History of philosophy through gender lenses
Comenius University in Bratislava
The case study builds on research into the history of philosophy which is commonly viewed and presented as a collection of ideas of as the history of the ideas of renowned men, where women are almost absent. It provides an example of how integrating gender perspective helps to enrich and correct the traditional picture about philosophy as male dominated enterprise, to reveal women philosophers and their ideas which are not included in the “philosophical canon”, but also hidden, or in some cases explicit androcentism and sexism in philosophical theories. It also demonstrates how using gender perspective can improve our understanding of philosophy and its history, but also contribute to our current understanding of gender in terms of maleness and femaleness and their historical roots.
In the philosophical canon, which is to be conceived as a list of renowned men and their ideas presented to students at Slovak universities as the highest endeavours in philosophy or as a benchmark of excellent philosophical work, female figures are left behind. That means that philosophy and its history are presented as male domain. Moreover, in some philosophical concepts women are often disparaged, particularly their intellectual capabilities and moral qualities, and this occurs even where women and men or the differences between them are not directly addressed, but where human beings in general are the subject of consideration. Hidden behind the universalistic language of traditional philosophy, we often find the male perspective—in referring to humans in general, philosophy was often, in fact, describing men. This hidden kind of androcentrism can be revealed just by integrating gender perspective into researching the philosophical canon.
How is Gender integrated in this Research
The research presented in this case study focuses on gender in the history of philosophy. It involves a criticism of the philosophical canon in general from a gender perspective as well as research on concrete philosophical ideas on gender relations elaborated by two 19th century British philosophers, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill.
The aim of this case study is to provide an example of how integrating gender perspective a) provides a correction of one-sided, mainly androcentric view on the history of philosophical ideas b) reveals women philosophers who had been made invisible and silenced c) reveals „old“ ideas on gender equality relevant also currently.
This is achieved through:
- Problem identification: the research presented in this case study identifies various forms of androcentrism or maleness in the history of philosophy, e. g. that the basic norms and ideals of philosophy, such as rationality and objectivity, are similar as cultural signs of masculinity; hidden or overt misogyny and sexism in the opinions of the canonical figures of European philosophical tradition. The indifference of traditional philosophy to gender was associated with the negative “portrayal” of women by many „canonical“ philosophers.
- Research design: the research was designed to take gender as an analytical category and methodological tool of a historical-philosophical analysis. This enables to uncover various ways in which women and gender relations were excluded from philosophy also in terms of the content of many philosophical theories.
- Analysis: the main research results are the following:
- In the case of Harriet Taylor Mill, a woman philosopher in the first half of the 19th century, a special “strategy of exclusion”—concealment as a mechanism for maintaining men’s dominion was identified.
- As to the history of philosophy, various ways of excluding women from being part of the philosophical canon were identified – from the overt misogyny in philosophical theories and disregarding female thinkers completely, to more subtle ways of depreciating female philosophers by accentuating their personal life rather than their ideas. It has been demonstrated that it is not enough to identify whether female philosophers are mentioned, but it is necessary to explore the precise ways of talking about their contribution.
- The research has shown that even in the case of renowned male philosophers, less attention has been paid to their writings focused on gender issues – while Mill´s book “On Liberty” is a standard part of the philosophical curriculum, his writing “The Subjection of Women” is not usually part of academic or standard textbook interpretations of Mill’s philosophy.
- As for the ideas concerning gender equality articulated by Harriet Taylor Mill, there was shown how some of them (e. g. ideas concerning economic independence, criticism of the dichotomy between the private and the public spheres, stressing that unequal relationship between man and woman is harmful to men themselves) are relevant not only in this historical context, but also currently.Arguments elaborated by Joh Stuart Mill towards a „full equality“ between women and men and in order to discredit prejudices against women were reconstructed and shown as valid even today.
- Dissemination: the results of this research have been used (besides being published) also in teaching courses on history of philosophy.
What could be done differently
The research has used gender as a binary concept referring to relation between men and women.
Key Learning Points
The main challenge for the research is to ensure its impact on the philosophical canon presented to the students of philosophy. It has been addressed by the author by designing an elective course Feminist philosophy in the historical perspective on her faculty, supplementing thus the courses on the history of philosophy taught by other teachers.
Resources to explore