At the Nietzsche House in Sils im Engadin, Switzerland. Photo by Waltraud Grubitzsch/dpa/Getty


The view from her

Is there something special about the way women do philosophy or is that just another essentialist idea holding us back?

by Elly Vintiadis + BIO

At the Nietzsche House in Sils im Engadin, Switzerland. Photo by Waltraud Grubitzsch/dpa/Getty

What do philosophers contribute to philosophy? How do they enrich it? This sounds like a strange question, yet women in philosophy are often asked to explain what they contribute to philosophy now that they are allowed to do philosophy professionally. Underlying this question is a sense that our voices are not seen as philosophers’ voices, but primarily as women’s voices. It is as if women would necessarily have a distinctive point of view, as a group, instead of having simply the individual points of view they take as philosophers.

Maybe this question arises because historically, until recently, women were given few chances for their engagement to be taken seriously and for them to succeed in philosophy, and they are still underrepresented in academic philosophy. However, there is a rich tradition of women’s philosophical contribution, from ancient times to today, despite the vast obstacles they faced: in the ancient world, Hypatia of Alexandria, Hipparchia of Maroneia and Arete of Cyrene; in the 17th century, Elena Cornaro Piscopia of Venice (the first woman to receive a university degree) and Margaret Cavendish Duchess of Newcastle; and in the 18th century, Laura Bassi and Dorothea Erxleben.

Women often had to contribute anonymously – Lady Anne Conway’s Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy was anonymously published posthumously in 1690 – or else by communicating their thoughts to male philosophers through letters, most notably Elisabeth, Princess Palatine of Bohemia in her correspondence with René Descartes. Yet even though they wrote extensively, their work hardly ever made it into the philosophical canon nor was it published widely. It seems that women wrote in ‘disappearing ink’, as Eileen O’Neill put it in 1997, and their work has vanished from the history of philosophy – because their contribution was considered dangerous as it challenged the status quo and thus was systematically silenced, or because questions that concerned women weren’t considered serious enough, or because the mere fact that something was written by women was sufficient to indicate that it was somehow lightweight.

Wesley Buckwalter and Stephen Stich argued in 2013 that there are gendered differences in intuitions that might explain women’s underrepresentation in philosophy. I don’t think there are good reasons to support an essentialist claim that women think differently than men, but the lives of women do often put them in a position that leads to different philosophical interests and to different contributions, even, sometimes, different intuitions. This can partially explain why women are underrepresented in academic philosophy but also how their contributions can broaden and enrich it. Though today women are not excluded from philosophy as they once were, they are often subject to another kind of marginalisation that consists in the topics they sometimes write about not being accepted as mainstream or even ‘serious’ by people who exercise power within philosophy.

So, to ask a frequent question never posed about men in philosophy: how have women contributed to the discipline? The simple answer is that philosophy by women is diverse since there is no one way to be a woman, nor one way that women think. Women have contributed in many different ways, and their work spans the range from analytic philosophy of logic (eg, Susan Stebbing, Susan Haack, Ruth Barcan Marcus) through to new subject areas in applied ethics (eg, Martha Nussbaum, Judith Jarvis Thomson, Christine Korsgaard). And of course, women should be free to contribute to philosophy as they individually see fit, and not forced into someone else’s vision of what they ought to be writing about, qua women. Still, the most obvious way that women have contributed is in addressing questions that arise for women, in the first instance, in the area of feminist philosophy. Though feminist philosophical approaches, such as those of Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray and Patricia Hill Collins, are very different from one another, they have generally been an attempt to bring to light that what has been traditionally taken to be an objective point of view, a view from nowhere, was, in fact, associated exclusively with one particular point of view, the male one – that of the knower by default.

The traditional, dominant idea has always been that philosophy is a disinterested enquiry, essentially untouched by history or culture. What is overlooked by this – something that philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard and Stebbing have pointed out – is that the knower is not a disembodied mind; the context in which one is situated affects one’s thought in ways that might not be seen by someone comfortable in that context. So the decontextualised view traditionally associated with objectivity can be seen to be the opposite: as neither impartial nor universal. Feminist theories argue that contextualising enquiry might be the only way to bring to light important truths and expand our understanding of the world by exposing biases that are so firmly rooted in patriarchal societies that they have become imperceptible.

