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

Antoinette Brown Blackwell


Antoinette Blackwell (1825-1921) was an American philosopher, but was also the first woman minister to be ordained in America. Blackwell wrote six philosophical works and preached into her nineties. She was also known for being a social activist for Women's rights, the Temperance movement, and Abolition movement. Blackwell's most influential work was The Philosophy of Individuality (1893). Due to her progressive work towards women's rights and her longevity, Blackwell was able to cast a vote in the Presidential election in 1920.

Blackwell was educated at the Oberlin Theology Program, but the school refused to grant her a ministerial license. She then found the Orthodox Congregationalist Church, which ordained her in 1852. It was after this time that Blackwell began advocating for women's rights, specifically for women to have the right to have paid work outside the home and also for women to have the right to publically speak. After marrying and having seven children, two of them dying at birth, Blackwell found herself spending much more time at home and having less time to spend preach. It was in her time spent at home that Blackwell began to focus more on philosophy.

After a nervous breakdown, Blackwell left the parish. This is when she began to work extensively on metaphysics. Her first philosophical work was Studies in General Science (1875), which explained mind and matter in a God created universe. Her second work was The Philosophy of Individuality, which concentrated on harmony between the particular and the absolute. As time passed, Blackwell returned to preaching, having changed to the Unitarian Church and still publishing philosophic works. Blackwell died in 1921 peacefully in her sleep.

Blackwell believed that understanding metaphysics was the most important aspect to studying philosophy and thought that logic was going to undermine the philosophical system. Her purpose in studying metaphysics was to connect the study of nature with the process of the universe. Blackwell also believed that truth was not "abstract or complicated, but simple and self-evident." (pg. 190) Also, Blackwell focused on perception and thought that perceptions and observations were truths; that 'falsehoods' were merely misunderstandings of observation or not fully understanding connections. Through her education in theology and philosophy, her beliefs were constructed around the idea that God was a Rational Designer. Similarly, that all living things were conscious, including plants and animals. Blackwell strongly believed in immortality and that it should not only be grounded in a belief in God, but also in scientific justifications. She thought that "as nature endured surface changes while in its basic underlying structure, the atom, did not change, so human beings grow and develop while the self remains immortal." (pg. 192) Aligning with her fight for women's suffrage, she believed that sexes were equal, but that for every 'advance' in a male trait, there was also an 'advance' in female traits.

Personal Response

Antoinette Blackwell has been the most interesting woman philosopher who I have read about thus far. It is astonishing that she was the first woman preacher in America. I also find it inspiring that she spent her entire life working for the women’s suffrage movement and at the age of 96 was able to vote in a Presidential election.  Having published six philosophical works on various subjects, being a preacher, a mother of five, and working well into her nineties is nothing short of amazing. To me it seems that Blackwell somewhat paved the road for the women philosophers who would soon follow her. Having made profound contributions to philosophy it is a little unsettling that her name has not come up in my education so far.


Chapter ? "..." by? in  A History of Women Philosophers: Modern Women Philosophers, 1600-1900 by Mary Ellen Waithe

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Clarisse Coignet

Front Cover


Clarisse Coignet (1823-1918) made a place for herself among the dominant male peers of her time. A moral philosopher, an educator, and a historian, Coignet held true to the notion of women being multi-taskers and could hold more than one title. Not only was Clarisse Coignet this triple threat, she was an active leader of La Morale indèpendante, a political and social movement in France. The movement sought to establish morality’s independence from science and religion. A woman mindfully aware of the world around her, Coignet’s earliest works were in response to the reform of French educational system and proclamation of the Republic. She defended public education in a 1856 work and delved into moral education with a textbook for secular schools published in 1874 that garnered wide recognition and debate.
Coignet’s work as an editor with the newspaper La Morale indèpendante helped bring to fruition her most significant philosophical work entitled, La Morale indèpendante dans son principe et son objet. The work published in 1869 was inspired by Kantian thought and illustrated her position on the relation of moral philosophy and religion. Coignet discussed the concept of individual morality that originated as a political movement in France at the end of the 18th Century and became a social movement in the early 1860s. The social movement of independent morality at that time sought to bring forth a conception of morality in correspondence with the political ideals of the French Republic. In this work, Coignet established a view of moral science that she labeled as “the true philosophy.” She argued that moral science is independent in its sovereign and origin in human life. Its goal is to construct a new society and a new individual through equal rights and reciprocal obligations. This was different and radical as it elevated human right higher than divine right.

Coignet founded independent morality in the freedom of the individual. Morality is an autonomous science and freedom comes from human accomplishments and human conscience. Man is the creator of morality; he or she is an end in himself or herself and the cause, end, and agent of his or her own goals. For Coignet, people are responsible for their willful activity and become moral by intervention of conscience. Religion and morality are separated from each other but morality does not exclude religion entirely. Coignet stated that religion is excluded from society as a political power but that religion exists in the human soul. Her discussion on the independent morality aligned itself with the rising discussion about women’s suffrage existing in Britain. Independent morality sought to renew women’s dignity and change their roles in society, being seen as ends in themselves and free to be their own persons with rights and morals. Coignet believed education should not separate men and women but instead should mix them together in order to improve their weaknesses. Interestingly enough though, Coignet argued that no matter what the future for women would be, women’s nature would remain the same which is motherhood, producing children.

