Chris Meyns

Too Much Biography in Feminist History of Philosophy?

Why do men overpopulate most lists of who’s hot in philosophy? Why, when asked to name your five favourite philosophy books, somehow names of philosophy men so easily come to mind? Of course this question has an easy, albeit elaborate, answer. We can simply point to the myriad of ways in which women have been systematically prevented from doing work in philosophy, not being given adequate credit for work they did do, and having had to prove themselves over and over again, working around the persistent tendency to downplay their achievements.

In a recent article, professor Jessica Gordon‐Roth and professor Nancy Kendrick point to what they identify as an overlooked contributing factor, namely how women philosophers are discussed within feminist history of philosophy. Philosopher-historians who aim to undermine the ‘myth’ that the past contained no women philosophers discuss those philosophers of the past with an extensive focus on biographical detail (‘Recovering Early Modern Women Writers’, 2019). Such a biographical focus will distract from philosophical contribution and frustrate women philosophers being admitted into the philosophical canon.

I reconstruct the problem they see for feminist history of philosophy as follows:

  1. If one includes extensive biographical detail in scholarship on a philosopher, then one distracts readers from the content of that person’s philosophical work.
  2. If one distracts readers from the content of someone’s philosophical work, then readers will associated the author discussed with things other than philosophical content.
  3. If readers associated the author discussed with things other than philosophical content, then that readers will not see the authors discussed as a philosopher.
  4. If readers do not see an author as a philosopher, then that person’s work will not be included in the philosophical canon.
  5. Much scholarship on texts by early modern women philosophers includes large amounts of biographical detail.
  6. Hence, much work by women philosophers will not be included in the philosophical canon.

Professors Gordon-Roth and Kendrick maintain that (5) is true for contemporary scholarship on early modern women philosophers. To support this, they mention patterns of ‘overpersonalizing’ the discussion of texts by early modern women, by including extensive, and (in their view) irrelevant biographical details—such as about someone’s health, headaches, finances, or what happened to their body after death—without such details being conducive for actually understanding that person’s ideas. “When commentators focus on the personal,” Gordon-Roth and Kendrick write, “they miss the philosophical.” (p. 278) They conclude that the practice “… can pose a serious challenge to the project of expanding the canon to include texts by early modern philosophers.” (p. 282).

Naturally, as a historian and philosopher committed to accuracy about philosophy’s past, I feel professors Gordon-Roth and Kendrick’s project close to my heart. And I doubt that any scholar who writes on early modern women philosophers would want their work to actively contribute to the exclusion of precisely those philosophers. For this reason I am keen to engage with their article by offering a constructive critique.

Novelty factor?

Why mention biographical details in the first place when discussing a philosophical text? To understand the philosophical past you need to know its basic framework of events. Who said what? To whom? When and where they they say it? How, exactly? And what were the consequences? That these questions matter to historians has ramifications for imparting historical understanding.

Science communication 101 will tell you to know your audience. Anyone writing for a non-niche journal or speaking at a broader event on a philosopher who is not (yet) in the mainstream, does well to fill in their audience with that amount of contextual information that allows them to place this philosopher’s work. Of course, in some cases a scholar chats with others who already are experts on their favourite early modern thinker, but in my experience this is the exception. Background information a general audience requires typically involves at least some features of the philosopher’s life. Professors Gordon-Roth and Kendrick acknowledge as much when they note that “[w]hen we are working to understand texts written hundreds of years ago, of course contextual details are needed” (p. 273).

I know how important such tailoring to audience is. When in 2016 I gave a talk on Margaret Cavendish’s metaphysics, I still (appropriately or not) gave her bio at the start of the talk. In another such talk in 2018 I no longer did this, because by then I could assume that my audience would probably have heard of her work. However, last month my talk on Rose Rand again included extensive biographical info, because I didn’t expect people in the audience to know anything about her. (Incidentally, I also included a lot of my own story about encountering Rand’s work in the Archives of Scientific Philosophy at Pittsburgh. Presumably this will make me come across as less of a philosopher?)

Tailoring the amount of biographical information to one’s audience is not just a feature of histories of early modern women. It is a more general practice when discussing philosophers who are less familiar. For example, in scholarship on Anton Wilhelm Amo (c. 1703-c. 1750, and a man) I encountered the same pattern: so much of the early scholarship mainly lingers on features of Amo’s life, without going much into the details of his philosophy. (Christine Damis already complains about this characteristic of Amo scholarship in 2002.) In articles I wrote on Amo in 2019a and 2019b, I included basic biographical information, because I expected only a limited set of readers to be familiar with this philosopher. In 2022 I probably (hopefully) will no longer have to do this.

So might the amount of biographical information included in a text be a function, not primarily of gender, but of what level of background knowledge authors expect their readership to have? If this is correct, then when an author is not yet very well known, or at least not to a particular audience, then a discussion of their work will be more likely to include biography than when they’re already everybody’s darling. And if work by women has been relatively excluded from mainstream philosophy, then the women are more likely to fall into the category of being less familiar. And so it should be entirely understandable that articles about their work focus more on biography than in a more ideal circumstance.

Now I present all of this as a conjecture. Perhaps there’s a good reason for including biographical data? Which brings me to my second, methodological point.

Stats, please

Scholarship on texts by early modern women philosophers, professors Gordon-Roth and Kendrick maintain, contains a disproportionate amount of biographical material. It’s just too much. It is such an exaggerated pre-occupation with their private lives that prevents these philosophers from being included in the philosophical canon.

