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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Sixteenth -century lesbian philosophy? Lucrezia Marinella and desire between women

Venice, 1600: a book called The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men is published. It’s by Lucrezia Marinella (1571-1653), the educated daughter of a physician. She’s written before – her first work was published in 1595 – and she’ll carry on writing into the 1640s, but it’s The Nobility and Excellence of Women that she’ll largely be remembered for, and it’s her most clearly identifiable philosophical work.

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Anne Arbuthnot, Philosopher

The problem with trying to introduce people to Anne Arbuthnot as a philosopher is that the most obvious route of introduction is through her aunt, Catharine Trotter Cockburn (1674/9-1749), and most people haven’t heard of her either. Cockburn, however, is very much established as a member of an alternative canon of early modern philosophy – that consisting of a variety of women philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries including Elisabeth of Bohemia, Anne Conway, Margaret Cavendish, Damaris Masham and Mary Astell in their number. While obscure in a general sense, she is very much a known name in the field. (She’s also studied by literary historians on account of her role as a female Restoration playwright and poet.) Anne Arbuthnot, though, is not.

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