Feminism and the History of Philosophy

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The beginning of the twenty-first century was witness to an emergent transformation of the history of philosophy. While still the subject of intense debate within philosophy, the dominance of the image of the history of philosophy as a succession of "master thinkers" whose texts provide the historical background to contemporary philosophical debates has begun to wane. As philosophers come to embrace the historiography of philosophy and accept that attention to the past is not a simple process of reading past masters, methodological issues have become central to the history of philosophy and questions are being raised concerning the canonization of both theorists and texts, the conceptual role of history in philosophy, the accessibility of the past, and the role of interpretation.

Feminist history of philosophy has played a significant role in this transformation. From its outset, feminist historians of philosophy have raised issues of canon formation and have developed new and productive reading strategies in their efforts to attend both to women and to the role of the feminine in the history of philosophy. These efforts to understand the apparent absence or denigration of women and of the feminine have led to interpretive strategies that have value beyond feminist concerns and have contributed to the transformation of contemporary history of philosophy.

Feminist attention to gender in the history of philosophy has led to the recovery of lost or silenced women philosophers, as well as having called into question models of philosophy and philosophical concepts emerging from a privileging of the masculine. As feminists came to understand the extent to which privileged concepts such as reason and justice revolve around the denigration of so-called "feminine" traits, they began not only to question the division between reason, emotion, and imagination in the history of philosophy, but also to search for and develop interpretive strategies that would not perpetuate such divisions.

Attention to Women

Feminist attention to women in the history of philosophy has raised issues concerning canon formation. Until the mid- to late twentieth century, much of contemporary history of philosophy proceeded along a model of "master thinkers" in which only the truly great minds of philosophy are considered worthy of attention. Admittedly there has been significant debate within the various traditions of philosophy as well as between different historical periods concerning which philosophers are indeed worthy. In addition, even when there is general agreement about the canonization of such philosophers as René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Plato, there remains significant contestation concerning which aspects of their corpus are most central, with Descartes's Meditations, for example, receiving far more attention than his Passions of the Soul in twentieth-century analytic history of philosophy.

As feminist philosophers of history contest the "great man" model of history, they have begun to demonstrate the importance of a richer approach to the history of philosophy. The recovery of women philosophers like Elisabeth of the Palatine, Jane Addams, Mary Astell, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Jacqueline Pascal, Anna Maria van Schurman, and Mary Wollstonecraft has begun to transform modern prejudices about the history of philosophy. Since there were hundreds of women who contributed to philosophy, their absence from contemporary histories brings to the foreground the complex values that inform the narratives of philosophy and determine which questions and styles count as philosophical and whose voices are sufficiently influential to be chronicled. Feminist historians of philosophy have demonstrated, for example, how the nineteenth century move to excise from the canon work judged to be motivated by religious faith resulted in numerous philosophical schools and philosophical styles, and with them the work of many women, being excluded from the domain of philosophy. Feminists have also pointed out that if we limit our definition of philosophy to that work done only in the academy and the seminary, then we will exclude those locations, such as the convent and the salon, where women are most likely to be found in certain historical periods.

These investigations of the roles of women in philosophy have led to an enriched appreciation of the workings of the canon. For instance, feminist attention to the philosophy of Princess Elisabeth and the impact of her philosophical influence on Descartes has led to a renewed appreciation not only of Passions of the Soul, but of Elisabeth's philosophy in its own right and of her influence on Descartes's philosophy. Such feminist work details Elisabeth's efforts to develop a unique philosophical position that does not divorce reason from the body, but defends a rich interaction between the body and the mind without reducing one to the other or denying Descartes's intuition that thought is not determined by extension. Thanks to such work feminist historians of philosophy have been able to uncover lines of influence between Elisabeth's thought and Descartes's Passions, arguing for a subtle yet important shift in his ideas concerning the role of embodiment upon the mind resulting from their correspondence. In this way, recovery of the work of women philosophers and the feminist desire to undo the denigration of faculties and traits (such as the body) that have been associated with the feminine go hand-in-hand with a rereading of the canon.

