When I checked Eight Women Philosophers, by Jane Duran, out of the library, I was hoping to find some common thread in philosophical thought by women that would support some vague non-rational thesis of this blog. Well, I didn't. But the book was interesting anyway, so this blog post will be just a short little overview of why, even if it turns out female philosophizing didn't always diverge much from the male philosophers of their time, it is still important to talk about it.
First, a brief sketch of the book. Jane Duran looks at biographical and historical data on, as well as the philosophical works of, eight Western European women across 700 years - Hildegard of Bingen, Anne Conway, Mary Astell, Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor Mill, Edith Stein, Simone Weil, and Simone de Beauvoir. Duran's aims in doing this are multiple: first of all, she is engaged in a rehabilitation project, and for that reason alone, she seems to argue, it is important to talk about these philosophers as women whose writings (in most cases) have been swept under the rug for at least some period of time. She is also interested in historicizing their work; she points out, for example, that it is impossible to fully understand the philosophy of Edith Stein or Simone Weil without thinking about their relationships to Judaism and to World War II - and historical conditions are equally relevant for the other philosophers she discusses. Finally, Duran is interested in the implications each of the eight philosophies have on contemporary feminist thought.
In one section of her conclusion, Duran is concerned with finding the commonalities between all eight women, perhaps to bolster the sense that there is something particular about being a woman philosopher (though, at the same time, she is careful not to overestimate or overessentialize that commonality). She finds that each woman, albeit in different ways, has a certain concern for particularity and/or empathy that differs (again, some more than others) from the male thinkers of her time. Each woman also works from a gynocentric standpoint in the sense that they are all working from a place of exclusion.
This is, I think, where this book has something to say to my previous blog post on Women's Ways of Knowing. It is clear that women can think and can know in the same ways as their male contemporaries - as evidenced here by Anne Conway's clear engagement with her male counterparts such as Henry More, or by Harriet Taylor Mill's contributions to the thinking of her husband (John Stuart Mill) - but looking at the way each woman has responded to her excluded status, no matter how that status manifested itself historically, gives credence to the need for theories of women's ways of knowing.
Jane Duran points out in her conclusion that although there may be a time when a gendered approach to literary/philosophical revitalizing projects may not be urgent, that time isn't anywhere on our horizon. Gender is widely recognized as a social construct, but it is a social construct that begins so early in a child's life - even before the development of speech, with subtle (or not-so-subtle) parental cues - that it continues to be a relevant and problematic concept. I must admit, when reading Women's Ways of Knowing, I wondered if it was becoming outdated by (for instance) the rising female enrollment in liberal arts colleges. I think that Eight Women Philosophers has cast a new light on this issue, convincing me that while a woman's gender may be less important to her thinking on an individual cognitive level, it remains urgent to consider women's thought - and that other genders that one would consider "excluded" - on the basis of its relationship to an unfortunately persistent male-centered system of education and power.