More on reclaiming the role of women in the canon

From the Atlantic:

In his first work, published in 1747, Immanuel Kant cites the ideas of another philosopher: a scholar of Newton, religion, science, and mathematics. The philosopher, whose work had been translated into several languages, is Émilie Du Châtelet.

Yet despite her powerhouse accomplishments—and the shout-out from no less a luminary than Kant—her work won’t be found in the 1,000-plus pages of the new edition of The Norton Introduction to Philosophy. In the anthology, which claims to trace 2,400 years of philosophy, the first female philosopher doesn’t appear until the section on writing from the mid-20th century. Or in any of the other leading anthologies used in university classrooms, scholars say.

Also absent are these 17th-century English thinkers: Margaret Cavendish, a prolific writer and natural philosopher; Anne Conway, who discusses the philosophy of Descartes, Hobbes, and Spinoza in The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (which is influenced by the Kabbalah); and “Lady” Damaris Masham—the daughter of a Cambridge Platonist and a close friend of John Locke who published several works and debated ideas in letters she exchanged with the German mathematician and philosopher G.W. Leibniz.

Despite the spread of feminism and multiculturalism, and their impact on fields from literature to anthropology, it is possible to major in philosophy without hearing anything about the historical contributions of women philosophers. The canon remains dominated by white males—the discipline that some say still hews to the myth that genius is tied to gender.

Andrew Janiak, an associate professor of philosophy at Duke University, was a graduate student in the 1990s when he came across Kant’s startling reference to Madame Du Châtelet. “I remember thinking: Did he really mean Madame?” Janiak said. “It was the only time I’d seen a philosopher refer to the ideas of a woman.”

Now, Janiak and a team of Duke students and researchers, along with colleagues at Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania, have launched a site that features the forgotten voices of women philosophers, giving academics and students a rare opportunity to study and promote their work.

And we’ve posted it before, but you can find that site here. 

2 thoughts on “More on reclaiming the role of women in the canon

  1. The fact that du Chatelet is not in the _Norton Introduction to Philosophy_ seems to me to be the kind of problem that the feminist philosophers campaign has taken on. It is most certainly not a problem of lack of availability of translations for students.

    There are many resources available to the student on du Chatelet that the Norton Anthology could have drawn on but did not, such as Zinsser’s collection of some of du Chatelet’s writings, which has been out for almost 5 years. It’s part of a series that has published and translated many works by women philosophers (The other voice in early modern) and there works from other publishers on du Chatelet, too. And as for Cavendish, Conway, and Masham — they are featured in Atherton’s anthology, which has been out for over 20 years in an affordable edition.

    This is crucial, because the Atlantic article misses the problem: not lack of availability of translations, a problem that will be solved by a knight in shining armour who will seek out and rescue hapless ‘lost’ writings, but editors and publishers who just won’t include the strong robust translations that do exist.

    p.s.: All the more reason for the feminist conference campaign to include anthologies (as it has).

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