Sunday, June 22, 2014

ATTENTION: Women in Philosophy Call for Papers!

U.S. - Midwest SWIP Call for Papers 
Simpson College (Indianola, IA)
October 10 – 12, 2014

Submissions Due: August 13, 2014

The Midwest Division of the Society for Women in Philosophy invites papers in all areas of feminist philosophy, theory, and praxis – from political, ethical and social theory, to epistemology, mind and metaphysics. Because U.S. Midwest SWIP is especially interested in enriching theorizing and discussions about ethical and social issues facing our society, we welcome work that explicitly connects to those discussions and that interrogates the intersections between race, gender, ability and class. We also welcome the work of feminist scholars at any stage in their careers. 

In honor of the 30th year anniversary of The Politics of Reality, we welcome papers, panels, and workshops on Marilyn Frye’s work.

Submit papers, proposals for panels or performances to:  Sonya Charles:    

Attending U.S. - Midwest SWIP:  Historically U.S. - MSWIP has sought to make attendance affordable for all participants. This includes no conference attendance fee and free snacks throughout the conference. Please contact Allison to request local housing and we will solicit local hosts. Travel grants ($70) are available on a first come, first serve basis with priority given to students, the unemployed, and the underemployed. You do not need to be a SWIP member to participate in the conference, request local housing, or to request a travel grant.  

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Summer Program For Women in Philosophy in UCSD

Check this great opportunity out!

University of California, San Diego will be hosting a summer program for women in philosophy from 28 July to 8 August 2014. The participants will be in a two-week program taking two courses and a variety of workshops. Applications are due by 15 March 2014!

For more information, go to UCSD Summer Program for Women in Philosophy

Monday, September 30, 2013

Book For Thought-- Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change?

An exciting event is happening this Fall! It's not the return of pumpkin pie or even Thanksgiving dinners (maybe an exception), but it is a new book that will be coming out in the midst of all the conversations pertaining to women in philosophy. The book, Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change? will be a push forward in the discussion of the lack and the underrepresentation of women within the philosophical field. Edited by Katrina Hutchison and Fiona Jenkins, the book is a compilation of critical essays written by...nope not men...but women(!) in the philosophy field trying to find an answer to the question of "why philosophy continues to be inhospitable to women and what can be done to change it" (Oxford University Press, 2013). It is not in bookstores yet, but pre-orders are available so for your next read in the Fall, be sure to pick this book up and leave a review of how the book is in continuing the discussion of the underrepresentation of women in philosophy. 

Find more information on the book by clicking here, Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change?
ISBN # 9780199325603.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Agora (2009) A Film About Hypatia of Alexandria

Browsing around the internet for films concerning philosophy and women, I came across a movie about Hypatia of Alexandria. The film is called Agora (2009) and directed by Alejandro Amenábar. It is a dramatized and a romanticized version of Hypatia's life though; concerning a slave and a student who both fall in love with Hypatia who is disinterested, and Alexandria (the city) is dealing with the rise of Chrisianity affecting its people and culture. I think it is really amazing to find that someone created a film about a woman philosopher, especially one who existed so long ago.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Shabana Basij-Rasikh

Although not a philosopher, Shabana Basij-Rasikh has done much to help women in Afghanistan gain education. I found the following TED Talk online, and I though some might be interested in watching her speak about education for Afghan women.

For more information, check out the TED Talks page for Basij-Rasikh.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Lou Salome


