in antiquity and the middle ages, impact on Enlightenment-era mathematics and physics, and profound influence on subsequent Platonisms, Christianity, German Idealism, and the metaphysical tradition broadly. (Sallis offers a summary of this influence at pg. 2-3, including fn. 2, and a critical engagement with it throughout the concluding Chapter 5.) The central notion of the chōra has, furthermore, been the site of serious interest from continental philosophers like Heidegger, Derrida, and Kristeva. Sallis’s reading of the dialogue thus represents an intersection of important themes taken from throughout the history of Western philosophy.
Sallis finds the chōra at the conceptual center of the dialogue, and his discussion of the chōra sits at the center of Chorology in its third of five chapters, which are augmented by a prologue, brief Greek lexicon, and index. He begins in the prologue with a consideration of the Timaeus’ history of transmission and some reflections on interpretive principles. In fact, the notions of beginning and its difficulties will be among several that Sallis traces in the book, a group that also includes the themes of the city, the relationship between production and procreation, the tensions between nous (meaning ‘intelligence,’ ‘understanding,’ and ‘mind’ in the sense of ‘knowing’) and necessity, and the mathematical triad.
Chapter 1, ‘Remembrance of the City,’ thus appropriately is not the beginning, which indicates the sense in which a ‘beginning’ is, for Sallis, always both a continuation and a rupture. Using this as an interpretive principle, Sallis will find the problem of beginning thematized throughout his reading of the Timaeus. He argues that the text is inscribed and reinscribed with new beginnings, each drawing out while also decisively cutting away from what came previously. In the case of the Timaeus’ beginning, Sallis focuses on Socrates’ opening count, “One, two, three…” (Tim. 17a), as the first of many appearances of the triad that will reappear throughout. Among other reasons, the triad is significant here as an enactment of tripartite structure that will characterize many stretches of the text, such as the three speeches (i.e., those of Socrates, Critias, and Timaeus), the three major phases of Timaeus’ speech (those tracing nous [Tim. 29d-47e], necessity [Tim. 47e-69a], and their blend [Tim. 69a-92c]), and the very theme of blending itself at play in several threefold distinctions, e.g., that among being, becoming, and the mix of these in which the chōra will first be addressed explicitly.
Later in Chapter 1, Sallis considers Socrates’ remembrance at the Timaeus’ outset of the ‘eidetic city’ that closely but not entirely resembles the well-known Kallipolis of the Republic (Tim. 17a-19b, pgs. 12-35). Sallis cannot resolve the controversy surrounding the relationship between Socrates’ cities-in-speech (logos) in the Republic and Timaeus (though pgs. 15-19 and 21-30 contain some provocative suggestions), but nevertheless uses the occasion to reflect on Socrates’ act of production of speech to reflect on the difficult but crucial relationships among central concepts like artistry (technē), production (poiēsis), and nature (phusis). Through the course of the text, Sallis will ultimately argue that the Timaeus occasions a shift in our understanding of nature from the model of production to that of procreation. The chapter also includes the first of many discussions of the significance of the chōra, with reflections on its difficult semantic range that always, according to Sallis’s insistence here, indicates that which is “posed at the margin of what can be fabricated, marking the limit of controlled production” (pg. 19; see also fn. 16 for development of the point). The chapter also includes a thorough consideration of the dialogue’s dramatic elements and characters, as well as a discussion of Critias’ story of the archaic city (Tim. 20c-27d, pgs. 36-45), that sets the stage for Timaeus’ extended discourse.
In Chapter Two, Sallis turns his attention to Timaeus’ speech concerning the ‘Production of the Cosmos’ (Tim. 27d-47e) from which the chapter receives its name. Timaeus’ speech begins with a prelude (Tim. 27d-29d, covered in pgs. 46-56), and Sallis discusses key notions found therein such as ‘that which always is’ (ti to on aei, pg. 47), the tension between nous and necessity (anankēs, esp. pg. 50), the well-known crafter (demiourgos) of the cosmos that Timaeus identifies throughout in scant detail (pg. 50), and the eidos typically understood to relate to Plato’s theory of forms (which Sallis addresses critically at pgs. 48-49 and 50-51). Commentators on the Timaeus must make sense of Timaeus’ repeated assertions that his account is merely a “likely story” (eikōs muthos or eikōs logos, Tim. 29b ff.), and while Sallis does not thematize the point as much as some, he discusses it with reference to the relationships between being, becoming, truth, and belief (pg. 54-56).
