Other Ways of Knowing
Eight Women Philosophers: Theory, Politics, and Feminism
By Jane Duran
Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006, 308 pp., $29.95, paperback
Reviewed by Erica Da Costa
Those who live at the margins of society are stripped—of material, experience, and/or autonomy—so their ordinary choices become dramatic and especially revealing. If there is only one meal, who will take it? Will the taker share it? If there were a meal for everyone, no immediate choices would be presented.
In a class photograph of Simone Weil taken during her studies at the elite Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, she smiles easily despite her marginal position as the only woman in the entire class. One wonders instantly, if for no other reason than that of her difference, what choices she made in that setting. Aside from questions of essentialism, her status as simply “not-man” provokes questions about what kinds of papers she wrote, what protests she joined. The young man seated next to her does not rouse the same curiosity. Difference itself, of whatever nature, would customarily incite the interest of academics and amateur inquirers alike. Alas, academics tend to be a traditional lot in general, despite their liberal image, and difference often means the absence of something, as is the case historically of women in philosophy. This is the problem Jane Duran seeks to rectify in her new book.
In her introduction, Duran cites Edward Said’s notion that “assumptions about who was left out were the underpinnings of much that was accomplished, intellectually and otherwise, during the era of colonial expansion.” An imperial nation produces an imperial culture—or more precisely, the two are inseparable. And that culture defines itself as distinct from other cultures, other forms of knowledge. From this, we can extrapolate that the academy has been, to some degree, predicated on the exclusion—perhaps the denial—of certain ways of knowing. Said discusses the exclusion of non-Western ways of knowing, but he could as easily have been pointing to those ways that are “not-man.” But what was it about femaleness that made it most valuable as absence or at least as a ghostly presence? This brings us to the perpetually troublesome notion of essentialism, which, as Duran uses the word, suggests “some fundamental underlying womanness at which all uses of the term could get.” (There is also the question of whether biologically determined femaleness is the necessary precondition to being female.) Duran resists the idea of “fundamental womanness,” while simultaneously refusing to let go of the possibility of commonalities among women.
Duran divides her eight philosophers into two groups, “Early Women Philosophers,” dating from 1098, and “Later Women Philosophers,” dating from 1807. In the first section, she discusses Hildegard of Bingen, Anne Conway, Mary Astell, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Anne Conway (1631–1679) presents an interesting case as a woman who was both high-born and indisputably a philosopher (unlike the more ambiguous careers of the other three women in this section). “She was a pupil of Henry More, the celebrated Cambridge Platonist, whom she appears to have met through her stepbrother.” Like others around her, Conway’s philosophical quest became one of “integrating the new sciences with established knowledge and with Christian faith.” Conway was widely admired during her lifetime, most significantly, perhaps, by Gottfried Leibniz, who acknowledged her work, and to whom she might have given the term “monad” (the irreducible elements that form the universe). In The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, published posthumously in 1692, her overriding concern is to counter the notion of dead matter. Duran tells us that, “What in other philosophers’ systems is termed the difference between spirit and matter is for Conway, a difference of mode and not of essence.” Conway also offers a critical appraisal of the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, and Baruch Spinoza, and she develops what is known as a theodicy—an attempt at reconciling the problem of evil in the world with faith in an omnipotent god. She displays a clear indebtedness to the mystical tradition of Lurianic kabbala, and formulates a “system of gradations,” in which spirit and matter are joined in various proportions to produce the great chain of being, from rock to plant to animal to human to angel. Duran points to Conway’s related notion of “betterment for all creatures,” a doctrine that seems at least related to reincarnation. She “sees the possibility for… creatures to obtain a greater admixture of spirit in a continual cycle of spirit/matter interminglings that go on as long as the earth abides.”
What is striking about Conway’s work, says Duran, is the fluidity of her metaphysics. Conway writes that “all creatures are mutable in respect to their natures” and that this variability will express itself in the fullness of time. For Conway, a stone, a dog, and a person are not substantively different. Neither are spirit and matter significantly different, because isolated substances that have nothing in common with other substances are an impossibility. Although Conway fits solidly within the Rationalist tradition, Duran suggests that her thought, with its concern for interrelatedness, shows “gynocentric patterns.” She compares Conway to the Nobel laureate geneticist Barbara McClintock, who said that she could “write the autobiography of a corn plant.” (And McClintock’s use of the word “autobiography” implies a connection with the object of her study that is quite different from traditional objectivity.)