Personal Response

Unlike the previous section of women philosophers, there is very little background information about Clarisse Coignet, only that she was born in 1823. I searched for a history of Clarisse Coignet only to find a brief paragraph by Dr. Bremand Nathalie from the University of Poitiers in France. The short paragraph stated Clarisse Coignet was the niece of famous Fourier Clarissa Hale and was a Protestant. Despite that loss of information, there seems to be an extensive study of her philosophical work, La Morale indèpendante dans son principe et son objet. It is clear Kant, who worked in the same period of history, discussing duty and morality, influenced Clarisse Coignet.
What was unexpected or, I had assumed wrongly, was that Coignet was not fully supportive of women’s suffrage (particularly in France) and women’s superiority. She understood or saw the limitations women have in regards to being in position of power or great strength, as their nature is ultimately to bear children, which makes them weak in body. I would have thought she would be fully supportive of women’s roles, or voice more opinion on the fact women could be something other than mothers and pursue careers with power. If she believed that moral law is grounded in human reason and that man is an end in himself, why would she claim that the role women still be subjected to? If a woman is a sovereign end in herself, should she not be able to be something other than a mother without discrimination? This seems to be a double standard.

Women are free to be their own persons, but their nature to be mothers hinders them from truly being their own persons. This idea still exists; women are struggling to stay at home or work as President or CEO of a company. The problem hasn’t resolved at all, but merely discussed and debated. At a point in history, the independent woman was seen as the role model for all other women to be free and true to themselves. But today, it seems like women are struggling with, on the one hand, a strong sense of independence and, on the other hand, a rising appreciation for motherhood.

Coignet seems to place a great deal of power and status on a human being in regards to morality and judgment. Are not human beings flawed creatures who can be driven by passion more often than reason? If that is the case, I do not see morality as grounded in human reason because it could be flawed. How can it be purely objective if morality comes from human conscience as each person might have different views? 


Chapter 10. "Clarisse Coignet" by Jennifer Allen in A History of Women Philosophers: Modern Women Philosophers, 1600-1900 by Mary Ellen Waithe 

Bremand Nathalie (2009). "Clarisse Coignet (1823-1918)." The first socialism, virtual library of the University of Poitiers. 

Hypatia of Alexandria


Hypatia of Alexandria’s (370/375 A.D.-415A.D.) history is riddled with varying accounts and half-truths. Two sources have different years for Hypatia’s birth, one sources dates her birth between 370-375 and another at 375 A.D. Hypatia lived during the time paganism was reaching its end and Christianity was gaining followers and power. Theon, her father, was a teacher of mathematics and astronomy at the Museum. The Museum was a school or more like a center of mathematics and science where Ptolemy’s successors merged physics, mathematics, and philosophy into an applied natural philosophy. Hypatia’s early education is still debated, as there is no record of it. It was assumed by many that Theon taught her but he had not trained in philosophy. Hypatia, however, was known to have taught philosophy in Alexandria, so an inference was made that her training was received from philosophers of the Neo-Platonic school at Alexandria. One of the sources, Hoche, assumed that Hypatia was educated by mathematicians at the Museum in Alexandria and by other scholars there too. She obtained the position of a teacher after her studies at the Museum.
Being a teacher allowed Hypatia to explore and to continue with her studies in philosophy, science, and mathematics. One of her students, Damascius, stated she taught geometry and mathematics. Another, Hesychius, stated she was a great astronomer like her father. One of her most significant pupils was Synesius who was almost exclusively educated by Hypatia. From Synesius’ letters, it has been determined that Hypatia taught the works of Plato and Aristotle, as well as Neo-Platonism, astronomy, mechanics, and mathematics. Hypatia taught and worked during a time where paganism and Christianity were struggling against each other for power. It took courage and strong intellect to teach these subjects in Alexandria.

By 404 A.D., Hyaptia was appointed head of the Neo-Platonic school at Alexandria. Her works included a commentary on Diophantus’ Arithmeticorum, an Astronomical Canon that formed part of her commentary on Ptolemy’s Syntaxis Mathematica, and a commentary on the Conic Sections of Apollonius Pergaeus. She focused more on the writings concerning metaphysics, cosmology, and epistemology. She used philosophy to form a foundation for her intellectual pursuit of astronomy. Through theorems and scientific theories, Hypatia worked to answer philosophical questions of “Who are we, what is our place in the order of things, what is the nature of god…” (Waithe, 176).