This leads, finally, to the beginning of Timaeus’ discourse (Tim. 29d ff.), and Sallis notes that Timaeus begins with the goodness of the crafter before reflecting on the important notion of nous, which guides Timaeus in his first account. Timaeus describes the cosmos with the image of a living being, made wisely with an eye to the paradigm of that being that always is and the ‘fairest’ of ‘mediating bonds’ (pgs. 60-61) and precise mathematical ratios (which Sallis unpacks through several geometric diagrams: pgs. 61, 71-72). Sallis offers extended discussion of the controversy surrounding the proper interpretation of the passage concerning the production of soul (esp. Tim. 34b-37c), an ambiguous stretch of text yielding competing interpretations from early Academic philosophers to Nietzsche and 20th century commentators (pgs. 65-70). Among the competing interpretations, in each instance what is at issue is an account of blending, i.e., of the mediation of two opposites by a third acting as a principle of mixture, as in (taking the example of the third interpretation) the blending of (1) being and (2) the generated that results in (3) their mixture. Sallis takes these to be decisive in the development of the text as a ‘chorology,’ indicating as they do a kind of “double bind,” for “to preserve the distinction between selfsame being and the generated, there must be duplication of being; and yet, duplication of being has the effect of violating the very sense of selfsame being, its determination as such, thus eroding the very distinction that was preserved;” this calls for a ‘third’ outside of being and the generated that comes from “outside the twofold in a manner that disrupts it abysmally” (pg. 70). In addition to this consideration of the preparation for the chōra, the chapter also includes discussion of key concepts in this stretch of the Timaeus like time (Tim. 37c-39e, pgs. 73 and 77-85, with Sallis here heavily engaging with the work of Rémi Brague), and the genealogy of gods and mortals leading to an account of causes and the embodied (Tim. 39e-47e, pg. 85-90).
In Chapter 3, Sallis turns attention to the central and titular notion of ‘The Chōra.’ The chōra arises at the point in which Timaeus breaks his discourse off from the works of nous and begins to address those of necessity (Tim. 47e ff.) Sallis therefore understands the chōra with close reference to necessity in the senses both of ‘wandering’ and ‘errancy’ that are introduced precisely when Timaeus must account for the material conditions of the cosmos (pgs. 91-98). Sallis discusses at length problems with the traditional understanding of the chōra and the textual ambiguities of these passages (pgs. 98-104). He ties in these problems and ambiguities closely to Timaeus’ identification of the ‘difficulty’ and ‘danger’ (chalepon) of bringing this third kind to discourse, and the numerous (and occasionally contradictory) names and images that Timaeus uses to attempt to capture this fugitive third kind. These include the gold, the matrix, the wax, and the perfume liquid that receive shape or scent while all the while remaining self-same and never fully taking on the received form (Tim. 48e-53b, pgs. 107-109). These images have led readers beginning with Aristotle, and falsely on Sallis’s view, to associate the chōra with matter (hulē; see Chapter 5 discussion below). Sallis further considers the shift in emphasis from production to procreation in the text when Timaeus begins to describe the third kind with reference to nature (phusis) and the “in-which” (en hō[i]) and “from-which” (to hothen) that which is generated is begotten (Tim. 49a-50b, pg. 109). This set of images has led readers, again falsely on Sallis’s view, to associate the chōra with place (topos, also addressed in the Chapter 5 discussion below). Instead of understandings rooted in matter or place, we should on Sallis’s reading understand the third kind with closer reference to pure receptivity that, so far as we can think of it at all, possesses a double character: it entails both the nurturing mother (mētēr, 50d and 51a) and that which always appears but never as itself and flees precisely as nous approaches it (pgs. 109-113). This dual character of nurturer and fugitive is central in Sallis’s account and the perplexity of the chōra to which Sallis draws attention.
