Beyond the Beard—Philosophy and the Other Half of Humanity

26.10.2017 |

Episode #1 of the course Women in philosophy by Will Buckingham


What does a philosopher look like? If you do an image search for the word “philosopher,” you might find a bearded Greek—Plato, perhaps, or Socrates—dressed in a white robe. You might find an old picture of a bespectacled Oxford professor with a pipe. Or perhaps you will find an image of Rodin’s famous sculpture, The Thinker—a muscled man resting his chin on his hand, deep in thought. Whatever images you find, there will be one striking thing about them: They will almost all be images of men!

So, where are all the women? Do they just have better things to do with their time? Or have they been excluded and pushed to the margins? This course is about philosophy and its relationship with the other half of humanity.


Misrepresenting Women

If you read about philosophy, you will notice not only that there are very few women involved but also that male philosophers throughout history have had some very strange ideas about women. For example, Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) notes “the courage of a man is shown in commanding, of a woman in obeying,” and claims that women may have some ability to think, but their thinking is “without authority.”

Other philosophers have been even worse. In his essay, “On Women,” German philosopher Schopenhauer (1788-1860) claimed women were “childish, foolish and short-sighted,” and were deficient in reasoning. Meanwhile, Nietzsche (1844-1900) notoriously wrote that women were “still cats and birds. Or at best cows…”

The argument made again and again by a great many male writers throughout the history of philosophy—whether rudely or more politely—is that women are simply not as good as men at thinking about stuff. If this is so, the argument goes, no wonder there are fewer women philosophers.


Brains, Science, Men, and Women

However, this is not supported by the evidence. Contemporary science shows that there are no biological differences between women’s and men’s brains significant enough to sustain the claim that men are inherently better at reasoning. In fact, actual differences between men’s and women’s brains are far smaller than social differences in expectations of gender roles. As science writer Angela Saini writes, “There can’t be any such thing as an average male or an average female brain. We are all, each one of us, as mix. Our brains are intersex.”

To understand why women have been excluded from philosophy, we have to look not to biology, but instead to society and culture.


Is Philosophy Gendered?

If male philosophers have traditionally got women wrong, what about other topics? Men and women throughout history have been subject to different cultural expectations and have had access to different experiences. So, it may be that philosophy has focused on those things culturally associated with maleness, rather than with femaleness. For example, ethics may have focused on things like war and conflict (culturally associated with maleness) at the expense of things like the kindness and care (culturally associated with femaleness). Or philosophical ideas of selfhood may be based on ideas of independence (again, culturally associated with maleness) rather than ideas of interdependence (culturally associated with femaleness).

More equality in philosophy might not only help us better understand questions of gender, it might also lead to new insights into broader philosophical issues like ethics and the nature of the self.

In this course, we are going to look at a whole range of women philosophers. Some are concerned directly with gender and the role of women in society. Others explore ideas overlooked by the largely male philosophical tradition. Still others are simply philosophers who happen to be women. We’ll get started tomorrow by looking at women philosophers in the ancient world.


Further learning

Essay: “On Women” by Arthur Schopenhauer


Recommended books

Inferior by Angela Saini

Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine


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