Women in the History of Philosophy

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The standard twentieth-century histories of European philosophy do not include women as important, original contributors to the discipline's past. Some relegate a few to footnotes; most omit women entirely. Recent research, inspired by the influence of feminist theory, and by a renewed interest in the historiography of philosophy, has uncovered numerous women who contributed to philosophy over the centuries.

Women's representation in philosophy's history was not always as marginal as it came to be by the opening of the twentieth century. For example, in the seventeenth century, Thomas Stanley's history mentioned twenty-four women philosophers of the ancient world, while Gilles Ménage discussed some seventy, including women Platonists, Academicians, Dialecticians, Cyrenaics, Megarians, Cynics, Peripatetics, Epicureans, Stoics, and Pythagoreans. With respect to the moderns, the seventeenth-century treatises of Jean de La Forge and Marguerite Buffet provided doxographies of women philosophers. Even in the nineteenth century, when women were virtually being erased from the standard histories, Lescure, Joël, Foucher de Careil, and Cousin wrote special studies on female philosophers.

Published 19871991, A History of Women Philosophers, volume 1, 600 BC500 AD, edited by Mary Ellen Waithe, has provided a detailed discussion of the following figures: Themistoclea, Theano I and II, Arignote, Myia, Damo, Aesara of Lucania, Phintys of Sparta, Perictione I and II, Aspasia of Miletus, Julia Domna, Makrina, Hypatia of Alexandria, Arete of Cyrene, Asclepigenia of Athens, Axiothea of Philesia, Cleobulina of Rhodes. Hipparchia the Cynic, and Lasthenia of Mantinea. In addition to the medieval and Renaissance philosophers discussed in the second volume of Waithe's History (Hildegard of Bingen, Heloise, Herrad of Hohenbourg, Beatrice of Nazareth, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Hadewych of Antwerp, Birgitta of Sweden, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Oliva Sabuco de Nantes Barrera, Roswitha of Gandersheim, Christine de Pisan, Margaret More Roper, and Teresa of Avila), scholars have recently begun to focus attention on such humanist and Reformation figures as Isotta Nogarola, Laura Cereta, Cassandra Fidele, Olimpia Morata, and Caritas Pickheimer.

The Seventeenth Century

In the early modern period women's initial published philosophical endeavors inserted argumentation into the largely literary genre of the querelle des femmes, or woman question. Thus, Marie de Gournay, adopted daughter of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, in The Equality of Men and Women (1622) replaced persuasive force based on example with skeptical and fideistic arguments; Anna Maria van Schurman's Whether a Maid May Be a Scholar? (1659) and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz's "Response to Sor Filotea" (1700) used scholastic models of argumentation to discuss woman's nature and her relation to learning. By 1673, when Bathsua Makin published An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen, an unbroken, explicitly acknowledged line of influence ran from Gournay through van Schurman to Makin. In the second half of the century, partly in response to the writings of Desiderius Erasmus, Juan Luis Vives, and François de Salignac de La Mothe Fénelon, a number of treatises on the education of girls appeared, stressing its importance for religion and society. Authors included the Port Royal educator Sister Jacqueline Pascal and Madame de Maintenon.

In the second half of the Age of Reason women also produced numerous works on morals and the passions, including the maxims of Marguerite de La Sablière, Marquise de Sablé, and Queen Christina of Sweden. Perhaps the most well-known seventeenth-century woman writer of moral psychology is Madeline de Scudéry, of whom Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz said that she had "clarified so well the temperaments and the passions in her conversations on morals."

Another type of philosophical writing by women, the treatment of natural philosophy, begins to appear after 1660. In Paris Jeanne Dumée and, in England, Aphra Behn argued in defense of Nicolas Copernicus. But by far the most prolific female philosopher then was Margaret Cavendish, who published over a half dozen books on natural philosophy in which she advanced a unique combination of hard-nosed materialism together with an organic model of natural change and a denial of mechanism.