These considerations, finally, allow Sallis to begin the chorology (pgs. 113-124). In the last section of the third chapter, he addresses Timaeus’ explicit discussion of the chōra directly. This “kind beyond kind,” or “being beyond being” (pg. 113), derives its final and best-known name from this difficult-to-translate word, chōra (used explicitly at 52b1 and 52d3). He uses this occasion again to address its difficulty with regard to its uses elsewhere in Plato, and especially the Laws, Sophist, and Republic (pgs. 113-118). Sallis summarizes that
The chōra is said to be everlasting, perpetual, always (aei), not admitting destruction, that is, ruin, corruption, passing away (phthora). This corresponds to its being rigorously distinguished from the generated: it is that in which that which is generated comes to be and from which that which is destroyed passes away, departs. It is presupposed by all generation and destruction and thus is not itself subject to generation and destruction” (pg. 119).
While Timaeus has given us several images (e.g., gold) through which the chōra can be partially disclosed, Sallis argues that we must now imagine the chōra as the very grounds through which images are imaged, or that which receives the images and, through itself, allows the images to show themselves. The strangeness and wonder that such showing occasions is, for Sallis, the central issue of the dialogue.
In Chapter 4, ‘Traces of the Chōra,’ Sallis focuses mainly on the theme of the third kind and the mathematical triad as it reappears throughout the remainder of the dialogue (Tim. 52d-92c). These include some reflections on several perplexing aspects of Timaeus’ account, including the triangle as the most basic unit of materiality (Tim. 53b ff.) and the relationship of the four material elements of earth, fire, air, and water (Tim. 55d ff., pgs. 128-130). While Sallis does not address in much detail the lengthy third discourse on the blended with which the dialogue concludes (Tim. 69a-92c), he does challenge Aristotle’s complaint that Timaeus loses sight of the chōra (On Generation and Corruption 329a; pg. 131) by tracing some senses in which it remains at play in the discourse (pgs. 132-136). Sallis furthermore offers some reflections on Timaeus’ third account with an eye to the roles of comedy, sex, and gender that mark this stretch of the dialogue as a kind of “downward discourse” (pgs. 136-138). Chapter 4 concludes with Sallis’s consideration of the political frame of the dialogue that had begun with an account of the well-ordered city through comparative discussions of Republic Book 2 (pgs. 138-143) and the fragmentary Critias dialogue that follows the Timaeus dramatically (pgs. 143-145).
Finally, in Chapter 5 Sallis considers the ‘Reinscriptions’ of the dialogue in some of its many significant contexts in the subsequent history of philosophy. Here he is most interested in tracing the forgetting of what he takes to be the originary sense of the chōra and its displacement through understandings rooted in notions of matter (hulē) and space (topos). He discusses the view in antiquity that Plato had forged the dialogue (pg. 147) and the actual forgery, On the Nature of the Cosmos and the Soul, falsely attributed to a Timaeus of Locri and taken to be genuine by many Neoplatonists though almost surely written several centuries after Plato’s death (pgs. 148-149). Sallis argues that this true forgery is one of many subsequent interpretations of the chōra that misses Plato’s most profound insights, and critically addresses the history of misunderstanding the chōra by overcommitting it to notions related to matter and space through Plutarch, Plotinus, and Aristotle (pgs. 150-154), footnoting related points concerning the interpretations of Irigaray (pg. 151 fn. 9) and Heidegger (pg. 154 fn. 12) along the way. After a brief discussion of Kant (pgs. 154-155), the remainder of the chapter (pgs. 155-167) comprises an extended consideration of Schelling’s reception of the Timaeus and particularly the chōra. Sallis finds in Schelling the tracing of his own understanding of the chōra, albeit one that begins to be conflated with the notion of matter as Schelling’s thinking develops. Sallis addresses the role of the chōra in Schelling’s transcendental schematism, its appearance in Schelling’s notebooks, and the shifting understanding of it between Schelling’s own Timaeus commentary (c. 1794) and Darstellung meines Systems der Philosophie (1801). Sallis identifies a tension that develops in Schelling’s understanding of the chōra between the mere notion of matter and an “irrational principle that resists the understanding, or unity and order” (pg. 164). Sallis interprets this both as a reawakening of tension between nous and necessity developed in the Timaeus and that which points beyond this distinction to what underlies it and remains hidden.
