'Blue-Eyed Philosophers Born on Wednesdays': An Essay on Women and History of Philosophy

By Hutton, Sarah | The Monist, January 2015 | Go to article overview

'Blue-Eyed Philosophers Born on Wednesdays': An Essay on Women and History of Philosophy


Hutton, Sarah, The Monist


The title of my paper is taken from an essay by Eileen O'Neill, in which she exposes the arbitrariness of the criteria by which women philosophers are selected for, or rejected from, inclusion in the annals of philosophical history. In that essay, published in Hypatia in 2005, she highlighted the way definitions of philosophy have been used to exclude women. Here, I discuss historiographical issues relevant to restoring female philosophers of the past to philosophical view today. It is my contention that the difficulties we face in doing so arise not just from gender prejudice, narrow views of what constitutes philosophy, and arbitrary criteria for qualifying to be considered a philosopher (hence the 'blue-eyed,' Wednesday children of the title quote). To include women in the history of philosophy requires changing not just the canon, but the grounds on which the canon is selected: changing the basis on which the received story of philosophy is constructed. Different approaches to the history of philosophy yield different results in relation to the inclusion of women. The approach least hospitable to their inclusion is the conception of the history of philosophy which is dominant in Anglo-American philosophy today. This is paradoxical, because most of the work on women philosophers being done today is being undertaken by philosophers grounded in this tradition. In this essay I argue that the history of philosophy is important for the study and understanding of women philosophers and that it needs to be a fully historicized history of philosophy. I shall do so by reference to one of the most penetrating discussions of the distinction between 'history of philosophy and 'history of ideas', that of Bernard Williams in his essay, "Descartes and the Historiography of Philosophy."1

In the Anglo-American philosophy of the postanalytic period, the prevailing view of the history of philosophy is that it should concern itself with what philosophers today find relevant and interesting in the philosophy of the past. On this view, other aspects of the philosophical past are designated 'the history of ideas.' The result is that Anglo-American history of philosophy focuses on those canonical figures which are now regarded as major philosophers, and on those aspects of their thought believed to have direct relevance today. This view therefore excludes from the purview of the history of philosophy noncanonical figures, themes which no longer command attention, the context (both philosophical and social) in which philosophers philosophized, and what they, in their time, considered relevant and important. It also excludes huge swathes of history not deemed to have contributed anything of significance to philosophy, notably the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Such matters are left to historians of ideas. By contrast, in European traditions, this distinction does not obtain. Here there are historians of philosophy who are comfortable about regarding historical aspects as integral to the history of philosophy, and are less likely to focus on present-day problems as the main driver of investigation.2 European traditions are apparent in the work of two of the most important American historians of philosophy of the second half of the twentieth century, Richard Popkin and Charles Schmitt, both of whom were influenced by the great German refugee historian of Renaissance Philosophy, Paul Oskar Kristeller. Within the Anglo-American tradition, there are honourable exceptions to the rule that historians of philosophy should be attentive solely to present interests: some recent studies of early modern philosophy bring in a wider range of figures for discussion and give some attention to context. The Garber-Ayers Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy is one example. Stephen Nadler's Companion to Early Modem Philosophy is another.3 But the Anglo-American model of the history of philosophy has not served so-called 'minor' figures well. Although a few more 'minor' figures have been admitted for scrutiny in works such as these, elsewhere their fate has been to be relegated to the history of ideas or to oblivion, from which they are only likely to be rescued if they are perceived to be relevant to one of the 'great' philosophers, or if they are found to have said something considered by philosophers now as interesting and important. …

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