Hypatia 20.3 (2005) 185-197
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Early Modern Women Philosophers and the History of Philosophy
It has now been more than a dozen years since the Eastern Division of the APA invited me to give an address on what was then a rather innovative topic: the published contributions of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century women to philosophy.1 In that address, I highlighted the work of some sixty early modern women. I then said to the audience, "Why have I presented this somewhat interesting, but nonetheless exhausting . . . overview of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century women philosophers? Quite simply, to overwhelm you with the presence of women in early modern philosophy. It is only in this way that the problem of women's virtually complete absence in contemporary histories of philosophy becomes pressing, mind-boggling, possibly scandalous." My presentation had attempted to indicate the quantity and scope of women's published philosophical writing. It had also suggested that an acknowledgment of their contributions was evidenced by the representation of their work in the scholarly journals of the period and by the numerous editions and translations of their texts that continued to appear into the nineteenth century. But what about the status of these women in the histories of philosophy? Had they ever been well represented within the histories written before the twentieth century?
In the second part of my address, I noted that in the seventeenth century Gilles Menages, Jean de La Forge, and Marguerite Buffet produced doxographies of women philosophers, and that one of the most widely read histories of philosophy, that by Thomas Stanley, contained a discussion of twenty-four women philosophers of the ancient world. In the nineteenth century, Mathurin de Lescure, Alexander Foucher de Careil, and Victor Cousin wrote books on [End Page 185] such figures as Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, Emilie du Châtelet, Madeleine de Scudéry, and Madeleine de Sablé. But, and this point is important, when it came to the general histories of philosophy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, only a handful of token women—largely "mystics," who were not taken to be real philosophers—were mentioned.2 No woman was anywhere described as a significant, original contributor to early modern philosophy.
How did early modern women philosophers come to disappear from the history of philosophy by the twentieth century? In my 1990 address, I discussed a number of reasons internal to the practice of philosophy that led to the women's disappearance.3 One such reason I called "the purification of philosophy." The bulk of the women's writings either directly addressed such topics as faith and revelation, on the one hand, or woman's nature and her role in society, on the other. But the late eighteenth century attempted to excise philosophy motivated by religious concerns from philosophy proper. And many German historians, taking Kantianism as the culmination of early modern philosophy and as providing the project for all future philosophical inquiry, viewed treatments of "the woman question" as a precritical issue of purely anthropological interest. So, by the nineteenth century, much of the published material by women once deemed philosophical no longer seemed so.
With respect to the women's views considered "solidly philosophical" even from a post-eighteenth-century vantage point, some utilized a style or method, or expressed an underlying "episteme" that simply did not win out. For example, the writings of Madeleine de Scudéry and Anne Conway, with their underlying Neoplatonic episteme, may seem too removed from our present philosophical concerns to gain a place in our histories. Notice that such a decision assumes that our histories of philosophy take our current philosophical concerns as their main point of departure in choosing which aspects of philosophy's past to recognize. I will turn to the topic of methodology in the history of philosophy in a moment, but first I want to note what I have argued elsewhere, namely, that an odd feature of "philosophical views that did not win out" is that they have frequently been characterized as feminine.4 For example, the...