Philosophy’s Big Oversight

If the discipline is concerned with the nature of human existence, then a canon dominated by men isn’t just incomplete—it’s distorted.

Collage of portraits of René Descartes and Mary Wollstonecraft
Illustration by Matt Chase / The Atlantic. Sources: Getty; “Mary Wollstonecraft,” John Opie, 1790–91.

What image does the word philosopher conjure? Maybe Socrates, bearded and barefoot, counseling Plato on the agora; Rousseau on one of his solitary walks around the outskirts of Paris; Sartre sucking pensively on his pipe at the Café de Flore. What it may not call to mind is a woman.

And perhaps for good reason: The field of philosophy has always had a stark gender imbalance. And it’s no different today. Though women tend to be overrepresented in the humanities in general, philosophy is an outlier. A 2018 survey of the American Philosophical Association’s membership reported that 25 percent of respondents were women, and one 2017 study similarly found that women made up 25 percent of faculty in U.S. philosophy departments.

There are likely multiple contributing factors, many of which aren’t unique to philosophy: exclusionary professional cultures, unconscious bias from peers and professors, sexual harassment within departments. And just as the myth of the mathematically superior male brain has discouraged women from pursuing careers in STEM, myths about men’s propensity for abstract thought still shape conversations about philosophy.

In How to Think Like a Woman: Four Women Philosophers Who Taught Me How to Love the Life of the Mind, the journalist Regan Penaluna, who earned her Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston University, writes ambivalently of navigating male-dominated philosophy departments, where she wondered if her negative experiences were the result of sexism or her own inadequacy. (It didn’t help that women thinkers were rarely acknowledged in her coursework or included on syllabi.) She compares her pernicious self-doubt to Descartes’ pestering, deceptive demon—a concept that the Spanish nun Teresa of Ávila actually articulated nearly a century before Descartes did.

Through her studies, Penaluna confirms not only that women have always engaged in philosophy, but that they have made unique and substantial contributions to the field. If philosophy is concerned with the nature of human existence, then a canon dominated by men, to paraphrase Joanna Russ in her 1983 book How to Suppress Women’s Writing, is not just incomplete but distorted. Women see and understand the world differently from their male counterparts, not owing to any kind of gender essentialism but because they bring their own experiences to the table, as all philosophers do.

A life wholly devoted to philosophy was unavailable to most women for the majority of history. But in the past century, as greater numbers of women gained access to higher education and created lives outside the home, thinkers such as Elizabeth Anscombe, Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, Judith Jarvis Thomson, Simone Weil, and, more recently, Judith Butler and Angela Davis, have transformed philosophy with their ideas. (The recent book Metaphysical Animals and the forthcoming book The Visionaries mark two exciting efforts to establish some of these women as integral to the canon.)

Yet since ancient Greece, women have pursued a life of the mind amid every imaginable constraint. That we don’t know most of their names is the result of omission. In How to Think Like a Woman, Penaluna zeroes in on four women who deserve more recognition—the 17th- and 18th-century philosophers Mary Astell, Catharine Cockburn, Damaris Masham, and Mary Wollstonecraft.

“Women philosophers were not late to the scene; it seems they were there from the start,” writes Penaluna, “and they had much to say about their oppressive condition.” Indeed, enabled by their unique vantage point, the four women whom Penaluna spotlights wrote explicitly about the limitations of a society shaped almost solely by the views of men. In 1792, Wollstonecraft published her groundbreaking treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which argued, against the backdrop of the French Revolution, that natural rights—access to an education, as well as to political and economic life—should extend to women. A full century before that, Astell wrote A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest, which advocated for academies created by and for women. The proto-feminist nature of much of these women’s writing—as well as the mere fact that their work focused on women—likely contributed to their exclusion. Yet this approach is what made their work so valuable philosophically: By expanding the range of subjects and perspectives that the discipline could encompass, they laid the groundwork for a more capacious and inclusive field of study.

Overall, Astell, Cockburn, Masham, and Wollstonecraft’s writings endure less for the sophistication of their arguments than for the fact that they introduced such era-defying ideas in the first place—they were among the very first to critique men’s domination of the social and political realms, assembling the foundations of feminist theory centuries before such a thing existed. And they did so with exceptional boldness, sometimes writing in direct, defiant response to their male contemporaries. Masham’s 1696 treatise, A Discourse Concerning the Love of God, rebutted a book by the popular French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, and Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Woman was prompted by a report on public education by the politician Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord—her book begins with a note to Talleyrand-Périgord: “I dedicate this volume to you.”

Though Penaluna engages rigorously with her subjects’ work, she tends to focus more on biography than textual analysis. But, refreshingly, she doesn’t cast these four women as flat feminist heroes; instead, she paints Astell, Cockburn, Masham, and Wollstonecraft as complicated, conflicted figures who often found themselves lonely, disappointed, and alienated by their own intellects. Like many women today, they were caught between ambition and reality. Masham, a 17th-century English thinker and longtime friend of John Locke, predicted that if women took their minds seriously and made full use of their critical faculties, they would become attuned to the limitations and indignities that constrain their lives—“here,” writes Penaluna, “the pleasure of contemplation will be mixed with notes of sadness.” This sadness followed Masham to the grave: Her headstone, which praised her “Learning, Judgment, Sagacity, and Penetration,” conceded that in her life she “only wanted Opportunities to make those Talents shine in the World.”

Some male philosophers have argued that women thinkers are disqualifyingly circumscribed by their femaleness, that they are impeded from seeing objective truth because of their subjective (and often subjugated) experience. “Women regulate their actions not by the demands of universality,” wrote Hegel, “but by arbitrary inclinations and opinions.” This assumes, first, that men are the default human and, second, that philosophy has not always been shaped by subjective experience. (Just look at Nietzsche: After the writer Lou Andreas-Salomé rejected his marriage proposal, much of his writing about women turned vitriolic.) Hegel’s “universality” is a philosophical impossibility that excludes thinkers unlike himself: Philosophical thought will always be shaped by our inclinations and opinions.

Penaluna, herself galvanized by Astell’s work, knows how potent role models can be in encouraging women philosophers. At one point in the book, she writes about the 18th-century scholar and historian Elizabeth Elstob, who collected in a journal the short biographies of ambitious, accomplished women. In moments when she felt “deflated,” Elstob would read through the journal and “immediately feel better thinking about the stories of other smart women who somehow found a way to create.” Later in the book, Penaluna writes her own capsule biographies of various women thinkers throughout time: Hipparchia, of the third century B.C.; Rabia al-Adawiyya, of the eighth century; Murasaki Shikibu, of the 11th century; Hildegard of Bingen, of the 12th century; Christine de Pizan, of the 14th century; Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, of the 17th century. By giving us their names, she not only counteracts their omission from the canon, but fashions the beginnings of a new one entirely.

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