What Charles Murray Doesn't Get About Women and Philosophy

The conservative author believes that women have contributed little to major philosophical traditions because men are better abstract thinkers. 

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

"No woman has been a significant original thinker in any of the world's great philosophical traditions." So said the author Charles Murray in a 2005 essay titled "The Inequality Taboo," in which he argued that men are better at abstract thinking than women are. In a recent talk at the University of Austin, timed to promote his new book The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead, a student asked Murray if he stood by this claim. As Amanda Marcotte notes in a piece at Slate, Murray began with condescension (“tell me who you had in mind”), and then added, "Until somebody gives me evidence to the contrary, yeah, I'll stick with that statement."

There are a couple of ways to respond to Murray's claim that women have made no significant original contributions to philosophy. You could, first of all, produce a list of female philosophers. Marcotte takes this path, mentioning names like Hannah Arendt and Elizabeth Anscombe. The problem though, as Marcotte says, is that:

If you know how the game is played, you'll know that if you start listing philosophers, Murray or any of his defenders will just muse about whether their work is wholly "original," since said women likely have read other philosophers—most of whom are male by virtue of women being squeezed out of educational opportunities and platforms to express their thoughts throughout most of history.

Rather than just throwing names around, then, it seems like it might be more useful to address Murray's question about philosophy more philosophically. When Murray says he is looking for "significant original thinker[s] in the world's great philosophical traditions," what does that mean? What intellectual preconceptions is he operating under? What isn't spoken when he speaks?

Feminist thinkers have actually spent a lot of time philosophizing about women's inclusion and exclusion from lists of most important this or that, especially in the context of literary canons. Murray is willing to acknowledge that there have been important women writers, (since he believes literary thought is less abstract than philosophical thought) but he glosses over the fact that the literary canon, too, is tilted very male. In the Modern Library's list of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century, for example, the top 14 are all by men (Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse is 15.)

What accounts for this? In How To Suppress Women's Writing (1983) science-fiction author Joanna Russ looked at this imbalance and argued that when women are not included in the canon, the problem is not with the women. Instead, she said, "A mode of understanding literature which can ignore the private lives of half the human race is not 'incomplete': It is distorted through and through." She adds that the statement, "This is a good novel," begs the questions, "Good for what? Good for whom?"

Russ' point is that the claim of universal value—or, in Murray's terms, of abstract thought—is duplicitous. It assumes a culture and an intellectual frame in which there is no power differential; in which everyone is the same as everyone else, and in which you can speak from nowhere to everyone. But that “view from nowhere” does not exist (as many important philosophers, from Derrida to Foucault to Irigaray, have pointed out.) To say that all the best books are by men therefore says as much about the interest, and the relationship to power, of the list as it does about the books selected. It means, among other things, that experience coded as male (of manly old men catching fish, for example, or of lusting after young girls named Lolita) is more important than experience coded as female. "When we all live in the same culture," Russ says, "then it will be time for one literature." But we don't, and it isn’t.

Again, most feminist discussions of canon have focused on literature. But some have expanded the argument to philosophy—at least implicitly. In her groundbreaking book Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins argues that there is an important intellectual tradition among black women, but that this tradition is often ignored or erased because of the ways in which black women have been prevented from entering academic institutions—or even from attaining literacy. To uncover the intellectual tradition of black women, therefore, you have to look not just to philosophical tomes and the pronouncements of tenured pronouncers like Charles Murray, but to oral accounts, blues lyrics, and other marginal spaces. In this context, Collins highlights Sojourner Truth's famous "Ain't I a woman" speech:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?

Truth here is thinking through, and challenging, ideas about masculinity and femininity—or as Collins says, "Rather than accepting the existing assumptions about what a woman is and then trying to prove that she fit the standards, Truth challenged the very standards themselves." Are Truth's comments more or less original than Nietzsche's paranoid, misogynist assertion that "Woman has always conspired with the types of decadence, the priests, against the "powerful", the "strong", the men?" Of the two, whose take on masculinity and femininity is more subtle, more nuanced, more surprising? For that matter, whose views have been more influential (among what groups?) on that much-brooded philosophical question, "What is woman?" and its supposedly more universal correlate, "What is man?"

Murray's statements about women and about philosophy are based on a slew of preconceptions—about what philosophy is, about which intellectual traditions are significant (not feminism for him, apparently), about which communities get to define "philosophy," and about what influence is considered consequential. When he says that there have been no significant female contributors to philosophy, he thinks he has made a statement about women. But in fact, he is telling us about philosophy—or about his particular, limited view of it. The real question shouldn't be "can woman do philosophy?" but rather "can philosophy make itself worthy of women like Sojourner Truth, Patricia Hill Collins, and Joanna Russ?" Is there a philosophy that can speak thoughtfully about equality, about injustice, and about women? Or does philosophy only exist in the cramped, querulous skulls of white men like Charles Murray, where it can celebrate its own insularity as originality, and its myopia as far-looking genius.