Rebecca Buxton, Lisa Whiting, Eds.: The Philosopher Queens (Unbound, 2020) [IBR2020]

In the pages that follow, we intentionally adopt a broad definition of ‘philosopher’ as we believe that part of the reason why women have historically been excluded from our discipline is because many of them have instead been considered activists or ‘learned ladies’. This has led to a prevailing image of the white male philosopher thinking from his armchair. Instead, it’s time to recognize the clear intellectual rigor, questioning and insight that makes these women worthy of the ‘philosopher’ title.
The authors and subjects in this book come from many different backgrounds with their own unique ideas, experiences and histories. The philosophers written about here are complex, challenging, often inspiring, and sometimes deeply problematic. However, they all contribute an important element to our understanding philosophy.


If you ask a random person at a party to name a philosopher, chances are – well, ok, chances are they’ll move very far away from you and go find someone normal, but the ones who would play would probably go for Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, maybe Nietzsche if they were into goth. You’d have to go a long way before anyone came up with a female name. As students undergoing advanced training in philosophy, Buxton and Whiting noticed most philosophical histories and anthologies skipped over the women as well, including maybe one or two, often in a perfunctory or referential manner. They thought they might want to change that, so they collected a team of contemporary women in philosophy, and put together this readable introduction to twenty lovers of wisdom you might want to know more about.

The title plays off Plato’s use of Philosopher Kings in The Republic, the wise men who should be leading countries rather than relying on heredity or political power (and don’t contemporary events make that sound like an idea whose time came long ago). The entries, arranged chronologically by the philosophers’ birth dates, are rather short – four to six pages – and are intended to highlight the lives and works of women who have contributed to philosophy over the last couple of millennia. They’re all jumping-off points, chapters that might interest you enough to find out more.

The book is a lovely physical object, put together with thought and care. It’s heavier than you might expect for a book its size, probably because the paper is thicker than usual, possibly to provide the appropriate substrate for the illustrations. Illustrations? Yes – each entry includes a full-color illustration by Emmy Smith of the philosopher under consideration. Most of the illustrations are backed by rich block-color pages; whether that’s to prevent bleed through or just for design I don’t know, but it’s very attractive. The cover features the illustrations, glossy on a flat background. For each essay, the name of the philosopher appears on the title page in a decorative font using a color chosen from the illustration. Minor details, yes, but pleasing ones.

Several useful appendices follow the collection of essays: a Further Reading section, a list of more Philosopher  Queens, and a very handy About the Authors section giving brief bios of each of the contributors. And of course there’s an introduction by the editors, tracing the conception of the book.

You may be wondering if I’m ever going to talk about the philosophers included in the work. Well, of course I am. A quick glance at the table of contents revealed several names I knew, though not necessarily as philosophers; as I read the essays, I became intrigued to know more about some, dismayed by others, and found out something I didn’t know about even the most familiar names. And I noted some connections I wasn’t expecting.

Diotima leads things off, courtesy of Zoi Aliozi. What I found most interesting about her is that her very existence is up for debate. Plato writes her into Symposium; Socrates recounts how she taught him about love, beauty, and The Good, and the ladder of love ranging from lust to appreciation of Goodness itself. Whether she’s real or not, even if she’s a fictional character or a stand-in for a god or a dream or Wisdom itself, that Plato shows her as a teacher of Socrates makes her pretty impressive. I’ve taken, what, four or five moocs that dealt with Plato in some detail, but it’s interesting Symposium wasn’t one of the texts examined, nor was Diotima ever mentioned in any of the brief summaries of that text. The Further Readings list is going to come in handy.

Ban Zao gives advice for surviving marriage. Seriously. Eva Kit Wah Man writes:

For Ban, the most important principles for a wife’s conduct are respect and acquiescence. Although Ban adapts many keywords traditionally associated with femininity when she elaborates on the principles with instructions – for example, terms such as weakness, softness, inferiority, malleability – it is interesting to see how she actually describes the practical reasons for abiding by the principles. She determines, for example, that the heart of disrespect originates from the habit of the two spouses staying too close to one another. She also says that accusations and quarrels in family affairs are derived from bluntness and crookedness in words. Here, respect and acquiescence are recommended as a result of what Ban observed in married life in reality, not because of some moral and ethical deduction ….Her intention is to provide young wives with a survival kit necessary for marriage.

This gives some insight into what life was like for women in first-century China. However, Man brings in a deeper philosophical connection: while Confucianism is the usual context of this text, it’s worth looking at Daoism, which sees weakness as overcoming strength, using water and air as examples.

I was introduced to Hypatia last year when I read Youssef Ziedan’s novel Azazeel, and did some extra reading at the time, so it was nice to see her again in Lisa Whiting’s chapter.  I remember reading that she was more a mathematician than a philosopher, and Whiting bears this out but considers that her teaching, rather than writing, was where she excelled. This, too, fits with the characterization in Ziedan’s novel.

Even in fourth century Alexandria, women had to put up with men who couldn’t see them as anything but sexual possibilities:

Hypatia tried to stifle one of her most persistent student’s affections by playing a musical instrument for hours in the hopes he would get bored. When this did not work she turned to more extreme measures and one day pulled out a bloodied menstrual rag and waved it in the boy’s face, proclaiming that it was only lust that he desired, and this was not beautiful compared to her intellect and the true wonder of philosophy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hypatia succeeded in halting the young man’s advances….

Let’s put that anecdote on the internet and see what happens.

I would quibble a little on one comment Whiting makes on the significance of Hypatia’s legacy: “She was one of the first women to successfully break into the academic sphere that had been largely reserved for men.” Hypatia was torn apart on the street by a mob who then paraded her body parts around before setting her on fire. That’s a high price for success.