Salome was born in 1861 in Russia, but she also spoke German due to her parents both having a German background. Although Salome is described as having a great childhood, she was also known to have lonely tendencies and sought philosophy to easy these feelings. Salome's father died in 1879 and her and her mother moved to Switzerland a year after. Salome eventually moved in with the philosopher Paul Ree for several years, until she was suddenly married to Fred Charles Andreas. Her and Andreas both studies philosophy and despite being married, never engaged in a sexual relationship. However, Salome had many sexual relations with others while still married, including Fredrick Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Rainer Maria Rilke; all of who spoke very highly of her intellectually. Salome's philosophy was that marriage love and sexual love should not be mixed. She believed that experiencing love through sexual relations allowed her to not to be possessed by it. After a long life Salome died in 1937 of breast cancer.
Salome's interests in philosophy were religion, ethics, love, and sexuality; all in which were through phenomenological observations. Salome was not concerned with whether one should believe in the claims of God, but what the most effective aspects of the beliefs were. She believed "The 'essence of religious thought' is for her the human need to merge 'with the powers of the outer world'..." (pg. 72) Many have claimed that Salome's religious views were shaped by Nietzsche, but others have thought that much of her work resembles Spinoza. Although there was feminist work being done around Salome, she neither joined nor opposed forces. Instead, she thought that her writing and working as a woman was a statement within itself. However whenever her work was discussed, her gender was always noted. Salome acknowledged the differences between men and women, but insisted that the differences between sexes "did not prove women to be inferior to men" (pg. 74) Salome also wrote on love and sexuality, while also practicing what she wrote. Salome believed that "Only in the experience of love... does 'our deepest entry to our self' become possible... a spiritual homecoming." Salome claimed that love was a way to transcend consciousness "by delving into our primal depths." (Pg. 74) Salome also was the first woman to work as a psychoanalyst. Her concentrations in psychoanalytic were in religion and the nature of women’s' sexuality, which were influenced by Freud. Salome claims that a woman's nature is one "whose spirit is sex, whose sex is spirit." (Pg. 76) She also though that eroticism was part of a woman's 'primal unity'. Salome's most original psychoanalytic work was on narcissism. She claimed that narcissism was the "embodying the duel currents of self-love and self-surrender." (pg. 76) Salome saw narcissism as a positive characteristic and explained how it ranged within three phases. These phases where, 'a particular developmental stage to transcend', 'creative... the persistent accomplishment of all our deeper experience, always present, yet still far beyond any possibility of hewing its way from consciousness into unconscious', and the 'self-knower'. (Pg. 76) Over Salome's life she had published three books. One was a book on Rilke which exemplified her literary criticism and psychoanalysis. Another she wrote was a book on Freud, called Thanks to Freud. Salome's third book was her autobiography, which was originally titled Ground-plan of Some Life-recollections. While suffering from a terminal illness, Salome also wrote briefly on death. She wrote, 'deep down, knowing how to live and knowing how to die go together.' Salome died just before her seventy-sixth birthday and her last recorded words were, 'The best is death, after all.' (Pg. 77)

Personal Response

This has been the most interesting woman philosopher that I have read. Although promiscuous, I found it amazing that she worked closely with Nietzsche, as well as Freud. Nietzsche had stated that Salome prepared him to write Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which was one of his most famous books. Salome appears to have been a renegade of her time having worked with so many other influential thinkers of her time, even if this meant being sexually promiscuous. However, even her sexual tendencies were defended in her beliefs about what a woman's nature is. I think that her work on narcissism is original and I am interested to read more. I would like to her more about her in philosophy class and think that it’s strange that I have not heard of her before.


Source Goes Here.

Gerda Walther


Gerda Walther (1897-1977) was born in her father's tuberculosis sanitorium near Offenburg, Germany. After the death of her mother, Ragnhild Bajer, in 1902 and her father's marriage to her aunt, Sigrun Bajer, Walther's childhood was said to be a little strained. Nevertheless, her father's Marxist/Socialist inclinations allowed her the privilege of an early political education in Marxism from various influential figures who often came to visit. She enrolled in the University of Munich in 1916 determined to become a socialist agitator.

