Friday, February 7, 2020

Resolution Read, Week 6: Early Modern Women Philosophers

Whoever would've thought it'd be so hard to read one item of my own choice (rather than dictated by deadlines or teaching) per week? Uh, well, me, which is why this was not-a-resolution.

However, at the end of another busy week I had 30 minutes to spare, so I picked up something I'd downloaded a few days earlier:

Eileen O'Neill, "Early Modern Women Philosophers and the History of Philosophy", Hypatia 20, no. 3 (Summer, 2005): pp. 185-197

Why did I download this? Because Wednesday I needed to suggest some potential referees for a paper on a 19th C woman philosopher, and went to google. What I found was interesting: In the context of people who are interested in rehabilitating the history of women in philosophy, a disproportionate amount of time is spent on the 17th and 18th century. I found almost nothing that focused on the 19th century. (This gives me some hope that the paper I submitted on Tuesday will find a niche to fill -- but also makes me sad that it'll be basically impossible to find any other philosopher who has written on this particular woman before.)

Why focus on women philosophers in the 17th and 18th century? Well, certainly one benefit is that this is a period in which women were increasingly writing more and more, and writing more and more in readable vernaculars. (I mean, no one disputes that medieval women philosophers and mystics were also writing in the vernacular, but more people probably know medieval Latin than Middle English, Middle French, or Old German. And compared to any of these languages, Early Modern English and Early Modern/Modern French are much more accessible.) Another reason people focus on these women is, as O'Neill notes, that their importance is demonstrated "by the numerous editions and translation of their texts that continued to appear into the nineteenth century" (p. 186). Not only that, but there were large numbers of men philosophers who wrote on these 17th- and 18th-century women in the 19th century, thus further contributing to them being a part of a longer conversation.

One wonders, therefore, where the 19th-century women fit into this. Were the men reading and commentating on women of the previous centuries alone, or were they in dialogue with women as well? And where are the 20th-century men discussing the works of 19th-century women? For the former question, O'Neill gestures towards a negative answer: "by the nineteenth century, much of the published material by women once deemed philosophical no longer seemed so" (p. 186). This idea that what women were doing in this period is not philosophy appears to be reinforced in Mary Warnock's choice of whom to include in her anthology of 17th-21st C women philosophers, based on an underlying conception of what philosophy is that O'Neill criticises on pp. 191-192.

The gap in the market for discussions of 19th-century women philosophers is noted by O'Neill in her paper: when

in the mid-1990s a publishing company decided to produce a supplement for one of its reference works on philosophy...a feminist philosopher who was on the editorial board had encouraged the press to include in the supplement a number of entries on women philosophers...It was never explained to women philosophers from the nineteenth century were included (p. 190)

Hopefully, things have improved in the last 15 years, and this gap no longer exists.

In the end, why did I read a paper on early modern women philosophers, when the woman philosopher I was interested in lived at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century? In part because there is no such corresponding paper for that period, and reading O'Neill's paper gave me space for interesting reflections as to why.

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