Thursday, June 01, 2006

Mary Warnock and Women Philosophers.

Numerous attempts to prevent posting of this essay and to obstruct it continue to take place. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prevents government (or anyone) acting -- whether secretly or not -- on behalf of government officials from censoring speech or individual speakers critical of those public officials, including judges. In a state which is now proven to be the most corrupt in the nation, whose judiciary is tarnished by the blatant illegalities characterizing its operations on a daily basis, whose courts are a joke, criticisms must be expected. (See "Same Old, Same Old," at Philosopher's Quest and "Crimes Against Humanity in New Jersey," at Critical Vision.)

I doubt that these experiences of obstruction, hackers and annoying e-mails, will prevent me from expressing my opinions. They only confirm the validity of my accusations. I cannot post an image to accompany this essay, so here is one that may do.

Mary Warnock, Women Philosophers (London: J.M. Dent, 1996).
Mary Whiton Calkins, The Persistent Problems of Philosophy (London: MacMillan & Co., 1917).

Nearly every history of philosophy or Western thought that I have read is exclusively concerned with the writings of a small group of distinguished White European Men (WEM), who have shaped the thinking of our civilization over millennia. This alone is off-putting to many minority persons and women, who often have unsuspected talents for philosophy. (A new "error" was just inserted and corrected in this essay.)

This uninviting aspect of popularizations is not only unfortunate for their authors, but also for philosophy and for all of us who might benefit from unexpected contributions to longstanding discussions of great issues.

I speak from personal experience, since I also felt some of these misgivings when I discovered an interest in the subject. I sensed the importance of the ideas being debated. At the same time, I felt excluded from conversations by not being "like" the participants in them. I surmise that many women and minority group members have felt the same. Unfortunately, philosophy -- as an academic discipline or "profession" -- has not always been as welcoming or as open to different voices as it might be.

My suggestion is that you try Richard Tarnas and Mathew Stewart for accessible and non-sexist general histories of Western thought. Susan Neiman's recent book on evil is a kind of journey through modern philosophy. The traditional understanding of what constitutes a rational or "rigorous" approach to philosophical issues or how one should go about "doing" philosophy may well be at fault or in need of reconsideration. Is this a cause or effect of sexism? A little of both?

This concentration on "great men" in philosophy, with supplemental considerations of historical and other factors giving rise to their speculations is probably appropriate, in light of the influence these men have wielded on events and on the mentality of their epochs. I call this the "heroic interpretation" of philosophy -- to coincide with the "heroic interpretation" of history that became popular in the nineteenth century -- both are now subject, deservedly, to much criticism. This is not to deny that some great philosophers were also great persons (Spinoza, Wollstonecraft) nor to dispute that all of the usual suspects from Socrates to Wittgenstein (or Weil) should be regarded as geniuses. I am aware that the thinkers I have just named are rarely mentioned in the same breath. Why not?

"I have always admired the heroic interpretation of history and favored hero worship," George Santayana writes, "unfortunately, I have found no heros to worship." If I were writing a history of women philosophers in the twentieth century, I might include Santayana not only to annoy "insane radical feminists and man-haters" (redundancy?), but because Santayana worried about these excessively masculine notions of rationality long before other philosophers doubted the "canon." "It is wisdom," Santayana reminds us, "to listen to the heart." Incidentally, I have been called an "insane radical feminist" myself, on a good day. I always settle for "insane." Maybe it's PMS?

Mary Warnock's collection brings together the writings of important women philosophers from the seventeenth to the late twentieth centuries. Women's contributions to discussions were often ignored -- until recently, women were prevented from publishing their writings or creating lasting artistic images -- today, especially today, I can really relate to that. Obstructions to my written work and harassing e-mails are a daily feature of my life. My computer's cable signal is periodically interrupted and work is lost or destroyed. ("Does Senator Menendez Have Mafia Friends?" and "Senator Bob, the Babe, and the Big Bucks.")

Women still do not receive the consideration that one might expect when it comes to the discussions of these pressing intellectual issues. Yet much of the best philosophical work today is being done by women. Among the most important contemporary American thinkers, I include Martha Nussbaum, Angela Davis, Rebecca Goldstein (writing those novels must get in the way of professional success for Ms. Goldstein), Judith Butler and many others.

During recent years it has been recognized that women, along with others previously excluded from philosophical conversations or (more grandly) the "intellectual project of the West," have important things to say -- often by way of correctives to this "heroic" interpretation of the past -- and they, or we, should be heard. No one should be censored. Censorship is always a confession of intellectual bankruptcy. It is only the ignorant bully or Fascist who feels a need to silence critics, as distinct from people who wish to waste your time with pointless insults.