Duran’s second grouping of philosophers includes Harriet Taylor Mill, Edith Stein, Simone Weil, and Simone de Beauvoir. One pattern that emerges in this selection, though Duran does not remark on it as such, is the development of the religious—specifically Christian—ontologies of two of these philosophers: Stein and Weil. Edith Stein (1891–1942) was from a German/Polish Jewish family. She studied directly under Husserl and wrote a dissertation on empathy. In 1922 she converted to Catholicism, although without renouncing her Judaism or her involvement with phenomenological thought. She later entered the cloister. As World War II approached, she began to view “the Holocaust as part of the Jews’ participating in a Christological suffering.” She was executed by the Nazis.
Simone Weil was from a French Jewish family. Her thought was heavily Marxist early in her philosophical training at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, but less so as she aged. Several years after she left the Normale, she had a conversion experience. In contrast to Stein, she had never identified herself with the Jewish people, even as the Germans rampaged through Europe. (She has often been criticized for her rejection of her Judaism, but perhaps her ultimate resistance to baptism signifies her subconscious reluctance to disown her inheritance.) It is worthy of notice that these two remarkably accomplished, highly trained, twentieth-century continental philosophers, steeped in the conventional atheistic worldview, both experienced religious conversions—and both were women. Both were among the first women allowed to access such training in the academy, yet both found it wanting in some fundamental sense.
(I know of only one similar example among male continental philosophers—Franz Rosenzweig, author of Star of Redemption. Rosenzweig (1886–1929) studied German Idealism at Freiberg and was on the eve of brilliant academic career when he had a mystical experience and left the academy to found Das Freie Jüdische Lehrhaus (The Free Jewish House of Teaching). Instead of Christianity, Rosenzweig returned to his Jewish roots, but the direction and quality of his conversion were similar to Stein’s and Weil’s. He did not want to become comfortable in what he called “the scholars’ republic.” He was critical of the professorial stance that “takes him out of the world into pure science.” He viewed his mentor, Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) as the ideal academic: “Instead of high-wire acrobats doing their daring jumps on the trapeze of thought, I saw a human being. Here one had the indestructible feeling: this man must philosophize, he has the treasure in himself which forces the mighty word to light.” In his criticism of academics, Rosenzweig shows his interest in a different way of knowing.)
Although neither Stein nor Weil were feminist in any meaningful sense, their turn toward a different way of knowing—different, that is, from traditional and accepted ways—seems related to their femaleness. Their movement toward faith-based rationality necessarily poses problems for many present-day philosophers, particularly feminists. Duran notes that “faith-based rationality is highly androcentric, since the religious quest has always been defined in male terms, and has been quintessentially a male endeavor” But this is to miss the explosive otherness at the font of the church fathers’ well. This alterity, as represented by the Christ-figure, was distinctly “not-man.” The same could be said of the Buddha. If the masculine can be said to be represented by the imperial attitude (dominant, ego-oriented, distinct from the Other), these figures transcended both this attitude and its opposite. In other words, they freed and asserted the feminine. Subsequently, men rushed to secure for themselves the new territory delineated by the Christ-figure, the Buddha, and many other paradigm-shifting figures—but they could not erase the radically feminine nature, the radical difference, presented by such religious philosophers.
In the end, I was left wondering why Duran chose to group these particular philosophers together. Surely the fact that they are all female is not justification enough, and though Duran raises the issue herself, she does not answer it. A number of the philosophers included are not feminists. Some are obscure, and some, like Simone de Beauvoir, are celebrities. Some are European; some are British; none are from the third world. Though the book would have benefited from a stronger conceptual framework, the attention Duran pays to such underappreciated figures as Anne Conway is important and valuable.
Erica Da Costa is currently writing about Ivan Illich and his critique of the modern institution.