Women in Philosophy : Philosophy of Women

Presentation to the Melbourne Philosophy Forum, September, 2007

"Who are the great women philosophers? Where are they? Is their relative absence an indication of social forces; or is it biology? Do women have different logic to men? Is logic 'a masculinist discourse'? Do women have a different epistemology - a woman's way of knowing?".

1) There were some women philosophers among the ancients; but very little information survives.

Aristoclea (6th century B.C.) was a Greek priestess at Delphi in Ancient Greece. She was cited by many ancient writers as a tutor of the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras; she probably influenced his general outlook of the capacity of numbers to describe all things.

Aspasia (ca. 470 BC–ca. 400 BC), a Milesian woman involved with the Athenian statesman Pericles. Mentioned in the writings of Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon, and other authors of the day in philosophical dialogues. Some report she a brothel keeper, although these accounts were oft-written by comic poets. She *was* a "hetaera", or courtesan.

Arete of Cyrene (fl. late 5th and early 4th centuries BCE) was the head of the Cyrenaic school which followed Socrates. Her son was nicknamed "Mother-taught" and some historians say she was an ancient Greek philosopher who taught both natural and moral philosophy in Attica. Although she is said to have written 40 books, no fragments of her work or accounts of its content are available.

Hypatia of Alexandria, born between 350 and 370 AD – 415 AD) was a Greek Platonist philosopher, the first notable woman in mathematics, and also taught in the fields of astronomy and astrology. She lived in Alexandria in Roman Egypt at the turn of the 5th century, at a time when paganism was actively suppressed. Her fame stems principally from her murder in 415 AD at the hands of a Christian mob.

2) In the middle-ages and modern times we have better records.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098 – 1179) was an artist, author, counselor, dramatist, linguist, naturalist, philosopher, physician, poet, political consultant, prophet, visionary, and a composer of music. She wrote theological, naturalistic, botanical, medicinal, and dietary texts, also letters, liturgical songs, poems, and morality plays, while supervising brilliant miniature illuminations. She wrote the early equivalent of opera, invented an alphabet and, due to he invention of words for lyrics and constructed scripts, is believed to have been influential in the transformation of medieval Latin. Her works also include the first scientific treatise of female sexuality and orgasm, although she also condemned the misuse of carnal pleasures.

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1623 - 1673), was an English aristocrat and a prolific writer of poety, philosophy, prose romances, and plays. Her writing addressed a number of topics, including gender, power and manners. She also wrote on the subject of natural philosophy, alargely male-dominated field. Her romance "The Blazing World" is one of the earliest examples of science fiction. Samuel Pepys called her "mad, conceited and ridiculous."

As a natural philosopher, Margaret Cavendish rejected the Aristotelianism and mechanical philosophy. She engaged with the theories of members of the Royal Society of London and the natural philosophers Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes and Robert Boyle, favouring the Stoics.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 - 1797) was a British writer, philosopher and feminist. Wollstonecraft is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education. She suggests that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagines a social order founded on reason. Her response to Burke's condemnation of the French revolution contains excellent and appropriate use of rhetorical logic

George Elliot aka Mary Anne Evans (1819 – 1880), better known by her pen name George Eliot, was an English novelist. Of philosophical interest is that George Elliot explored notions of Comte's positivism in her novels.

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) was a French philosopher, novelist and social commentator and, along with partner Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the key figures in modern French existentialism. The Ethics of Ambiguity is perhaps the most accessible point of entry into that subject. Of particular philsophical note see also the chapter on Existential Psychoanalysis in "The Second Sex". As can be expected of an existentialist philosopher her works were often personal, dealing with "the female condition", life experiences and aging.

Ayn Rand (1905 - 1982) , a Russian-born American novelist and philosopher, best known for creating a philosophy she named "Objectivism". She was greatly influenced by Aristotle and Nietzsche, and opposed to the views of Kant; Rand to consider him a "monster." Their divergence is greatest in ontology and epistemology, rather than the ethics. In Objectivist epistemology, reason is the highest virtue, and reason and logic can be used to understand objective reality. Rand held that the only moral social system is laissez-faire capitalism. Rand's philosophy is not particularly sophisticated; perhaps on the level of a skilled undergraduate - her theory survives however through her institutions - not unlike L.Ron Hubbard's Church of Scientology.

Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe (1919 - 2001), a British analytic philosopher and student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, editing and translating many books drawn from his writings, including "Philosophical Investigations". She wrote on the philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, philosophical logic, philosophy of language, and ethics. Her 1958 article "Modern Moral Philosophy" introduced the term "consequentialism" into the language of analytic philosophy. "Intention" is her most significant work, continuing philosophical interest in the concepts of intention, action and practical reasoning. She also had a claim to fame for soundly defeating C.S. Lewis at Oxford University's Socratic Club over Lewis's argument that naturalism was self-refuting.

Judith Butler (1956 - ) is an American post-structuralist philosopher who has contributed to the fields of feminism, queer theory, political philosophy, and ethics. Her 1990 book "Gender Trouble" was enormously popular, arguing the coherence of the categories of sex, gender, and sexuality is culturally constructed through the repetition of stylized acts in time i.e., they are performance acts. It is on the basis of the construction of natural binary sex that binary gender and heterosexuality are likewise constructed as natural.

Susan Haack (1945 - ) is an English professor of philosophy and law at the University of Miami. She has made contributions in the fields of philosophy of language, epistemology and metaphysics. Books she has written include: Deviant Logic (1974), Philosophy of Logics (1978), Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate: Unfashionable Essays (1998) and Defending Science: Within Reason Between Scientism and Cynicism (2003). Her major contribution to philosophy is her epistemological theory called foundherentism, which is her attempt to avoid the logical problems of both pure foundationalism (which is susceptible to infinite regress) and pure coherentism (which is susceptible to circularity).

3) Biology or Sociology? Or... Female Ontology!

Brains or Patriarchy

Recent studies (Deary et al.) compared IQ scores from 1292 pairs of opposite-sex siblings.. They describe finding a 1 IQ point sized difference in mean scores favoring males; however there was larger difference in variance with nearly twice as many males as females in the extremes.

Patriarchy describes the structuring of society on the basis of family units, in which fathers have primary responsibility and rulership for the welfare of these units. According to New Internationalist (July 1980), women make up 1/2 of the popoultion, 2/3rds of the world's working hours, receive 1/10th of the global income and own 1/100th of the world's property.

Masculine Logic?

Logic textbooks often contain strings of ordinary English sentences into logical notation and then appraising the formal correctness of the inferences they comprise; these contain cultural biases.

In "Words of Power: A Feminist Reading of the History of Logic", Nye argues that logic is inherently repressive arguing that the dominance of logic and reason over feelings and emotions is meant to silence opposition. A link is made between the logician Frege and Hitler!

"Hitler...guided by sentiments not unlike the ones expressed in Frege's diary, worked out the master-logic of National Socialism. ..National Socialism thought like Frege's, did not concern itself with empirical content. ...No personal experience could negate [its] body of truth. The applications of logic to action that Frege had promised came readily to hand. If Jews are a mongrel race, they must be exterminated. 'A thought like a hammer' [Frege's phrase] demanded instant obedience to the dictates of logic." (Nye, p. 169)

Nye's Feminist Reading of the History of Logic ends with these words: "Logic in its final perfection is insane."

Female Epistemology

Feminist epistemology began to appear in the early 1980s. Normative distinctions are understood by feminists both in epistemic terms (providing genuine knowledge) and in terms of justice (working towards more just social situations). Sandra Harding's 1986 book "The Science Question in Feminism" developed a taxonomy consisting of three basic approaches-feminist empiricism, feminist standpoint theory and feminist postmodernism, each progressively more radical in their epistemological commitments.

While feminist empiricists accepted positivist principles of value-neutral inquiry and criticized actual scientific practice for failing to live up to these ideals, feminist standpoint theorists suggested that knowledge must necessarily be "socially-situated" and perspectival, and they argued that some perspectives, such a the perspective of feminists, were epistemically privileged. Postmodernists, however, questioned whether any particular perspective could be said to be privileged over any other, leading them down the path of relativism.