Baroness Mary Warnock is a distinguished philosopher and an important public figure in Britain, in a way that philosophers rarely are in the United States -- Cornel West is an exception -- whose work on a number of British government commissions dealing with bioethics has received international attention. Warnock's introduction to these readings is important and should be read by students. Warnock raises the question "Who gets to count as a philosopher?" ("David Hume's Philosophical Romance" and "William Godwyn and Mary Wollstonecraft.")

Until recently, there were no women teaching philosophy in universities in the English-speaking world for the very good reason that women could not attend universities or receive degrees. Yet women in the great salons of the Age of Reason and in diplomatic settings were always among the most educated and polished members of their societies. Teaching university students is not a requirement for philosophers. Any number of distinguished philosophers have not held regular positions in universities -- Jean Paul Sartre, for example -- and others have only taught for a short time or at irregular intervals. ("Master and Commander.")

C.S. Peirce had a checkered academic career and spent his final years getting by on free-lance writing assignments. Santayana retired early from Harvard and spent the second half of his life wandering around European capitals. If academic affiliation is not the essential criterion for membership in the philosophical guild, then what is the essential quality of a philosopher?

"First, I think a writer must be concerned with matters of a high degree of generality, but must be at home among abstract ideas." Professor Warnock comments: "It is not enough to seek the truth, for truth can be established with regard to particular facts; it can be the aim of historians, or of novelists, who seek imaginatively to tell things, in some sense, as they are. A philosopher would doubtless also claim to be seeking the truth, but would be interested in whatever lies behind the particular facts of experience, the details of history; a philosopher is concerned with the underlying meaning of the language that we habitually and unthinkingly use, the categories in which we unthinkingly sort our experience. Thus, he or she would claim not only to seek the truth, or theory, that will explain the particular and the detailed and the everyday."

This is because:

"The truths that philosophers seek must aim to be not merely generally, but objectively, even universally true. Essentially, they must be gender-indifferent. Those who deny that any such truth is possible -- who argue, as postmodernists, that there is an infinite variety of points of view, no one to be preferred to any other; that there is no common shared world, but that we each constitute our own world and use what metaphors we choose to explain that construction -- are engaged, it seems to me, not in philosophy but [-- notice the Oxbridge high table put down! --] in a species of anthropology."

The key word in that very British expression of disdain by Professor Warnock is "species."

"This relativism, generally known as postmodernism, has had an obfuscating effect not only on epistemology but, more notoriously, on history, theology and, above all, literary criticism. But there are signs that, at least among philosophers, there is a growing tendency to fight back, and women played an important part in this renaissance ... "

Professor Warnock excludes feminist and religious writings from her anthology because, she says, they are "not essentially philosophical in their concerns."

I am not sure whether I agree with this claim. This policy results in the unfortunate exclusion of Simone Weil, one of the greatest philosophical thinkers of the twentieth century, because Professor Warnock is concerned to demonstrate women's philosophical "professionalism." Angela Davis is not mentioned nor is any other woman of color.

Professor Warnock wants us to see that women can slug it out with the men not only when discussing moral philosophy (traditionally an "easy area," deemed "appropriate for women"), but also in logic (check out Susan Haack), or in metaphysics and epistemology (Hannah Arendt, Iris Murdoch, Mary Midgley, Onora O'Neil and others are also found in this collection).

I have no doubt that, say, Angela Davis could easily spend her professional life churning out highly technical papers dealing with minute interpretive questions in the works of Hegel or Marx. She is an expert on those two difficult philosophers. She is not interested in doing that. For Professor Davis, philosophy is the dangerous business of coming to terms with life and freedom -- in community or as a revolutionary -- in America's bloody streets. I agree with her on this definition. Philosophy is not a parlor game. None of the philosophers in this anthology are interested in philosophy as a sort of game and nothing more. ("Fidel Castro's 'History Will Absolve Me.'")

I wish Professor Warnock had felt free to include thinkers in the Continental tradition working in the English-speaking world, for example, Professors Drucilla Cornell and Angela Davis, or Judith Butler. To exclude writings on feminism by women philosophers (including political philosophers), to my mind, is like asking great chefs to write essays, yet not to mention their preferred dishes or cooking methods. ("Judith Butler and Gender Theory.")

