My thanks to Bob for kindly inviting me to post something here on his blog. As some may know (especially if they have been in my presence for more than 10 minutes, since I have usually brought it up by then) I produce a podcast on the history of philosophy – you can find it at www.historyofphilosophy.net. The slogan of the podcast is “without any gaps.” This means that I’m trying to cover whole history of philosophy and not only the heavy-hitters covered in most histories and also university courses (Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes). It’s amazing how little of the history of philosophy usually gets a look in. Whole philosophical traditions are routinely ignored – philosophy in the Islamic world, India and China. (I already covered the Islamic world on the podcast and recently launched a series of episodes on philosophy in India, co-authored with Jonardon Ganeri. I hope to tackle Africa and China further down the line.) But there may be no gap more striking, or more pernicious, than the one caused by the exclusion of women thinkers. This is especially so given the much-remarked-upon imbalance between women and men in the field today. Might part of the reason for this be the almost total absence of female authors on undergraduate reading lists?
It’s no good protesting that we can’t read, study and teach women thinkers because they didn’t exist. The early modern period features quite a few authors, and their works are readily available (for instance in M. Atherton (ed.), Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period, from Hackett). Scholars of ancient and medieval philosophy have to dig a little deeper. Though we can name a whole raft of female ancient philosophers, a collection of their works (the most useful I know is M. E. Waith, A History of Women Philosophers, vol. 1) makes for problematic reading. The texts tend to be focused on what the ancients saw as “women’s issues” (especially family life), and there are issues of authenticity – some of these texts may actually have been written by men. The two most famous ancient women thinkers were Hypatia, for whom we have scarcely any philosophical writings and who is mostly known for her violent death, and Diotima from Plato’s Symposium, who may or may not have been a real person.
Things improve though, when we get to the medieval period. At least, they improve when we get to medieval Latin Christendom. When I did an episode of my podcast on women thinkers in the Islamic world, I was chagrined to find that there were effectively no medieval female thinkers who would qualify uncontroversially as philosophers. There were certainly important and influential intellectuals, especially among poets and religious scholars (e.g. collectors of hadith); but if there was also a female al-Farabi I wasn’t able to track her down. As I say, Latin Christendom serves us better. The first name that will probably leap to mind, and rightly so, is Hildegard of Bingen – one of the most fascinating figures I’ve covered in the medieval episodes. Two comparable figures from the thirteenth century are Hadewijch of (maybe) Brabant and Mechtild of Magdeburg, whom as it happens I’ve just covered in a podcast. Later on I’ll be reaching later figures like Marguerite Porete and Catherine of Siena. Such figures are often dismissed as mystics or spiritual writers rather than philosophers, and duly excluded from syllabi and sourcebooks on medieval philosophy.
But this is a mistake, and betrays too narrow an understanding of what philosophy was in the medieval period – according to which only scholastics deserve our attention. Actually, even with that rather impoverished mindset these figures remain relevant, since they critiqued scholastic philosophy and thus tell us something about its place in wider medieval society. Mechtild wrote that “learned tongues shall be taught by the unlearned mouth,” and Hildegard even criticized a theological thesis set forth by Gilbert of Poitiers, the hipster’s choice of twelfth-century thinkers. More philosophically interesting, though, is the way they set out (both implicitly and explicitly) an epistemology that can undergird their special claims to knowledge. Hildegard is a particularly good example, since her most famous works consist of the intense mystical visions for which she is known and meticulous, authoritative explanations of the meaning of these visions. To think of her as nothing but a mystic – or worse, a passive vessel for inspiration – is to ignore the latter aspect of her writings.
But how “mystical” or “spiritual” does someone need to be before they no longer qualify as a philosopher? Of course that isn’t a question that applies only to women. What about Eriugena, Bonaventure, or Meister Eckhart? The project of taking women philosophers seriously thus goes hand in hand with the project of taking seriously thinkers whose ideas aren’t so easy to translate into the language of analytic philosophy. A narrow conception of what counted as philosophy in the medieval period might leave all these figures out, which would be very much to the detriment of our understanding. For one thing, it is not so easy to disentangle the supposed philosophers from the supposed non-philosophers – think for instance of the relevance of Eriugena on predestination when looking at Anselm on freedom and grace, or the importance of Bonaventure’s illumination epistemology as a contrast to Aquinas. For another thing, historians of philosophy should welcome interesting ideas wherever they can be found. If you’re intrigued by the limitations of reason, the affective side of knowledge, or non-standard uses of language, then “mystical” thinkers, both female and male, offer some of the most challenging proposals to be found in the medieval period. A comparison here might be to the discussions of topics like the Trinity or transubstantiation in the more frequently studied scholastic thinkers. Historians of philosophy have learned that they ignore such “theological” issues at their peril, because so many proposals on topics like identity, mereology, universals and so on can be found in that context. And it’s this, in my view, that ultimately makes it unadvisable, perhaps even inexcusable, to ignore women medieval philosophers. We should read them not just (indeed, not even mostly) because they were women, but for the same reasons that we read their male contemporaries. And we should read them in the same way we ought to read those contemporaries – with an open and generous mind, which is attuned to philosophy wherever it may appear.