Philosophy’s gender biasRoundup
tags: philosophy, Gender bias
“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.” ...
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