Personal Response

It is incredible to learn that a woman could be not just a teacher but also an influential and amazing one in a time of political, religious, and social upheaval. How much weight could be placed in the information provided remains to be seen. Waithe seems to favor one source above others, using Hoche’s assumptions as factual information about Hypatia. It is troubling that the information written could possibly be false or hold very little truth to it. Working with antiquity, it is by no means surprising that information is limited and often full of assumptions, rather than actual factual information. Hypatia did have students of her own and there seemed to be references to her as a teacher of mathematics and science, but still how much truth could be held in them? Waithe commented that some of the sources stated Hypatia’s work had not survived and are considered to be myths. Only for the last decade or so did Hypatia’s work come up in various searches but it was still inconclusive whether it was truly Hypatia’s work. It would have been amazing to know for sure whether the things described really did happen. If so, then why have views about the roles of women in education (especially philosophy and the “male subjects”) changed from Ancient Greece to the Middle Ages to now? How could women be heads of a school in one period of time only to be subjected to discrimination and put on the bottom rung a few hundred years later? 


Chapter 9. "Hypatia of Alexandria" of A History of Women Philosophers: Ancient Women Philosophers 600 B.C.-500 A.D. by Mary Ellen Waithe

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Kristina Wasa


Kristina of Sweden (1626-1689) is one of history's more quirky individuals. Her life departs from the societal norms of her time, and we are privileged enough to have access to a decent amount of information about her life and work.

Gustavus Adolphus (Gustav II), Kristina's father, died when she was only six years old. She then inherited a nation currently involved in the Thirty Years' War. And in 1648, at the age of twenty-two, Kristina would see the end of the war that claimed her father's life. Her mother, Maria Eleanore, was rumored to have been insane. Her relationship with her mother was strained. Rather than playing with dolls, Kristina wanted to study even from an early age. Due to her position and prominence, Kristina had access to an excellent education. She was trained as a prince, not a princess, as she grew up. And due to her father's early death, Kristina became the queen at an early age. She would study for a total of twelve hours a day, six in the morning and six at night. And, in her own words, she was "engulfed by an immense joy and often came much too early" to her scheduled study time. Eventually, she would invite academics, thinkers, and experts from various parts of Europe to come and visit her court. Matthiae, the Bishop of Strangnas, and Axel Oxenstierna both introduced Kristina to various philosophical works. Matthias is perhaps responsible for introducing unionist doctrines, while Oxenstrierna, who led Sweden while Kristina was still to young, introduced her to things like the art of politics.

Kristina's skeptical doubts and religious views are just a fewo f the many interesting things in her life. She also was tutored by René Descartes visiting her in Sweden. They are known for having corresponded regarding various philosophical subjects through French Ambassador Chanut. Some even blame Descartes' death indirectly on Kristina because she had him wake up at five o'clock in the morning to tutor her when Descartes typically slept until eleven. (Obviously there are more facts involved, including Descartes contraction of pneumonia.)

After having a nervous breakdown, Kristina began to take steps towards abdication. She would eventually convert to Catholicism, though her religious beliefs still remained fairly heterodoxical. Through her position of authority as the Queen of Sweden, she had seen religion used as a political means, and she continued having many doubts, including being troubled by Church dogma. Eventually she conversed with Jesuits in secret and she corresponded with Catholics as well. Kristina was committed to acting in such a way that accurately reflected her worldview, and so she was drawn to discussions about the nature of reality, good and evil, etc.. Kristina was described as being rather masculine. She would wear male clothing, pursue spheres normally reserved for male members of society, and had a deep, masculine voice. By rejecting female culture, Kristina may have viewed herself as primarily male. She never married and often spoke out against the "feminine sex."

The Queen of Sweden lived to be sixty-three, dying in 1689. In her lifetime she wrote, discussed, and studied the theory of the philosopher's stone (or alchemy), skepticism, stoicism, Catholic mysticism, and linguistics.

Personal Response

Overall, I really enjoyed reading about Kristina Wasa. She was an interesting figure who defied any expectations I might have had of her. (I like to think she was kind of quirky, though she was probably far too unorthodox to be considered simply quirky.) Based on this chapter, I gathered whoit was her father that encouraged her education. After his death, the queen then continued her education, since it was in the best interest of Sweden to have an educated leader. This reminded me of the various other women philosophers we've discussed whose education we can trace back to the father. Often the mother is not mentioned or did not support the education of the daughter.

A minor pet peeve I have with the actual chapter is in the discussion of Kristina's philosophical development. Susan Akerman writes, "Matthiae with his strong unionist tendencies is responsible for Kristina's tolerant and critical perspective on religion" (26). When I read this sentence initially, I found it rather off-putting, like Kristina's perspective was not her own. I realize that Akerman may have intended to suggest that she was exposed to such concepts through Matthiae, but I dislike the assertion that they came from him alone. Based on what Kristina did, believed, and explored, I would say that her perspectives on religion went far beyond any "unionist tendencies" she may have been exposed to through the Bishop of Strangnas.

