Men Can Think. Apparently.

I’ve long had a question about male philosophers – well more than one actually, but I’ll focus on just one for now: To what extent, if any, should their personal lives and views be taken into account in considering the  reliability of their philosophies? For example, most – well, essentially all – of the pillars of Western philosophy were sexists who venerated “reason”, but thought women were incapable of it. Hegel, for instance, in The Philosophy of Right, wrote that: “Women are educated – who knows how? – as it were by breathing in ideas, by living rather than by acquiring knowledge. The status of manhood, on the other hand, is attained only by the stress of thought and much technical exertion.” (See Genevieve Lloyd’s “The Man of Reason: ‘Male’ & ‘Female’ in Western Philosophy” for more of the same.)

There are endless examples of quite outrageous sexism (and racism and other –isms) in the thinkers now considered to comprise the foundation of Western Philosophy, and yet somehow it doesn’t seem to matter. Why not? Because, it is said, they were ‘of their time’. The fact that philosophy is supposed to be about timeless truths seems not to matter in this particular instance. (One of the exceptions re male philosophers seems to be Heidegger, who is held to account for his Nazi sympathies. But it was OK to hate women and consider them intellectually deficient. No problem!)

My question is not an original one. Lots of people ask it, and unsurprisingly, most of them are women. And of course, feminist philosophers are still battling sexism in the field. (For example, there’s a campaign being waged by a group of feminist philosophers to try to ensure women are fairly represented at conferences and in published collections – it’s an uphill battle!)

But I did have one wee insight recently. If you’ve followed coverage/commentary about one of the greatest women philosophers of all time, Simone de Beauvoir, (author, of course, of The Second Sex, recently re-released in a superior new English translation — and the review linked to here I mostly disagree with, by the way) you’ve probably noticed that barely a review, commentary, article about her work goes by without reference to de Beauvoir’s relationship with Jean Paul Sartre. It seems her philosophy cannot be considered apart from the way she lived her life, who she slept with and the fact that she valued the opinion of a male.

So while the personal lives/views of male philosophers tend not to count, the same is certainly not true for their female counterparts. Sigh.

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