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  • Rediscovering Women Philosophers: Philosophical Genre and the Boundaries of Philosophy
  • Karen Green (bio)
Rediscovering Women Philosophers: Philosophical Genre and the Boundaries of Philosophy. By Catherine Villanueva Gardner. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000.

Catherine Gardner's book contains five studies, each discussing a different feminist philosopher. They are linked by the theme that the moral philosophy of these women has been neglected because its articulation fails to conform to [End Page 221] the dominant model of philosophical theorizing. Thus the question of genre becomes significant. Gardner's book partly develops a plea for extending the domain of philosophy to include letters, novels, and works of other genres.

Is genre to blame for the neglect of women's moral theorizing? Women's treatises and discourses are equally neglected. Christine de Pizan wrote The Book of the Body Politic (1994) in 1407 and the Livre de la Paix (1958) between 1412 and 1414; Gabriel Suchon published a Traité de la Morale et de la Politique (1693); Damaris Masham published A Discourse Concerning the Love of God (1696); and Anne Conway published The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (1996) in 1690. Evidence of published works in standard philosophical genres can also be found in Mary Astell (1996); and Margaret Cavendish (1994) also published works in standard philosophical genres. All are largely unstudied. Male authors are remembered because male scholars have chosen to edit, comment on, and explicate the works of their male predecessors. Women's philosophy has been deemed unworthy of study. Women's philosophy, not having had a comparable army of female exegetes, has languished unread, unedited, and unrecognized. It is gender, not genre, that explains the neglect of women's moral theorizing.

Gardner's discussion is, furthermore, in danger of falling into anachronism. It seriously underestimates the range of genres that have historically constituted philosophy, implying that the academic journal article has been the historical norm.

Despite my disagreement with Gardner's overarching argument, I found these essays to be valuable introductions to the ethical thought of the women thinkers studied. The first concentrates on Catherine Macaulay's Letters on Education, and calls for serious study of Macaulay's unjustifiably neglected philosophy. Here Gardner argues that this neglect came about because the epistolary form is not "the 'standard' form of a work of philosophy" and because "the expectations raised by the epistolary form—especially when it is written by a woman—link it firmly to the private sphere and, more particularly, to 'feminine' discourse, i.e. non-philosophical discourse" (24). Given current assumptions, this may be true. From an eighteenth-century perspective, however, things look different; at that time, the letter was a common philosophical genre, with antecedents stretching back to the letters of Epicurus and Cicero. There is no reason to see this genre as marginal to philosophy.

The "epistle" is a genre occasionally adopted by Christine de Pizan, the subject of Gardner's next essay. She used it in her "Letter to the Queen of France" (1984), and, much modified, in the "Letter of Othea to Hector" (1990). However, Gardner does not discuss Pizan's "letters" but concentrates on her allegorical Book of the City of Ladies (1983) and argues that modern readers have difficulty in recognizing the allegorical form as part of the content of de Pizan's work. This is as may be. The difficulty flows from the fact that de Pizan used a now [End Page 222] unfamiliar genre, but it has little to do with her being a woman. The form had great prestige and popularity in her time, and anyone wanting to study the philosophy of this period needs to take this into account.

Discussing Mary Wollstonecraft, Gardner similarly overestimates the extent to which novels constitute a genre excluded from philosophy. At one level she develops an argument with which I heartily agree: that Wollstonecraft should not be read as simply an "Enlightenment rationalist" (82). Gardner links this argument with the need to read Wollstonecraft's novels as part of her philosophical oeuvre, which is surely true. However, a number of philosophers, for example, Jean Jacques Rousseau, William Godwin, Jean-Paul Sartre, and most notably Simone de Beauvoir have chosen to...


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pp. 221-225
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Archived 2009
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