I was struck by Kristina's choice to identify as masculine rather than feminine. Though the chapter does not go into detail about her sexuality, it is hard to ignore Kristina's decision not to get married. Whatever may be assumed about her orientation, she clearly identified masculinity with knowledge and learning. The chapter mentioned several times her educators treated her as a prince, with lessons in "princely" activities. It is almost as if she eventually concluded that to rule, pursue philosophy, or take part in various academic societies, one has to become a man. Though this course, I think, has sought to disprove any such notion, I found it slightly troubling to read in this chapter on Kristina Wasa. I'm not going to try to explain her position away, but it certainly does force me to think about the kind of society she lived in. Given the choice, would philosophy be worth it if it meant I had to reject some other part of myself? I'm not suggesting Kristina did this, but I think it is within the realm of possibility.


Chapter 2 "Kristina Wasa, Queen of Sweden" by Susanna Akerman in A History of Women Philosophers: Modern Women Philosophers, 1600-1900 by Mary Ellen Waithe

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Diotima of Mantinea


While reading about Diotima, what could be concluded is that there is much dispute over whether she was an actual person or a Platonic character. This chapter on Diotima laid out various arguments and counter-arguments to prove the actual existence of Diotima historically.
In the Symposium, Diotima was a priestess from Mantinea who postponed a plague and taught Socrates the nature of Love. Most of the arguments put forth are based on analyzing the Symposium. The first idea put forth to solve the puzzle of Diotima’s existence is that the Form of Beauty is inconsistent with Plato’s Form of the Good. Another argument given to separate Diotima and Plato is that the Form of Beauty is on the level of appearances and not that of Platonic Ideas or Forms. Another argument made is that it is unusual for Plato to cast a woman in one of his dialogs. Similarly, Socrates would never have learned from a woman. One other argument made to suggest that Diotima was a mere character is, that Diotima is not referenced in anything historically except the Symposium. Lastly, that the Symposium was not one of Plato’s philosophical works, but him trying to show that he could write comedy as well as tragedy. That if this were so, Diotima would be a character put in the dialogue for comedic purposes.
These arguments are then countered. The first claim is that Socrates was known to exchange ideas with women. This is proven in Meno, saying that he sought religious advice from men and women priests and priestesses, thus proving (if we take Plato’s descriptions to be factual) that Socrates did converse with priestesses. Secondly, there is a brass overlay above a cassette which is supposed to be Socrates and Diotima because of the resemblance of Socrates in this statue and others from that time period. Also, along with the brass overlay, there was a copy of the Symposium. With all of the various arguments presented, it is disputed whether or not Diotima actually existed or if she was a fictional character.

Personal Response

Throughout my education I have always been taught that the answer to whether Diotima was an actual person was unknown, but it was commonly acknowledged that she was a fictional character to enhance Plato’s Symposium for whatever reason. Although I found certain arguments on both sides to be compelling, I still remain questioning where or not she was fictional. I find it slightly more likely that Plato used her to be ironic. Regardless, I thought that some of the points made in the beginning arguments were incorrect. It was argued that Diotima’s Form of Beauty was inconsistent with Socrates’ Form of the Good. I disagree and do not see any differences in the way that they are described; both seem to indicate a latter-like climb from ignorance to wisdom. Also, both Forms seem to start on the same level at appearances and ascend to a Form which is separate from particulars. Overall, I still remain indifferent about with she was an actual person or only a character. The section about Diotima might have better been utilized by explaining more about how she influenced works later created in the middle ages.


Julia Domna


Julia Domna was born around 170 A.D. in Syria. While there is no record of her education, it is speculated that she was exposed to many ideas from a young age due to the position of her father, Julius Bassianus, who was the high priest of the temple of the sun-god Elagabalus. Her father entertained many prominent visitors in Julia’s childhood, one of whom would become her husband:  Roman general Lucius Septimius Severus. Just a few years later her husband became emperor of Rome and she became one of the most influential women of the Roman Empire and later was made into a divinity.

Though much of her biography covers the influence of her husband and sons in government, Julia was very active in Severus’ reign, going with him on campaigns and potentially even influencing some of his military decisions. After her husband’s death, she was also influential in the reign of her eldest son Bassianus (aka: Caracalla, who killed his younger brother for sole power over the empire). As he was often on campaign, Julia conducted much of the imperial business and hosted many gatherings with the influential men of the empire. This is where it is said much of her philosophical influence came into play. When her son died, some say she mourned the loss of her position of influence in Rome.

It is said that Julia’s “inner circle,” consisted of all the prominent Sophists of her day, who she would converse with at social gatherings she hosted. While most of the specific men are not known, one of her most notable acquaintance is Flavius Philostratus, a sophist who wrote Lives of the Sophists, (describing many others who may have been part of Julia’s circle) but who also wrote a book commissioned by Julia herself, the Life of Appolonius. While Julia has no written works, her encouragement and direction regarding the commission of this book is the closest insight we have to the philosophical views of Julia herself.