Of Anne Conway Leibniz said, "My philosophical views approach somewhat closely those of the late Countess of Conway." Her metaphysical treatise argued against René Descartes, Benedict de Spinoza, and Thomas Hobbes in favor of a monistic vitalism. On the Continent Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, whose letters to Descartes had exposed the weakness of the latter's published views on mind-body interaction and free will, discussed Conway's philosophy with a Quaker correspondent. Seventeenth-century England also produced Mary Astell, who in the appendix to the Letters concerning the Love of God (1695) argued against occasionalism. In A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II (1697), Astell offered women a manual for improving their powers of reasoning, a work that was influenced by Descartes and the Port Royal logicians. Damaris Cudworth Masham also argued against occasionalism in Discourse concerning the Love of God (1696). In Occasional Thoughts (1705) she defended a number of Lockean views on knowledge, education, and the relative merits of reason and revelation. Masham also corresponded with Leibniz on metaphysical issues, especially his views on substance; yet despite this scholarly career, she stood in need of defense against the charge that the arguments addressed to Leibniz could not have been written by a woman. It was Catherine Trotter Cockburn who came to her defense. Cockburn wrote a number of philosophical works, including A Defence of Mr. Locke's Essay of Human Understanding (1702) and a vindication of the views of Samuel Clarke.

In France in the final years of the seventeenth century, Gabrielle Suchon published, arguably, the most ambitious philosophical text that had yet been written by a woman on the Continent: Treatise of Morals and of Politics (1693), which included book-length treatments of liberty, science, and authority. Excerpts of her work were published in the scholarly journals of the time, but since the Treatise was published under a pseudonym, Suchon fell into oblivion by the late eighteenth century. (Anonymous authorship similarly led to Conway's erasure.)

The Eighteenth Century

In England Catherine Macaulay published a critical treatment of Hobbes's political philosophy and her magnum opus, Letters on Education (1790), to which Mary Wollstonecraft explicitly acknowledges her debt in her own Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). By the end of the century Mary Hays's Female Biography (1803) demonstrated that English women were beginning to trace a history of feminist social and political philosophy that reached back about 100 years to Astell. At the turn of the century, with the growing professionalization of philosophy and placement of it over against the belles lettres and religion, women were producing philosophy stripped of its moorings within discussions of the woman question and theology, and written in journalistic style, as evidenced in Mary Shepherd's book-length treatments of causation, skepticism, and knowledge of the external world, with their attendant criticisms of such figures as David Hume and George Berkeley.

In Enlightenment France Anne Dacier published a translation and commentary for the writings of Marcus Aurelius and entered the debate about the ancients versus the moderns in her The Causes of the Corruption of Taste (1714). Dacier's salonist friend, the marquise de Lambert, published a number of works on morals, the passions, education, and woman's status, which continued to be published a century later. Sophie de Grouchy, Marquise de Condorcet, added to her translation of Adam Smith's. Theory of the Moral Sentiments her own blend of rationalist ethics and moral sentiment theory in her eight letters on sympathy.

Prior to the French Revolution philosophy of education, in particular, critical responses to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Émile, occupied a prominent place in women's philosophical writings, as exemplified in Louise d'Epinay's The Conversations of Emilie (1774) and the works of Mme. de Genlis. In addition to her work on education Louise-Marie Dupin also left an extensive manuscript, Observations on the Equality of the Sexes and of Their Difference, which she dictated to her secretary, Rousseau. The French Revolution moved the issue of woman's education into the arena of the rights of a woman as a citizen. Perhaps the most famous of these treatises is Olympe de Gouge's Declaration of the Rights of Woman (1791).

In the area of natural philosophy there is no question but that Émilie du Châtelet deserves recognition as an important figure of the eighteenth century. Her Principles of Physics (1740) and her letters on the "active force" controversy (1742) attempt to reconcile what she takes to be most useful in Newtonian mechanics and Leibnizian philosophy. Du Châtelet also published a Discourse on Happiness (1779) and essays on the existence of God, the formation of color, and grammatical structure.

By the end of the century French women were producing broad critiques of culture and the arts, as evidenced in the mathematician Sophie Germain's General Considerations on the State of the Sciences and Letters (1833) and Madame de Staël's On the Influence of the Passions on the Happiness of Individuals and Nations (1796).

Germany spawned two critical treatments of Immanuel Kant's views on women: the first by an unidentified "Henriette" and the second by Amalia Hoist. In Switzerland Marie Huber's publications included three Enlightenment texts on the principles of natural religion: The World Unmask'd (English translation, 1736), The State of Souls Separated from their Bodies (English translation, 1736), and Letters on the Religion Essential to Man (English translation, 1738).

In Russia Catherine the Great's correspondence with Voltaire was published posthumously. Finally, in Italy Laura Bassi publicly disputed philosophical theses and published five lectures on natural philosophy; Maria Agnesi discussed logic, metaphysics, and Cartesian physics in Philosophical Propositions (1738); and Giuseppa Barbapiccola translated and wrote a critical introduction for Descartes's Principles of Philosophy (1731).

The information now available about women philosophers and ongoing research on this topic will provide us with a richer picture of philosophy's significant figures, topics, and styles of argumentation. It is to be hoped that future histories of philosophy will reflect this richer panorama of the past.

See also Berkeley, George; Conway, Anne; Copernicus, Nicolas; Descartes, René; Erasmus, Desiderius; Feminist Philosophy; Fénelon, François de Salignac de la Mothe; Gournay, Marie le Jars de; Hildegard of Bingen; Hobbes, Thomas; Hume, David; Hypatia; Kant, Immanuel; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Locke, John; Marcus Aurelius Antoninus; Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Vives, Juan Luis; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de; Wollstonecraft, Mary.


the seventeenth century

Astell, M. Letters concerning the Love of God between the Author of the Proposal to the Ladies and Mr. John Norris (London, 1695); A Serious Proposal to the Ladies Part II: Wherein a Method is offer'd for the Improvement of their Minds (London, 1697); Some Reflections Upon Marriage (London, 1700); The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England (London, 1705).

Behn, A. "The Translator's Preface." In B. le Bovier de Fontenelle, A Discovery of New Worlds, translated by A. Behn (London, 1688).

Cavendish, M. L., Duchess of Newcastle. Philosophical and Physical Opinions (London, 1655); Orations of Divers Sorts (London, 1662); Philosophical Letters: or, Modest Reflections upon some Opinions in Natural Philosophy Maintained By Several Famous and Learned Authors of this Age (London, 1664); Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (London, 1666); Grounds of Natural Philosophy (London, 1668).

Christina, Queen of Sweden. L'ouvrage de loisir (c. 16701680) and Les sentiments héroïques (c. 16701680), with Réflexions diverses sur la Vie et sur les Actions du Grand Alexandre, Les Vertues et vices de Caesar, and correspondence, in J. Arckenholtz, Mémoires concernant Christine, reine de Suède, 4 vols. (Leipzig, 17511760).

Conway, A., Viscountess. The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (Latin translation: Amsterdam, 1690; English retranslation: London, 1692; both reprinted: The Hague, 1982); The Conway Letters, edited by M. H. Nicholson and S. Hutton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).

Dumée, J. Entretien sur l'opinion de Copernic touchant la mobilité de la terre (Paris, n.d.); ms. c. 1680, Bibliothèque Nationale Fonds français 1941.

Elisabeth, Princess of Bohemia. Her letters in: Oeuvres de Descartes, edited by C. Adam and P. Tannery (Paris, 18971913; rev. ed. 19641974); N. Malebranche, Correspondance, actes et documents 16381689, edited by A. Robinet, Vol. 18 (Paris, 1961); Papers of William Penn, Vol. 1, edited by M. Dunn and R. Dunn (Philadelphia, 1981).

Gournay, M. le Jars de. L'egalité des hommes et des femmes (Paris, 1622); L'ombre de la Damoiselle de Gournay (Paris, 1626); Les advis ou Les presens de la Demoiselle de Gournay (Paris, 1634).

Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sor. Carta athenagórica de la madre Juana Inés de la Cruz (Puebla de los Angeles, 1690); Fama, y obras póstumas del fenix de Mexico, Decima Musa, Poetisa Americana (Madrid, 1700); Obras completas, edited by A. Méndez Plancarte (A. Salceda), 4 vols. (Mexico City, 19511957).

Lettres, Opuscules et Mémoires de Mme. Périer et de Jacqueline, Soeurs de Pascal. Edited by P. Faugère. Paris, 1845.

Maintenon, F. d'Aubigné. Lettres sur l'éducation des filles, edited by Th. Lavallée (Paris, 1854); Entretiens sur l'éducation des filles, edited by Th. Lavallée (Paris, 1854); Lettres historiques et édifiantes adressées aux dames de St.-Louis, edited by Th. Lavallée, 2 vols. (Paris, 1856); Conseils et instructions aux demoiselles pour leur conduite dans le monde, 2 vols. (Paris, 1857).

