Query from a reader

Our old friend Brandon writes:

I’m currently re-thinking my Introduction to Philosophy and Ethics courses, and one thing I would like to do is to give the contributions of women a somewhat greater prominence in both. The Ethics course (which is a pretty standard utilitarianism/Kantianism/virtue ethics course, ending with some focus on particular problems, including women’s issues) is especially weak in this regard at present, but I think it’s the easiest one to remedy — Nussbaum, Arendt, O’Neill, and Foot all already get discussed at least briefly in the course of it, so it’s just a matter of bringing them out more completely. (Although I’d love any other suggestions for it.) The real puzzle I’m having is with the Intro course. Currently I have some Elizabeth of Bohemia (when doing Descartes) and Lady Mary Shepherd (when doing Hume), and end in a (very, very) brief look at contemporary feminist philosophy. But since it’s organized historically this means that it all comes at the very end of the course. I do discuss briefly the limited but real egalitarianism among the ancient Platonists and Neoplatonists, as I also do with the egalitarianism of James Beattie (but he comes toward the end of the course again). But I’ve been trying to think of ways to make the course less end-heavy without breaking the historical approach and haven’t come up with much. But other people are bound to have come up with something that they’ve found useful, so I was hoping to start collecting suggestions along these lines.

I’m a big believer in the importance of having *something* along these lines. I came to college from a pretty conservative Southern Baptist background, not exactly what you would think of as a target demographic for feminist philosophy. But I had a teacher for Intro and for Continental who explicitly brought feminist philosophy into the courses (Beauvoir in Intro, and feminist appropriations of Hegel, on which he had done work, in Continental), and I also had a teacher for 17th & 18th century who used Atherton’s book on women philosophers in the early modern period, and between the two of them they sparked a lasting interest, simply by having these things as part of their courses. So I’ve always tried to do something similar; but I’ve lately begun to wonder if there might be other opportunities I’m missing.

29 thoughts on “Query from a reader

  1. For ethics, would recommend inclusion of Mary Midgely. Cannot figure out how/why she is so often left out in Ethics courses.

    For Intro, why not consider Murdoch on Plato, and, because I am on a seemingly permanent campaign, I would suggest the inclusion of the female pragmatists, particularly Charlotte Perkins Gilman – Charlene Haddock Seigfried has a book out that is an excellent introduction to them. For Mediaeval era, you could consider Teresa of Avila.

    So pleased to hear about your efforts to include women in the syllabus. That’s always the first thing that goes on my teacher evaluations!

  2. The suggestion of Teresa of Avila brings up a worry for me. Now, I’ve not read all of her writings by any means, and it was several years ago that I read what I did read (_The Interior Castle_, which I think is taken to be her most important work, though I’m no expert.) But, I’d contend, at least the stuff of hers that I’ve read is not really philosophy. This isn’t some attempt to police the borders of philosophy. But surely we can agree that some things are philosophy and some are not. And, her work, or at least _The Interior Castle_, both is very much not like what we think of as philosophy, even the philosophy of her own time, and, perhaps more importantly, fits quite well into another type of work- that of the religious mystic- that was also flourishing at her time. We (mostly, at least) have no desire to include people like St. John of the Cross or other writers of mystic religious experience in our philosophy classes, though her work has much more in common with the mystical tradition than it does even with her philosophical contemporaries. But I don’t mean this to be a narrow point about Saint Teresa. Rather, I think that it’s important, when looking for women to include in a philosophy class, to make sure that the women included are at least fairly easily recognizable _as philosophers_, or at least as _doing philosophy_, because if this is not so, I think there’s serious reason to worry about a result opposite of the one intended. If the included women all seem to be (and often are, I’d argue, in the case of Saint Teresa) doing something other than philosophy, it will look to many students like only special pleading could justify including them in the course. That may lead many to think that women really are not and cannot be philosophers- surely not the conclusion we want. So, I’d suggest caution here. (Of course, there are significant historical examples that are recognizably doing philosophy- many women in the early modern period, Mary Wollstoncraft, etc.)

  3. My intro classes always do a Survey Of Various Historical Greats (SOVHG), and then end the last two or three weeks on just working through one author’s short monograph, bringing to bear what we’ve learned from the SOVHG.

    For the last several years, I’ve ended PHIL101 on Mary Midgley’s _Wickedness_. It is not a book for ethics (although of course Katherine’s right that other Midgley works offer a lot to ethics, too). It is a book reflecting on many of the things that the SOVHG covered: dualism, the problem of evil, the rationality of belief, determinism vs. free will, etc.

    If you don’t elect to use Midgley, consider other 20th-century women’s monographs as a way to bring women into intro without making their womanness the subject. (Not sure if that last sentence made sense!, but hope you get the gist of what I’m saying.)

  4. I’m reading Annette Baier’s The Commons of the Mind, and its first chapter could be used to introduce a very important perspective on Descartes. She notes that Descartes thinks reason is in each of us whole and entire. Lots of people notice his individualism, but fail, I think, to see how to question this aspect. That means that one would bring in a theme – the social nature of knowledge – quite early on.

  5. Hello Brandon,

    I’ve published some work on Hume and in the course of my research have developed an interest in woman philosophers of the early modern period. Jacqueline Broad’s book ‘Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century’ is a really interesting read. It’s an account of the intellectual role that six female philosophers – Elizabeth of Bohemia, Margaret Cavendish, Anne Conway, Mary Astell, Damaris Cudworth Masham and Catharine Trotter Cockburn – played in the seventeenth century. In addition to Princess Elizabeth’s correspondence with Descartes, Broad critically discusses Margarent Cavendish’s writings on Descartes and Hobbes, Anne Conway’s writings on Descartes and Spinoza, Astell’s writings about Descartes, Malebranche and Locke, Damaris Masham’s correspondence with Locke and Leibniz and Catharine Trotter Cockburn’s defence of some of the views of Locke and Samuel Clarke.

    The early modern period is not my AOS and I’m sure there’s probably more out there on the women philosophers of that time. Since these women critically engage with well-known philosophers of the early modern period perhaps you could include them on an Intro course as critics (and defenders) of the better known philosophers ?

    Good luck !

  6. I include the following in Classical Moral Theories: Pythagorean Women Philosophers, Christine de Pizan , Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Mary, Lady Chudleigh, Wollstonecraft, Harriet Martineau and Harriet Taylor.

    Christine dePizan, in particular, brings me to tears for her argument against the claim that women want to be raped – in 1405- OMG !!

  7. Thanks, everyone; this is very helpful so far.

    I hadn’t thought at all of Mary Midgley, and of some of the others mentioned here, so I’ll definitely start thinking of whether I can put them in. I’ve thought of using Christine de Pizan, but I’d completely forgotten about the argument against rape, which actually would fit something in the course already and would, of course, bring home to at least some students the seriousness of the issue, for the same reason Sophia mentions, so I’ll have to look it up again. And I’ll have to go back and re-read Baier. One of the things the comments here are making me realize is that I’m much rustier than I thought: a lot of possibilities that should have come to mind never did, and lots of things I’ve read that might be good I don’t really remember. I’ve read pretty much everything Baier’s written at some point (she was my thesis supervisor’s thesis supervisor), and not only did she not even occur to me, I can’t remember the Descartes chapter in Commons. It makes me very glad that I asked for suggestions.

    Teresa of Avila is an interesting suggestion. I’ve actually considered Teresa of Avila specifically, and I think a good case can be made for her as doing serious philosophical work, even though it was, so to speak, a sideline in her main work (but this is true of most medieval philosophers). Edith Stein’s use and development of some of her ideas is part of what convinces me of this. But when we’re talking about an intro survey class, I always find myself baffled as to how one would teach undergraduates to draw out the philosophical elements in the short time available. It’s sort of like the fact that for my Ethics course I’ve seriously considered using Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (for completely independent reasons), which touches on all sorts of ethical issues and seems deliberately to be itself a sort of ethical argument against a popular set of ethical views in Austen’s day. You could do a lot with it, and I really want to do it someday if it’s possible. But I have not yet figured out at all how I would build a course that does what I need to do for the course and does reasonable justice to Austen’s ethical thought and would be manageable for the students who take my Ethics course. If I can’t make it meet all three goals it’s a no-go, and I’m having the same problem with St. Teresa.

    Please keep suggestions coming; the ones so far have been great!

  8. I had a similar question to Brandon’s, though I was mainly interested in recent monographs by women. There are two qualifications: they have to be accessible to students with no background in philosophy, and they have to be under 15 bucks or so (since I use 4-5 a semester). For instance, currently I use books like John Searle’s “Mind, Language, and Society,” or Michael Walzer’s “Arguing about War” or “Just and Unjust Wars.” I looked up the works by Baier and Midgley suggested above, and they both look like they would work very well–especially Midgley’s “Wickedness,” which looks awesome. Any other suggestions? I’d be very grateful!

  9. i find that it is often just as useful to point out the operation of sex/gender in the work of the “greats” as to work to include women philosophers in the syllabus (of course it works best to do both!). this includes discussion of the gendered language of the Second Treatise, for example, or the exclusion of the flute girl from the Symposium, or Hegel’s claim that women are unsuited to study philosophy, as they have no self-conscious understanding for the universal or the ideal. i often wrap this into a discussion about the use of gender-neutral language in writing academic papers; it makes what seems like a somewhat arbitrary (and often historically problematic) rule into a philosophical discussion. it’s useful to make explicit what is implicit in these texts; otherwise it kind of feels like we can’t talk about it, or that these statements are simply mistakes, and not the subject of a truly philosophical conversation.

    i also think that de Beauvoir’s underappreciated Ethics of Ambiguity or the Held text on care ethics might be good to include in an ethics course, or the introduction to The Second Sex in an intro course.

  10. For monographs, you might look at Kathleen Dean Moore’s books in philosophy of nature. She has several including Pine Island Paradox, and most recently Wild Comfort.

  11. Karen J. Warren’s An Unconventional History of Western Philosophy presents excerpts from 15 contemporary pairs of male and female philosophers, from Plato/Diotima through Sartre/Beauvoir (details).

  12. Re recent monographs by women: It’s pretty shameless suggesting my own book, but here goes–The Weight of Things: Philosophy and the Good Life. Suitable for undergraduates, but I’m afraid over $15.

  13. Re: recent monographs by women, I would recommend Susan Wolf’s Meaning in Life and Why it Matters. Very accessible. Also Marya Schechtman, The Constitution of Selves, and Debra Satz: Why Some Things Should Not be for Sale. None is under $15 new, but all are under $30 (some under $25) and presumably used copies can be found for about $15.

  14. Another monograph is Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self, by Susan Brison. I see on Amazon that there are new copies for $15 and used in the $7 range. This book is difficult reading and might evoke some rape stories from a few students (in private)–I know it has for me. But it’s very gripping and it does a lot to relate philosophy to one’s personal life. It would work especially well with Descartes, because Brison talks quite a lot about the mind/body split.

  15. Many thanks for all these suggestions. It will make a big difference for me and my students in upcoming semesters.

  16. I love Jane Austen, especially Mansfield Park, and agree with Brandon that Mansfield Park would be a great book to make the focus of an ethics class. So witty and profound, and expressing ideas, concepts and insights that perhaps cannot be adequately expressed outside a novel.

