History of Philosophy with a few (women-shaped) gaps.

I’ve been listening to Peter Adamson’s podcasts “The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps”. They’re great. Peter has a lovely clear voice, knows how to put together history and philosophical commentary, tells plenty of amusing anecdotes, and has a great selection of guest speakers who can talk in depth about particular topics.

I’ve been using the podcasts for my teaching – even I find it much easier to get something out of the presocratics or hellenistics after listening to Peter Adamson talk about them, so I assume it will make life a lot easier for first year students!

This is not the end of my family’s commitment to the podcasts: my teenage daughter alternates her evenings between listening to them and watching old Doctor Who episodes. This is how good they are.

But disappointment is beginning to overshadow my enthusiasm.

When I first came across the podcasts, I imagined that without any gaps would mean that no philosopher would be excluded from consideration. Yet, we’re now well into the Christian era, and no woman has been discussed, expect in passing, Hypatia in the podcast called The Last Pagans, and Macrina in the Cappadocians.

In a reply to a comment, Peter says that he will discuss women as they come along in history, and mentions that

” ultimately we’re stuck with the fact that the history of philosophy is a history of ideas in surviving texts, and very few surviving texts from before a couple of centuries ago were written by women — in any field, never mind philosophy.”

This may be true. But it is true of at least some male ancient philosophers discussed in the podcasts such as Thales for whom we have only testimonia. We also do have testimonia for various women philosophers of the antiquity – even, in some cases, disputed texts. A quick look through the relevant sections of the Women Philosophers page will testify to that. So is Thales discussed because he is so significant, or is he significant because he is always discussed? Perhaps it is time to imbue a little significance into female philosophers of the antiquity. 

But Middle Ages are coming up: so we could expect a change. Will Heloise‘s letters get a podcasts? Or Hildegard of Bingen‘s many writings? It may help Peter Adamson realise that these women matter to historians of philosophy if historians of philosophy tell him. I only found one comment on his page asking whether he would consider minority philosophers, including women. Perhaps historians of philosophy should write to him – name women philosophers, offer to contribute, Peter has a general comments page, here. My own comment will hopefully come up soon: it is currently held up because it triggered the spam filter. I wonder whether the mention of women in the context of philosophy was the problematic trigger!

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16 Responses to History of Philosophy with a few (women-shaped) gaps.

  1. Gary Ostertag says:

    This document shows that Peter Adamson simply has not done his research.


    It is simply irresponsible to write that “very few surviving texts from before a couple of centuries ago were written by women.” In fact, many of these texts survive and many are indeed available.

    • Sandrine Berges says:

      Thank you for linking to the O’Neill paper. It is representative both of the fact that there are lot more women philosophers in history than one might think and of the current effort to re-insert them in textbooks, university reading lists – or podcasts. (To be fair, I’m not sure how long Adamson spent composing the reply to the comment I quote: it’s the nature of blogging that one sometimes makes passing remarks that strike more careful readers as irresponsible.)

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  3. Dean Goorden says:

    I also suggest reading Kathleen Wider’s paper in the very first issue of Hypatia: “Women Philosophers in the Ancient Greek World: Donning the Mantle” (http://www.jstor.org/stable/3810062).

    I am by no leans an expert in History of Philosophy, but I agree with Gary that Peter Adamson hasn’t done his research….

  4. I’ve responded to Sandrine on the main comments website but just quickly: I stand by what I said on the blog earlier. By “a few centuries ago” I meant early modernity and in that period we get women being allowed to play a really significant role in the history of philosophy, with a fair number of preserved texts. I plan to emphasize this when (and if!) I get that far because I think it is an interesting and important feature of that period (and therefore one shouldn’t pretend that it was nothing new). There are exceptions of course, as I also said back then on the blog. An outstanding example is obviously Hildegard whom I will certainly cover, in fact she’s already on my projected contents list. But I will try to get other female authors into the story whenever I can — if I miss some then it won’t be for lack of trying, and the links you have all provided will be useful in this regard.

  5. Lena Halldenius says:

    Or worse, maybe he just didn’t consider that there could be research to be done on this particular topic. It he didn’t he wouldn’t be the only one, to put it mildly. When I studied philosophy as an undergraduate, the absence of women from the curriculum was so complete that I didn’t even notice it (until later). Funny that, how the absence of women do not constitute gaps, a bit like human rights that are universal even if women don’t have any.

    • Dean Goorden says:

      I think you are right, he probably never considered it a possibility. I, too, was unaware of a lot of work done by women (not to mention feminist works) until after my undergrad. It would be unfair to put this entirely on Adamson’s back, but I think frustration is justified given that an expert systematically excludes a large group (—admittedly, probably from systematic failings of pedagogy and curriculum). One can only hope that with the problem highlighted he will rectify the situation.

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  7. I get the impression from the comments that apart from the original poster, they are left by people who have not actually listened to the podcast. In fact I specially emphasized the contribution of women in the episodes on late ancient Christian thought, in the introductory episode on that topic and in several others in that series. (Especially the Cappadocians and Ascetics episodes, if I recall rightly.) Obviously one can always do more, and I take on board the original complaint that I may have missed opportunities to do so in the antique section; I will think about how to redress that in the subsequent book version. As I say I do plan to strive to discuss women authors in the podcast whenever I can in the future, especially when I get to early modern thought. But I don’t really think any regular listener could believe that this was an issue I have simply been ignoring or of which I am unaware. (Sorry if this sounds thin-skinned, but having made a fairly big deal about this very issue in some episodes, it is annoying me to be depicted as someone who never had it enter his head that there may be women philosophers.)

    • Sandrine Berges says:

      Peter, I don’t think you’re being thin-skinned. The HOP podcasts (as we like to call them at home) are a monumental piece of work and at least part of our discussion here focussed on a reply to a comment on your blog – this can’t be very satisfying… But I think most of the commenters agree that the problem is not you – that we are all far too prone not to include women when we could – and I at least, am confident that with your reply here and on your page, you have become part of the solution (if that is, you weren’t already).
      I should also note that someone pointed out on Feminist philosophers that the woman gap thing had already been pointed out in 2010. However, no one, it seems took it up with you, or even discussed the matter (there were no comments on that post). So despite the fact that some comments here may be a tad over critical, I think there’s a sense that we’re all working together on filling the gaps, rather than leaving it up to you to sort out what is after all a major problem in the way history of philosophy is conducted. I’m hoping you’ll take it that way, any way!

    • Dean Goorden says:

      Hi Peter. While there was a critique aimed at you, the majority of the blame was (I think) a meta-critique of Philosophy as a discipline. As it has been pointed out, at one point many of us never questioned why there were only male philosophers being taught to us (—and why is it that for most of us, white male figures come to mind first). I think a parallel example is the gendered conference campaign being run by the feministphilosophers blog where there is an obvious problem that males are the first (or only) choice. Such biases run deep.

      I tried to give you the benefit of the doubt (as I think other commentators did), but perhaps this didn’t come through as strong as I would have liked. The way to rectify the problem is to highlight it and bring it to awareness. This was, in fact, what the purpose of the post : 1) to bring awareness to this issue, 2) garner examples, lists, research, etc., of women in the history of philosophy. As Sandrine points out in her reply, we were perhaps over critical, but we also didn’t think it was completely up to you to rectify this major problem of the discipline. I think Sandrine explains this much better than I!

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