The History of Philosophy as a giant poster, but without women (again).

The History of Philosophy as a giant poster, but without women (again)..

It just oughtn’t to be acceptable anymore for members of the profession to react to this depiction of the history of our discipline without protest.

Significant or interesting philosophers of the past were NOT all men, and even if women were a minority, it is not such a small minority that it couldn’t show in a pictorial representation.

I am not saying that the creator of the poster is to blame, but that we, as professional philosophers, should probably not consider using this as a teaching resource.

21 thoughts on “The History of Philosophy as a giant poster, but without women (again).

  1. Also remarkably white, even for a history of “western” philosophy. It skips from 526CE to 1100CE, and “The Middle Ages” is limited to white, Christian, Italian and northern European scholastics, which results in the somewhat amusing later inclusion of “Averroism” but not Averroes. Medieval Neo-Platonism is represented solely by Boethius!

  2. I think the fact that it’s called “history of philosophy” and it’s EXCLUSIVELY limited to WHITE men is more significant than the fact that it’s limited to men. Because even with the official sexist history/narrative, there’s no way to talk about the history of philosophy and not mention Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Al‑Ghazali, Maimonides, etc…. Disturbing!

  3. It seems that the poster’s creator is a student of philosophy and not a professional philosopher. Since this is the case, this poster really stands as a representation of the problem with the way we teach philosophy to students. Why would a student represent the history of philosophy as western, white, and male? Because that’s the way we’re still teaching the history of philosophy. And it’s about time we do something about that.

  4. And indeed, in the other three volumes of ME Waithe’s history. It’s not hard to find women philosophers! But I agree with CB that the very fact that an ex philosophy student wouldn’t think to look reflects badly on the way we teach history of philosophy. That arabic medieval philosophers are not in the poster is problematic (although I’m not sure that calling the ancient crowd ‘white’ is very accurate) but I don’t see why it’s worse than missing out women altogether.

  5. HP: there is no snark in anonymous’ answer: this book contains a wealth of texts by ancient female philosophers. The idea is not that those who want women in should handpick a couple and beg for their inclusion, but that generally, students of philosophy should be educated to read texts by philosophers of the past when they are available (and some of us are working hard to make sure texts by women are) and form their conception of the history of the discipline accordingly.

  6. I have no idea Happy.

    All three volumes of ME Waithe’s history are on my yet-to-be-read list, and I’m not that great at history of philosophy just yet. But yes, I’d like to know more so that I can better answer the question you’ve raised. And I’d like to answer that question because when I teach people who are non-white or non-male about interesting and difficult problems, I want them to know that I know that white men aren’t the only people capable of having anything to say on the matters.

  7. I wonder if a depiction of the history of philosophy of the sort in this poster *should* be a depiction of the real historical influence of philosophers and their actual *perceived* importance over time–a document of how it really developed rather than how it *ought* to have developed. If so, it should show us the influence of sexism and racism, not erase it.

    By analogy, I mentioned this poster on another blog to complain that it leaves out Marxism and Critical Theory, which it should have at least mentioned. But it’s overemphasis on French continental is still accurate, since that has, in fact, and unfortunately, been more influential.

    In continental philosophy, the absence of Beauvoir and Arendt is a major flaw. But to simply point to a text like that History of Women Philosophers doesn’t seem helpful, since the question might in part be: which women philosophers were in fact more influential on the development of philosophy’s history than other philosophers, and which were, rightly or wrongly, perceived as important over the course of that development?

    Teaching the history is another matter, of course. Part of our job in teaching it is to correct the mistakes of the past, to give attention to the equally great philosophers who were previously ignored, to change our students preconceptions of what the field should be. But I don’t think that’s what a poster like this is about, really.

  8. Jean, true, but how many figures in that painting should have been included in a poster like this? Ptolemy? Zoroaster? Euclid?

  9. To echo Axiothea’s concern, I’m confused by the use of the term ‘white’ by several of the above commentators to refer to ancient Greek philosophers. Do the commentators on this message board really think that contemporary Western racial categories apply straightforwardly to the ancient world, and that ancient Greeks believed that they shared some important common ground with, say, Celts or Scythians because of their skin color?

  10. I don’t think the Ancient Greeks considered themselves to be WASPified. Why? Because as a matter of historical fact, not all the relevant categories required for WASPhood existed back then. But I do think that some of my non-white students might consider the Ancient Greeks a part of an intellectual heritage that isnt theirs.