Apollonius of Tyana is said to have been a Neopythagorean who combined teachings of Pythagoras with Platonism and mysticism. The book discusses his conceptions of God and the relation between man and divinities, immortality and the soul (similar to that discussed in Plato’s Phaedo) as well as notion of personal ethics and political philosophy. Evidence suggests that Julia’s views were very much in line with Apollonius’ in his worship of the sun-god and his acceptance of statue representations of deities. He also understood God as creator, and that man alone (not animals as the Egyptians practiced) had an ability to relate to and understand God. His ideas on ethics hold similar to some notions portrayed by Plato and Aristotle in a championing of wisdom and virtues. Apollonius claimed that it is essential for persons to acquire wisdom, courage, justice and temperance, but also must practice such virtues regularly – including actively doing just actions rather than simply avoiding injustice.

Finally, his ideas on political philosophy involved individuals acting excellently for the good of the communal society, as well as insisting that a ruler can be a good monarch if he rules justly and philosophically. It is believed that Julia found this favorable, that philosophy could influence the practice of politics and ruling. While other rulers (such as Nero) banned philosophy, Julia’s position as an empress combined with her interests may have helped preserve philosophy.

Personal Response

I found it interesting and a little depressing that much of Julia Domna’s life was described by the men who were influential in her life. Most of her biography referred to her role as wife and then mother of the emperor and her support of these men. Additionally, she is known as one who conversed with contemporary intellectuals and philosophers, but never wrote anything herself. Instead, the only work we can relate to Julia was a book written by a male philosopher, about the life of another male philosopher that Julia supposedly had commissioned. While this is a bit disappointing, I know I have to keep in mind what was available at the time and what influence women had. Although, it is clear from the introduction that there were women who were intellectuals and teachers at various schools around this time, as well as influential in politics and among some of the male philosophers. I suppose it is more than some women had the Julia is mentioned by male figures and figures prominently in her husband’s reign as emperor. Perhaps only a shadow of Julia can be seen among the men who figured prominently in her life.

I also wonder, since there is speculation about the authenticity of the relationship between Philostratus (the author of Julia’s commissioned book and otherwise) and Julia, can we really rely on his own writings of their interactions as valid proof of what Julia was up to philosophically? Perhaps he simply wanted to give some sense of legitimacy to his writing (the way Severus indicated his pretend kinship with Marcus Aurelius to legitimate his reign as emperor). I guess there is no way to be certain absent the existence of further writings to shed light on these days. But I hope that this is an indication of Julia’s actual views.

Finally, I find it interesting that the mention of sophistry in this article is spoken of favorably as merely a form of persuasive rhetoric and an honorable lifestyle. At least as described by Plato and Aristotle, Sophistry was reviled because it was seen as the use of misleading, but eloquent arguments to circumvent truth rather than seeking truth. They were reputes as seeking money and pleasures of fame and fortune over the Good in character and understanding that philosophers like Plato and Aristotle champion over the pursuit of fame and fortune. Nevertheless, chapter seven of this book and this article indicate that this is just a misleading stereotype that did not encompass the beneficial contributions of the sophists. Regardless of the claims about sophistry, if it is the case that Julia Domna was as supportive of Philostratus’ book as is indicated, it seems she had solid and valuable views on essential philosophical questions that seem to be repeated in later ethical views as well.


Chapter 7 "Julia Domna" by Beatrice H. Zedler, from A History of Women Philosophers: Ancient Women Philosophers 600 B.C. to 500 A.D. by Mary Ellen Waithe

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

From Arete to Lasthenia


Arete of Cyrene lived in North Africa in what is now known as Libya. She was the daughter of Aristippus, a student and friend of Socrates. Aristippus founded a hedonist school where Arete taught natural and moral philosophy. Eventually taking over the school from her father, Arete is believed to have written forty books. No known works written by Arete survive, therefore our knowledge stems primarily from second hand accounts or the works of the hedonist sect to which she belongs. Cyrenaic doctrines that we have today are believed to have been written down by Aristippus the Younger, Arete's son. In general, the Cyrenaics saw pleasure as the sole criterion for morality, but this pleasure comes not from extreme excitement. The pleasure they described came through calm reflection. Good was defined as independence and not being ruled by desire for pleasure or fear of pain. The epitaph on Arete's tomb suggests she was well-regarded during her life: it "declared that she was the splendor of Greece and possessed the beauty of Helen, the virtue of Thirma, the pen of Aristippus, the soul of Socrates and the tongue of Homer" (198).

Asclepigenia of Athens taught at a neo-Platonic school, headed by her father (Plutarch of Athens), during the 5th century (AD). The school, Asclepigenia included, taught material that starkly contrasted with the new and fast-spreading Christian doctrines of the time. Again, no primary texts survive written by her. But based on the work of her teachers and pupils, we may assume that she was interested in understanding causes and predicting outcomes with the use of magic to influence the gods.

Axiothea of Philesia is remembered because she famously dressed like a man to attend Plato's lectures in the 4th century (BCE). Why exactly she did this is unknown. In fact some consider this a criticism of Plato's work since, the argument goes, based on his works and what he said about the nature of women he should have allowed a woman to study under him.

