Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Rara Avis

It is exhausting to read a book by a philosopher writing for philosophers—which describes a book I’ve just finished, José Antonio Antón-Pacheco’s The Swedish Prophet. Paragraph’s bristle with abstract references to countless philosophical traditions, usually in abbreviated form, so that to tease out the meanings intended, one must be an absolute master of those philosophies. But this only by way of introduction.

The experience caused me to look up, to be sure for the hundredth time, what schools like phenomenology and existentialism really mean. That I have to do this, despite having read all of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling at least twice and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and about half of Heidegger’s Being and Time—and once spending an afternoon with Brigitte in the long ago, studying, together, the first paragraph of Husserl’s Logical Investigations (a fun afternoon mostly filled with laughter), is at least suggestive of the character of modern philosophy.

Anyway, while reading articles on these subjects in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I was startled to come across a woman, Simone de Beauvoir. My God, a female philosopher. I looked her up in turn and discovered that her full name is Simone-Ernestine-Lucie-Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir—thus multiplying her female presence by having several first names—but what is Bertrand doing there? I know the name, of course—but it wouldn’t have surfaced had I searched my memories for a female philosopher. The only one I’ve ever read, cover to cover, with great concentration, was Hannah Arendt (her The Human Condition). Arendt is associated with Heidegger, but she is readable. The other name, of recent acquisition thanks to a series on Siris, was that of Lady Mary Shepherd.

One thing triggers another. I tried a Google search on the phrase “female philosophers.” I got this Wikipedia listing (link). To tell you the truth, I was surprised to see so many. Wikipedia lists exactly a hundred. The ladies I’ve named are there—and in the center there is Hildegard of Bingen. Among the famous women in history she is the one I admire most, although I think of her as a poet, composer, and mystic.

The earliest of these is Themistoclea (600 BC), the woman who taught Pythagoras—and his fame, presumably, kept her name alive. She was also known as Aristoclea—and sure enough Wikipedia also has her on the list, separately, so that the list is actually 99 names long. That pleased me. Somehow it is much more fitting that this list should end on a more oracular number, as it were.


  1. Beauvoir's *The Ethics of Ambiguity* is a pretty good book -- it does assume some basic background in philosophy (particularly in Section I), but it's fairly short (about 160 pages), more straightforward, and more interesting to read than any of Sartre's works. Section I can be a bit tough to get through, because she relates existentialism to a whole bunch of different philosophical positions in rapid-fire succession, but Section II and III are well worth reading.

    Sartre gets all the credit, but in many ways I think Beauvoir was the superior philosopher.