Are Only Men Philosophers?

Are Only Men Philosophers?
“For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”—bell hooks

The list of male philosophers appears to be endless. Their ideologies are discussed worldwide. They have myriads of followers and their quotes are frequently used to express particular thoughts. Some are considered apostles and held in high esteem, while others are revered for their views. Generally speaking, the bulk of philosophical thought is attributed to men, and why not?

From a social standpoint, men get to enjoy the most liberated environment, where they can easily narrow down their focus on whatever catches their interest. Unlike women, they have no problems of procreation, no concern with household affairs, no managing immediate and extended family members, no emotional baggage to carry other than the ones they choose to burden themselves with. They are left with plenty of spare time to propound theories that are ironically sometimes related to women. With so much enlightenment that they have to offer to the world, obviously, their names go down in history as great thinkers, while their female kindred, the unsung heroines remain in oblivion—understandably so.

People tend to shy away from the subject of philosophy, considering it heavy weight, difficult to digest and not leading to a particular career path because survival in this materialistic world requires studies that are more career-oriented to secure a living. Few are acquainted with the advantages of philosophical learning, while many refer to it as merely a joke. One often comes across anecdotes that make fun of thinkers calling them delirious or condemning them for researching ‘trivial’ subjects which lead to nothing but a waste of time. This kind of a systematic propaganda is the hallmark of those societies that have distanced themselves from knowledge and knowledgeable persons, and consequently they are unable to produce distinguished men of letters, what to talk of women.

Thinking and proposing a theory means a tremendous amount of perusal of relevant literature, analysis, research, contemplation and applying tests of falsification. Today, when we celebrate the work of different philosophers, it is in reality a tribute to their indefatigable persistence and conviction even though these may be tainted with masculine specific views as is reflective in most ideologies, whether religious or social. Some years back Nick Anderson wrote in Washington Post that on account of philosophy’s gender bias, for too long, women have been ignored.

With the advent of rise in consciousness, stereotypes are giving way to sense and sensibility. As a result, women are now rapidly entering no-go areas that were considered the sole prerogative of males. Women are discovering women and men of course, in the light of their own explorations. They are pondering over baffling questions in their quest for finding answers and settling unsolved myths for those who are inquisitive but have no stamina or time to seek answers themselves.

Among the few female philosophers who have influenced the realm of knowledge one cannot overlook

Hypatia of Alexandria (355-415 CE). She was a mathematician, astronomer and philosopher and daughter of Theon who was himself a great scholar but historians believe that she surpassed her father’s knowledge at a young age. She was brought up to understand the existing religions of that era and taught the art of oratory that enabled her to address gatherings of people, even from other cities. She is credited more with her work on mathematics than astronomy. She met a tragic end at the hands of a mob that was provoked by a notable Alexandrian bishop just because she did not conceal her pagan beliefs that infuriated the city’s Christians.

A couple of her famous quotes are: “Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fantasies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them.”

"Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.”

Susanne Langer (1895-1985) made her mark as the first American female philosopher. Her areas of expertise were art, philosophy of mind and linguistic analysis. She invoked the need in human mind to find, identify and ascribe meaning in the world around it. “Art is the articulation, not the stimulation or catharsis, of feeling; and the height of technique is simply the highest power of this sensuous revelation and wordless abstraction.”

Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) explores how, through self-criticism and exploration, altering our perception of a person or situation can change our moral behavior, while Mary Midgely (1919-2018) proposed that science was not antithetical to religion, and vice versa, which infuses her inquiries with deep meaning, although she does not ascribe to a specific religion. She is famous for having claimed that “the trouble with human beings is not really that they love themselves too much; they ought to love themselves more. The trouble is simply that they don’t love others enough.”

Notable contemporary female philosophers who are consistently cutting a niche for themselves include Angela Davis, Martha Nussbaum, Judith Butler, Ruth Chang and Sara Ahmed. They cover a wide scope of topics extending to women, race, class, politics, justice, economics, gender, decision making etc.,

Angela Davis writes: “Whenever you conceptualize social justice struggles, you will always defeat your own purposes if you cannot imagine the people around whom you are struggling as equal partners.”

Judith Butler’s view on love is that “love is not a state, a feeling, a disposition, but an exchange, uneven, fraught with history, with ghosts, with longings that are more or less legible to those who try to see one another with their own faulty vision.”

Perhaps in another hundred years, the population of female philosophers would have increased to a remarkable extent and they too would be able to find their way in the historic annals to be read, quoted and revered, just like their male counterparts.

The writer is a lawyer and author, and an Adjunct Faculty at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE)