On being reinvigorated by Mary Astell but worn out by the discipline

Regan Penaluna started by loving philosophy. Over time, though, the climate for women in the discipline ground her down. Her self-confidence flagged, and she became one of the quiet students rather than one of the vocal, passionate ones. And then she discovered 17th century rationalist and feminist philosopher, Mary Astell.

Penaluna, now a journalist, has just published a popular account of her ups and downs in philosophy, her love affair with Astell, and her eventual departure from the discipline.

Penaluna’s account of Astell is a great primer on an original thinker who deserves more attention than she gets. But just as illuminating is Penaluna’s account of the slow grind of being a woman in philosophy. Her article offers a glimpse into some of the reasons women leave the profession.

You can read Penaluna’s account here.

Philosophers’ Carnival #171 by Nick Byrd

Nick gives us an interesting collection of recent web material, including some book reviews. Perhaps understandably, my attention was first caught by the following entry:

Human Errors and My Errata. Anne Jaap Jacobson has written four posts over at The Brains Blog. The overall project: “My intention in planning these four posts was to close on a kind of contribution very developed in feminist thought. The contribution has concerned how we account for human cognitive successes when we are actually rather error-prone creatures. The very general approach is to give up a kind of Cartesian picture of the mind. What is instead emphasized is the extent to which our knowledge depends on our social interactions”.

Other topics in the four posts include radically different senses of mental representation, both in contemporary and historical work, the neuroscience of action and its implications for standard philosophers’ understanding of belief-desire explanations (not good). Accompanying the different senses of ‘representation’ are different models of the mind’s cognitive relation to its environment.  OCD, affordances and dopamine are discussed, along with the implications of the abundance of fakes in our environment. Woven in among this are some reference to red pandas, including Rusty, the red panda who went for a walk about from the National Zoo in DC. I think iconoclastic members of other species should usually be treasured, and I understand that Rusty is something of a hero at the Smithsonian, which runs the zoo.

There’s a great deal of material in the Carnival; it would be possible to spend most of a day following the rewarding links.

“Why I Left Academia: Philosophy’s Homogeneity Needs Rethinking”

Article by Eugene Sun Park (now a filmmaker) on why he left philosophy. 


“The pressure to accept and conform to a narrow conception of philosophy was pervasive. […] While much of the rest of the academy has evolved to reflect these demographic changes, philosophy remains mired in a narrow conception of the discipline that threatens to marginalize philosophy even further. […]  I loved studying philosophy, and truly have no regrets about devoting nearly a decade of my life to it. But I also grew tired and frustrated with the profession’s unwillingness to interrogate itself. Eventually, I gave up hope that the discipline would ever change, or that it would change substantially within a timeframe that was useful to me professionally and personally.”


“It’s not that women and minorities are (inexplicably) less interested in the “problems of philosophy”—it’s that women and minorities have not had their fair say in defining what the problems of philosophy are, or what counts as philosophy in the first place.”

Schliesser on de Gournay: sexism is “serious blasphemy”

Yesterday, at his Digressions & Impressions blog, Eric Schliesser posted a (second) lovely discussion of 17th century philosopher Marie de Gournay and her account of the Church’s role in the subordination of women. Strikingly, de Gournay argues that, in having played this role, Christianity also oppresses men, by encouraging them to make idols of themselves.

For, men have chosen to let themselves be ruled by “superiority of…strength” (73) and not their rational faculty. In fact, she argues that in so doing men have committed “serious blasphemy” because men have elevated themselves above women. For, women are “worthy of being made in the image of the Creator, of benefiting from the most holy Eucharist and the mysteries of redemption and of paradise, and of the vision–indeed, the possession–of God.” (73) Man’s political decision to deny women “the advantages or privileges of man” is, thus, a way to make an idol of himself. 

De Gournay’s argument is a powerful reply to the Pauline-Augustinian argument that woman only expresses God’s image when she is united to man (de Trinitate, Book 12, Ch. 7). I know what I’ll be adding to the syllabus the next time I teach philosophy of gender. Thanks, Eric!

Reader query: pronouns and historical texts

I had a question which I thought might be of interest to discuss on the blog.

Normally I work on contemporary political philosophy and I standardly use “she” or “her” whenever I can. But I am now trying to write a historical piece that deals with a political philosopher who uses “man” to refer to “people” and only uses the male pronouns “he”, “him”, etc.

Looking around the literature the standard thing to do seems to be to follow the practice of the original philosopher, because they don’t want to appear anachronistic. But this seems unsatisfactory to me, since it just reproduces the sexism of the original. But I’m not sure sticking to the language I would use for contemporary philosophy is a perfect option either.