Feminist attention to women has also included a chronicling of philosophers' perceptions of woman. Through this lens feminists have uncovered a systematic perception of woman and the feminine as inferior and man and the masculine as the true form. This has led philosophers of sexual difference such as Luce Irigaray to argue that woman has been defined not in terms of true difference, but in terms of lack according to an A (male) / -A (female) logic, a logic well illustrated by Hegel's claim that women while educable, are not capable of activities like science or philosophy that demand a universal faculty. In such a schema, woman and the feminine receive no positive definition, no true difference, but are merely an inferior inversion of the masculine. These investigations have led to the contention that the very concepts of philosophyreason, justice, virtuehave themselves been inscribed by this conception of man and thereby by the masculine as the true form.

Philosophical Imaginary

Feminist attention to gender thus presents as an issue central to philosophical investigation the question of whether the central categories of philosophy are formed through an exclusion or denigration of the feminine. Genevieve Lloyd's early study of the "maleness" of reason demonstrated that conceptions of rationality have privileged traits historically associated with masculinity and required control or transcendence of those traits historically associated with the feminine such as the body, the emotions, and the passions. Michèle Le Dœuff has referred to the often unacknowledged linkage of concepts, images, and metaphors in philosophical texts as the philosophical imaginary. She argues that this imaginary often inscribes values historically associated with masculinity onto dominant philosophical conceptions of reason and argues that this is not an instance of an individual philosopher's sexism that can be ignored or excised for it is at the core of the values from which the category emerges.

This scholarship has led to various efforts to identify and refigure the role of "the feminine" in the texts of canonized philosophers and to examine the specifically feminine sites of philosophy. These reading strategies are diverse. Some, like Annette Baier's work on Hume or Barbara Herman's analysis of Kant, return to the canonical texts to tease out new or overlooked resources for revaluing the role of embodiment, imagination, and the affective life. Others turn to the work of "recovered" women philosophers to trace alternatives to dominant models of philosophy. Catherine Villanueva Gardner, for example, argues that a complex notion of sensibility and a rhetorical style that exemplifies sensibility can be found in the work of women philosophers such as Wollstonecraft, Catharine Macaulay, Christine De Pisan, George Eliot, and Mechthild of Magdeburg that provide a rich conception of the role the passions play in moral philosophy. Another reading strategy is to provide correctives to histories of philosophy that have ignored topics like the emotions or the imagination as does Susan James (1997) in her account of the passions in seventeenth-century philosophy. Yet another style of feminist reading can be found in the work of Luce Irigaray who focuses on the moments of instability in philosophical texts caused by the contradictory effort to achieve universality through a denial of sexual difference. It is her goal to open the historical texts of philosophy to contemporary feminist concerns not simply to confront what has been repressed, but to rethink it.

Feminist attention to the philosophical imaginary and the lessons learned from the canonization of particular philosophical styles, has led to sensitivity to the rhetorical dimensions of philosophical writings, as well as to an appreciation of their affective dimensions. But such attention to style also means a rich situating of the history of philosophy and a realization that the writings of the past are not transparent. The meanings and affective resonance of philosophical texts are neither in the control of the author nor the contemporary interpreter of the text, but involve a complex interplay between the author's cultural context and the concerns of the contemporary reader. In this way, mainstream efforts to excise the figural in order to uncover the literal truth of canonical texts give way in feminist rereadings to an appreciation of the role of imagination in philosophy and better understanding of how reason, imagination, and emotion are interwoven in the practice of philosophy. This attention to rhetoric and affect is another dimension of the feminist rejection of conceptions of reason divorced from the "feminine."

In such attention to neglected aspects of historical texts, feminists are motivated by our own feminist wonder at the relation between reason and emotion in the play of the canon and a feminist inspired desire to find a place in-between mind and body. In this sense, our desires are enacted in our reading strategies.

See also Astell, Mary; Baier, Annette; Descartes, René Eliot, George; Elisabeth, Princess of Bohemia; Feminist Philosophy; History and Historiography of Philosophy; Hume, David; Irigaray, Luce; Kant, Immanuel; Plato; Wollstonecraft, Mary; Women in the History of Philosophy.


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Nancy Tuana (2005)

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