I hoped to concentrate on Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930), a student of Josiah Royce who may well have surpassed her teacher (she certainly did outshine him as a scholar) and whose work is not as well known as it should be. Ms. Calkins developed her own conceptual divisions that are helpful to students of rationalism and idealism. Sadly, her work is mostly unknown at this point.

I have no doubt that, if she had been born a man, Professor Calkins would have been asked to join the Harvard faculty during its "golden age." I also believe that her work should receive as much attention or more today than Royce's writings, especially if she is seen as the original thinker that she was, whose message is more relevant and powerful for us than for her contemporaries. I discovered Calkins as an undergraduate and knew that this person was an important philosopher. I have been expecting a revival of interest in the life and works of Mary Whiton Calkins generated by feminist scholars. Nothing yet. Weird.

All of the obstacles to posting today -- this is about the tenth time that I have tried to post these words in an unimpaired form -- make it difficult to write. I am used to the daily harassment efforts by now. However, it is unfair to the memory of Professor Calkins and to her work for me to do so -- to write about her -- under these circumstances. I should say something about her writings, however, since I may lead others to discover her philosophy.

Professor Calkins completed studies for her doctorate at Harvard. She dazzled both James and Royce with her philosophical abilities. These "male philosophers" united in asking that she be awarded a doctorate by Harvard University. The university refused since it did not grant degrees to women at the time. Although Ms. Calkins was offered a doctorate from Radcliffe, she refused it on principle. I would have done the same. Perhaps my reasons for refusing to "accept" efforts to destroy my blog or discourage my writing results from a similar stubborn refusal to be defined by powerful interests or any others. Self-definition is the only kind that matters. Any resistance is better than none. I plan to keep resisting.

Professor Calkins taught for many years at Wellsley College, both psychology and philosophy. She remained an idealist, long after the appearance of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein is dismissed by Mary Warnock as "dotty" which he no doubt was. Professor Calkins is still among the finest writers that I have read on the tragic nature of philosophical effort, especially in the rationalist-idealist tradition. Santayana comes to mind again. Calkins's work is best characterized as a Kantian form of Hegelianism. Any sexism that excludes -- or once excluded -- such thinkers as Professor Calkins from the ranks of great American philosophers may be described as "dotty," among other things. ("A Philosophical Investigation of Ludwig Wittgenstein.")

Notice that to speak of truth as indifferent to gender -- and to much else, including our wishes, as death will teach you (death is one of our greatest teachers) -- is not to suggest that how we EXPRESS or understand truth is indifferent to gender or power. For one thing, we need a concept of truth to criticize the tainted notions of gender-based philosophical efforts or understandings. Such absolute neutrality in perception and expression may not be possible. And yes, truth, understanding and expression can be distinguished.

"Philosophy," said Novalis, "can bake no bread, but she can give us God, freedom and immortality."

Professor Calkins ponders this statement and responds:

"But though one agrees with Novalis's disclaimer of any narrowly utilitarian end for philosophy, one must oppose with equal vigor his assertion that philosophy gives God, freedom and immortality. Philosophy, in the first place, gives us nothing; we wrest from her all that we gain; and it is furthermore, impossible at the outset to prophesy with certainty what will be the result of our philosophical questioning, our rigorously honest search for the irreducible and complete reality."

Notice the assumptions made concerning the "manly" nature of rationality, even by a thinker like Ms. Calkins, and she has earned the "Ms.":

"Let us face the worst. Let us suppose that our metaphysical quest is an endless one, that we never reach a satisfying conclusion of thought, that no results withstand the blasting force of our own criticism; even so, the true lover of philosophy will claim that there is at least a satisfaction in the bare pursuit of the ultimate reality, a keen exhiliration in the chase, an exceeding joy in even a fleeting vision of the truth. In less figurative terms: if philosophy is no more than a questioning, at least it formulates our questions, makes them consistent with each other; in a word makes us capable of asking intelligent questions. It is good to know; but even to know why we do not know may be a gain."

As I ponder these words, again, I am struck by the similarity to the writings of F.H. Bradley. I wish that it had been possible for Professor Calkins to communicate with Bradley. A dialogue between those two philosophers would have been helpful to their respective philosophical projects. I know that Ms. Calkins pondered such a correspondence, but even she would have been intimidated and/or regarded as beyond the pale for intruding upon Professor Bradley's famous solitude. William James, of course, did not hesitate to write to Bradley -- and their "Anglo-American" debate is now legendary. (Bradley by a TKO.)

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