Blog - Blogue
Philosophy, especially academic philosophy, is not a discipline women are typically associated with. Why is that, one might ask? Like anything else related to philosophy, there is no easy or straightforward answer.
Women occupy roughly 25% of the academic positions in university philosophy programs across the UK, 21% in the US and just over 30% in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. As David Papineau muses in his article "Why Are There So Few Women Philosophers?", it might very well be that there is something peculiar to professional philosophy that makes women select themselves out of the discipline. His guess is in the direction of the adversarial style of academic philosophy: ‘to deliver a paper is to suffer an ordeal by criticism’.
There is also the bias that philosophers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Hannah Arendt appeared on the world stage thanks to the various social-justice movements originating in the 20th century, which allowed women to be formally educated. But we forget that women have always done philosophy. Aspasia, who lived in the 400s BC, was not only the right hand of Pericles but rumored to be the (better) female version of Socrates. And what of Hypatia, a beloved teacher, mathematician and head of the Neoplatonic school of Alexandria? And then there is the mediaeval healer, visionary, and mystic Hildegarde von Bingen. Let’s not forget the great 17th century epistemologists Margaret Cavendish and Anne Conway, to mention but only a few.
Is it then that women are more nurturing, caring, and compassionate, and just won’t engage in the boys-only agonal games where one has to prove himself at every turn of the page? While women certainly can be caring, nurturing and compassionate, I think the question should draw our attention, more than anything, to the current state of academic philosophy. Perhaps it is not so much the competitiveness but the navel-gazing nature of most of what academic philosophy produces that drives certain populations away. During the times of Aspasia and Hypatia, who, by the way, were described to have been sarcastic, stern, and fair, philosophy was the voice in one’s head in matters of ethical and political decision making, and philosophers – the game-changers. And perhaps it is the ‘schizophrenic’ nature of academic philosophy where one is stuck between two worlds: the hair-splitting-without-saying-anything-important ‘publish or perish’, and the duty to educate and mentor, that makes it unattractive to women.
So, how do women (the ones who have decided to stay in the trenches of academia) do philosophy, after all? Well, simply put, like anyone who tries, with brains and heart.
Any first-year philosophy student is familiar with the oldest syllogism in the book, “All men are mortal, Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” Rather logical, is it not? But when it comes to our lived experiences, do we really know how to face our mortality and finitude?
We treat death as the most undesirable but yet, unavoidable event in one’s life, the ultimate evil. Dying is, more often than not, associated with ageing and the natural disability that comes with it – two of the things our culture fears the most. Western aesthetics worships youth. What is more, youth equals beauty. By association, the visual imagery of ageing recreated by numerous painters of the past few centuries is as an unkind wrinkly old woman. The message: loss of youth is loss of beauty, is undesirable. We seem to be thrashing between two attitudinal alternatives: succumb to a quiet resolve and drown in sorrow, or become defiant: “Old age should burn and rage at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light” wrote the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
But we forget that death, just like old age, is not just an event, it is a process. From the moment we are born, we begin to die. Ageing is not only about losing some of the abilities we enjoyed earlier in life, it is about acquiring new ones. So, why not honor it by learning how to relate to one another as ageing and finite beings? Grieving is a skill, among many other important skills we learn as we progress in life. We tend to associate grief with loss and pain. But it is so much more than that. Grief points us in the direction of our physical, cognitive, and emotional limitations. Knowing one’s limitations is half of the work, and a necessary groundwork in any (epistemological or other) inquiry. It is precisely on the backdrop of the (potential) loss which grieving anticipates that we appreciate the importance of forming human relationships. We are all dependent on those around us. Natural disability that comes with age should not lead to the loss of dignity and be treated as an imminent disadvantage.
We are all vulnerable and helpless when brought into this world. This vulnerability does not just magically disappear as we mature; it simply shifts and manifests itself differently. Isn’t then disability and dependence just a matter of degree, not of kind? And isn’t it time that we shed the ableist accounts of autonomy and existence-in-the-world that we still seem to hold on to?