Academic journal article The Monist

Cutting through the Veil of Ignorance: Rewriting the History of Philosophy

Academic journal article The Monist

Cutting through the Veil of Ignorance: Rewriting the History of Philosophy

Article excerpt

Our knowledge of the history of philosophy is always partial. Each generation only partially knows its own tradition because each sees the history of philosophy as framed by contemporary categories, philosophical as well as cultural. The history of philosophy as a whole is thus a record of inclusions and exclusions, of forgetting and rediscovering. The philosophy of the present is not the book on the top of the pile containing all the information in the books below. Rather, the pile of books discloses multiple worlds of ideas, which we can explore to discover insights alternative to those currently popular, some of which we may never have heard of. Such a wealth of new insights is offered by the study of the history of women philosophers, where the criteria for inclusion and exclusion differ from those applied in the mainstream. The record of the work of women philosophers was never highly regarded, as their writings were excluded for reasons of cultural misogyny. Now, however, we have a major body of work informing us about women philosophers from antiquity up to the present.1

As the historical records prove, women have long been creating original contributions to philosophy. We have valuable writings from female philosophers from antiquity and the Middle Ages, and a continuous tradition from the Renaissance to today. The history of women philosophers thus stretches back as far as the history of philosophy itself. The presence as well as the absence of women philosophers throughout the course of history parallels the history of philosophy as a whole. Edith Stein, Hannah Arendt, and Simone de Beauvoir, the most famous representatives of this tradition in the twentieth century, did not appear from nowhere. They stand, so to speak, on the shoulders of the female titans who came before them.

Although women were restricted in their access to education and participation in society, such restrictions could not completely prevent them from thinking and writing. Incorporating their ideas into the history of philosophy means much more than simply adding a second pile of books adjacent to the first one. When we investigate the history of female philosophers, we do not merely exchange one canon for another, in which the same things are said and the same topics examined. Rather, the canon shaped by female philosophers has its own characteristics and traditions, and it can be read both as a history of resistance and critique, and as a tradition of advances and of original contributions. The material brought to light gives us cause to rethink both our concepts and interpretations of the history of philosophy in general and our view of the history of female philosophers in particular.

1. METHODOLOGICAL REFLECTIONS

"This world has always belonged to males," Beauvoir wrote in 1949 in her The Second Sex. There she presented an impressive number of names of women philosophers, including Aspasia, Marie de Goumay, Emilie du Châtelet, Mary Wollstonecraft and many more, some of whom are now considered to form part of the canon of women philosophers. Beauvoir, however, dedicated no further study to these authors, convinced that women were forced into absence, and, whenever visible, mirrored the values of men.2 Similarly, the feminist historian Gerda Lerner-though she herself had access to an even larger amount of relevant material, including works of female authors from the Middle Ages-repeated Beauvoir's comments in 1993, writing that "current scholarship holds that women made no significant impact on the writing of history until the late 18th century." Like Beauvoir, Lerner judged female work through a male lens, thereby reducing women's achievements to copies of "the same pattern men had much earlier created." Lerner denied that earlier women had possessed the innovative potential to be philosophers, because "women were then already educationally disadvantaged," and "did not significantly participate in the creation of the [culture's] symbol system. …

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