Reading classical male philosophers through a feminist lens

Feminists may read philosophers in new and important ways.  Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this is Annette Baier’s reading of Hume, in which she strongly resists the traditional individualist readings of him and  reveals the extent  to which Hume saw society as important in the development of the varieties of human excellence.  Jenny Lloyd and Jackie Taylor are two people who have also contributed to this understanding of Hume.

Nancy Tuana’s series, ReReading the Canon, has encouraged feminists to embark on such re-understandings, and I’m wondering whether readers of this blog have thought about feminist readings of the classical philosophers, either in that series or elsewhere.  If so, which have been particularly helpful to you, do you think?  Or helpful to the community’s more accurate understanding of the philosopher?

The historical re-reading can overlap with another kind of re-reading, one in which feminists provide a critique of a topic in philosophy and its standard treatment.  Here too often the themes of the critique can show up in work the guys produce and when it does it arguably gets a much more sustained audience.  Readers might want also to mention when and when  this has happened.

And if you are an editor of a volume in the Re-reading series, please feel free to mention your authors!  (The same goes if you are one of the authors.)

7 thoughts on “Reading classical male philosophers through a feminist lens

  1. Annette Baier was my thesis supervisor’s thesis supervisor, and since I’ve done some work in Hume, she always stands out for me. Lilli Alanen has also done some splendid work in this vein on the Cartesians. They are always among the first scholars I check when starting a new line of inquiry into those areas. I also like Margaret Atherton, and while I think she tends to take a slightly different approach than this, the article in which she looks at the Cartesian concept of reason and how it was used by a number of women philosophers to support egalitarianism could perhaps be regarded as an excellent example of work of this sort, or at least close cousin to it. (And could stand to be more widely read, I think.)

    Outside of my specialty (but still in my hobbies), I enjoyed Susanne DeCrane’s Aquinas, Feminism, and the Common Good despite disagreeing with some of its moves in interpretation (and that’s saying something, because I tend to be very finicky and hard to please when it comes to interpretations of Aquinas); and I liked Anne-Marie Bowery’s discussion of the Augustine-Monica relationship in her contribution to Feminist Interpretations of Saint Augustine.

    Those are the ones I can think of offhand. While I think a lot of feminist history of philosophy is uneven (like a lot of history of philosophy, frankly, because it’s difficult to do well), I largely like the ReReading the Canon series; good work in the field requires fresh eyes that aren’t just seeing things, and in all the volumes I’m competent to judge, this seems largely to be what you get.

  2. Although this is not rereading the canon, when I teach political philosophy, I use Jim Sterba’s anthology because it includes critiques from feminist and ethnic perspectives, following each classic. For example, Carole Pateman’s critique of Hobbes is wonderful. I find that this helps me reread from a feminist perspective.

  3. I had to loan it out the day after I got my copy, so I haven’t taken a close yet, but Karen Warren’s An unconventional history of western philosophy seems like a very promising textbook. Warren has many canonical male philosophers (maybe 15 or 20?) paired up with contemporaneous female philosophers: Plato and Diotima, Descartes and Elizabeth, Locke and Wollstonecraft, Dewey and Adams, Wittgenstein and Anscombe. She does include introductory essays to each pair, but it didn’t look like she was doing a lot of direct feminist interpretive history of philosophy. The idea, I guess, was to challenge the prevailing assumption that good female philosophers were rare until recently.

  4. JJ, Thanks for mentioning my work. Taking the feminist perspective makes a difference, and I recently served on a Ph.D. committee for a student whose thesis gave a feminist reading of Hume. Btw, the International Hume Conference in 2010 will have “Hume and Feminism” as a theme (the first time in the history of the conference).
    When teaching early modern I regularly use Tom Wartenberg’s essay on Descartes and Elisabeth from the Feminist Interpretations volume on Descartes; Samantha Frost’s work on Hobbes, and Annette Baier’s classic “Master Passions” on Hume.

  5. Great References; thanks so much, JT. I hope our readers look your important work.

    I have a thing on Hume which has been heavily criticized by a few, including one person who said it is the sort of thing that gives feminist philosophy a bad name. It would be great fun to pick up the controversy at that conference. Somehow the title ‘A Crone’s Guide to Inconsistency’ seems fun.

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