Of course, women differ from each other, and different feminist theories have different commitments and approaches, but they have this in common: they typically start off with the idea that women have suffered systematic oppression because of their gender, and that this affects their position as agents. But it also, importantly, affects them as knowers. Such writers prescribe ways to overcome this so that enquiry is not one-sided. In this sense, it is a way to rethink what being objective really amounts to – and to make the ‘view from nowhere’ a view from lived reality. Standing in that reality, women are also in an epistemically privileged position to identify certain social inequalities and injustices, and provide insights about these phenomena that would otherwise be lost. For example, a woman who returns home after a day’s work to start her ‘second shift’ might have a clearer view of the inequalities of labour, the unpaid work that women have to do. This can be an epistemic starting point that is unavailable to most men.

Feminist epistemology begins from precisely this idea: that the circumstances of our lives partly constitute our epistemic lives – they affect how we understand the world, what we know about it but also how our views are received. Miranda Fricker’s work has shown how stereotypes, hierarchical social relations and traditional gender roles affect how knowledge is acquired and disseminated, and how testimony is received. Fricker coined the term ‘epistemic injustice’ for forms of injustice rarely taken seriously before – injustices that arise when your standing as a knower is not given any credit because of your social status.

There are things we cannot see if we do not have the conceptual apparatus to do so

Fricker brought to light the phenomenon of ‘testimonial injustice’: when your testimony is not thought credible because you belong to a group subject to prejudice (eg, because of your gender, sexuality or ethnicity); and ‘hermeneutical injustice’: when you don’t have the interpretive resources to make sense of aspects of your own experience because of dominant assumptions and meanings. For instance, the introduction of the concept of sexual harassment allowed women to make sense of a very uncomfortable experience that for others was just innocuous flirting. Similarly, Kate Manne in Down Girl (2019) re-defined a systemic bias in public life and politics, that of misogyny – which she defines not as individual hostility towards women but as a social mechanism of controlling and punishing women who deviate from the demands of patriarchy. This helps make sense of many experiences that women go through daily.

Both these philosophers drew our attention to sources of harm that previously went largely unseen. They also introduced concepts that helped us see things differently – because there are things we cannot see if we do not have the conceptual apparatus to do so.

These works build on the feminist tradition – eg, Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949) – and, after Beauvoir, by philosophers such as Nussbaum, who have argued that freedom and rights are of little use if our situations deprive us of the possibility to act. The idea that, even if legal barriers fall, actual equality might still not be achieved has been present in feminist thought at least since the 17th century – eg, in the work of writers such as Mary Astell, Mary Wollstonecraft and Harriet Taylor. We must also not forget that non-white thinkers – Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Audre Lorde and W E B Du Bois, who belong to groups more marginalised than most white women – have long been arguing that their status as knowers is not recognised and given sufficient credit.

Another example of women bringing the supposed view from nowhere back into the real world is that of a new feminist ethical approach, the ethics of care. One of the results of the dominance of a male point of view is that there has been little philosophical work on matters predominantly part of the female experience. One such phenomenon is taking care of others. Care ethics focuses on the wellbeing of caregivers and their dependents, giving a voice to people in such relationships and to the injustice and oppression they’re often subject to. The ethics of care thus promotes the voice of the less-than-autonomous rational agent in moral reasoning and also re-introduces emotions as central to ethics – as something that needs to be cultivated in order to complement our thinking about ethical matters.

Though the idea that care should have a central place in our thinking about how to live is not new (it can be found in the work of the Confucian philosopher Mengzi), 20th-century philosophers such as Eva Feder Kittay, Virginia Held, Joan Tronto and Nel Noddings brought it to the forefront with a different focus. Instead of placing the notion of justice at the centre of ethical thinking and focusing on building moral relations and societies around that, they replace it with the notion of care.

At the core of care ethics is the realisation that traditional ethical theories of the 18th and 19th centuries defined what is important in terms of reason and autonomy. Immanuel Kant’s ethical theory, for example, assumes that morality is essentially about relations between rational, autonomous, independent and equal agents. And utilitarianism asks us to calculate, without emotions, the net happiness a particular action will bring about. In reality though, humans are relational and emotional creatures – our existence is based on and formed by our connection and dependence on others. Unlike the abstract formal relationships described by some ethical theories, many of the social relations that we find ourselves in are often unequal, replete with emotions, involuntarily entered into, and in some of them people require care and are unable to reciprocate the actions of others. The family is a prime example of such relationships, but they are also in society at large: in the workplace, in educational settings, in human-animal relations, and in the broader political and global sphere.