Gerda's educational path was greatly influenced by her second-semester Introduction to Psychology course taught by Alexander Pfander, and his Introduction to Philosophy course the following semester. It was there she learned of Edmund Husserl (who worked closely with Edith Stein in Freiburg im Breisgau) and was determined to work with him. Although initially Husserl refused to work with Walther, during her first semester with Stein, she was permitted to enroll in Husserl's courses. Both Stein and Husserl considered Gerda to be a fiery and bright individual. She was one of less than five female students working under Husserl. Nevertheless, desiring to complete her doctoral dissertation more to her own tastes, Walther returned to Munich to work with Pfander on her dissertation, Zur Ontologie der Sozialen Gemeinschaften (On the Ontology of Social Communities, 1919). Her dissertation combined phenomenology with Marxist philosophy on the nature of community, understanding humans as essentially socialized beings. She received her Ph.D. summa cum laude and was permitted to become a professor (not all women were permitted this privilege).

While her focus had primarily been set on political activism and socialism, Walther's philosophical interests radically shifted due to a mystical experience she underwent while on a train in 1918. She was overcome with a supernatural experience of light, warmth and goodness. After receiving her Ph.D. she began focusing on the phenomenology of mysticism and parapsychology. Although Walther was permitted to become a professor (unlike Stein and other women philosophers of this time and prior), she was unable to support herself due to the struggling German economy and for the remainder of her life worked part-time jobs when she could find work and wrote on her own. One of the many jobs she accepted was as a stenographer for the state mental health hospital in Emmendingen working with schizophrenic patients. While her work was menial and frustrating, she was able to consider the likeness of mental illness to mystic experiences (as many claimed mysticism was just that).

Although she was fired for condescendingly describing the mental abilities of the medical staff, she received an offer to work with Dr. Albert Freierr von Schrenk-Notzing conducting parapsychological research. Prior to this opportunity, Walther had spent considerable time learning studying and practicing astrology, mysticism, seances, and other "occult" things, so she was a perfect fit for the job. Schrenk-Notzing attempted to apply the scientific method to study such experiences ad telekinesis and materialization, often performing seances and working with mediums. Unfortunately Schrenk died unexpectedly and Walther was again out of work.

Walther's work on mysticism included three editions of her book, Phänomenologie der Mystik (Phenomenology of Mysticism) in which she defended the mystical experience my providing a phenomenological account of mystical (and similar other experiences) shared from around the world, including her own. She argued that simply because not all had access to such experiences does not prove them irrational as not all can understand and experience complex mathematics and yet we except them as legitimate. She defended the mystical experience as a real and perfect form of spiritual data provided from the divine. Those who deny mysticism are not approaching the subject with "the open mind with which the philosopher should approach any subject." (McAllister, 1995).  Her later works also included an explanation of how occult practices and parapsychology relate to the mystic experience and external perception of the real world.

After working with Schrenk-Notzing, Walther supported herself doing freelance writing for journals on parapsychology and psychic research, but in 1933 when the Third Reich took power, publications in parapsychology were banned and she faced questioning by the Gustapo. Eventually she was forced into national service censoring international mail (since she knew English, French, Italian, Dutch and Danish), but would occasionally send penciled-in notes warnings and notes to people who's correspondence she encountered more regularly. Close to the end of her life, after the war had ended and her financial and physical well-being were nearly depleted, she was helping to support a meeting of German Women philosopher, but had neither the funds nor strength to attend. Neverthless, she remained actively ingaged in correspondence with various philosophers up until the week of her death in 1977.  Her autobiography, Zum anderen Ufer (1960), remains in school libraries across Germany because it provides insight into German life.

Personal Response

I initially thought that I wouldn't like this section on Gerda Walther, but after reading the article, I found her to be a fascinating individual. She was fiery, passionate and determined. Gerda earned the chance to work with Husserl despite his initial refusal, then she refused to work with him as a dissertation adviser (though many would kill for the chance) because she wanted the freedom to write her own ideas rather than be directed to write an extension of his. After her mystical experience, she supported and defended a view in philosophy that was utterly rejected and criticized by most. She even faced rejection from most of the philosophical community for her interests in telepathy, clairvoyance and ESP. Finally, I thought it was fascinating that she was unable to teach and participate in the realm of academic philosophy because of her economic situation (apparently professors received menial tuition from students themselves rather than payment from the universities), but persisted in doing her own research and writing throughout her life. She even published work under a pseudonym when she was forbidden to publish an article through a Jewish journal.

