Review of Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting, eds., The Philosopher Queens: The Lives and Legacies of Philosophy’s Unsung Women (Unbound, 2020), pp. 288.
Anyone who hangs out in the corridors of academic philosophy will quickly realize that it is a male stronghold. While the proportion of female to male faculty and graduate students is better balanced now than it had been in the past, the ratio remains lopsided. And women’s stories about the antics of philosophy-world still testify to patterns of condescension and patronizing attitudes on the part of male philosophers. Despite progress, the discipline remains an ocean of mansplaining.
This has led some to suggest that philosophy itself is nothing other than mansplaining writ large, and as a result given an outsized cultural cachet that it doesn’t deserve. Maybe the problem with philosophy is that it is permanently wedded to argumentative machismo. This thought was briefly entertained by Robert Nozick who, in the introduction to Philosophical Explanations, criticized his discipline for framing philosophical argument in bellicose, militaristic, macho-chest-thumping terms:
The terminology of philosophical art is coercive: arguments are powerful and best when they are knockdown, arguments force you to a conclusion, if you believe the premises you have to or must believe the conclusion, some arguments do not carry much punch, and so forth. A philosophical argument is an attempt to get someone to believe something, whether he wants to believe it or not. A successful philosophical argument, a strong argument, forces someone to a belief. (p. 4)
If this is what “philosophical art” and argument is, then women might be sorely tempted to declare “the hell with it” and do something else. I have frequently heard this sentiment from many women who never “cathected” to philosophy in the first place. For them, philosophy is just a masculinist pissing-contest, and women have better things to do than join in this nonsensical mansplaining-gone-wild. (Interestingly, the “philosophy is nonsense” trope has also been adopted by the likes of reductive, scientistic naturalists, like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the late Stephen Hawking, for whom philosophy is irrelevant less because it is belligerent and macho but because it is “squishy” and not “hard”. As James Joyce said, in a quite different context, “extremes meet.”)
But mansplaining is a general socio-cultural phenomenon. It is everywhere, and part of the problem is that many mansplainers, whether in philosophy or any other discipline, do not even realize that that’s what they are. Casual and not-so-casual misogyny is ubiquitous in the natural and social sciences, other humanities, the arts, the business world, politics, and so on. Maybe philosophy is not that much of an outlier.
And maybe the kind of rigorous argumentation that is stereotypically philosophical is not thereby archetypally “male”, and maybe there is far more to philosophy than “winning arguments” — like imaginative redescription of the world, a human dialogue extended through human history, and critical generosity of spirit? Maybe philosophy has always exhibited a “feminine side” — after all, Athena and her pet owl are its mythological emblems — as well as having a small-but-significant number of women its ranks?
Rebecca Buxton’s and Lisa Whiting’s collection The Philosopher Queens is thus a very timely and welcome book. The essays in this volume range from accounts of Hypatia and Diotima in the ancient world, to Angela Davis and Iris Marion Young in our own time. While the essays are concise, each of them is detailed enough to form a kind of “very, very short introduction” to the role each of these women have played in philosophical reflection, from within a range of traditions East and West, and shows clearly that the problem of “women in philosophy” is less one of presence and substance than of visibility.
Most of the women profiled in The Philosopher Queens lived and wrote in the 20th century, with important exceptions like Harriet Taylor Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft. Important biographical information in mixed in with an exposition of the philosophy they produced. I found it interesting, yet also surprising, to learn that Edith Stein did much of the research for Husserl’s Phenomenology and Internal Time-Consciousness, for which she received no credit, or that Iris Marion Young survived a harrowing childhood marked by neglect and abuse. The chapters put the lie to the sort of claim made by Heidegger, among others, that the personal joys, pains, and stories of philosophers are irrelevant to their thinking. But you would not fully understand Angela Davis’s radicalism without placing in the context of being a black woman in the late 1960s in the United States. Nor would you fully grasp Simone de Beauvoir’s underappreciated originality as a philosopher, or her ruminations on how “femininity” can function as a prison, without seeing her trying to get out from under the shadow of her lover Jean-Paul Sartre. Biography may not be decisive in assessing a philosopher’s work, but knowing it certainly helps one understand why a philosopher’s thought has the contours that it does.
The book also keeps hagiography at arm’s length. Buxton’s chapter on Hannah Arendt is especially interesting insofar as she pulls no punches when it comes to Arendt’s blind spots on race and racism in the USA: we need to acknowledge that the character of women philosophers can be just as obtuse as those of their male counterparts. (Although it should be noted that, in a 1965 letter to Ralph Ellison, Arendt had the humility to acknowledge that she was wrong about the American black experience, and retracted her notorious negative opinions on school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas. A bit too late, and not public enough, but salient nonetheless.)
One remarkable set of chapters is devoted to four women who flourished in philosophy at Oxford in the early 1940s through the 1960s: Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Warnock, and Mary Midgley. (A fifth member of this group, Philippa Foot, is mentioned only in passing, which is understandable insofar as “the trolley problem”, for which she is most famous and justly so, is already well-known and, frankly, suffering from overexposure.) This “golden age” of women at Oxford was “in part, made possible by the relative absence of men within the student body on account of the war.” (p. 89) Midgley is particularly important today, as one of her key ambitions was to distinguish the natural sciences, especially evolutionary biology, from the reductionistic scientism of Jacques Monod and Richard Dawkins, among others. At the center of our current cultural crises is ignorance about science, leading to a dismissal of scientific claims about human evolution, pandemics, and global warming. One might be misled into thinking that Midgley’s skepticism about making science into a quasi-religion is not what our times demand, at best. But the opposite is true. By showing the limits of natural science, and how it can be subtly transformed into an ideology that misses essential features of human existence, her work actually solidifies the authority of science and its practitioners as competent judges in their proper scientific fields. Midgley is far less well known than she ought to be, at least in the United States, and I was happy to see her life and work, equally interesting and engaging, portrayed here.
The Philosopher Queens is an ambitious book, but not overambitious: it gives one a quick glimpse of the substantial if underappreciated role women have played in philosophy and should prompt one to go read the primary texts. It is inspiring and should put to rest the idea that philosophy is an exclusively masculinist domain, whether one takes that to be a good or a bad thing. While there remains a need for a more inclusive academia, The Philosopher Queens is a good sign that, thankfully, the age of philosophical mansplaining is ending.
As Lady Gaga’s fans might put it: Yaasss Queens!