Thursday, 27 August 2009

Are Women Philosophers Any Good?

Ask people to name philosophers; and they’ll give you Plato, Socrates, Aristoteles, Yajnavalkya or Confucius – all men. An older man with a beard – this is the typical image of a philosopher. Why is there hardly any mention of women philosophers? Are women really so hopeless at philosophy?

Photo source: Wikimedia commons

But how can we evaluate if women philosophers are good in general, compared to men? 
  • What does good mean in such a comparison? Is it creativity in approaching issues? 
  • Does it mean the precision of formulating thoughts and raising questions? 
  • Is it the number of peer reviewed articles and books she writes in high impact factor publications and how often is she cited or is it just how famous she becomes?

What is Philosophy - A Definition of Philosophy!

Before we get around to finding women philosophers, and discovering if they are on par with men philosophers, we need to define what we mean by philosophy. I, a man, am not a professional philosopher, so please be charitable towards my feeble attempt.

A poet or an artist is concerned with the aesthetic side of a subject, an economist is concerned with the profit and loss or quantification of a phenomenon and a scientist is concerned with some particular aspect of existence and phenomena like how a pathogen causes disease or how exactly a variation of temperature changes certain properties of a substance. In contrast, philosophy attempts to understand life and how humans relate to existence as a whole by raising general questions about reality, existence, goodness, justice, knowledge, beauty etc.

Photo source: Wikimedia commons

The word philosophy comes from ancient Greek, philos and sophia, meaning the love of wisdom. If we are not intimidated by the classification by professional contemporary philosophers and look at all of human philosophy since writing began, we detect five sources of philosophic enquiry.
  1. Wonder as the origin of philosophy – Plato (428 – 348 B.C Greece) thought all philosophy orginated in wonderment.
  2. Doubt – Most of modern Western philosophy originates in the spirit of doubt. e.g. Bacon (Francis 1561-1626, English), Descartes, Leibniz, Hume.
  3. Pragmatic or humanistic – Nothing is true for its own sake unless it furthers fruitful activity. E.g. Thales of Miletus, Epicurus, Erasmus. Most of Chinese philosophy is pragmatic.
  4. Love of Wisdom – Not for any theoretical gratification or for satisfying human desires but seeking wisdom for its own sake. E.g. Socrates
  5. Spiritual urge – Most of Indian phisophy, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain upto contemporary Aurobindo follow this tradition. Hildegard of Bingen saw study of nature as divine worship.

Famous Women Philosophers Throughout History

The first woman philosopher, whose name we know is En-hedu-ana (c.2285-2250 B.C), from ancient Akkad (now Iraq). 2000 years before the Greek ones, her work is the earliest surviving description of an individual’s consciousness of her inner life and relationship to divinity.
Photo source:
  • Aganice of pharaonic Egypt (1875 B.C) sought wisdom by studying natural philosophy and astrology and tried to compute the positions of planets.
  • Lopamudra of ancient India was a philosopher and wife of the great Indian philosopher Agastya. An entire hymn in the Rig Veda is dedicated to Lopamudra. The hymn and Agastya’s discussions with her are here.
  • Gargi and Maitreyi are two women philosopher superstars of ancient India. Maitreyi’s discussions with Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishads are sublime.
  • Themistoclea of Delphi (7th century B.C.) taught Pythagoras his moral doctrines. Source:
  • Theano of Crotona (c. 540 B.C. Italy) married Pythagoras, 36 years older than him and had 5 children. She succeeded Pythagoras as the head of his school of wisdom and her daughters Damo, Myria, Arignote and one son all became philosophers.
  • Asphasia of Milatus (5th century B.C. Greece) taught rhetoric to Socrates. Socrates, in Plato’s Symposium mentions that Diotima of Mantinea (a woman) taught him the meaning of beauty and love as a concept. Then there was Arete of Cyrene, Axiothea of Philesia, the delightfully feisty Hipparchia, Phintys, Aesara of Lucania (3rd century B.C. Italy) who wrote her Book on Human Nature, and many others.
  • Pan Chou (Ban Zhao) 45/51 - 114/120 AD was a celebrated Chinese philosopher, author and teacher. Bruriah was a 2nd century Jewish philosopher. Marcella (single mother of seven children) married a much older philosopher Porphyry. His letter to her from abroad urges her to “keep firm hold on philosophy
  • Hypatia of Alexandria, was a celebrated pagan philosopher from the 4th century.
  • Yeshe Tsogyal of eigth century Tibet is still very influential in Tibetan Buddhism. Dhouda of Gascony (ninth century) is one of the first woman writers in Europe.
  • Hroswitha of Gandersheim (Germany 10th century) was an abedissa and Christian philosopher who wrote philosophical plays.
  • In Japan, Murasaki Shikibu (pseudonym 970 – 1031 AD) who wrote The Tale of Genji, which might be the oldest surviving novel in the world and one of the earliest texts to mention homosexual love in details.
  • Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) was a German mystic, composer, philosopher, writer, inventor of a new alphabet, scientist and poet who suggested a heliocentric universe centuries before Copernicus. She influenced Isaac Newton very much.
  • Akka Mahadevi (c. 1150-1175) of Karnataka, south India, was busy empowering women in her days.
  • Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) was the first woman to write a book in English. Christine Pisan (1364-1430), the Venetian philosopher and widow with 3 children maintained her household with earnings from her many books.
  • Oliva Sabuco from 16th century Spain, Anna Maria Van Schurman 1607 – 1678 from Germany, Margaret Cavendish 1623 – 1667 from England, Anne Finch Viscountess of Conway 1631 – 1679 are some others from that period. Gabrielle Suchon 1632 – 1703, wrote one of the first Feminist philosophical works in Europe.
  • Helena Lucretia Cornaro Piscopia from Venice (1646 – 1684) is the first European woman to obtain a doctorate in philosophy.
  • Catharine Trotter Cockburn from England (1679 – 1749) worked her way out of poverty through her literary and philosophy writings. 
  • Laura Bassi (1711 – 1778), a mother of 12 children, was the first woman appointed as chairperson of a philosophy department in Europe.
  • Ellen Mitchell (1838 – 1929) was the first American women philosopher to obtain a university faculty position. 
  • Susan Blow (1843 – 1916) introduced Kindergarten and formal teacher training to the United States. 
  • Susanne Langer 1895 – 1985, and Hannah Arendt 1906 – 1975 are two famous women philosophers.
Here is a List of contemporary American women philosophers. More information about Western women philosophers of the 17th and 18th century here. Much information about early modern women philosophers can be found here.