Gerda Walther was an inspiring person. Her ideas were unique and interesting, and her fire seems to have stayed with her through the end of her life. I am more interested in her earlier work on communities due to my own interest, but I find her work on mysticism to be very interesting. It seems that she believed (and a small majority may have agreed) that mysticism and parapsychology are real, scientific fields and that the experiences produced from such fields are in a category of spiritual data that are as legitimate as the epistemic conception of sense data, etc. I also thought it was interesting that Walther's work  was often more written for the average reader since she was primarily excluded from philosophical communities.


Chapter 8 "Gerda Walther" by Linda Lopez McAlister from A History of Women Philosophers Volume IV: Contemporary Women Philosophers 1900-Today, by Mary Ellen Waithe

Ayn Rand


Ayn Rand (1905-1982) garnered extensive admiration and contempt even through death. Her dream was to be a writer, but more than that, a revolutionary. She realized her dream of becoming a writer, but it is controversial as to whether or not to call her a philosopher . Rand was born Alice Rosenbaum on 2 February 1905 in St. Petersburg, Russia to a chemist father and a domineering mother. From a young age, she was a bright child who learned to read before beginning school and early on saw problems with Communism. Rand believed living with the state and for the state were troubling and wrong. Rand stated that her method of thinking changed at the age of 12 to “thinking in principles.” It was noted that Ayn Rand could break down complex ideas into easily comprehensible parts. She discovered Victor Hugo’s works at this time and became fascinated with his sense of life. During her last two years of high school, Rand took classes about the American government and the Declaration of Independence. Attending the University of Petrograd, Rand obtained a degree in history and was introduced to the philosophy of Nietzsche. She admired his reverence of the heroic man, individualism, and contempt of altruism, but she was bothered with his defense of psychological determinism, ambiguous use of the issue of power, and position of anti-reason.
After her studies in university, the Rosenbaum family immigrated to America in 1926. In America, Rand changed her name from Alice to Ayn (rhyming with “mine”) after a Finnish writer whom she had not read. (She liked the name.) Interestingly enough, Rand set off to Hollywood for a career in screenwriting in mid 1926. In 1929, she married Frank O’Connor who shared the same values. When they had only $700 to their names, Rand decided to work on the presidential campaign of Wendell Wilkie, whom she saw as a candidate who embraced her philosophy. During these political activities, Rand met many conservatives, including Isabel “Pat” Paterson, with whom she came to form her first and last important friendship with a contemporary. Paterson and Rand shared a teacher/student relationship despite their many differences such as opposing views on religion; Paterson used an element of religion in her writings while Rand saw religion as the first enemy to the ability to think. At this time, Rand’s individualistic thought became apparent in her personality traits of self-responsibility, contempt at humor and reliance on others, and ego.

In 1950, a young man named Nathan Blumenthal wrote a letter to Ayn Rand with questions about her novel, The Fountainhead. He was to be responsible for the dispersion of her philosophy. Blumenthal influenced her writing and introduced Rand to Barbara Weidman, who will become her closest confidante. Blumenthal, Weidman, and other young intellectuals would become known as “The Collective,” chosen for their antithetical nature to Rand’s philosophy and whom Ayn Rand herself affectionately called “the children” or “ the class of ’43.” The group would popularize Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. Like with most relationships between men and women, attraction occurs, so it was not unlikely for Rand and Blumenthal (who was known as Branden), to conduct an affair with each other. When they both confronted their spouses for consent to the affair, Rand argued that given her own nature and that of Branden, logically they had to love each other; rationality and logic made it acceptable for Frank and Barbara to accept the relationship and not be shocked. Blumenthal was the epitome of her heroic characters in looks, epistemology, and ethics. The relationship however, did not last; when Blumenthal refused to continue their sexual relationship, Rand cut all ties with him. Rand gave the position of her intellectual heir to Leonard Peikoff, further driving the separation between Blumenthal and herself.

