First, best, greatest? Women and the philosophical canon

Margaret Cavendish was the first science fiction writer. Mary Wollstonecraft was the first feminist. And, according to this post that popped up on my twitterfeed this morning, Teresa of Ávila was the first to…well, it’s not actually all that clear.

The title of the post is “One of Descartes’ most famous ideas was first articulated by a woman”, and it’s based around a recent journal article by Christia Mercer. The Mercer article itself argues that there are significant methodological parallels between Descartes’ Meditations and Teresa’s Interior Castle which have hitherto gone unnoticed and suggest a line of influence. Mercer sets both texts within the context of “the meditative tradition that developed in late medieval and early modern Europe, a tradition to which women significantly contributed” (Mercer 2016), and argues that both stand out in their use of “the deceiver strategy” as an epistemological tool. In doing so, Mercer wants both to rehabilitate Teresa as a philosopher (not merely a “mystic”) and to draw attention to the originality of both her and Descartes’ uses of the meditative genre. It’s not clear to me, though, that Mercer is being so bold as to claim that Teresa was the first to use the “deceiver strategy”.

Regardless of Mercer’s actual claims in her paper, I have a real problem with the way that the Quartz post frames it. It’s the same problem I have with the claims I gave at the beginning of this post – Cavendish as originator of sci-fi, Wollstonecraft as originator of feminism. These claims, and the claim in the post that “it’s clear that Descartes’ work was shaped not by a great man, but a great woman” (Goldhill 2017), are part of an approach to women’s involvement in intellectual history or the history of philosophy which values them inasmuch as they can be claimed as the first, the best, or the most influential on some established canonical figure. This approach seems to pop up at its most reductive in posts like the one under discussion – articles aimed at the public offering a gee-whiz click-baity “this woman was the first person to do this thing and the only reason you don’t know is sexism” account of women thinkers.

My first problem with the approach is that accuracy and nuance are frequently thrown to the winds. Take these lines from the Quartz article:

And so, while Descartes is seen as distinctly modern, his writing was in fact a seamless addition to ancient meditative thinking. […] Subsequent philosophers and historians did consider whether any male theological thinkers, such as Saint Ignatius of Loyola, influenced Descartes. But as there are no obvious similarities between the works, they declared Descartes to be original. (Goldhill 2017)

This account offers an account of Descartes and scholarship on Descartes so simplistic as to be misleading. A variety of scholarship, such as Rorty (1983), Cottingham (2013) and Kobusch (2013), has taken account of Descartes’ continuities with older philosophical traditions. Furthermore, while Descartes is indebted to earlier traditions, quite possibly including Teresa’s meditative writings, he is genuinely significant in the narrative of history of philosophy, and does genuinely original work – as Mercer actually discusses in her article. While I would be the first to encourage attention on continuities, traditions and context in the history of philosophy, it’s bizarre to imply that Descartes lacks importance because of his influences, or the claim that his work is a “seamless addition” to older traditions. The passage above, even for a non-academic blog post aimed at lay readers, also contains lines that a GCSE student could expect to lose marks for in their sweeping non-specificity. Who exactly are the “they” who “declared Descartes to be original”?

Of course, the approach under consideration can be better done than this. My problems with it run deeper than the lack of nuance and precision which often accompany it. I have two issues with it in particular of a more fundamental nature.

First, it’s an approach which seeks to draw women into intellectual histories and histories of philosophy (an aim of which I approve!) but on what seems like very precarious footing. If the value we place on a female thinker is dependent on being able to identify them as the first to do something, what happens when that claim is challenged? “Firsts” are very rarely undisputed or easy and uncontroversial to identify. A similar problem occurs if we value a thinker based on her potential influence on an indisputably “canonical” male figure: lines of influence are not often straight-forward or possible to prove. This approach can, I think, actually be detrimental to the inclusion of women in the history of philosophy by focusing attention on the uniqueness or otherwise of the woman’s work, rather than on the work itself. As far as I’m concerned, Teresa of Avila’s writings would be worth examining and considering whether or not she was the “first” or the “only” writer to do something. Similarly, I’m not at all convinced that there’s a meaningful sense in which Margaret Cavendish was the first science fiction author: The Blazing World is still a fascinating text. Anne Conway’s Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy may or may not have had a direct influence on Leibniz’ philosophical thought: I don’t believe her philosophical merit hangs on the question. Valuing work for uniqueness’ sake makes it very easy to dismiss women’s work if it isn’t the first, best, etc.

Secondly, and relatedly, the approach reinforces the dominant approach to the philosophical canon: one which consists of a series of great thinkers and their philosophical systems. The approach to the canon which gives you histories of philosophy running something like: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant. This understanding of the history of philosophy tends to isolate its canonical figures, failing to take account of the complex web of thought and philosophical conversations in which their work is embedded and from which it emerges. I don’t just want to add a scattering of women to this collection of greats: both because, as I’ve just argued, this is to include women on precarious footing, and because it’s an approach to the history of philosophy which I find to be fundamentally distortionary. It’s an approach that’s exemplified by the claim in the last line of the Quartz article that “it’s clear that Descartes’ work was shaped not by a great man, but a great woman”: rather than placing Teresa of Avila as one of the figures influencing Descartes, perhaps a significant one, the post seeks to claim her as the influence, worthy of being a great woman in the philosophical canon.

I want instead to challenge that notion of the philosophical canon. I favour instead an approach close to that of Sarah Hutton, who uses a model of the history of philosophy as “a conversation between philosophers across time” (Hutton 2015: 17). Hutton is explicit about the value of this model for considering women philosophers: “it allows us to reconstruct their ideas, to place them into context without implications as to secondary status, and to trace the fortunes of their philosophical views. It also acknowledges historical actuality, by admitting the possibility that women’s voices may have been drowned out, but it does so without undervaluing what they had to say” (18). This model seems ideal for considering Teresa’s influence on Descartes: it is worthwhile, interesting and valuable to consider Teresa’s potential influence on Cartesian methodology, but unnecessary and, I think, deeply problematic to claim her as the influence, above all others.

Works cited:

Cottingham, J., 2013. Philosophy and Self Improvement: Continuity and Change in Philosophy’s Self-conception from the Classical to the Early Modern Era. In M. Chase, S. R. L. Clark, & M. McGhee, eds. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Ancients and Moderns: Essays in Honor of Pierre Hadot. John Wiley and Sons, Ltd, pp. 148–166.

Goldhill, O., 2017. Descartes most famous idea was first articulated by a woman. Quartz. Available at:

Kobusch, T., 2013. Descartes’ Meditations: Practical Metaphysics. In M. Chase, S. R. L. Clark, & M. McGhee, eds. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Ancients and Moderns: Essays in Honor of Pierre Hadot. John Wiley and Sons, Ltd, pp. 167–183.

Rorty, A.O., 1983. Experiments in Philosophic Genre: Descartes’ “Meditations.” Critical Inquiry, 9(3), pp.545–564.

Hutton, S., 2015. “Blue-Eyed Philosophers Born on Wednesdays”: An Essay on Women and History of Philosophy. The Monist, 98(1), pp.7–20.

Mercer, Christia (forthcoming). Descartes’ debt to Teresa of Ávila, or why we should work on women in the history of philosophy. Philosophical Studies:1-17

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