    I am afraid I cannot off the top of my head make suggestions regarding how to successfully incorporate it into an ethics class, but would love to hear people’s ideas. And if anyone is toying with writing an Intro to Ethics textbook, one centred on Jane Austen/Mansfield Park would be unique, very worthwhile and interesting & enjoyable to read; and (so) might just sell well…

  17. To build off Tina’s suggestion: I know Alasdair MacIntyre mentions Austen somewhere in the second half of After virtue, and maybe even mentions Mansfield Park specifically. Since I think having undergraduates read After virtue — especially in an Intro to Ethics class — would simply be disastrous, I’d recommend one of these three:
    (1) reading Austen with the relevant sections of After virtue;
    (2) reading Austen with some or all of MacIntyre’s Dependent rational animals, which makes similar points in a more accessible way; or
    (3) reading Austen with some other virtue ethics. Sadly, nothing specific comes to my mind here, but perhaps there’s something by Foot et al. that would work well.

  18. I’ve paired Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to very good effect.

    I’ve used Aftermath in so many classes I’ve lost count! She reflects on personal identity over time, so eloquently and in such a life-or-death way that no student ends up thinking it’s a mere philosophical exercise. Also, not one student walks away from that book saying there’s nothing to feminist philosophy. Whether they end up taking it on as a method themselves, they all respect its use as a lens through which to look at things.

    It’s truly phenomenal. Having said that… I’ve never used it in an intro class, always in a second-, third-, or fourth-year course.

  19. On the Intro course I very much agree with sk on including discussions of the operations of gender in the canonical philosophers. Then you can potentially not leave it until the end of the whole course. For instance, I’ve on occasion done 5 weeks on Descartes then one week looking at Descartes and gender, looking at readings by Genevieve Lloyd and Susan Bordo. This also provides a chance to look at Descartes in his broader context – decline of the medieval worldview, beginnings of modernity, major uncertainties in knowledge on all fronts, period of great uncertainty, etc. etc. You could try similar things with other ‘greats’. I guess I like this because it then also broadens what students are introduced to in terms of what constitutes doing the history of philosophy.
    On ethics, as far as I can see no-one has suggested Carol Gilligan – you could get them to discuss her Jake and Amy example?

  20. Jane Addams: Democracy and Social Ethics, Newer Ideals of Peace, The Long Road of Women’s Memory

  21. Hi Dan – I actually started reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park after reading MacIntyre discuss it in After Virtue! :-) I then went on to read her other books. I had dismissed Jane Austen in my teens after reading the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice without realising it was sardonic…

    Hi ProfbigK – I’d be interested to hear how you went about pairing Mansfield Park with Nichomachean Ethics…

  22. Hello, Tina. As I said, I paired P&P with the Ethics, not Mansfield Park.

    But that was in an experimental first-year seminar which the college intends to be interdisciplinary, and not an introductory philosophy class. I decided on the theme of Character Virtues, and students took to the class extremely well!

  23. Sorry, I meant P&P. So was it that you read about a certain virtue in the NE and then found it illustrated in the P&P?

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  24. We read several chapters of the NE, on virtues, friendship, luck and happiness. Then we read a portion of Rousseau’s Emile and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of Rights of Women. By the time we got to P&P, the students were VERY ready to look for elements of character education, luck in properity (or its opposite) and the ways in which it makes one more likely to be good, the possibility that one can change one’s character, self-knowledge, the role of friends and affectionate relationships in being virtuous, and particular virtues including the quasi-virtue (as Aristotle says) of shame.

  25. I like the Austen suggestion, but wouldn’t one be at least as well served by keeping the virtue ethics closer to home? Though it would take nontrivial amounts of preparation, one could run a *terrific* course—either at the introductory level or, with some supplementation (Baier!), at higher ones—by reading Austen alongside Hume’s moral philosophy.

    (And in fact this generalizes to other periods in British moral philosophy: think of a course that combined a subtle, non-anachronistic reading of Mill with Charlotte Brontë, particularly Jane Eyre…)

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