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.

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Turning points: chance and decisions in the academic journey

Six and a half years ago – can it really be so many? – I was making decisions about where to apply to university as an undergraduate. At the time, I was one of those slightly odd teenagers who was weirdly into party politics. The sort that wants to be an MP one day, and goes on marches with the Young Labour faction (see this post’s picture). Pretty embarrassing to look back on. Anyway, I wanted to study politics at university. I also knew I wanted to apply to Oxford. So I applied for Philosophy Politics and Economics (PPE) at Oxford, and for straight Politics degrees at my other four choices. (Which were LSE, Leeds, Edinburgh and Queen Mary, incidentally). I got into Oxford. I did PPE.

I’m now doing a PhD researching early modern women philosophers. I also don’t want to be an MP any more, and in general try to distance myself from my seventeen-year-old-self as much as possible. What I find a little alarming and destabilising to think about, though, is this: if I hadn’t been lucky enough to get into Oxford back in late 2010, if I hadn’t ended up studying PPE rather than straight Politics, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I wouldn’t have taken a paper in Early Modern Philosophy: indeed, the closest I would have come to philosophy at all might have been a political theory course.

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