Are there any thoughts on how to get around this, or what is a good compromise?

An interesting bit of history

This, from the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame, was in my facebook newsfeed this evening and I thought it would be of interest to our readers:

Sr. Mary Frederick Eggleston, C.S.C.


“Today we wanted to take a moment to honor Sr. Mary Frederick Eggleston (1893-1975), pictured on the left, who was the first person to receive a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame. She (aptly enough) worked in philosophy of religion, graduated magna cum laude in 1934, and her dissertation is available electronically [here].”

Her dissertation is titled, “Some Effects of the Theory of Evolution on the Philosophy of Religion.” What I find especially interesting about this, is that Notre Dame didn’t become a co-ed university until 1972.

Reading this bit of history reminds me of when I first learned of Ilse Rosenthal Schneider, while reading about Einstein’s philosophy of science: It’s a nice reminder of the continual presence and consistent intellectual contributions of women to our profession, even when and where men seem to take center stage in our history.

Women and the History of Analytic Philosophy

I will be teaching a new (for me) upper-level History of Analytic Philosophy course in the spring. I’d like to make sure I have some works by women philosophers, including feminist philosophers if possible, on my reading list. Could our readers lend me their expertise and make some suggestions? Some of the topics I plan to cover are listed below, though I’m entirely open to additions or revisions:

Moore on epistemology and analysis

Russell on logic and language

Wittgenstein’s Tractatus

Logical Positivism

(Btw, I’ve already thought of Marie McGinn and/or Cora Diamond for the Wittgenstein stuff.)

Your suggestions are much appreciated!

The whiteness of philosophy: Is philosophy the problem? Addition

Added Prologue:

My sense from many of the comments on this post. as of Sunday the 19th morning,  is that people are reading it in a very different way than I had hoped. I may not change that, but since I took out quite a lead-in, putting it back may help something.

First of all, the blog setting: There have been a lot of posts recently on this blog and Leiter’s about the scarcity of black philosophers in our profession; many of them are referred to in the post mentioned at the bottom of this one.. A number of explanations of this lack have been offered; in reporting them, I’m not endorsing them or the supposed facts on which they are based. One is racism, though some people seem to be unaware of any racism. Another is that black students in general do not have the sort of financial family setting that makes undertaking a risky profession a reasonable idea. Another has been that black students just don’t much like philosophy, along with the fact that black philosophers are largely ignored. My sense was that some people thought that that was just too bad. The absense of blacks wouldn’t be a reason for changing anything in the millennia-old discipline.

Faced with such an array of conjectures, one might wonder why the idea that there is something wrong with philosophy isn’t among them. That would be interesting. It’s got to be valuable to critique a discipline, even if we decide eventually that’s wrong.

Let me say that the last sort of explanation I like is one that says the problem is to be located in the individuals left out. There’s a whole range of explanations of the low numbers of women in philosophy that appear to what’s different in some pretty deep way about women; they often strike me as a distraction, and they provide an excuse for ignoring sexism. But that isn’t what Mills is doing, which is why his arguments were appealing to me. He is really doing what is a very traditional kind of critique that aligns characteristics of a discipline with the social setting of its practitioners and suggesting that those from very different social settings might find the enterprise unappealing. Of course, the social setting is that of different races, but when he wrote the piece, color made a huge and systematic difference to social position, and perhaps still does.

Within philosophy this critique is seldom done in mainstream philosophy. So we might ask whether there is any plausibility to attempting it. I think there is. I am going to put the material backing this thought in another blog. 


Are there some ways in which philosophy is so imbued with whiteness that we should expect people of color at best to think it is very unclear why one would find this field  interesting?  Might the natural reaction for many people of color be to see philosophy as a kind of pretence which, through years of subordinate positions, they have seen time and time again?

Since I’m a white woman, I am hardly the person to come up  with a reliable answer by meself.***  Charles Mills in 1994 took up a similar question, and his answer is worth a look, to say the least.

To anticipate a question:  why say that what Mills argues shows that it is philosophy that should change?  Philosophical theories purport very often to tell us how things are, for example what a theory of mind is and why we need one, or what the important problems for knowledge claims are, and so on.  If Mills is right, the claims really ought to be relativized to how white people like to think of things.  At the very least, philosophy might be very enriched by its practitioners trying to adopt that perspective, even if only occasionally.  And a whole lot of people might be delighted to see us stumble out of the cave.  Or horrified.  :)

Mills 1994 article, “Non-Cartesian Sums: Philosophy and the African-American Experience,”  occurs in Teaching Philosophy (vol 17, Issue 3, 1994). Here are two of the important claims he makes.  In giving these snippets, I’m leaving out a very great deal of his detailed and revealing text:  do read it for yourself.