Makin, B. An Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen. London, 1673.

Masham, D. C. A Discourse concerning the Love of God (London, 1696; French translation, 1705); Occasional Thoughts in Reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life (London, 1705); letters to Locke in The Correspondence of John Locke, edited by E. S. de Beer, 8 vols. (Oxford, 197685); letters to Leibniz in Die Philosophischen Schriften von Leibniz, edited by C. I. Gerhardt, 7 vols. (Berlin, 18751890).

Réflexions ou Sentences et Maximes morales de Monsieur de la Rochefoucauld, Maximes de Madame la marquise de Sablé. Pensées diverses de M. L. D. et les Maximes chrétiennes de M**** (Mme. de La Sablière) (Amsterdam, 1705).

Schurman, A. M. van. Amica dissertatio inter Annam Mariam Schurmanniam et Andr. Rivetum de capacitate ingenii muliebris ad scientias (Paris, 1638); Opuscula, hebraea, graeca, latina, gallica, prosaica et metrica (Leiden, 1648).

Scudéry, M. de. Discours sur la gloire (Paris, 1671); Conversations sur divers sujets, 2 vols. (Paris, 1680); Conversations nouvelles sur divers sujets, 2 vols. (Paris, 1684); Conversations morales, 2 vols. (Paris, 1686); Nouvelles Conversations de morale, 2 vols. (Paris, 1688); Entretiens de morale, 2 vols. (Paris, 1692).

Suchon, G. Traité de la morale et de la Politique (Lyon, 1693); [Traité] Du célibat Volontaire, ou la Vie sans engagement, par Demoiselle Suchon (Paris, 1700).

the eighteenth century

Agnesi, M. G. Propositiones Philosophicae. Milan, 1738.

Barbapiccola, G. E. I Principii della Filosopfia. Turin, 1722.

Bassi, L. M. C. Philosophica Studia (49 theses disputed for the doctorate; Bologna, 1732); De acqua corpore naturali elemento aliorum corporum parte universi (theses for a disputation; Bologna, 1732); the following appear in De Bononiensi Scientiarum et Artium Instituto atque Academia Commentarii: De aeris compressione (1745); De problemate quodam hydrometrico (1757); De problemate quodam mechanico (1757); De immixto fluidis aere (1792).

Cockburn, C. Trotter. The Works of Mrs. Catherine Cockburn, Theological, Moral, Dramatic, and Poetical, edited by T. Birch. London, 1751.

Dacier, A. L. Réflexions morales de l'empereur Marc Antonin (Paris, 16901691; English translation: London, 1692); Des causes de la corruption du goût (Paris, 1714).

D'Épinay, L. Les conversations d'Émilie. Leipzig, 1774; Paris, 1781.

Documents of Catherine the Great: The Correspondence with Voltaire and the Instruction of 1767 in the English text of 1768, edited by W. F. Reddaway. Cambridge, U.K., 1931.

du Châtelet, G. É. Le Tonnelier De Breteuil, Marquise. Institutions de Physique (Paris, 1740); Réponse de Madame*** [du Châtelet] à la lettre que M. de Mairan lui a écrite le 18 février sur la question des forces vives (Brussels, 1741); Dissertation sur la nature et la propagation du feu (Paris, 1744); Principes mathématiques de la philosophie naturelle, 2 vols. (Paris, 1756); Réflexions sur le bonheur in Opuscules philosophiques et littéraires, la plupart posthumes ou inédits (Paris, 1796); essays in Ira O. Wade, Studies on Voltaire with Some Unpublished Papers of Mme du Châtelet (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947).

Dupin, L. Portefeuille de Mme Dupin. Paris, 1884.

Genlis, S. F. du Crest de Saint-Aubin, Comtesse de. Adèle et Théodore ou lettres sur l'éducation (Paris, 1782; English translation: London, 1783); Discours sur la suppression des couvents de religieuses et l'éducation publique des femmes (Paris, 1790).

Germain, S. Oeuvres philosophiques de Sophie Germain, suivies de pensées et de lettres inédites. Paris, 1879; 1896.