However, the evidence for the phenomenon they allege remains somewhat thin. We get no figures on what proportion of a text gets dedicated to biographical information in articles on early modern men. No statement follows on how that proportion differs in pieces on work by women. All support comes in the form of examples of (admittedly) egregious personal info included in discussions of women’s work, plus the assurance that “personal details most often do not make it in to our analyses of early modern men’s writings” (p. 273). But how much less often? It remains guesswork, and yet there is no need for this research question to go unaddressed systematically by scholars of the history of philosophy.

Further, given that the central claim about the relative prominence of biographical information in scholarship on early women and men is a comparative one, Gordon-Roth and Kendrick should get the comparison class right. Suppose that, as I conjectured, how well known a philosopher is to an audience (in part) determines the amount of biographical details that get introduced. If so, then the right comparison class is not scholarship on big name hot shots such as Descartes, Kant or Locke—the early modern philosophy bros presented by professors Gordon-Roth and Kendrick. These authors already have centuries of scholarship accumulating on their backs. Audiences, even non-philosophical ones, have heard their stories. Instead, the comparison class would have to centre on those early modern men which can be expected to be equally (un)familiar to readers as the early modern women at issue. Philosophers not (yet) part of the common intellectual framework (such as Amo, and there will be others). Such comparison will show any disparity in the extent to which biographical information figures in scholarship on each of these groups.

Psychology sauce

A third point to note concerns the actual uptake of all this biographical information. The article by Gordon-Roth and Kendrick draws on, but does not really back up with evidence, assumptions about the psychological or sociological effects that including biographical information in history of philosophy scholarship would have. For example, they write the following:

“When we give over several paragraphs of an article, or several minutes of a talk, to describing Conway’s health and family life (…) our audience can begin to think that there is not much of philosophical interest to be found in the texts of women like Conway and Cockburn.” (p. 276)

But do they?

“… we can trigger biases in our audiences through these introductions. They may then think that what these women express in their texts is not philosophical.” (p. 276)

But will they?

“… the mere repetition of the biographical information amounts to a reintroduction, which can affect readers negatively.” (p. 277, footnote 10)

But does it? Later on, with a simple mention of biases but without reference to specific psychological or sociological studies, the hypothetical shifts to the categorical:

“… there is a tendency to foreground early modern women philosophers in our treatment of their texts. This not only triggers our audiences to think that whatever early modern women writers are up to is not all that philosophical; it can also cause us to fall into this same trap.” (p. 279)

Again, how do we know that it does?

The matter is empirical and the situation is far from uncomplicated. Consider, biographical information could equally well figure as something of a mnemonic; a striking fact or detail as a device for the audience to remember one’s story better. Increased memorability may in turn help getting these philosophers on the map. So perhaps the bios help after all?

I have no reason to positively doubt that women and their work are perpetually excluded, ignored, and downplayed, or that strategies of deflection from their intellectual achievements often play a role in such practices. Still, as far as hypotheses go, including biography in scholarship might make audiences regard them as not really a philosopher, or it might have the opposite effect of making their philosophical work more memorable. It would be good to know: Which is it?

Why a canon?

Besides all this, to my mind there is something unattractive about the way that professors Gordon-Roth and Kendrick frame their inquiry. Their main concern is the project of “eradicating the myth that there are no women in the history of philosophy” (p. 269). Yes, exactly! However, they present the result of this as a situation in which we are “expanding the canon”.

A canon for philosophy, as I understand it, is an unordered list of works that the discipline collectively considers to be of such merit that it is worthy of study (this fits professors Gordon-Roth and Kendrick’s characterisation of a canon as “the collection of accepted works within any given field”, p. 269). People, as opposed to texts, can be organised on a list like this by proxy, as authors of such works.

Canons thus understood should be distinguished from the type of ordered list which one gets with a ranking or popularity contest. Evidence on which philosophers were most frequently published on in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy (cited in the article) hence does not tell us much about canons. It just flags up some disciplinary fashions.

That philosophers could take a popularity contest for a canon is nonetheless telling. It reveals something about how the tool of a canon often functions. While not strictly part of the definition, so often canons wriggle themselves into the guise of the set of works in a field that is of the highest ‘quality’ (whatever that is). Or, wait for it, works that are ‘classics’, ‘greats’ or ‘of genius’. Questions about ‘quality’ in philosophy are notoriously slippery; criteria for quality shift at the whim of whoever is allowed to assign it. (In light of the perceived importance of a ‘canon’ for philosophy, it’s no surprise, really, that philosophy — along with maths — is one of the fields in which the ‘genius myth’ is notoriously persistent; a myth which has been argued may be keeping women out.)

The tool of the ‘canon’, as I see it, is nothing other than such a slippery popularity contest reified. Its racialized, gendered lens of ‘the great works and their authors’ asks women as well as men not aligned with standard framing of European philosophical tradition to queue up, and apply to be admitted. (‘Thank you for your application. We regret to inform you…’) Yes, it is a myth that there were no women philosophers in the early modern period. But in combating that myth, why hold on to one of its preferred tools of enforcement?

I take professors Gordon-Roth and Kendrick’s article as a prompt for alertness. Work by women has been, and most likely will continue to be, put away as not serious, not ‘real’ philosophy, as lacking intellectual agency—this it true in history, in philosophy, in history of philosophy, as in life. Of course, when discussing early modern women’s philosophical work, we do well not to linger unreasonably on their health or finances. I hope the comments offered here will help clarify exactly what project we want to embark on, and why.