1.  The personal experience of sub-personhood:

An illustration:  The enunciation of the Cartesian sum can be construed as one of the crucial episodes of European modernity. Here we have vividly portrayed the plight of the individual knower torn free from the sustaining verities of the dissolving feudal world, which had provided authority and certainty, and entering tentatively into the cognitive universe of an (as yet unrecognized) revolutionizing individualist capitalism, where all that is solid would melt into air. So the crucial question is posed: “what can I know?” And out of this, of course, comes modern epistemology, with the standard moves we all know, the challenges of skepticism, the danger of degeneration into solipsism, the idea of being enclosed in our own possibly unreliable perceptions, the question of whether we can know other minds exist, the scenario of brains-in-a-vat, etc. The Cartesian plight—represented as an allegedly universal predicament—and the foundationalist solution of knowledge of one’s own existence, thus becomes emblematic, a kind of pivotal scene for a whole way of doing philosophy, and involving a whole program of assumptions about the world and (taken-for-granted) normative claims about what is philosophically important.

Contrast this with a different kind of sum, that of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel of the black experience, Invisible Man.Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952; rpt. New York: Vintage Books, 1972). 16 What are the problems facing this individual? Is the problem one of global doubt? Not at all; such a doubt would never be possible, because the whole point of subordinate black experience, or the general experience of oppressed groups, is that the subordinated are in no position to doubt the existence of the world and other people, especially that of their oppressors. One could say that those most solidly attached to the world are the only ones with the luxury of doubting its reality, while those whose attachment is more precarious, whose existence is dependent on the good will or ill temper of others, are precisely those compelled to recognize that it exists. One is a function of power, the other of subordination. If your daily existence is largely defined by oppression, forced intercourse with the world, it is not going to occur to you that doubt about your oppressors’ existence could in any way be a serious or pressing philosophical problem; this will simply seem frivolous, a perk of social privilege.

2.  Philosophy as white guys jerking off:

Thus there will be a feeling, not to put too fine a point on it, that when you get right down to it,  the peculiar features of the African-American experience—racial slavery, with its link between biological phenotype and social subordination, and chronologically located in the modern epoch, ironically coincident with the emergence of liberalism’s proclamation of universal human equality—will be no part of the experience represented in the abstractions of the European or Euro-American philosopher.

And those who have grown up in such a universe, asked to pretend that they are living in the other, will be cynically knowing, exchanging glances which signify “There the white folks go again.” They know that what is in the books is largely mythical as a generalstatement of principles, that it was never intended to be applicable to them in the first place, but that,as part of the routine, within the structure of power relations, one has to pretend that it does.

Thus there will be a feeling, not to put too fine a point on it, that when you get right down to it, a lot of philosophy is just white guys jerking off…A lot of moral philosophy will then seem to be based on pretense, the claim that these were the principles that people strove to uphold, when in fact the real principles were the racially exclusivist ones.   (My stress.)

Readers interested in other recent posts on racial diversity in philosophy will find a number of references to them in this post by Stoat.

***changed in light of comment 2.

Dissing Kant

Eric Schwitzgebel reminds us of some of Kant’s more appalling views (on women, homosexuality, masturbation, servants, organ donation, and the legitimacy of killing bastards), and draws some interesting conclusions.

First, from our cultural distance, it is evident that Kant’s arguments against masturbation, for the return of wives to abusive husbands, etc., are gobbledy-gook. This should make us suspicious that there might be other parts of Kant, too, that are gobbledy-gook, for example, the stuff that transparently reads like gobbledy-gook, such as the transcendental deduction, and such as his claims that his various obviously non-equivalent formulations of the fundamental principle of morality are in fact “so many formulations of precisely the same law” (Groundwork, 4:436, Zweig trans.). I read Kant as a master at promising philosophers what they want and then thowing up a haze of words with glimmers enough of hope that readers can convince themselves that there is something profound underneath.

Second, we cannot expect ordinary people to be better philosophical moral reasoners than Kant. Kant’s philosophical moral reasoning appears mainly to have confirmed his prejudices and the ideas inherited from his culture. Therefore, we should be nervous about expecting more from the philosophical moral reasoning of people less philosophically capable than Kant.