  11. #5 Possibly even if all your non-white students thought of the Greeks as their intellectual heritage, they might well be miffed by 1) the extent to which this heritage has been ‘white-washed’ (see Martin Bernal’s Black Athena) and 2) by the fact that after the middle ages, every philosopher that they’re likely to come across in a history of philosophy course was white.
    Anon 10: The idea that this poster’s representation of the history of philosopher shows actual sexist and racist influence is interesting, but it might in fact reflect more our perceptions of what was influential than pre-eighteenth century perception. It’s fairly clear, for instance that some of the divisions in the poster (empiricist/ rationalist, political philosophy) reflect the way we like to teach the history of philosophy more than anything else. And as these categories are shaped (in part) by a decision to include only certain individuals, it would be very hard to insert women into these. Who do we kick out of ‘political philosophy’ to insert Wollstonecraft? Where in rationalists/ empiricists do we add Conway and Cavendish? It seems that the problem is not which particular women to add to the mix and where, but a lack of awareness that there were many interesting philosophers (some of them women, some of them non-white) who were left out when this historical representation (I mean generally the way we teach history, not just the poster) was shaped. So first, I think we do need to look at books like M.E. Waithe’s or sites like simply to get some awareness of who might be included if we rethink the way we do history.

  12. Thanks for the suggestions Axiothea! Consider them added to my reading list. As for teaching, I want students to get excited about using reason and logic to sort through difficult problems. And I find that they don’t always need to read authors who are the same genders or ethnicities as they are, for this to happen. Just last week, Parmenides and Zeno had a bunch of my students (almost all of whom are non-white, and about half of whom are non-male) pretty pumped-up. But you know, Zeno and Parmenides weren’t the only people who ever had interesting ideas.

  13. axiothea,

    I’m Anon 10. I agree with your final point about why we need to look to such sources, and I appreciate the point that our views about influence change over the course of history–so that someone of real historical influence can be unappreciated for it later. At the same time, I think that, too, is part of what these sorts of simplistic histories try to give us a snapshot of: the development of our current view of the history, including its misconceptions about past influence.

    In the end, though, I admit that these sorts of things, while innocuous in intention, are not very helpful in practice they reinforce prejudices, since, in our casual encounters with them, we don’t often cautiously distinguish them as images of perceived historical importance vs of real and future importance.

  14. “….I’m confused by the use of the term ‘white’ by several of the above commentators to refer to ancient Greek philosophers. Do the commentators on this message board really think that contemporary Western racial categories apply straightforwardly to the ancient world, and that ancient Greeks believed that they shared some important common ground with, say, Celts or Scythians because of their skin color?”

    Some commentators think that the questions above are, in context, mostly beside the point. Whether “Western racial categories” that exist today existed in “the ancient world” is largely irrelevant to how racial categories function today, in our world — where the ancient Greeks, much like Jesus Christ, have become “white.” 2) What the ancient Greeks believed about any connection to Celts via race (not merely “skin color”) is largely irrelevant, given the later “Western” formation of whiteness (and philosophy) that foundationally connects them.

    These observations hardly seem controversial, so the pushback is puzzling.

  15. Re # 18: Let me see if I understand you: in your view, all that matters in determining the ‘whiteness’ of a syllabus or textbook is how contemporary popular culture views the figure or groups included in it, even if that view is inaccurate and is not at all popular among folks who work in the area (e.g., I don’t know any classicists who think of the ancient Greeks as ‘white’ in the sense you have in mind). While you really haven’t explained at all why a more informed view should be, in your phrase, ‘largely irrelevant’ (I would have thought that one of the aims of a teacher or scholar is to challenge popular misconceptions), even granting your assumption it doesn’t make sense of many of the comments above. For example, what do you think of the suggestions of commentators # 1 and # 2 that the medieval Arab and Jewish philosophers are ‘non-white’? Surely, that doesn’t correspond to, at least, popular American conceptions of race, where Jews and Arabs would most often be conceived of as ‘white’. Finally, I might add that even if you don’t accept these objections, it is much more straightforward to read the comments earlier in this thread as simply asserting that ancient Greek philosophers are dead, white men, so whether or not you have a more sophisticated way of making that claim, I don’t see any reason to attribute it to the earlier commentators to whom I was responding.

  16. I was unable to get very far past “Ephasus”, “Anaximes”, “Pythagorreans”, and “Phyro” (I assume this means Pyrrho?), but when I scrolled down and saw that it was more important to list Martin Heidegger twice rather than include Simone De Beauvoir once under Existentialism, I was done. I don’t know who made this poster but I’m not seeing the beauty or utility others found there. I don’t care to base discussion of what should be included in history of philosophy education on this item. I was somewhat bemused to observe that post-analytic philosophy (including Davidson) “advocates a detachment from objective truth” – perhaps in keeping with its direct descent from Heidegger #2.

  17. Reblogged this on Whileaway and commented:
    Una vez más las mujeres son, literalmente, borradas de la historia. A veces me cuesta trabajo creer que en pleno siglo 21 esto siga ocurriendo.
    Y luego recuerdo con quién estamos tratando (los hombres y su frágil ego) y dejo de soprenderme.

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