The forgotten philosophers

The forgotten philosophers

Why is killing one’s enemies regarded as more important than raising children? This question was posed by the philosopher “Sophia” as early as the 1700s. “Feminist philosophy didn’t emerge in the 1960s. Questions like these have a long-standing tradition in the field,” says philosopher Tove Pettersen of the University of Oslo.

Writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). (Ill.: Wikimedia Commons)

“It is often thought that feminist philosophy emerged in the 1960s, but we can see a connection from the anonymous philosopher ‘Sophia’ in the 1770s, via Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor and Simone de Beauvoir, to today’s feminist philosophers. These thinkers have discussed roughly the ‘same’ philosophical questions – I put the ‘same’ in quotes because society itself has changed,” says philosopher Tove Pettersen.

Pettersen is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas at the University of Oslo. Her recently published book entitled Filosofiens annet kjønn (“Philosophy’s Other Gender”) presents an introduction to feminist philosophy.  In it she explores what philosophers throughout history have said about women, as well as highlighting several female philosophers and discussing modern feminist philosophy.

“Among other things, philosophy is about engaging in a dialogue with a scholarly tradition, and I want to draw connections to some of the forgotten female philosophers,” says the author.


Philosopher Harriet Taylor had radical ideas about politics and women’s issues. She did not publish widely under her own name, but she had an enormous impact on the writings of her friend John Stuart Mill, whom she later married. (Illustration photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Why aren’t they included?

Women are, in fact, found in philosophical history, even though they have not been included in the canon.

“It’s easy to believe that there were no female philosophers because women did not have the same access to universities and institutes of learning as men. But there were quite a number of female philosophers outside of academia, especially in the 1600s and 1700s.”

So why have they not been included in the canon? Pettersen rejects the notion that it is because the works written by women held little significance.

“Several of the women were well known in their time. Sophia’s essays were printed many times. Wollstonecraft and Catharine Trotter Cockburn were read and recognized, and they engaged in dialogue with male philosophers whose works are now part of the canon.”

“It’s easy to believe that there were no female philosophers because women did not have the same access to universities and institutes of learning as men.”

Pettersen also denies that these works were more poorly written than those included in the canon.

“To a certain extent, the women addressed other topics and wrote in different ways than many male philosophers. Not everything is relevant to current philosophical scholarship, and much of the material does not comply with the conventions of modern philosophy. But even women who did write in a traditional manner are not represented in the canon, whereas male philosophers who wrote in a non-traditional way are included regardless,” she explains.

Consequently, Pettersen believes that the reason these women have been dropped from the canon is precisely because they are women.

“The 1800s saw a change in the view of both the nature of philosophy and women. An intellectual woman was regarded as deviating from her gender, and women who expressed themselves in the public sphere were often harassed for their deviant personality rather than criticized for what they wrote. As a result, they were not read or mentioned, and their works were quickly lost,” she points out.

See also: History is still for men


Author and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). (Illustration photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Sought empirical evidence

Pettersen feels good about her choice to put Sophia on the syllabus for her bachelor’s students.

“Her work entitled Woman Not Inferior to Man from 1739 is extremely interesting. In it she criticizes the Enlightenment philosophers who believe that women are less rational and more controlled by their emotions than men.”

Sophia asks whether this view of women is based on rational arguments, and her answer is no: It is an expression of the feelings and prejudices of the men who make this claim. They are motivated by their own self-interest. There is no reliable empirical evidence that substantiates the truth of this claim either. How is it possible to observe which abilities women actually possess when they have been oppressed and denied an education for centuries, Sophia asks.

“She believes that her contemporary male philosophers are incompetent when they base their reasoning on such unfounded, false premises,” says Pettersen.

The researcher says that Sophia also addresses issues that are just as relevant for modern feminist philosophy as they were in the 1700s.

“How can it be that soldiers, who defend their country by taking life, are honoured, while women, who give life and raise children, are not valued in the same way? The same question is discussed in today’s feminist philosophy: Why hasn’t caregiving in the private sphere been analyzed and assigned value in moral philosophy?”

Moral philosophy only for the public sphere

Although it is possible to find traces of women in philosophical history, women’s traditional lifeworld is not found in the philosophical canon for the most part.

How is it possible to observe which abilities women actually possess when they have been oppressed and denied an education for centuries, Sophia asks.

“Men have dominated the public sphere and have put their focus there. But you can’t just take your point of departure in the thoughts philosophers have had about men and say that these apply to all people, as has been done in modern ethics. There are no longer different recommendations for how women and men should live, but there isn’t any discussion either about how a person should relate to the people closest to them,” Pettersen explains.

See also: “Drop the pen and pick up the needle!”

Lacking a language

As a result, modern feminist philosophy is seeking to establish an ethic that also applies to close relationships and to use experiences and practices traditionally associated with women as a starting point for ethical reflection.

“When reintroducing a sphere that has been missing, there is a question of what kind of language to use. For this reason many feminist philosophers are working on developing concepts,” Pettersen continues.

“Ethical issues often arise in asymmetrical relationships in which the actors are dependent on each other and the power relationship is skewed.”

One example of this is the concept of autonomy, which is important in moral philosophy.


Tove Pettersen. (Photo: Pax)

“Moral autonomy means that individuals have the right to self-determination and can take moral decisions independent of others. The question of whether women are just as autonomous as men has been frequently discussed in the history of philosophy. Now this is no longer a topic of discussion,” says Pettersen.

“But when this concept is applied to the private sphere, the situation becomes more complex. For instance, how much self-determination does a single mother with three children have? This shows that we need to reformulate the concept of autonomy so that it reflects the fact that people are often responsible for others, not just for themselves. This is difficult because there is a tension between being free and independent and being connected to others,” she continues.

“But is this possible to achieve?”

“Yes, absolutely! Simone de Beauvoir proposes one strategy. Her perspective is that the world is ambiguous; people cannot be described completely in dichotomies or polarities. We are not either free or connected to others – we are both at the same time. Therefore, our philosophical concepts must encompass this ambivalence.”

As an example, Beauvoir’s basic view was that human beings are free and can create themselves, but she gradually acknowledged that most women lived in a situation that placed many more limitations on them than men had.

“Her concept of freedom therefore took into account that the situation women find themselves in may limit their opportunities to use their freedom,” says Pettersen.

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Feelings included in ethics

The ethics of care is an important contribution by feministic thinkers to modern philosophy.

“This approach began as a critique of traditional thinking that viewed feelings and relationships as a disruptive element when moral decisions had to be taken,” says Pettersen.

Philosophers who work with the ethics of care are concerned that feelings are given a place in ethical thought, but they have different ideas about how this should be done.

“It is important to think about the role that feelings play, and should play, instead of keeping silent about them. Feelings are present when a person takes a moral action – how your actions affect those you are connected to might be more important than rules and principles for how you choose to act,” says the philosopher.

“The ethics of care takes into account that people do not always act like equal, independent parties to a contract. Ethical issues often arise in asymmetrical relationships in which the actors are dependent on each other and the power relationship is skewed,” Pettersen concludes.

Translated by Connie Stultz