Cleobulina of Rhodes has the distinct honor of having her work referenced by Aristotle. Unfortunately, little is known about her. Her status as a philosopher is often questioned due to the lack of information. But the fact remains that Aristotle at least mentions her, twice quoting her in Poetics and Rhetoric. Plutarch claims that she ultimately influenced her father to rule Rhodes "fairly" (207).

Hipparchia the Cynic apparently became a Cynic to be with a man named Crates. She was criticized for her "undomestic habits" that came with living the life of a Cynic. As far as we know, she made no great contribution to the Cynic philosophy.

Lasthenia of Mantinea is thought to have been a student of Plato, but all evidence is third party and small in quantity.

As a whole, little is known about these women. Their lives and philosophies remain somewhat of a mystery as do their influence and contribution to the areas of philosophy they were interested and involved in.

Personal Response

In the cases of these women--I am thinking here specifically of Arete--it is unfortunate that we do not have access to any written works by them. All we can do is assume Arete shared the beliefs of her order, but we have no way of knowing her personal opinion or contribution to the philosophy. I found it interesting that Arete was attributed with the virtues of both men and women in her epitaph. In many ways it made me think of her as a woman who did not have to disguise herself to pursue philosophy. Axiothea, on the other hand, dressed as a man to learn from Plato. I was disappointed that no more is known about why Axiothea did this and what the outcome was: but it may be significant that both Arete and Asclepigenia had fathers who ran schools.

I find I have to keep reminding myself that even Aristotle's work did not survive in its entirety. These women may have written extensive manifestos; we simply don't know about them. Initially I picked this chapter because I thought it might have something to do with the Aristotelian conception of arete/excellence, but it was still interesting to get a sampling of different women philosophers.

These women, and probably more about whom we don't know, were clearly active philosophically even during the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. That suggests that as much as we might think that women were locked up or confined entirely to the domestic scene, at least some were able to participate in the realm of philosophy in some way.


Chapter 10 "Arete, Asclepigenia, Axiothea, Cleobulina, Hipparchia, and Lasthenia" of A History of Women Philosophers: Ancient Women Philosophers 600 B.C.-500 A.D. by Mary Ellen Waithe

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Luisa Sabuco


Sabuco was born 1562 in Alcaraz, Spain. She wrote Nueva Filosofia de la Naturaleza del Hombre (New Philosophy of Human Nature), which is her only known work. Although the authorship of this work is questioned, if Olivia Sabuco or her father Miguel actually wrote this work; the book remains in Olivia's name today and there appears to be evidence within the text to prove this.

In this book Sabuco wrote about the nature of human beings and impacted the future practice of medicine as well as future philosophers. Her influence is most recognized in Rene Descartes' work. Her philosophical influences were those of the classics, using such philosophers as Aristotle in reference to her work. Due to the era that Sabuco was writing in and the philosophies presented in her book, it is inferred that before publication, her work had been somewhat edited by the church.

Sabuco's thesis was "...there was a close connection between the soul and the body, which, if properly understood, would enable humans to control and improve their health and thus extend their lives." (Waithe, 265) Her ideas of human nature were based in the "interdependence of soul, body, and cosmos." Furthermore, she believed that there were three parts to human nature, which were the purely physical, the intellectual, and the moral. Sabaco goes on to say that there are three kinds of souls, vegetative, sentient, and rational. This then is constructed into a hierarchy stating that plants have "vegetative" souls, animals have "vegetative" and "sentient" souls, while humans have all three of these souls. This theory of souls creates her argument that human nature includes both the passions and mental being, but like Aristotle, she claims that there is moderation in both. The idea of imagination also plays a big role in her theory of human nature and psychology. Sabuco believed that imagination was good for one's well-being and that it was a way of avoiding boredom, which is bad for health. She recognized though, that we must "temper our imagination so that we cannot fool ourselves as to what is real." (Waithe, 272) Unlike Descartes who thought evil and sensory perceptions were the most common causes of self-deception, Sabuco thought this was letting one's imagination carry them away from reality and imagination could become a faulty coping mechanism. She goes on to propose emotions that she believed to cause illness or in extreme cases, death. Then also explains emotions that would better one's well-being. Sabuco also touches on concepts of biology in animals and anthropology to explain her ideas on medicine, while also discussing morality in the practice of medicine. She believes that wisdom provides the way for humans to become happy and healthy beings.

Personal Response

I find it amazing that a woman of this era was able to have such an impact on an area of study such as medicine, while doing it through a forum (philosophy) that is today still dominated by men. Also, that she influenced such a significant philosopher as Descartes. Although her education is questioned, as to whether she studied under her father or another practitioner of medicine, she claimed that her education was given to her by god. This too I find interesting given her more scientific look at medicine and human nature. I thought her beliefs on imagination and how it can be used to promote health as well as destroy one's reality was her most interesting idea. She wrote, "the experience of reality is less meaningful alone than when it is combined with the emotional experience of reality. Unlike the cognitive experience, the passionate experience can make a person happy, and physically and mentally well." This also explains her thought that human nature is a balance of the passionate and the rational; who I think speaks to many people as we experience the world and later reflect on its value.