Gouges, O. de. Les droits de la femme (Paris, [1791]); Oeuvres, edited by Groult (Paris, 1986).

Grouchy, S. de, Marquise de Condorcet. Lettres sur la Sympathie. In Théorie des Sentimens Moraux. Vol. 2. Paris, 1798.

Hoist, A. Über die Bestimmung des Weibes zur öhern Geistesbildung. Berlin, 1802.

Huber, M. Le monde fou préféré au monde sage (Amsterdam, 1731); Le systême des anciens et des modernes, sur l'état des âmes séparées des corps (London, 1731), both in English translation as The World Unmask'd, or the Philosopher the greatest Cheat in Twenty Four Dialogues To which is added, The State of Souls Separated from their Bodies In Answer to a Treatise entitled, An Enquiry into Origenism (London, 1736); Lettres sur la religion essentielle à l'homme, distinguée de ce qui n'en est que l'accessoire (Amsterdam, 1738; English translation, 1738).

Lambert, A. de. Réflexions Nouvelles Sur Les Femmes par une Dame de la Cour de France (Paris, 1727); Lettres sur la véritable éducation (Paris/Amsterdam, 1729); Traité de l'Amitié, Traité de la Vieillesse, Réflexions sur les Femmes, sur le Goût, sur les Richesses (Amsterdam, 1732); Oeuvres complètes (Paris, 1808).

Macaulay, C. S. Loose Remarks on Certain Positions to be found in Mr. Hobbes's Philosophical Rudiments of Government and Society (London, 1767); Letters on Education (London, 1790).

Shepherd, M. An Essay Upon the Relation of Cause and Effect, controverting the Doctrine of Mr. Hume (London, 1824); Essays on the Perception of an External Universe (London, 1827); "Lady Mary Shepherd's Metaphysics," Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country 5 (30) (July 1832).

Staël, G. de. De l'influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et de nations. Paris, 1796.

Wollstonecraft, M. Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (London, 1787); A Vindication of the Rights of Men (London, 1790); A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (London, 1792).

works on women philosophers

Albistur, M., and D. Armogathe. Histoire du féminisme français. Vol. 1. Paris: Femmes, 1977.

Buffet, M. Nouvelles observations sur la langue françoise Avec les éloges d'illustres sçavantes tant anciennes que modernes. Paris, 1668.

Cousin, V. Jacqueline Pascal: Premières études sur les femmes illustres et la société du XVIIe siècle. Paris, 1844. Madame de Sablé: Nouvelles Etudes sur la société et les femmes illustres du dix-septième siècle. Paris, 1854. La société Française au XVIIe Siècle d'après Le Grand Cyrus de Mlle de Scudéry. 2 vols. Paris, 1858.

Dronke, P. Women Writers of the Middle Ages. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Foucher de Careil, L. Descartes et la Princesse Palatine, ou de l'influence du cartésianisme sur les femmes au XVIIe siècle. Paris, 1862.

Foucher de Careil, L. Descartes, la princesse Elisabeth et la reine Christine. Paris, 1909.

Harth, E. Cartesian Women. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Joël, K. Die Frauen in der Philosophie. Hamburg, 1896.

King, M. L. Women of the Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Kristeller, P. O. "Learned Women of Early Modern Italy: Humanists and University Scholars." In Beyond Their Sex: Learned Women of the European Past, edited by P. Labalme. New York: New York University Press, 1980.

La Forge, J. de. Le cercle des femmes sçavantes. Paris, 1663.

Le Doeuff, M. "Long Hair, Short Ideas." In The Philosophical Imaginary. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989.

Lescure, M. de. Les femmes philosophes. Paris, 1881.

Ménage, G. Historia mulierum philosopharum. Lyon, 1690; English translation, 1702; new English ed. by B. Zedler, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984.

Merchant, C. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980.

O'Neill, E. "Disappearing Ink: Early Modern Women Philosophers and Their Fate in History." In Philosophy in a Feminist Voice, edited by J. Kourany. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Schiebinger, L. The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Stanley, T. A History of Philosophy, 3 vols. London, 1687.

Waithe, M. E., ed. A History of Women Philosophers. 3 vols. Dordrecht: Nijhoff, 19871991.

Wilson, K., and F. Warnke, eds. Women Writers of the Seventeenth Century. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.

Eileen O'Neill (1996)

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