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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Reviving the Female Canon

Susan Price, writer based in Connecticut reports, "Despite their influence in the 17th century, the era’s women thinkers are absent from historical anthologies of philosophical works. A group of scholars is trying to change that."

Émilie Du Châtelet, an influential French mathematician, physicist, and author during the Age of Enlightenment who's omitted from today's academic texts. Wikimedia

In his first work, published in 1747, Immanuel Kant cites the ideas of another philosopher: a scholar of Newton, religion, science, and mathematics. The philosopher, whose work had been translated into several languages, is Émilie Du Châtelet.

Yet despite her powerhouse accomplishments—and the shout-out from no less a luminary than Kant—her work won’t be found in the 1,000-plus pages of the new edition of The Norton Introduction to Philosophy. In the anthology, which claims to trace 2,400 years of philosophy, the first female philosopher doesn’t appear until the section on writing from the mid-20th century. Or in any of the other leading anthologies used in university classrooms, scholars say.

Also absent are these 17th-century English thinkers: Margaret Cavendish, a prolific writer and natural philosopher; Anne Conway, who discusses the philosophy of Descartes, Hobbes, and Spinoza in The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (which is influenced by the Kabbalah); and “Lady” Damaris Masham—the daughter of a Cambridge Platonist and a close friend of John Locke who published several works and debated ideas in letters she exchanged with the German mathematician and philosopher G.W. Leibniz.

Despite the spread of feminism and multiculturalism, and their impact on fields from literature to anthropology, it is possible to major in philosophy without hearing anything about the historical contributions of women philosophers. The canon remains dominated by white males—the discipline that some say still hews to the myth that genius is tied to gender.

Andrew Janiak, an associate professor of philosophy at Duke University, was a graduate student in the 1990s when he came across Kant’s startling reference to Madame Du Châtelet. “I remember thinking: Did he really mean Madame?” Janiak said. “It was the only time I’d seen a philosopher refer to the ideas of a woman.”

Now, Janiak and a team of Duke students and researchers, along with colleagues at Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania, have launched a site that features the forgotten voices of women philosophers, giving academics and students a rare opportunity to study and promote their work. Project Vox, as the site is called, posts texts and translations of 17th-century women philosophers' work, as well as suggested syllabi for college courses featuring that work. The site is open-source, meaning that faculty and students from around the world can contribute and use materials, and has a 10-member international advisory board. According to Janiak, “a long list of folks” has already contributed or requested syllabi from the project, which went live in March.

Project Vox aims to address the lack of easy-to-find resources for faculty and students who have been eager to add women to their courses but have had few sources on which to draw. While Margaret Atherton’s 1994 collection, Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period, does focus on these women, it only features essays about the work of several individuals. A comprehensive critical edition or anthology of women’s contributions to that era doesn’t appear to exist. (Janiak is now co-editing a series with Christia Mercer of Columbia and Eileen O’Neill of the University of Massachusetts.)

Source: The Atlantic