When thinking about esteemed philosophers, Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Jean-Paul Sartre, or Albert Camus might come to mind. While all brilliant people, they all have one thing in common — they are men. This highlights a problem in how philosophy is traditionally taught. Women in philosophy are seldom spoken about or held in high regard as others in their field. However, this doesn't mean there aren't women in philosophy. Women have made significant contributions to the study of philosophy throughout history, with women studying philosophy since ancient times. These women may not have been as celebrated during their time as they deserved, but their ideas provided important groundwork for the discipline. Bringing to light their accomplishments helps to spread awareness about women in philosophy.
Susanne Langer (1895–1985) was a trailblazer for women aspiring to an academic career in philosophy. She was one of the first women to be professionally recognized as an American philosopher and achieved an academic career in philosophy. Langer is most well known for her philosophies on influences of the mind and art. Her work revolved around the connection between consciousness and aesthetics. She wrote Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. The work explored the process of meaning-making in the human mind. Langer's book explored the idea that there is a human need to invent meaning and invest meaning in the world. The book also explores the importance and power of art as a way of knowledge, similar to science. Langer describes art as symbolizing direct or intuitive knowledge of life patterns that language cannot convey.
Hypatia of Alexandria
Hypatia was one of the first women to study mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy. She was born around 350 BCE in ancient Egypt. During her lifetime, women were not encouraged to pursue academia. However, her father, a respected mathematician and philosopher, allowed her to pursue her academic pursuits. Eventually, she became a math teacher, astronomer, and philosopher.
Her background in mathematics led Hypatia to the ideas of Neoplatonism, a way of thinking based on the idea that people learn everything from experience. Neoplatonists believe everything comes from "the one." She hosted lectures that attracted huge public crowds. Hypatia's work and public lectures proved to people at the time that women could have thoughts just like men. Her work in astronomy and math paved the way for some of the advanced theories used today.
Hannah Arendt's work was partially inspired by her roots. Born in 1906, Arendt grew up in Hannover Germany and Königsberg, Prussia. As a Jew in Germany during World War II, Arendt fled the country after the Nazis implemented educational policies against the Jewish community. She first fled to Paris and later to the United States with her husband. Considering the political turmoil of her early life, it is no wonder Arendt wrote a book on totalitarianism.
Arendt's book Origins of Totalitarianism earned her a reputation as a major political and philosophical thinker. In her book, Arendt talks about how totalitarianism places emphasis on constant movement, taking away people's agency by making them a cog in a greater machine. Through her analysis, Arendt concludes that the essence of totalitarianism is terror, and the purpose is to eliminate spontaneity, to better control people.
Arendt also wrote the book Eichmann in Jerusalem, a highly controversial book reporting on the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. In the book, Arendt outlines her idea that Eichmann's actions came not from a wicked character but from complete thoughtlessness. Arendt's refusal to accept Eichmann as objectively evil by character resulted in denunciations from the Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals.
Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris in 1908. She was one of the most prominent existential philosophers and feminists. Her book The Second Sex paved the way for second-wave feminism. Her proclamation that society treated women as second to men was groundbreaking for people at the time. Her book also explored how women are not born but socialized to be a woman. This idea is similar to today's distinction between gender and sex.
While Beauvoir is most well known for her feminist writing, she made important contributions to existential ethics. In her work, the Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir condemns what she calls the "spirit of seriousness." This is the idea that people too readily identify with certain ideas, which costs them their freedom and responsibility. The question of ethical responsibility and the moral obligations an individual has to themselves and other individuals preoccupied much of Beauvoir's work. Beauvoir's essay Pyrrhus et Cinéas approached the question of ethical responsibility. The essay was an investigation into people's motives and actions, focusing on the question of why people should act at all. It was well-read at the time because it spoke to France's predicament. The war-torn country was trying to find a way out of the horrors and darkness of World War II. The themes of individual freedom and ethical responsibility are throughout Beauvoir's other works and are core concepts in existentialism.
Mary Wollstonecraft was a moral and political philosopher from the 1700s. She was a radical commentator on the condition of women in modern society and is one of the founding feminist philosophers. Wollstonecraft's first book was on the education of daughters. Afterward, she wrote about various topics in politics, history, and different aspects of philosophy. Wollstonecraft's most famous book, A Vindication on The Rights of Women, argues that women are not objectively inferior to men, and they only appear to be because they lack education. In the book, Wollstonecraft suggests a society founded on reason and states that we should treat everyone as rational beings. Her writings went beyond her contributions to feminism. She also wrote famously about imagination. Wollstonecraft saw imagination as the gateway to freedom.
Breaking The Western Canon
Even though women have made significant contributions to philosophy throughout history, few women have broken into the circle of the Western canon, the body of art, literature, and philosophy highly valued in the West. The works of philosophers in the Western canon are the classics, and despite their significant contributions to philosophy, few women in philosophy have books among the classics. Today, the works of many women philosophers are even excluded from history and philosophy texts. This has led to a need for more knowledge about women in philosophy, even among philosophy students. Reading more about women in philosophy helps spread awareness about the work these women have accomplished. It also encourages other women to become inspired and delve deeper into the discipline.