Women doing the history of philosophy

A former student of mine recently wrote from one of the London universities that all the women seemed to be doing ancient philosophy. I wondered if it was still the case that women were being steered to the history of philosophy, rather than the standard “male, hard” areas, such as metaphysics, epistemology and phil of language.

Someone even more recently queried the idea that women were being so steered in, say, the 60’s to the 80’s or beyond. I think I’ve heard tons of anecdotes, but I’m wondering whether anything has been written about this tendency. And is it still going on?

I will say that I finished my doctorate thinking of myself as a metaphysician. The first papers I published, however, were from the historical footnotes in my thesis. Even then the one reviewer for one of them said it was too implausible to be published. Talk about feeling out of place! He was overruled, thank goodness.

Please let us know what you know about yourself or other women being encouraged to do history of phil.

Please note that nothing here is meant to say that history is somehow easy. As we learned from recent scholars like Margaret Wilson, doing history well is extremely demanding.

9 thoughts on “Women doing the history of philosophy

  1. First a rant, and then a more positive contribution:
    The rant: As an historian of philosophy, I find this post somewhat frustrating. While Anne maintains that she means no denigration of the history of philosophy, both she and her former student nonetheless seems to be drawing a distinction between historians of philosophy and ‘real’ philosophers. To do good history of philosophy is to do good philosophy. And some of the best philosophers started their careers doing history of philosophy: Donald Davidson and John McDowell come to mind, and no doubt there are more. Still others are historically well-informed (Annette Baier, Christine Korsgaard, Barbara Herman, more). History of philosophy and philosophy are not so easily separated.

    The positive contribution: There are positive reasons for choosing to pursue work in this history of philosophy. For one, most historical figures were generalists or systematic across a range of issues. Pursuing an historical figure means that one can avoid getting embroiled in cottage-industry-like attention to micro-arguments; it also means that one need not focus on epistemology over ethics, say, but rather can both focus on some specific issue while keeping track of how that issue fits with the bigger picture. Working on an historical figure can (though need not) also allow one to keep track of how philosophy fits into a larger context, whether that be the history of science, political history, social history, or something else. At the same time, of course, one needs to keep track of current philosophical discussion so as to ensure that the historical considerations are relevant.
    I might also add that these considerations, as well as others, actually make history of philosophy harder — historians typically need languages (and sometimes dead ones). We need to keep track not only of historical discussions but also scholarship that can have gone on not for decades but for centuries.
    And perhaps because of these considerations, historians of philosophy tend to be a little more humble (we have, perhaps, a better sense of our place in history) and historians of philosophy, in my experience, tend to be constructive in our criticism — there is a recognition of the contingency of interpretation, and a real investment in trying to move discussion and understanding forward rather than simply deliver a knock out punch.
    In short, there are lots of reason for people to prefer to do history of philosophy and not simply get steered into it.

  2. I wonder if this might be influenced by the fact that some of these women come from Classics departments (where the gender balance is much better) and not Philosophy, in which case they have not been “pushed” to the history of philosophy. They might, however, have attracted other women to their field.

  3. The concern of the original post is about a kind of discrimination women in philosophy may have faced. This is a very serious issue, and I hoped to get some help on references for a paper overdue at the editors.

    The underlying problem is this: it had been thought that a way of lessening bias is to increase contact. It also may be true that members of a dominant group can get enough contact so they’ll let the non-dominant into the clubhouse. BUT typically the dominant retain a pre-contact sense of the non-dominant. ALSO, the dominant remain in charge. So the non-dominant get into the clubhouse, but they aren’t really allowed to act on the same terms.

    When I read about this situation, I immediately thought of the stories I had heard about women experiencing guidance toward the history of philosophy as it became easier for us to get into grad school. And I remembered how much easier it was for me to be accepted as a Hume scholar than as someone doing mainstream analytic philosophy after I move to the States.

    It can be very difficult to raise a question about a bias without seeming to be synpathetic to it. And I know some people think I am not a historian even though my published work is about 40% history, I prepared theposthumous publication of M.Wilson’s papers, and I’ve been the president of an interdisciplinary historical society,

  4. As another historian of philosophy, I will concur a bit with Lisa’s rant. In order to be a good historian, you need to be a good philosopher. I studied metaphysics and history, then did my dissertation in history. Without that foundation in metaphysics, I wouldn’t have been able to write on Leibniz. I should add that I was in no way steered to history – I was attracted to it.

