How women have shaped philosophy: female philosopher - International Burch University
olaser libraries
On the Vast and Multitudinous Worlds of the Library
March 19, 2021
Adobe Stock Free Photoshop Versatile Template 1
Adobe Shares Free Versatile Photoshop Templates
March 19, 2021

How women have shaped philosophy: female philosopher

May Sinclair OUPblog header image 1260 x 485 px

When asked to name a philosopher, it is more than likely that many of the major thinkers that spring to mind will be male. Throughout history, men have dominated the philosophical canon, with women vastly underrepresented. However, we can in fact trace women engaging in philosophical discourse back to ancient times. There is a long and rich tradition of female thinkers who have made important contributions to philosophy, and whose works merit further recognition.

To celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month this month, we asked some of our authors to tell us about a female philosopher they admire, and why. Read their responses below for an illuminating and varied look at female thinkers and the contributions they have made to the field.

Macrina the Younger

“Ancient philosophy is not known for female thinkers. Only a few names are apt to spring to mind here, such as Diotima, a possibly fictional character featured in Plato’s Symposium, or Hypatia, famously murdered by a Christian mob in late ancient Alexandria. But there are hidden figures to be found, like Macrina the Younger (d. 379 AD), sister of the Greek church father and philosopher Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory devoted two works to his sister after her death, in what has been called “the most spectacular representation of a woman saint as philosopher” in antiquity. I would encourage anyone with an interest in Platonism or Christianity and philosophy to read his dialogue On Soul and Resurrection, in which Macrina is cast in the role of a female, Christian Socrates, discoursing on immortality while she is literally on her death bed. Paired with his more hagiographic account in his Life of Macrina, it

gives us a vivid sense of her piety and learning, and of the way that pagan philosophy was taken up and repurposed by late ancient Christian theologians.”
– Peter Adamson, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, author of the A History of Philosophy Without any Gapsseries.

Mary Astell

“The philosopher I most admire is Mary Astell. In real life, I imagine, she would have been truly terrifying—that’s what I like about her. In her writings, she was a heavyweight fighter on behalf of the female sex: pulling no punches, she entered the intellectual scene in seventeenth-century England with knockdown arguments against women’s supposed moral and intellectual incompetence. The women of her time needed this bravery: they needed someone in their corner who wasn’t afraid to call out the misogyny of their contemporaries. It’s a blessing that Astell had that terrifying edge—without it, the history of feminism would be very different.”
– Jacqueline Broad, Monash University, author of Women Philosophers of Eighteenth-Century England

Emily Dickinson

“Emily Dickinson, because of the way she ‘tells the truth but tells it Slant.’ Like ‘the Philosophers,’ as she calls them, she’s seized by big questions: the place of humans and the divine in nature; the communicability of private experience; the nature and attainability of knowledge. She disputes philosophers’ answers to these questions, using standard philosophical methods like thought experiments and extrapolation from observed evidence. But where philosophers seek settled answers, Dickinson insistently inhabits an excruciating state of ‘Wonder,’ of ‘not precisely Knowing / And not precisely Knowing not.’ She uses poetry to expand philosophy’s repertoire of argumentative strategies, to include sensory exemplification, cognitive habituation, and riddles. Perhaps most importantly, she treats knowing as something we must learn to do—a form of continual domestic labor, like sewing or cleaning. This emphasis on hard-earned knowing-how, brave in uncertainty and intertwining intellectual and practical concerns, feels like a contribution most likely to be made by a woman.”
– Elisabeth Camp, Rutgers University, author of The Poetry of Emily Dickinson: Philosophical Perspectives

Carrie Jenkins

“I have had the honour of working alongside many inspiring women in philosophy, but the very first to inspire me was my undergraduate teacher, Carrie Jenkins. Incidentally, my career path follows hers: starting in logic, via the metaphysics of love, then into popular public writing, with music and art projects in the background. I admire Carrie’s confidence to put herself ‘out-there’, her creativity, and the ease with which she applies her technical skills so broadly. In a domain where women tend not to see themselves represented, it is a privilege to have Carrie as a role model leading the way.”
– Suki Finn, Royal Holloway, University of London, editor of Women of Ideas: Interviews from Philosophy Bites


Department of English Language and Literature