Friday, September 29, 2017

9 Great Works by Women Philosophers

Philosophy as a discipline has historically been and is still a highly male-dominated field and every few years it seems some prominent male philosopher claims that there simply aren't any great female philosophers. How wrong such men are! Far from there being few women philosophers, there are far more than could be represented on a short list such as the following. One could add works by Hypatia, Hildegarde von Bingen, Heloise, Moderata Fonte,  Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria Montessori, Rosa Luxemberg, Audre Lorde, Shulamith Firestone, Rosi Braidotti, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous - and those are just the first names that spring to my mind. The following nine volumes are ones that I recommend for both their intellectual rigor and the subtle and variegated beauties of their diverse literary styles; all traverse a wide range of scholastic fields, from political theory to theology, photography to existentialism and more.

On Revolution - Hannah Arendt
Drawing on the taxonomy of human activity she set out in her earlier The Human Condition, Arendt compares the French and American revolutions, ultimately asserting that, contrary to the work of Marxist philosophers who generally favored the French example, the American revolution was the successful revolution, and the one to emulate. Though I strenuously disagree with her argument myself, since I would contend that Arendt's rather flippant dismissal of the role slavery played in this revolution of men who claimed to believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while owning slaves diminishes the strength of her position, there is no denying that On Revolution is a forceful, thought-provoking, and incisive work of political theory, one as fascinating and useful for those on the left as on the right.

The Ethics of Ambiguity - Simone de Beauvoir
Though her most famous text is The Second Sex, Beauvoir made other important contributions to both feminist and existentialist philosophy, most of them significantly underread. While her lover and erstwhile mentor Sartre announced a plan to formulate a system of ethics based on the existentialism laid out in his Being and Nothingness, it was Beauvoir in the end who did so in The Ethics of Ambiguity. Rejecting transcendent or independent moral imperatives, Beauvoir locates the possibility of an existentialist ethics in the fact of human freedom; the ambiguity of this freedom lies in the fact that human beings are both subject and object, both actor and acted-upon. While I am not wholly convinced by her argument, Beauvoir's book confronts the thorny problem of a post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima ethics for a modern, alienated world and is one of the essential texts of existentialist philosophy.

Garments Against Women - Anne Boyer
Though not technically a work of philosophy, Boyer's incisive, anti-capitalist, feminist prose poetry lends itself seamlessly to an application as theory and I say 'seamlessly' with intention: for, among the central themes that Boyer treats are the intersections between sewing and writing for women. As rooted in a Kansan landscape of strip malls, used clothing shops, and unemployment bureaus as the bird and tree-strewn dreamscapes one might anticipate in poetry, Garments Against Women can be fiendishly brilliant, lucidly analytical, lyrically lovely, and, not rarely, slyly funny. Boyer questions why the sewing of a dress, or the baking of a cake, is different, if it is different, from writing a poem, and why the question can only truly be posited when the sewer, baker, and writer is a woman. This book has proved of enormous theoretical value to my own work on feminism and the woman writer and I highly recommend it.

Gender Trouble - Judith Butler
Though Butler has long since moved on to new realms of theoretical inquiry, must crucially in Frames of War, Gender Trouble is probably the most significant American philosophical text of our age, the most influential, the most widely read, and certainly among the most misunderstood. Butler sets out to contest the monolithic universalism of even the concept of woman as unquestioned up until that point (1989) in feminist, and anti-feminist, thought. The book thrust the definitive wedge between sex and gender, two concepts unlikely to be sewn together again, arguing that gender, unlike sex, is inherently performative. Feminism, queer theory, psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, and not a few social and political movements underwent a transformative chemical reaction on contact with Gender Trouble.

This Sex Which Is Not One - Luce Irigaray
In this collection of essays, Irigaray works towards dismantling the phallocentrism that contaminates all forms of discourse, whether spoken or written, wrestling with thinkers such as Marx, Freud, and Lacan, and covering a wide range of subjects, including the economic exploitation of women as objects of exchange and the divergence between male and female eroticism. Irigaray's work is firmly situated within a Marxist feminist discourse that was never especially comfortable for American feminists, but the barbed fury that courses through her sinuous sentences and the opalescent beauty of her style, abstract and yet rooted in the body, should suffice to persuade contemporary students of feminist theory to read her with avidity, if not agreement.

The Illegitimacy of Jesus - Jane Schaberg
This controversial work of feminist theology made Schaberg something of a pariah, though her credentials as a scholar of scripture were impeccable. The Illegitimacy of Jesus argues, through a close reading of the Gospels and other Biblical texts, that Mary was raped and thus conceived Jesus illegitimately. The miracle of Jesus's issuance from a poor, violated woman signals the true extent of Christian redemption. Such a reading of the infancy narratives is, obviously, revolutionary and thirty years after its original publication, the book provokes impassioned, litigious debate. It also, however, opens up a space wherein the experience of women can be not only thought, but felt, in theology.

Regarding the Pain of Others - Susan Sontag
Deeply indebted to Woolf's Three Guineas, this book, the last Sontag published before her death, concerns whether photography can be used to prevent, mitigate, or stop violence, or if its limits inure us to depictions of violence, thus desensitizing us as we confront an ever greater volume of images, delivered at ever faster rates. As always, Sontag refuses simplistic answers, neatly squaring a circle: war photography is almost unbearably important, as evidence, as historical record, but its utility is severely limited, for no matter how moved we may be by a devastating image, without living through the horror framed in the photograph, we cannot understand. The photograph permits us to know, in a limited, imperfect sense, but never to really empathize in the profound way that is demanded by the suffering of the victims of war. Sontag was perhaps never more rigorous, painstaking, or morally demanding.

The Simone Weil Reader
Weil's importance as a philosopher, theologian, and mystic is astonishing in light of the fact that she published only a handful of essays during her lifetime, dying at age thirty-four, though she managed to contribute new concepts to philosophy, Christian theology, and Marxist political theory. This collection, edited by George A. Panichas, includes her most celebrated pieces, including her "Spiritual Autobiography," a lucid and self-critical testament to her conversion, "The Iliad or Poem of Force," an extraordinary and gorgeously written analysis of force in the classical world that ascends to a poetically enunciated but uncompromising political theory as applicable to Vichy France as to Troy, "Factory Life," an emotionally uprooting and clear-eyed account of her time working at the Renault factory, and selections from Gravity and Grace, a cryptic and spiritually exhilarating set of notes or aphorisms.

Three Guineas - Virginia Woolf
Woolf's anti-fascist, pacifist, feminist polemic, published in 1937, ties the fight against the encroachment of Hitler, Mussolini, and all their supporters inextricably to the fight against the patriarchal oppression of women. The book is written in the form of a letter to a philanthropist who seeks a financial contribution to his anti-war efforts, a request that Woolf finds she can only answer by addressing the question of women's education and employment. Exquisitely calibrated, blisteringly ironic, and imbued with the urgent despair stirred by the sight of photographs of the corpses left by Franco's forces in Spain, this slim volume is a crucial text of both feminist and political theory. 

No comments:

Post a Comment