Chapter 11: “Olivia Sabuco de Nantes Barrera” of A History of Women Philosophers: Medieval,Renaissance and Enlightenment Women Philosophers A.D. 500-1600 by Mary Ellen Waithe

Birgitta of Sweden


Birgitta Suecica, or Birgitta of Sweden, (1302-1373) was born to Birgerus and his wife Ingeborg, who were both nobility. Just before Birgitta was born, her mother nearly lost her life in a shipwreck, but instead saw a vision in which an angel told her she was saved to have a daughter who would be a mouthpiece for God. From a very early age Birgitta began seeing visions of Mary and Christ, as well as the trinity and heaven. She desired to become a nun as a child, but her parents forced her to marry at age 13. She was married for 29 years in which she had eight children and practiced heavy asceticism (often depriving herself of food, burning herself with a candle, and living in continence except for purposes of reproduction). After the death of her husband, Birgitta's piety earned her much respect. She founded a convent opened a few hospitals in which she herself served as a nurse to the sick and poor. She was canonized in 1391. 

Birgitta also viewed herself as a “prophet” speaking political direction from God to the monarchs, as well as pointing out corruption within the church and monarchies. She also tried to reconcile the Pope and the Germanic Kings; she was successful in convincing Charles IV and Pope Urbanus V to reconcile in 1368, though few of her other attempts were successful.

In addition to her confident activism in the political sphere, Brigitta is most know for her visions. Through Brigitta’s visions it is clear that she has a thorough understanding of scripture. Her Revelationes, Sermo Angelicus, and The Orationes, (which serve as prayers, devotionals and lectures) are her most know works in which she conveys her doctrine on Mary, her concept of God, her Doctrine of the Trinity, her concept of human nature, and her political thought as given to her from God. She holds somewhat unique views claiming that God created man for no reason other than to make people who could share in His eternal joy, not because he needed man. She also wrote of the complete unity of the trinity as one and three with one eternity, one power and one glory. In her thoughts on human nature, she writes that the body was created to serve the soul and that through work, man can receive the honor of the angels. She also believed in predestination. Finally, her views on political thought revolve around the notion that Kings were put in place because man would not obey God alone, and that Kings must be just and charitable in all governing and decision-making.

Her most notable views include her extensive Mariology, in which she writes of visions of Mary as a counselor and advisor to all within the Catholic Church (widowed, virgin, happily married, etc.), and worshiped as the perfect and beloved-by-God virgin Queen of Heaven, second only to God himself. She also writes of Mary’s life on earth. Birgitta’s visions differ from the masculine dominated views of the time in that she portrays Mary as an intelligent, confident and active figure among the scriptures, teaching the apostles and serving and ministering to people alongside Jesus. While Aquinas held a view of Mary as passive and unintelligent, Birgitta’s Mary is a much stronger and more influential figure.

Personal Response

What I found most interesting about Birgitta was her passion and confidence. While she often denied herself, she gave everything she had (monetarily and physically) to serve others and to share the message of God. Also, it was noted in the introduction to this book that many women were seen as prodigies and marveled at for their knowledge while they were young and before having a family, but Birgitta accomplished much and earned the respect, or at least the ear of many powerful figures, even after raising a family of her own. While her heavy concentration on the study and worship of Mary outweighs much of the other literary work she produced, I found it interesting and refreshing that she was able to put forward her ideas despite the male-dominated sphere. She presented Mary as an encouragement and role-model to all women within Catholicism. Not only was Birgitta’s Mary perfectly pious and pure, she was intelligent and confident in serving God alongside men, even Christ. It seems Birgitta aimed to reflect Mary in her own life.


Chapter 8 "Birgitta of Sweden" by Cornelia Wolfskeel, of A History of Women Philosophers: Medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment Women Philosophers A.D. 500-1600 by Mary Ellen Waithe 

Hildegard of Bingen


Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179A.D.) was the youngest of ten children of a noble in Germany. From a young age, Hildegard saw light phenomena and experienced visionary impressions. Unlike other women of her time, this was uniquely Hildegard, as these inner visions contributed to her works in the coming years. Calling Hildegard a philosopher would be problematic. She is seen most often as a visionary, her works seen as visionary literature. Alois Dempf associates Hildegard with German historical symbolism. It was a historical-philosophical movement that separated all pre-Christian and Christian history into periods and had symbolic typological connections between them. Since women were prohibited to freely criticize and question certain issues in public, the way around it was through mystical writing. Hildegard took great care in her works to conceal her own interpretations as inquiries of the word of God. Hildegard as well as other women used the negative portrayal of women by male theologians and philosophers to justify women’s position of the weaker person as being the voice for God.
Scivias, Hildegard’s most famous work, produces her fundamental conviction of the mutual integration of Creation and history of salvation. In her vision of the universe, Hildegard makes use of the Ptolemaic concept of the world. The vision, however, modified Ptolemy’s concept by referring to the world as an egg (a female symbol.) As well as stating that Earth was men’s abode, and the yolk and the center of the universe. From Hildegard’s overall salvation-orientated perspective, it could be seen that she was fully aware of the consequences of human actions that are for or against God. Her overall outlook was far more optimistic and realistic, in relation to the criticisms of the time and warnings of corrupt human behaviors. Scivias and Hildegard’s other works used feminine symbols such as the moon and the city as well as Synagogue and Church to represent her own body as a vehicle of spiritual connection with God. 