Rand’s final public talk was held in 1981 at the convention of the National Committee for Monetary Reform in New Orleans. The following year in March, Rand died after never recovering from a respiratory illness she contracted in New Orleans during her last public talk.

Ayn Rand wrote literary works that were immersed with her philosophy. Some of her earlier works had literary themes that foreshadowed her philosophy, such as the intelligent woman worshipping the man who brings out the best in her, or the individual who does not look back. Her later works, including The Fountainhead (1943), We The Living (1936), Atlas Shrugged (1957), The Virtue of Selfishness (1964), For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (1961), and countless others, would bring forth her Objectivist philosophy. Atlas Shrugged (1957) was seen by Rand’s followers and Rand herself as her true masterpiece. It was dubbed the Objectivist “bible.” The book was philosophy and literature, the culmination of Rand’s philosophical theory. The heroes are men of self-interest while the villains are enemies of individualism and free enterprise. The world destroys itself of its socialist society in order to rebuild itself. In her philosophy, Rand sees man as a heroic being whose own happiness is the moral purpose of his life. Productive achievements are man’s noblest activities and reason is his only absolute. She credited Aristotle for his logic and development of metaphysics of objective reality. Yet, she condemned Kant for the return of mysticism and physical force and indicts Descartes for denying the existence of an objective reality.

She saw the return of the Witch Doctor and Attila as the moral bankruptcy of culture. The Witch Doctor, relying on faith, and Attila, relying on physical force, oppressed people’s ability to reason. An intellectual’s job, according to Rand, was to provide a rational morality for the businessmen. She repudiated collectivism, finding Russian communism disturbing and troubling for the individual, while she praised and looked to a radical idea of capitalism, the merging of the intellectual and the businessman as “a free man and a free market are corollaries.” She favored selfishness to altruism, the former being a virtue because it complies with the primary goal of an organism to maintain its life, its self-interest. Rand said a new intellectual needs to rise, one who is guided by reason alone, values “self” above all else, and refuses to give in to faith or to force.

In the literary academic world, Ayn Rand was seen as a philosopher but in academic philosophers rejected her Objectivist philosophy. In the end, there is no denying that she created great stir in the public world, but also among intellectuals and despite the reluctance of many to call her a philosopher.

Personal Response 

I first came across Ayn Rand when the principal of my high school said her favorite book, and the one she lives by, was The Fountainhead. Curious, I sought out the book and quickly became immersed in the life and works of Ayn Rand. Reading the whole book at least two times, I found it troubling that this was the book by which she lived her life . More troubling was trying to understand whether my principal saw the main character as the protagonist or antagonist because her way of thinking lent towards the altruistic thought Rand denied and put down. Rand makes it known that being selfless is a vice, something that will cause great harm to an individual. But if we were to only care for our own feelings, own wants, and own needs, and ourselves, how could we live in a social society? I could see where people are taken aback with Rand’s philosophy; they could not really exist in a world where people are social creatures and could not truly be individualistic. I do not entirely agree with her ethics about selfishness as a virtue because it makes humans devoid of connection and emotion. My worry is if every person were acting out of own personal self-interest, how would the world function, if at all? Things might become stagnant as people will not care about others and the world might fall apart as desires/wants grow tremendously. It is a very radical theory and the characters she created are so unbelievable so her philosophy seems unreasonable to people.
Whether she was a philosopher or not, Ayn Rand was a woman intellectual, strong, and unafraid to voice her thoughts to the public. However, her views on women were often questioned, as they did not really portray women as equal with men. For Rand, the ideal woman finds pleasure in surrendering to the heroic man she worshipped. I do not think that is a strong image of a woman; it’s submissive. If Rand places such emphasis on self-interest and the individual, why differentiate between male and female? Why could not a woman be heroic like the heroic man? I see how her views on women were questioned as they are not consistent with her other set of views. The woman’s surrender is submissive and it’s almost like she is on a lower level than the man. But is that Rand’s true thought? I am not sure because she does not have any extensive work on the role and status of women in society.