I recognized the name George Eliot, of course, even the name Mary Anne Evans (though not Mrs. Lewes, her preferred social name) though as a novelist rather than a philosopher. I’ve even had Middlemarch on my reading list (since I saw Rebecca Newberger Goldstein included it in her list of Five Best Philosophical Novels). Clare Carlisle’s chapter has convinced me to add Adam Bede, and to overcome confront my hesitation to read nineteenth-century literature.

Jae Hetterley’s chapter on Edith Stein left me sad and angry. I’d never heard of Stein, which is not a surprise, since she was screwed over six ways from Sunday by just about everyone, from her academic supervisor Edmund Husserl who refused to grant her doctorate to his collaborator Martin Heidegger who took credit for the extensive editing work Stein did on Husserl’s compendium to the Nazis who eventually murdered her at Auschwitz. But to look beyond that to her work, she was elemental in developing phenomenology, a kind of first-person-experience based philosophy that I only vaguely understand. Again, I find myself in the Further Reading section.

Hannah Arendt has become a familiar name to those of us concerned about what’s been happening in the US over the past four years. “Origins of Totalitarianism (1951),  Hannah Arendt’s most famous political work, was difficult to find in bookshops across America in November 2016,” writes Rebecca Buxton. Interestingly, Arendt didn’t consider herself a philosopher but a political theorist. I was also surprised to find that she was a racist, viewing Africa as savage and black Americans struggling for equality as “social parvenus”. People are complex, aren’t they. It’s her examination of totalitarianism, of course, that has her in the spotlight now. And you haven’t been paying attention if you haven’t muttered “the banality of evil” a few dozen times in recent years. I put her Origins of Understanding on my TBR list a couple of years ago (I thought it might be a better place to start, to keep my mounting panic at a controllable level), but I keep getting distracted by shiny new things.

Iris Murdoch is another figure from literature who I didn’t realize until recently was a philosopher. I had a traumatic experience with A Severed Head in college so I’ve avoided her, but Fay Niker has convinced me to overcome that. I love the female foursome that developed as WWII made room for women in Oxford – Mary Midgley and Elizabeth Anscombe also appear in this book, maybe Volume II will include Foot – and the “Mods and Greats” course of study that turned them into philosophers. I’m drawn to her idea that “adjustment of inner vision” – thinking about something – is moral activity, whether or not it results in behavior change, her focus on attention. This seems a bit over my head, but I’m going to see if I can find a good way to approach it.

I already had Mary Midgley’s What is Philosophy For? on my reading list, and Ellie Robson’s chapter added a few more on philosophy as seen in everyday life and relationships between people and the world. Seriously, all of her books sound like something I really want to read. And most of her writing came later in life: “Between the ages of fifty-nine and ninety-nine she wrote over two hundred books, articles and chapters….” I’d better get cracking.

Sophie Bosede Oluwole focused her attention on examining and, in fact, legitimizing Yoruba philosophy, not an easy task since it was orally transmitted rather than written. Minna Salami tells us:

…[S]he demonstrated how Yoruba oral genres qualified as philosophy. More specifically, she argued for the interpretation of the ‘corpus of Ifá,’ which is the quintessential Yoruba compendium of philosophical themes such as wisdom, justice, time, human agency, destiny, democracy, misogyny and human rights, as philosophical rather than system of divination as it is commonly assigned. The corpus of Ifá, which now largely also exists in written format, is a geomantic system consisting of 256 figures to which thousands of verses are attached. It has been stored through memory for thousands of years by traditional Yoruba philosophers known as babalawos, which means ‘fathers of esoteric knowledge’.

Having just read Ted Chiang’s short story “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” which in part dramatizes  the competition between oral tradition and written records, I connected to this right away. As Oluwole points out, if Socrates, who never wrote a word and in fact opposed using books for learning, can be the premier Western philosopher, why should African philosophy be disqualified on those grounds?

The focus of Anita Allen’s philosophical arena is privacy, an issue that doesn’t really tempt me (don’t start, I understand the importance, I’m just more interested in other things). Yet, interestingly, as I read more about her via Ilhan Dahir’s chapter, I realized I’ve encountered her before: she was one of the lecturers in Penn’s mooc “An Introduction to American Law”; the Torts unit, to be precise. It’s one of the few moocs I completed but never wrote up because, well, it’s one of the few Penn moocs that just fell flat for me. But I’m delighted it served as an introduction to Allen.

Nima Dahir sums up Azizah Y. Al-Hibri’s work as: “How does Islamic jurisprudence fit into the twenty-first century?” In the US, any discussion of Islamic law quickly becomes saturated with all kinds of implications, so I’m always interested in looking at different points of view, in this case, one that sees Islamic scripture being overlaid with cultural patriarchy, resulting in its more misogynistic aspects. That it doesn’t have to be that way is good news.

These are only some of the philosophers included in the book. The others are just as interesting; I just had to draw the line somewhere, so I picked those I was particularly interested in finding out more about, or with whom I had some connection through books or moocs.

And why would someone who isn’t a philosophy student, or who doesn’t expect to be at any parties anytime soon where “name a philosopher” comes up, be interested? First, the stories of their struggles can serve as inspiration to keep going even when … well, you know, insert your story here. Or when someone tells you you’re too old, or your culture never produced anything of value.

And second, philosophical questions go interesting places. There’s nothing like defending your vision of morality to shake your world view, or trying to convince someone you’re not a brain in a vat.

Then again, I was that weirdo at the party playing Name A Philosopher.

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