Care ethics is regarded within a patriarchal framework as ‘feminine’ rather than universal

In care ethics, care is not one component of our thinking, for instance one of the virtues, but at its centre. As Kittay emphasises, in care ethics the focus is on figuring out the normative sense of care in order to know what we ought to do to be caring and what kinds of institutional structures we need to support and sustain caring relationships. Often this is translated in having a caring constitution or in having the intention to care for others (as in Christian ethics), but Kittay stresses that this is not enough – for example, it often takes paternalistic forms and loses sight of the fact, which Noddings and Tronto have spoken of, that the cared-for person must feel cared for – in this sense, the practice of caring must be effective, meeting the needs of the cared-for person.

So though there are other ethical theories that do involve care as a component, the focus is different in care ethics. For this reason, though some take care ethics to be a form of virtue ethics, not all proponents agree. Held, for instance, resists characterising care as a virtue or a disposition, and prefers to see it as a practice in order to emphasise the burden it has on women in patriarchal societies. So, rather than focusing on the characters of individuals, care ethics concerns primarily caring relations.

Because care ethics focuses on such matters, it is regarded within a patriarchal framework as ‘feminine’ rather than universal. The paradigm of care is taken to be women’s nurturing relationships, since it is overwhelmingly women who are caretakers of dependents. But it is also because care ethics inevitably draws our attention to moral issues that arise in the private sphere, such as housework, children, disability and domestic abuse. Yet care ethics emphasises a central and fundamental aspect of the human condition that many ethical theories often ignore: that everyone has responsibilities and obligations to care for others, and we have all been cared for at some point. It also reminds us that women often find themselves in positions of inequality in relation to others who are not caregivers, and are also in a privileged position to identify the inequalities faced by those who are dependent on others. So, another way to approach care ethics is to see it as a truly egalitarian human ethics centred around the universal experience of care, which embraces the different needs real people have in all contexts. This requires a reconceptualisation of how we think about ethics.

Making central the idea that not all people are equal in their abilities has ramifications in almost all aspects of our thinking. Care ethics forces us to re-think, among other things, our conception of disability, dignity, the good life, justice and the value of reason and autonomy. It asks us to think about these not from a detached point of view, but from the view of the person needing care and the person supplying this care – a job that in most cases falls on women’s shoulders. It’s possibly for this reason precisely that this perspective has been missing from ethics. In a similar way, the philosophy of pregnancy – which touches on legal, ethical and social issues – is a topic introduced by women that was almost completely missing from philosophy because it involves aspects of experience that men don’t share.

In ethics, the question of the relation between the foetus and the body of the maternal organism is incredibly important, with practical consequences for the lives of women. But the philosophy of pregnancy has implications for other areas of philosophy too: by stirring the edges, it helps us rethink questions in metaphysics of organisms and persons. How do we distinguish persons or organisms, and when does one person or organism become two? Usually, we approach such question by studying problematic cases, but it’s striking that the obvious case of pregnancy is rarely discussed.

Pregnancy also raises epistemological questions. In her work on pregnancy, Fiona Woollard refers to the idea that certain experiences are ‘epistemically transformative’. That is, they give knowledge about certain things that you would not otherwise have. Does the subjective experience of pregnancy reveal aspects of experience that are not accessible to people who do not undergo it? If so, if a woman’s experience, physically and emotionally, of being pregnant clashes with ‘objective’ accounts of pregnancy, whose voice should be the authority?

Despite the centrality of pregnancy to human experience as a whole, the metaphysics of pregnancy has been almost nonexistent in the history of Western philosophy, making this another example of female experience being dismissed as irrelevant. Yet the philosophy of pregnancy shows how the dominant philosophical perspective in ontology and metaphysics is very male, and thus how the supposed view from nowhere is really nothing of the sort.

Beyond the ethical problems, the container model also clashes with the actuality of the pregnancy experience

Let’s take the question of the relation of the foetus to the gestating organism. One way to approach it is to say that the foetus is an organism within another organism – that is, we have two different entities: the foetus contained in the mother, as in the English metaphor ‘a bun in the oven’. This is the so-called ‘container’ model: the dominant view in Western culture, commonly depicting the foetus as an astronaut floating in the womb as if it were a separate entity from the body it’s floating in. But another way to think of this, advocated by Elselijn Kingma, is that the foetus is part of the mother’s organism, in the same way that the heart or the kidney is part of the mother’s body. On this view, the foetus becomes a separate organism only at birth.

Though these two depictions might both seem plausible and the distinction between them inconsequential, they give rise to very different questions. For instance, if a mother is just a container, her body can be both harmed and policed in many different ways. Think of the moral panic around mothers harming their foetuses with their choices about birthing or drinking. If, however, the foetus is just a part of the mother’s body, then such questions don’t arise, and consequently such policing becomes unjustifiable.

Beyond the ethical problems raised by the container model, it also clashes with the actuality of the pregnancy experience. Anyone who has ever been pregnant knows that the connection of the mother’s body with the foetus is much more intimate and complex than the container model makes it out to be. Being pregnant is like being something in between one and two organisms; we are one with the foetus but we are also not the unity that we were before becoming pregnant. Even biologically, speaking of two organisms becomes problematic when we consider how the foetus is connected to the mother internally, how they share a common boundary with the external world. This might sound illogical if one thinks in terms of traditional ontology, where individuals are clearly distinct, independent from one another and self-contained – but, in such an ontology, it is unclear how pregnancy is even possible to begin with.

So the case of pregnancy shows how the traditional perspective in ontology is limited – in terms of the range of questions it considers, and what it considers most central. Logic says that ‘everything is what it is, and not another thing’ but the experience of pregnancy breaks down this neat distinction, and what seems a logical impossibility somehow becomes possible. This brings to mind Mary Midgley who in discussing how our living situations influence the way we think about the world points out how much of philosophy has been done by privileged men without families who had the luxury of doing philosophy in isolation – like Descartes in his room contemplating the truth about knowledge, isolated from the mundane exigencies of everyday life. The problem with such isolated thinking is that it skews the way we think about the world and ignores viewpoints that might be revealing of another dimension of reality.

If there is one thing that characterises philosophy it is that it requires constant examination of our assumptions and presuppositions. I think the most important thing that women have added to philosophy as a group, beyond the myriad individual contributions in all areas of philosophy, is the voice of self-examination. Women’s voices – like those of all minority traditions – are the Jiminy Cricket of philosophy, reminding philosophers that their practices of enquiry have not exhibited the virtues that, as philosophers, they are after. It’s a reminder that the traditional starting points taken as the view from nowhere are in fact deeply ideologically permeated, and can compromise enquiry if we don’t constantly check ourselves.

Looking at women’s scholarship, we also see that women often tend to ask questions that concern people and that matter to their lives, thus bringing into focus philosophy’s connection to practice in different ways. Maybe because many of us are feminists, that brings us back to the reality of our lives and we are often personally engaged with the subjects we research, raising questions about that reality and how it is connected to broader philosophical questions. So the voice of women is also the voice that brings philosophy home again into the real world, thus invigorating philosophy and making it relevant to people’s lives again.

Once it is realised that there can’t really be a view from nowhere and that every view is firmly situated in a historical and social context, then real people’s lived perspectives must start to be introduced. And among these invisible perspectives are the perspectives of women. As we have seen, these perspectives challenge the philosophical starting points of questions about knowledge, about ethics, about metaphysics and so on. By challenging these frameworks, redefining categories, creating new ones and identifying social dynamics, philosophy becomes empowering and liberating, and can even lead to change.

For all these reasons, rather than being criticised and marginalised for breaking down traditional views, women in philosophy (and the new perspectives they bring) should be celebrated. Ultimately, the question of women in philosophy is about critical mass, about creating a culture in which women don’t feel like apparitions. To achieve this, women must be encouraged, and the stereotypes that hold them back must be broken – this will celebrate women in philosophy and give them the credit they are overdue. At the same time, as women, we must be careful not to become complacent as we gain space in philosophy, nor to place the weight lifted off our backs onto someone else.

There is a question of whether philosophy progresses. Chris Daly suggests that Western philosophy has made hardly any progress in 2,500 years. However, it seems to me that all the things mentioned here are obvious signs of progress. With the help of women, philosophy is getting up from the armchair that men put it in, tackling questions relevant to people’s lives, and challenging its own preconceptions, including those about what is, and what is not, philosophy.