    Two more points: (1) there are probably more women in history than in metaphysics, but there are not near as many women in history as there are in ethics. If you include applied ethics I think you might find that ethics is about 40% women where history is maybe 30%. (2) I accompanied my advisors to the “mod squad” (early modern meetings in the northeast) when I was a graduate student. I was amazed by how helpful and constructive the criticisms were. It was as if everyone wanted to see each project through. I think a large part of this is the fact that no one can possibly know everything about the history of philosophy, so everyone lends a hand. It might be the civil way we deal with each other that attracts some.

  5. I am sorry to be a Grinch, but it would be helpful to me if people could speak to women in the 60s and 70s.

  6. I can only speak from a single anecdotal perspective–my own, but I find it difficult to suppose that women were being pushed into the history of philosophy in the 60s and 70s because no one was being pushed into history then. A lot of people who ended up I history then were self trained. In my own case, I went to graduate school interested in history but didnt leave it in history because it was totally not the done thing. And no one inmy graduate program paid enough attention to me to push me into anything. I found my way to history on my own. Those were definitely not the days…

  7. So interesting, Margaret. They were indeed the days.

    The one detailed anecdote I remember – though I don’t remember from whom – is this: male prof was assigning topics on something like necessity, and when he got to the one woman in the class, he said, “you should do Aristotle.” All the other topics were about hot topics alive in the 70’s.

    This was related as an instance of a trend.

  8. Speaking only about Ancient Philosophy, evidence suggests that having role models plays a role in attracting women into a field. In Ancient philosophy, many of the generation of ancient philosophers trained in the 70s and 80s and now senior, are women. There are also some great younger women scholars, especially in London. So Ancient seems a more ‘women friendly’ part of the profession. In short, it may be a case of ‘attraction’ rather than ‘push’

  9. The story Anne tells is one I’ve heard several times; Sally Haslanger is the source. I wound up at Pittsburgh doing ancient philosophy in the 1970’s. Though I didn’t exactly feel directed into it, it was something of a default move. I had done work in various other fields, including several big and well-received papers on metaphysics in various courses, including one on Russell taught by Charles Parsons and some things on the ontology of universals with Sellars. But doing metaphysics meant working with Joe Camp or Wilfrid Sellars, both of whom were out of the question for me for various reasons. Among others, Camp used “fuck” every other word, which I found tedious and ridiculously emulated by students to the point of nausea, he smoked extremely nasty cigars and stank, and Sellars would never look you in the eye or converse with you if you came to his office–he only held forth. I could have worked with Annette Baier, but her sorts of philosophy of mind topics just were not to my taste I could have done philosophy of language but Rich Thomason who was really very nice, was also strange. If you went in his office to talk with him, he would lie down across the desk, stretched out flat, and keep his eyes tightly closed the whole conversation. I never was interested in ethics. This was all before Haugeland and Brandom were developed enough to work with. I didn’t know enough of any particular science to do philosophy of science. I got along well with the ancient people (John Cooper and Alexander Nehamas, and visiting professor Myles Burnyeat) and felt that I was taken seriously by all of them so I decided to work on ancient, and in particular Aristotle’s metaphysics. I felt very well mentored and had great relationships with all of those people. It was also useful that we had a cohort of good people, both male and female, at Pitt doing ancient at the time. Both Camp and Sellars created boys’ clubs as far as i could tell. Camp had some kind of weird following among handball players so the guys would all meet at the gym and be athletic, and back then he talked trash about his wife in front of others in a way I found disgusting. Sellars was not very accessible to any students really, though maybe some had better experiences than me. I never felt he listened to me. I say this although I took three courses from him, admired him, once gave a three-week-long seminar report on Meinong in his course, and learned a great deal–served on my dissertation committee, on which he made useful contributions. Vagaries of philosophical direction at least if you look at my case study are a lot more complex and subtle and really strange than gender alone can account for.

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