Getting Women into the History of Philosophy Curriculum: An interview with Dr. Mette Lebech

 

Dr. Mette Lebech has been teaching ‘Reading Women Philosophers’ at NUI Maynooth for several years and studying the history of women philosophers for even longer. SWIP-I’s Alissa MacMillan spoke with Dr. Lebech about the challenges, importance, and benefits of getting women into the history of philosophy curriculum. Hard work is required and, to begin, “You need to start looking at these lists of women philosophers you’ve never heard of.”

 

What have you found is unique about teaching women philosophers?

It makes you look on the history of philosophy in a completely new light. It’s quite difficult because you’ve got to know your history extremely well of course, and you’ve got to know it doubly well because all of these women are extremely context-dependent. Men are as well, but we’re used to thinking of the men’s context and not the women’s.

 

What is it about their context that’s so different?

They are dependent on a context we’re not so aware of. So really women thinkers make you do everything again and actually it makes you investigate the context much more thoroughly, and that’s very enjoyable.

 

What is an example of this kind of context dependence?

A person I find very intriguing is Dhuoda of Septimania, she was a noble woman, a countess in the time of Charles the Bald, so the grandson of Charlemagne, around 820-840. I suppose I knew something about the court of Charlemagne and a little bit about our own Eriugena – she’s actually contemporary with the Irish philosopher Eriugena. But, Dhuoda’s son is hostage at that court and she writes a handbook to him on ethics, how to behave, basically, in order not to be killed. Of course, he is hostage because his father doesn’t behave; his father is accused of sleeping with the empress.

 

And she wouldn’t be in the standard textbooks.

When you look, you will find lists of women philosophers that are embarrassing in their richness. And if one, oneself, doesn’t take time to know who these people were, you end up thinking there are no women philosophers. I think it’s necessary if you want to get to grips with the tradition of women thinkers, which exists, and the whole idea that it doesn’t exist is so ludicrous because it does. What is also quite amazing about a lot of these women is that they were very famous in their own time and we have just forgotten. It’s not their problem, it’s ours.

 

I work on Thomas Hobbes and have read, for example, Margaret Cavendish, but I find myself returning to Hobbes, thinking he’s just better.

This is part of what I mean by context dependent. You’ve got to compare like with like. To be Hobbes, it was expected he would write. For example, listen to how you might react yourself to the difference between being a tutor and being a governess. Literally, it is just a sexual difference, but for some reason we think that being a tutor is a very estimable position and being a governess is not enviable at all. What you’ve really got to watch for all the time is your prejudices.

 

And this added context might change your understanding of history?

That whole period of early modern and late early modern philosophy, I find what is happening historically incredibly complex. One of the things I’m figuring out about that period, is that we’re existing at a transition from a strong aristocratic tradition and aristocratic society, where women of course played an important role as queens, as princesses, to a situation where citizenship takes over, and the professions grow and parliaments are being formed in such a way that women who can’t enter the universities, who can’t enter politics, they actually get more marginalized when aristocracy is abolished, which is peculiar. You see you get to read history again, because this is an angle I hadn’t looked at it from before, I hadn’t seen the advantages of being an aristocratic woman. Whenever there is a serious political upheaval, new classes come out underneath, and with the Revolution, in many ways, women came out underneath.

 

What do you think would change if women were better integrated into the history of philosophy?

Well, we would know more about what they thought. We wouldn’t attribute Socrates’ understanding of eros to Socrates, we would put it where it belongs, namely with Diotima, because he says he’s learned everything about it from her. As Karen Warren makes clear in her book, you can start by reading the philosophical tradition as originating with a woman, which is then a big sort of shift in your mind.

 

And is it a different approach to philosophy?

We would see the world with two eyes instead of just one. With two eyes, you judge distance, you do see the depth and you do start realizing the background to a lot of strange things. Part of why I call the course I’m teaching ‘Reading Women Philosophers’ is because it’s an art. You’ve got to figure out what it is you’re looking for and what it is you’re studying, and ultimately it raises the question of what philosophy is. But that’s not a bad question to be landed with in a philosophy class.

 

How did you get started in this work?

When I was a very young research student I think I at some stage decided I was going to spend half my time reading women and when I said it to a male colleague he went altogether red.

 

Do you think that teaching women in the history of philosophy is teaching feminism?

It’s nearly half an enemy. Feminists will say, why do you read all these oppressed women who say all sorts of patriarchal things? Only read the feminists, forget all the rest. But I don’t think you can do that. I think it’s going to make you repeat the mistakes, and why is what the women are saying not important? I have a bit of an issue with feminist history, where you deliberately leave out these patriarchal women. Because you are doing that, you don’t own your tradition, you think that it has been so adulterated that you can’t learn something from it.

 

Why have we read so few women if there are so many to read?

Because we don’t take them seriously, and that is actually the first hurdle to get over when you start reading women philosophers. You catch yourself thinking, well sure, this is nothing compared to Hobbes. And it’s often because we read ten pages of a woman philosopher and say, well actually, this is all crap. But if you read only ten pages of Hobbes you’d probably think, well this is crap, too.

 

Do have some suggestions for teachers trying to incorporate women into their history of philosophy curriculum?

You’ve got to consecrate a lot of time to this. You’ve got to learn another subject, like physics or chemistry or something. You’ve got to learn your own disciple anew but from a different angle.

 

How might you incorporate women into standardized courses, like epistemology or metaphysics?

You have to avoid the standard textbooks because they are not going to do that. They’re not going to integrate women philosophers, you’ve got to do it yourself. You’ve got to make an effort, and you’ve really got to know your philosophers. And then you’ve got to find your own feet and figure out what you want to include. As an example, I’ve paired Hannah Arendt and Edith Stein with Jurgen Habermas and Aquinas. Christine de Pisan, for example, could definitely be read alongside Machiavelli.

 

What about getting support from departments? Is it easier in our current moment?

I think one way ahead could be for people to insist that they want to teach women philosophers. It should be easy enough to do, to say I want to do this, it can be done. But again I want to say, if you do, honour yourself with a bit of patience and don’t underestimate the work that is involved. You can’t just sit down and read ten pages. It really is a serious thing you need to engage with. You need to start looking and looking at these lists of women philosophers you’ve never heard of.

 

Because they are there to be found, in relearning the history of philosophy?

And with that comes the question again: what is philosophy and how could I possibly have gotten the idea that only men are capable of searching for wisdom? How could I be manipulated into thinking that it’s a man’s business?

 

 

Dr. Lebech suggests these texts as good starting points for discovering women philosophers. From there, look at lists (for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_women_philosophers) and read as many works as you can, well beyond the first ten pages.

 

An Unconventional History of Western Philosophy: Conversations Between Men and Women Philosophers, ed. Karen Warren. Rowman and Littlefield, 2009.

 

A History of Women Philosophers, Vols 1-3, ed. Mary Ellen Waite. Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989.