What is the most fascinating is the fact that despite Ayn Rand not really seen as a philosopher, there were many people who followed and believed in her Objectivist philosophy. She garnered extensive discussion, debate, and controversy with her thought that even if her philosophy was rejected, it was as influential as other philosophers. I had not seen her as a philosopher when I first read her work, but more of a literary writer. Yet, her philosophy was deeply embedded in her characters, plot, and the whole story. How can one area of academia see her as a philosopher while another denies that title? That bodes the question how are we defining philosophy? What, if there is one, a collective agreement to defining philosophers as Aristotle and Descartes were one?


Chapter 9. "Ayn Rand (1905-1982)" by Jenny A. Heyl in A History of Women Philosophers: Contemporary Women Philosophers, 1900-Today by Mary Ellen Waithe 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Simone de Beauvoir


Simone de Beauvoir, a French writer, is perhaps best known for authoring The Second Sex (1949), a book detailing the treatment of women throughout history. She is not only identified as a writer but also a feminist, existential philosopher, and social theorist. Her works, over twenty separate titles, are considered widely influential, but she is generally referenced as an important feminist theorist rather than a philosopher. Her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre has also contributed to her fame, but her work extended far beyond her association with Sartre. She made major contributions to philosophy, literature, and feminism.

Simone was born in Paris in 1908 to Francoise Brasseur de Beauvoir and Georges de Beauvoir. She studied philosophy at the University of Paris, eventually teaching upon completion of her agrégation. In 1944 Simone became a full-time writer. She traveled the world and took part in various political demonstrations. She died in 1986 at the age of 78.

Interestingly enough, Simone viewed herself first and foremost as a writer, not a philosopher. She seemed aware of the philosophical implications of literature, describing accomplished novels as that which "seeks to evoke the living unity and ambiguity of the subjective and the objective, the relative and the absolute, the historical and the eternal" (262). For whatever reason, she chose to identify herself primarily as a writer even though her works were often very philosophical. And in many ways, based on that quote, I think she understood the connection something like a fictional novel has to philosophy. Her writings include autobiographical pieces, fictional stories, and philosophical essays. Simone's most famous work, The Second Sex, argues that women have been subjected to the myth of the "Other," causing men to view them as the as lesser or different. As an existentialist, Simone believed that existence preceded essence, including in the case of being a "woman." In her book she argued that femininity is a socially imposed characteristic. Accordingly, the formation of the Other comes from the human desire to dominate. Her knowledge and exposure to the philosophies of people like Hegel or Marx influenced her examination of the treatment of women throughout history, including materialistic impact.

Personal Response

I would have loved to hear more about Simone's life. The biography was on the smaller side; this allowed for a more detailed description of her works and philosophy. And considering that we actually have access to her original work, that was refreshing. Many of the figures we've read about this semester had a known body of work. Often, especially among the earlier philosophers, all we had was the testimony of others that certain texts existed or that the woman in question held a certain philosophical stance. I did a little extra research, and I was surprised to see how incredibly interesting and exciting Simone's biography is. I would have loved to see more about her education as well as her relationship with Sartre. (Apparently, Simone was considered brilliant by her peers. One lecture I found suggested that Sartre beat her in an examination only due to there interaction.) So while I understand the need to limit the biography in this book, I also would be interested in reading a more detailed description of her life.

I was struck by Simone's interest in writing from her own personal experience. Apparently The Second Sex began as an examination of what it meant to Simone to be a woman. She seemed to be interested in conceptions of "self" as a philosophical concept and "herself" as a subjective person with experiences and things to say. Unlike many philosophers I've read, Simone seemed to be very interested in her own experience. She did not claim to be "objectively" impartial. Instead she was driven by the things that impacted her life.