How Men Treat Women Philosophers Nowadays?
Let us ask the Lithuanian philosopher Giedre Vasiliauskaite, a teacher of philosophy, her opinion about how women philosophers are seen nowadays.
Photo source: Giedre Vasiliauskaite
"How men treat women philosophers nowadays depends on culture and generation. Philosophers in the eyes of many people are a bit odd, be it a man or a woman. But I am happy because most of the time young and educated people just say 'you must be very smart then'. Otherwise young men treat me as I expect to be treated – with respect. I do admit that in my parents’ generation the absence of women philosophers for some people served as an argument that women cannot be philosophers. That, I think, is simply fallacious reasoning. I am glad that this is barely happening in my generation.”
So, are women philosophers any good

We know that there are lots of women philosophers. Socrates, called the wisest man alive in his time, respected women philosophers as his teachers. So, if women philosophers can be wise enough to teach the wisest man, women philosophers should be smart enough to teach us, the rest of the not so wise ones.
We could evaluate one philosopher at a time but handling all women philosophers is a stupendous task. What are the criteria and who evaluates? Ah mes amis, for this pursuit, one would need many lifetimes. 

Here is another blog by a woman philosopher who enlightens us with the title What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?
Grateful thanks to the extensive work of philosopher Kate Lindemann at women philosophers.


Scipia said...

Wow! Never heard of any of these women. Now after reading this, I'm surprised at ideas such as why a woman can't be a philosopher.

Walt said...

To quote Mae West's jewel philosophy: "Goodness had nothing to do with it". Men get all the credit for what their mothers have taught them.

Sharifah said...

Hi Rana. Very interesting past. Women have just as much wisdom and the ability to articulate it. Historically, they were not given the space for expression and the recognition. Let's hope we are on the road to changing this in the near future.

Penela said...

Of course women can make excellent philosophers, depends on the woman. I'm surprised to know that there were so many women philosophers.

Agapelife said...

Rana, I'm amazed at all the surprised comments. One can philosophize even among the pots and pans! Well researched post but some names have been left off and these were also mystics.

Aswani said...

Great post..I too have never heard of any women philosopher. seems that you have done a lot of research work on this topic. finding new women philosophers. keep it up :)

Walt said...

Looking back on modern history one see that women have been both venerated and reviled.
One could say that beginning with the demise of Cleopatra, the last sovereign of the Macedonian dynasty. Women have had an uphill battle for credibility. Cumulating with the advent of Roman Christianity that portrayed as the evil conspirator to the downfall of man. This is a Roman dogma, Under Constantine, many pagan religions were modified to fit into his new Christianity. As you will see it is not a Jewish concept. There are many instances in which the Torah praises women and identifies their role as essential to the spiritual well being and continuity of Judaism. To cite but two examples:

"It was taught: He who has no wife dwells without good, without help, without joy, without blessing, and without atonement." (Bereshit Rabbah 17,2)

"It once happened that a pious man was married to a pious woman, they arose and divorced each other. The former went and married a wicked woman, and she made him wicked, while the latter went and married a wicked man, and made him righteous. This proves that all depends on the woman." (Bereshit Rabbah 17,7)

In a time of Israel’s history when prophets and judges were central to its national and religious formation, it is of no little significance that women could be recognized as judges and prophets.

I think it is fair to say that some men for lack of selfworth, fear the wisdom and power of women.

Dr. Lauren said...

I think many people underestimate the power of the words that women possess. For centuries, women have ruled men by way of a language, whether that be the use of their own type of philosophy such as Cleopatra's power over Mark Antony and Caesar.

Walt said...

Unfortunately there are many social, emotional, culture-bound traditions, and other Interdimensional factors in man's reluctance to share an equal partnership with women. Mans delicate ego, and his desire to possess and control is but one example. When a man goes mad with lust and desire they often see it as the fault of the woman and not their own nature. The fact that only a woman has the power to give life, also ups the ante. When it comes to women philosophers I am sure they are just as good if not better, but who would know? Few of their works ever got published to any extent.

"On the morning of Tuesday, January 23, 1849, a young woman ascended the platform of the Presbyterian church in Geneva, N.Y., and received from the hands of the President of Geneva Medical College a diploma conferring upon her the degree of Doctor of Medicine. Thus, after many years of determined effort, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to complete a course of study at a medical college and receive the M.D. degree."

Women have come a long way yet it is still a man's world.

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