18/08/2011

Some day, people will say I didn't write my own books.

I've been digging into the x-chromosome side of the history of philosophy lately. As soon as my manuscript on Mary Wollstonecraft (without zombies) was off to the publishers, I started reading Christine de Pizan. Then I had a bright idea and went further back. I knew that Abelard was studied in courses on Medieval philosophy. What about Heloise, his correspondent? And then I went a bit further down.  Plato had female students - did any of them, or any other women in the ancient world, write anything philosophical?

I'd like to say I hit gold - but it would be slightly off the mark. There just aren't many writings by women philosophers before Christine de Pizan. And not many afterwards either until the seventeenth century, when every princess worth her salt started taking on Descartes, and a few English eccentrics wrote metaphysical treatises of their own. Then, gradually, there's an increase in the female branch of the family, and now we make up nearly 20% of the profession! Hurrah! In another three or four centuries, we might actually reach equal proportions. Never lose hope.

I've ranted before about why there aren't that many women philosophers, listing several reasons, none of them have to do with women not being good enough. But I think I may have come across yet another reason.

Reading up on the Abelard and Heloise literature, I found very little analysis of what Heloise had to say. Instead, authors questioned whether she'd written the letters herself. Was the whole correspondence a forgery from the author of Le Roman de la Rose? Or did Abelard himself concoct them as a publicity stunt? Some more generous commentators suggest that maybe Abelard discussed with Heloise what her fake responses might be before he wrote them. The thought that Heloise was a highly educated woman, who taught Greek, Latin and Hebrew to the nuns in the convent she ran, did not dampen the of those wanting to write her out of philosophical history.  Of course no one suggests that it's because she's a woman. No. It just so happens that the best use of some scholars' time is in coming up with arguments why Heloise couldn't have written these letters. It also turns out that these arguments don't hold much water - as a more careful scholar, John Marenbon, convincingly argues.

When I eventually located a text attributed to an Ancient Greek woman philosopher, I had the same experience. I quickly found myriads of poorly constructed arguments why she could not have written her own piece of philosophy. Granted, the writer bore the name of Plato's mum. Given there are no records of her being a philosopher, it stretches the imagination a bit far to think she was a well-known author. It doesn't stretch it as far to think she would have written a short text though, so I'm not sure it's worth getting one's knickers in a twist. But the texts themselves are discounted as forgeries by men writing some four centuries later. Again, the arguments are shoddy. And no one seems to even entertain the possibility that the forger, or pseudonymous writer, could have been a woman. I call it bad faith. I call it bad scholarship. I call it bad philosophy.

Telling 'Im indoors about all this at lunchtime, we pondered why and when this taking over of women's philosophical productions stopped. After all, he said, nobody is claiming that Wollstonecraft's or Simone de Beauvoir's books were written by men. I said that maybe that was because they were both active, public figures, who discussed their works with other writers, so that there could be no doubt about authorship. He replied that maybe these memories were still too fresh in our minds, but that a few centuries from now, people would again start questioning whether these works had not in fact been written by Godwin or Sartre.

Which brings me to the title of this post. How long till fragments of my books turn up in some archive and someone, bent on identifying obscure philosophers from the past decides that I couldn't have written them and attributes them to a male contemporary of mine? I suppose I won't be worrying about the royalties, then.

4 comments:

Roberta Wedge said...

Say it, Sandrine!

Have you looked into the case of Hypatia of Alexandria? "Many of the works commonly attributed to Hypatia are believed to have been collaborative works with her father, Theon Alexandricus, this kind of authorial uncertainty being typical for feminine philosophy in Antiquity." (The erudite German reference is cited in the Wikipedia article on Hypatia. Is there a way to embed URLs here?)

Her story was dramatised in the 2009 film Agora. I take that film as a possible model for my dream biopic about Mary Wollstonecraft. What other female philosophers would make great movies?

'Im Indoors said...

Well, I guess at least that lets me off the hook when it comes to book=writing.

Sandrine said...

'im indoors: I think you have to have your own books before you get attributed mine, so get back to work!

Roberta: thanks for the ref! I'll look up the article. I saw the film this summer though and wouldn't recommend it as a model for yours as it was rather dull...

Roberta Wedge said...

I didn't find Agora dull. Not only could I gaze upon Rachel Wiesz for hours entire, but the sacking of the library was good fun on the big screen! The film was rather sex-less, which Mary w's story obviously is not (except when bowdlerised for kiddies), but sex-less does not necessarily mean dull.

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