It saddened me to hear that even Simone was overshadowed by Sartre. Apparently she viewed herself as a lesser philosopher, and their works, much like Émilie and Voltaire, were heavily influenced on both sides. Though such a relationship of two intellectuals would probably be greatly beneficial to both, it seems troubling when considering Sartre receives more attention. His works and contributions are often seen on a college syllabus, whereas Simone is not nearly as iconic.

Reading either Simone's autobiography and/or a biography would be incredibly interesting. As long and detailed as this chapter was, due to its expansive coverage, it left me feeling like there was much more to Simone and her work then could be reasonably summarized in twenty-plus pages. One of the highlights in this chapter was getting to read so many quotes from Simone herself. Her writing is elegant and clear. And I even recognized several of her arguments or issues from various philosophy classes I've taken. She was clearly well educated in many philosophical areas, but she was equally as clearly thinking about the knowledge she received through her education. Based on outside research, it looks like Simone's father, like many of the other figures we've discussed, also encouraged her education and intellectual pursuits.

In the end, I think this chapter made me want to know more about Simone. Her interest in writing, especially fiction, caught my attention especially due to my own interest in that area. It reminded me of  Murasaki Shikibu's use of literature to convey philosophy. I hope to have the opportunity to learn more about Simone de Beauvoir in the future.


Chapter 12 "Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)" by Jeffner Allen and Jo-Ann Pilardi in A History of Women Philosophers: Contemporary Women Philosophers, 1900-Today by Mary Ellen Waithe

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Émilie du Châtelet


Gabrielle Émilie le Tonnelier de Bretuil du Châtelet-Lomont (1706-1749) was born into an aristocratic family (her father served in the court of the king) and as such, she received an excellent childhood education. By age 12, she had already fluently reading, speaking and writing in French, English, Italian, Spanish and German and could translate from both Greek and Latin. Nevertheless, as most women of the time, she was excluded from receiving any form of upper-level education. The Sorbonne and the “cafes” were primary sources of upper-level education but women were not permitted in such places. But Émilie was determined. She once entered a café with a friend, Maupertuis, and proceeded to join in the conversation the males at the table until she was firmly instructed to leave by café management. The following day she returned, dressed in “drag” and was permitted to remain at the table (even though it was clear she was a woman).

At the age of 19, Émilie married a military leader, the Marquis Floret-Claude du Châtelet-Lomont. The biography speaks little of her marriage to her husband except that she bore him three children (one who died in infancy) and had numerous affairs with various tutors and influential male members of society – each who played an influential role in her education and shaping her influence in philosophy. Likely the most influential lover in Émilie’s life was Voltaire. She and Voltaire moved into one of her husband’s abandoned estates and remodeled it into a high-class, top-notch library and laboratory in which the two studied Newton, Locke, Leibnitz, and many others. Émilie is known as an experimental physicist, replicating many of Newton’s experiments as well as conducting her own. She also dabbled in areas of ethics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of languagephilosophy of science, metaphysics, wrote a number of books and essays, including her translation of Newton’s Principia and a notable essay on the nature of fire. She also collaborated extensively with Voltaire on many of their works to the extent that it is unclear which ideas belong to which author in many of their joint works.

Émilie gained wide recognition first as an experimental physicist and philosophers of science in her contribution to Voltaire’s work, Éléments de la Philosophie du Neuton, earning her the name “Lady Newton,” but also gained a great reputation as a metaphysician in her essays on optics, color, and fire, but more so from her Institutions de Physique and her translation and commentary on Principes Mathématiques de la Philosophie Naturelle (the first French translation and commentary on Newton’s Principia). Émilie initially considered herself a pure Newtonian, convinced that Newton’s works were an accurate depiction of what was actually happening in the universe. While she was convinced the Newton gave and accurate depiction of how the universe worked, she felt he failed to explain why it worked as such – Descartes held a better theory of metaphysics. She felt that Newton’s physics described an omnipotent, but not omniscient God and it claimed that action was predetermined. Predetermined action would indicate that there could be no free human action and no free will. If there is no free will, there is no virtue and vice and, according to her familiarity with Mandeville’s account of virtue and vice, she believed that without vice there is no need for political society and also no need for the spiritual reformations taking place that accounted for personal salvation, etc.

