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.
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  • 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.

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