The depth and power of Sallis’s interpretation of the Timaeus clearly indicate the value of this approach to reading Plato. I do stop short of suggesting that this ‘third kind’ of Plato reading has entirely mediated between the analytics and the Straussians in precisely the manner in which the chōra mediates between being and becoming. (To be sure, Sallis certainly never suggests that this is the goal, though his pluralistic bibliography might point in this direction.) If nothing else, it surely indicates an important set of philosophical issues that lies buried beneath the now-traditional divide in 20th century Plato scholarship and philosophy more broadly.
Furthermore, in the time since Sallis’s work began, readings like this ‘third kind’ have helped to blur the distinction altogether. No longer can commentators from one tradition ignore the others, and those (for example) working on Plato from within the analytic tradition must consider Sallis’s contributions in Chorology to several 20th century analytic discussions. This is perhaps most notable in his contributions to the ‘this’-‘such’ interpretive debate concerning Tim. 49c7-50a4 (pgs. 101-108), a storied debate among Timaeus commentators since the 1950s to which Sallis has some valuable insights on offer.
And of course, those looking for contemporary continental insights in an ancient register will be served well by this encounter with the chōra. Readers will recognize a set of Derridean insights underlying Sallis’s reading of Platonic metaphysics, and indeed ones that exceed the explicit connections that Derrida himself recognized in his own discussion of the chōra. (Sallis engages directly with Derrida, in terms both related and unrelated to Derrida’s own chorology, in several footnotes: pgs. 99 fn. 8, 111 fns. 21 and 22, and 113-114 fn. 23.) And while Sallis counts Heidegger among those who have misunderstood the meaning of chōra in their own work (see pg. 154 fn. 12), he finds in Plato many anticipations of Heideggerian themes, such as the sense of truth as a kind of unconcealment of that which lies hidden that Heidegger develops at length.
Perhaps most of all, Chorology is of note to those interested in the account of the ‘end of metaphysics’ developed in 20th century continental philosophy. The chōra, perhaps ultimately, marks the limit of the knowing of being in Sallis’s interpretation. Sallis speaks to this directly as follows:
If one were to take metaphysics to be constituted precisely by the governance of the twofold, then the chorology could be said to bring both the founding of metaphysics and its displacement, both at once. Originating metaphysics would have been exposing it to the abyss, to the abysmal chōra, which is both origin and abyss, both at the same time. Then one could say—with the requisite reservations—that the beginning of metaphysics will have been already the end of metaphysics (pg. 123).
In other words, while many have taken Plato to be an originator of metaphysical dualism through simplistic readings of the so-called “doctrine of forms,” Sallis aims to show that Plato ends the metaphysical project already at its inception by pointing to the chōra, that ‘being beyond being’ that indicates the limit of nous, here in the Timaeus. The chōra then replaces the traditional notions of dogmatic metaphysical rationalism with a principle of radical errancy, one possessing the double-character of mother and fugitive, and one in force “as hindering, diverting, leading astray the work of nous, as installing indeterminacy into what nous would otherwise render determinate” (pg. 132).
Sallis’s writing throughout Chorology is clear, crisp, and clean. The book truly blurs the line between primary and secondary source, possessing value both as a Timaeus commentary and as an original piece of philosophy. On rare occasion, the writing supporting Sallis’s creative and bold reading enters into the realm of self-indulgence. For example, on 93: “Thus, another beginning is to be made, an other beginning, a different beginning, different from the beginning with which Timaeus began his first discourse.” Aside from issues surrounding these occasional instances of excess, Sallis’ writing is a model of lucidity, and this text demonstrates that good philosophy can be as smooth and satisfying as good literature. I won’t hazard to address the question of whether Sallis ultimately gets Plato right on my own view. In any case, I do insist that readers of Plato from all philosophical traditions should learn from Sallis’s interpretation and, if they see fit, respond to, rather than ignore, its many provocations.
This new edition of Chorology is packaged nicely, designed as it is to sit on the shelf beside future editions of The Collected Writings of John Sallis series. The next generation of readers will be served well by this printing. It is important to note, however, that aside from the outer packaging and minor front matter, this new printing contains no additions and no textual alterations to previous volumes. The contents and pagination are, so far as I tracked through a comparative analysis, exactly the same as the previous edition. This is hardly a complaint, as I found the text of both editions to be free of typos entirely; but it nevertheless bears noting in case any readers were, like me, hoping that this volume would offer some fresh insights from Sallis into the Timaeus.