Émilie felt that without providing the metaphysical underpinnings for Newton’s physics, French society would never accept Newton and all he had to contribute. She was shortly after introduced to the works of Leibniz and she began to see how Leibniz metaphysics could support Newton. Her Institutions de Physique explains and defends the relationship between Newtonian physics and Leibnizian metaphysics. She combined Leibnizian ontology with Newtonian atomism, using Leibniz monadology to understand true substances. She discussed the principle of sufficient reason to explain why possible events actually occur and to reestablish the predictability of science (such that it is not merely a whim in the mind of God that can change when God changes his mind, etc.). She also used Leibniz Law of Noncontradiction to explain how humans can still have free will and his principle of sufficient reason to explain why there are beings with free will. As such, she was seemingly able to defend Newtonianism while simultaneously preserving notions of the nature and will of God, as well as the nature and will of humans and their interaction with God. She preserved human initiative and free will as opposed to accepting humans as just cogs in the wheel of a perfectly designed machine (as Newton held).

While the Institutions was one of her greatest works, many pure Newtonians rejected the combination of Newtonian and Leibnizian ideas (Voltaire himself didn’t see a need for a metaphysical defense). Nevertheless, Émelie’s greatest work, her life’s work, was her translation of Newton’s Principia. She desired to make Newton’s views accessible to the French people. As such, she not only translated his work, but made some modifications of her own as well as added commentary. But her translation held true to Newton’s original work and she clearly indicated when she was inserting her own thoughts or corrections. For nearly two centuries, Émilie’s translation served as the primary French translation of this work and served as a central piece to the Enlightenment. While working on the translation, Émilie became pregnant by a younger lover. Fearing that she would die in childbirth, worked 20 hours a day to complete the work. She finished, but shortly after her child was born, both died.

In conclusion, while society still held up barriers to women receiving equal education with men of their same rank, Émilie’s determination allowed her to have exclusive access to private societies and the great thinkers of her day. Her aristocratic background gave her some influence, as well as her many affairs, but she was able to hire tutors from the Sorbonne to learn mathematics and physics, and was privy to an exquisite library and laboratory. She became well-known, even outside of France (Kant recognized her work and commented on an essay she had written). In addition, she was an influential thinker in various areas of science including the scientific method, metaphysics, and explored questions of theology, existence and more.

Personal Response

From this biography of Émilie, it is amazing how much she was able to learn and accomplish. She seemed nearly brilliant in her ability to learn so quickly the ideas of others, different languages and different subjects, and then to publish so many books and essays. I also found it amazing how she was so influential in science, an area that we consider to be primarily relegated to men. Of course, this was the age of the Enlightenment and science was the primary field of interest. Nevertheless, I thought it was really fascinating that she was able to gain recognition and respect for her work, despite the fact that women were still predominantly excluded from society. And this was not the type of “awe” given to women of the medieval period who were seen as prodigies, she gained legitimate respect and was sought after for conversation and ideas on the works she published and studied.

Additionally, although Émilie was a bit promiscuous, I wonder how much of that was her own desire, and how much was influenced by her understanding that sex was a means to attain a better education and access to scientific, philosophic society. A commentary from another woman suggested that she intentionally dressed in gaudy attire to make her face appealing and gain attention – which could mean she simply desired to have many lovers, or she was trying to gain favor from those she thought could offer educational benefit (so either way). Regardless, it was interesting to me that she was never criticized or rebuked for her sexuality, but maintained a seemingly respected reputation – which I think can shed light on the changing (diminishing) role of Christianity and religious values, as well as speak to her confidence and determination to do as she desired to do and accomplish her goals.


Chapter 8 "Gabrielle Émilie le Tonnelier de Bretuil du Châtelet-Lomont" in A History of Women Philosophers: Modern Women Philosophers, 1600-1900, by Mary Ellen Waithe