Eileen O’Neill: Obituary

The death of Eileen O’Neill is a huge loss to feminist philosophy.  Louise Antony and Christia Mercer have written the following:

Eileen O’Neill (1953-2017) was an historian of early modern philosophy whose scholarly breadth, philosophical acumen, and life-long commitment to rediscovering understudied and forgotten women in the history of philosophy will prove her to be one of the most influential historians of the past century.

At the time of her death, O’Neill was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she taught a wide range of courses in the history of modern philosophy, as well as courses in feminist philosophy. She was a deeply committed teacher who gave generously of her time and effort and she inspired strong loyalty among undergraduate and graduate students alike. She was loved talking philosophy with her colleagues, and several times co-taught courses with them. She was valued not only for her erudition, but also for the optimism, enthusiasm and energy she brought to the department in everything she did. She was terrific fun to be around.

O’Neill was an undergraduate at Barnard College, where she graduated summa cum laude with a BA and Honors in Philosophy in 1975. Upon attaining her PhD at Princeton in 1983 (with a dissertation on Descartes, Mind and Mechanism, directed by Margaret Wilson), O’Neill set her sights on finding long-lost texts of early modern women and then explicating their most important ideas. O’Neill read microfilms, searched libraries, and tracked down leads to create the most robust list ever made of the texts and philosophies of early modern women.

O’Neill published a number of important papers and engaged in editorial work, but her enormous influence is primarily due to her skills of intellectual persuasion. She made texts available, revealed their philosophical importance – often in brilliantly clear detail – and encouraged historians with any feminist inclination or any desire to get things right in the history of philosophy to turn their attention to women philosophers. O’Neill’s classic 1998 paper, “Disappearing Ink: Early Modern Women Philosophers and Their Fate in History,” exemplifies her erudition and powers of persuasion. O’Neill shows exactly how “scandalous” it has been to exclude women from our histories of philosophy and offers a clear path to right that wrong. By such means, she persuaded her early modern colleagues and students to work on women and made it easy for them to do. By continuing O’Neill’s project, those colleagues and former students are now influencing the next generation of historians so that O’Neill’s influence will continue long after her death. Thanks to her tireless work and philosophical insight, philosophy’s past will be more inclusive, more interesting, and more accurate. All feminist philosophers owe O’Neill an enormous debt. And she will be dearly missed as a teacher, colleague, scholar, philosopher, and friend.

— Christia Mercer and Louise Antony

Eileen O’Neill was celebrated at a conference at Barnard College in 2009, organized by Christia Mercer in her honor: “Women, Philosophy and History.” The following is a link to a video recording of Eileen’s closing address to the conference, preceded by Christia Mercer’s delightful and very moving introduction: https://vimeo.com/7031032

The Eileen O’Neill Memorial Fund has been created at the Center for New Narratives in Philosophy to support students and scholars working in areas of interest to Eileen. Contributions can be sent to:

 Prof. Christia Mercer
Director, Center for New Narratives in Philosophy
Philosophy Department
Philosophy Hall
Columbia University
New York NY 10025

 Checks should be made out to Columbia University with the notation “Eileen O’Neill Memorial Fund.”

2 thoughts on “Eileen O’Neill: Obituary

  1. I knew Eileen when we overlapped at Penn in (I believe) winter term of 1990. I was a visiting assistant professor and she may have had a Post-doc (not sure). We participated in a feminist reading group with Sally Haslanger (there on tenure track then) and various graduate students, including Chloe Balla, Jennifer Uleman, and (I think?) Mary Hannah Jones. Eileen told me that she had conceived of the idea of working on issues about the canon of early modern philosophy and its exclusion of women after being influenced by what was happening at that time in art history. It was way ahead of philosophy, as we both knew. (And so was literature.) Linda Nochlin’s ground-breaking paper “Why have their been no great women artists?” was published first in1971. Whitney Chadwick’s book Women, Art, and Society came out in 1990. The brilliant book Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology by Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker had come out in 1980. My recollection, which may well be faulty, was that Eileen had been disillusioned with philosophy and left it for awhile and took courses with Rosalind Krauss at CUNY. Eileen was either enrolled in or pursuing an art history or art theory degree–or thinking of it. She became inspired by the work that had been done on revising the canon of western art history (which was at least as bad as that of western philosophy), and she came to believe that this project had relevance for our field and could also be carried out in it. (Nancy Tuana was also working on the same sort of project with her Penn State Re-Reading the Canon Series, launched with her Plato volume in 1994; I edited the Aristotle volume in that series, published in 1998.)

    I regret that I did not stay in touch with Eileen after our paths separated. I am posting this because I have seen no other notifications that mention this perhaps intriguing twist on her life path and on her own ground-breaking work on canon revision in philosophy. This is a sad loss indeed and I know how much her many students, especially, will miss her.

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