The second work by Hildegard focused on the ethics in the Middle Ages, the struggle of virtues and vices. Shown as visionary, Hildegard illustrated vices, which must be overcome by the soul over and over again, as combinations of animal and human body parts. Virtues were contradictions to the vices. According to Hildegard, virtue and the Holy Spirit in men are united and the connection could not be analyzed any more closely. Hildegard wrote about more than ethics and theology, but also about the nature of the human individual in a world with God. In most of her works, Hildegard continuously inserted the idea that the power of women came from their weakness and their association with God; as well as the claim of men being weak due to their strength.  

Personal Response

Hildegard dabbled in theology, eschatology, ethics, nature, gender, and the cosmos. When talking about the image of God in men, she was careful to not confine God in one gender and to make a distinction of gender when it came to God. She was very conscious in the labels and the inferiority complex placed on women during the Middle Ages. In all her works, she tried to justify women being on the same plane as men, not inferior to them. More than that, she showed the positive in the weakness of women and the negative in the strength of men. I am not sure whether that would help in elevating women or at least leveling the playing field between men and women. Instead of showing the strengths of a woman, she showed that a woman’s weakness is great, positive, and powerful in its own right. I had not thought about it that way but this view allows women to embrace their own selves and not be inferior to men.
I am extremely interested in Hildegard as a visionary, a person who can see visions of the future. It seems more magical and fantastical than reasonable and concrete. Yet, her visions allowed Hildegard to create and to connect with philosophy and knowledge. Using visionary writings as a mask to her responses against the Church and commenting philosophically on issues was ingenious. It shows Hildegard was an intelligent and bright woman despite her lack of education. Yet, how much philosophy could be interpreted from writings deemed mystical? Were Hildegard's intentions to write about ethics and theology or did they happen to connect? How many other women during this time had to hide their own thoughts and interpretations in God, losing their true ideas?


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Murasaki Shikibu


Murasaki Shikibu (970-1031 A.D.) lived in Japan during the Heian period. She was the daughter of a minor court official and a court lady of the Fuiwara clan. Though forbidden to women at the time, Murasaki learned Chinese form her father, mastering it more quickly than her brother. This opened many doors for her, including access to more texts and learning. Early on in life, she hid her learning due to her culture's attitude that educated women were proud (in a negative sense). But eventually she would tutor the Empress Shoshi and various other high-ranking women at court in academic matters, including Chinese. Murasaki Shikibu is thought to be a nickname of sorts; her real name is unknown.

Her philosophical contributions come to us through her literary work. Primarily, her Genji Monogatari, a novel that examines many philosophical and religious issues through the narrative story of the story's female protagonist (Ukifune), is considered part of Japanese classical literature. Genji Monogatari deals with determinism, free will, society, religion, predestination, and cultural perspectives on women. Murasaki has Ukifune seek enlightenment and self-direction in a culture where women were considered a lesser form and were not able to influence their own destinies. Her work is complex and unique considering her time and culture.

Personal Response

Murasaki's story was unlike anything I expected to read during this time period. Much of what I've read and studied in college stems from the Western tradition. But Murasaki was a Japanese woman who seems to have dealt with many of the same issues in her own culture far away from European influence. In her time the primary religion was combination of a Shinto and Buddhism. I found the similar challenges of Murasaki surprising. She faced prejudice for her learning, and religion was used to limit the education of women during her time.

Murasaki is a somewhat nontraditional philosopher because her contribution to philosophy is mainly literary. She wrote her philosophy in the form of a story rather than an essay, but she still managed to convey deeply philosophical arguments. By having her protagonist, Ukifune, not truly fit within Japanese society Murasaki suggests that the society's perspective of women does not provide a coherent worldview for women.

I enjoyed discovering that Murasaki did not limit her content to challenging sexist views of women. She covered things such as existentialism, death, reincarnation, objectification, and freedom. All of this was done through a narrative. My impression of Murasaki based on this reading is that she was a thoughtful, intelligent woman who was fortunate enough to have access to education in a time where it may have been withheld.


Chapter 1 "Murasaki Shikibu" of A History of Women Philosophers: Medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment Women Philosophers A.D. 500-1600 by Mary Ellen Waithe