Does Philosophy Have a Woman Problem?

HOW TO THINK LIKE A WOMAN: Four Women Philosophers Who Taught Me How to Love the Life of the Mind, by Regan Penaluna

To the sexist’s classic question, What do women want?, we might add a modern corollary: What do women think about? Do they brood about the internet’s effects on fiction, as one of my graduate school classmates does? Or are they consumed with worry about the evils of the criminal justice system, as one of my best friends is? Or are they intrigued by the relationship between perception and knowledge, as one of my favorite professors is? From a brief and entirely unscientific survey of women I know, I feel comfortable concluding that there is no single way of “thinking like a woman” — except insofar as most women think it is irritating that they are assumed to think alike.

Regan Penaluna, the author of “How to Think Like a Woman: Four Women Philosophers Who Taught Me How to Love the Life of the Mind,” sometimes seems to agree that there is no such thing as the female mind. She chafes at the suggestion that women are intrinsically caring and rejects the idea that they are naturally ill-suited to rational pursuits. It is suspicious, then, that the main point of connection among the four thinkers she has chosen to write about, or at least the one that she stresses, is simply that each is female.

Of course, “How to Think Like a Woman” is more than a resuscitation of early modern philosophers who have been unjustly excised from the canon because of their sex. It’s also an indictment of sexism in contemporary academic philosophy, as well as a memoir. The weakest sections of the book follow Penaluna’s rocky path through graduate school at an unnamed institution as she loses confidence in her abilities, marries, divorces and abandons her field for a career as a journalist, posing wispy rhetorical questions along the way. “Could I be in love and continue to build independence?” she wonders in the wake of her failed relationship.

If the personal reflections in “How to Think Like a Woman” are often mushy and maudlin, its portrait of philosophy’s misogyny is more firmly wrought. At times, Penaluna paints a rather uncharitable and distorted picture of the discipline. She claims that the pioneering early modern thinker Margaret Cavendish, the subject of a recent renaissance, has largely been written out of history, and that mainstream philosophy focuses primarily on Kant and his legacy, when in fact the ancient, medieval and early modern subfields are flourishing. But her general lament rings true.

She opens her account by recalling a professor in her Ph.D. program who instructed his students “to consider the possibility that women weren’t as smart as men.” Nearly every woman in the field has encountered some version of this remark, if not from a professor or mentor, then from a colleague. The reason that, as Penaluna notes, “there are fewer women in senior positions in philosophy than in any other field in the humanities and in many of the sciences as well” is that the skills that count as virtues in the discipline have traditionally counted as demerits in a woman: Good philosophers are probing, combative and intellectually aggressive, while good women, we are told, are demure, retiring and childlike. Most female philosophers will recognize with an intimate jolt the pain Penaluna experiences upon realizing that figures like Hegel and Aristotle would have regarded her as a servile helpmeet, unfit for the rigors of thinking.

Enter, then, the formidable women courageous enough to take on their detractors centuries before the advent of modern feminism. Penaluna pays homage to Mary Astell (1666-1731), who argued in favor of establishing an all-women’s college; Damaris Cudworth Masham (1659-1708), a friend (and sometime love interest) of John Locke and an adamant defender of human agency in a mechanistic universe (and female agency in a patriarchal society); Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97), best known of the four, who audaciously suggested that women might understand their own condition better than male observers; and Catharine Trotter Cockburn (1679?-1749), a playwright turned philosopher who attempted to reconcile “Locke’s empirical account of human understanding with the eternal soul.”

These women have strikingly similar stories, but what, if anything, unites their thought? We learn a great deal about the oppression they faced, which was of course considerable, and very little about the content of their philosophies. What Penaluna does have to say about their actual commitments is often shallow and cursory. Of Wollstonecraft’s prescient call for gender equality, she writes, “The feminist imagination reveals that you are not only what you are, but also what you can be.” Of Astell’s conception of autonomy, she notes, “For Astell and many other early modern philosophers, reason was essential to freedom. To follow the commands of someone else was to be not truly free” — a remark too generic to give us much sense of what was distinctive or influential about Astell’s approach, or what the stakes of early modern debates might be. On the one occasion when Penaluna delves more deeply into the argumentative sediment, analyzing Masham’s attack on the French philosopher Malebranche, she apologizes: “I may seem to be heading down the path of an obscure 17th-century debate.”

I wish she had hurtled further down that path, which might have revealed why Astell, Masham, Wollstonecraft and Cockburn belong together, not just as women, but as thinkers. As matters stand, however, Penaluna seems to have chosen them largely because their predicament recalls her own. She confesses as much. When she tells her adviser that she wants to focus on early modern female thinkers in her dissertation, he asks whether she is interested in “the ideas of these philosophers or the fact that they were women.” She replies, “Their ideas,” but reveals to us that “this wasn’t true. Almost from the moment I discovered these women philosophers, I’d set out on a separate, more personal inquiry that had nothing to do with my dissertation. I thirsted to know how they became intellectuals and what obstacles they faced as women.”

The emphasis on identity over ideas is underscored in a chapter devoted to female philosophers who have been oppressed throughout history (at least one of whom, Lady Murasaki, was actually a novelist, the author of “The Tale of Genji,” not a philosopher), including much biographical color but next to no discussion of their work. Of the one female member of her dissertation committee, Penaluna writes, “Her area of research was entirely different from my own, yet I was inspired by the fact that she was a smart, successful woman.” No further information about the woman’s research appears in the book.

In general, “How to Think Like a Woman” contains a lot of agonizing about philosophy but little philosophy itself. Penaluna never explains why she loves the field except in the most generic terms, so we never get any sense of what she stands to lose when she leaves. We might think it’s possible for a woman to cogitate outside of the academy, if not inside it, and that public intellectualism presents a kind of refuge, but the book, too, shies away from the business of argument. Three of its chapters are capsule histories made up of short anecdotes — one about sexist men in the history of philosophy, one about women in romantic relationships with celebrated male philosophers, one about overlooked female thinkers — from which no broader conclusions are drawn. The few hints at a theory do not cohere. “What do we ignore about Aristotle to take him seriously, for his legacy to endure? What must we ignore in ourselves?” Penaluna asks. But must we ignore anything? Is it really so difficult to grasp that the same person can have both good and bad thoughts simultaneously, and that we can reject the latter?

Penaluna reports that the harm she suffers when her professor asks if women are intellectually inferior is that she begins to suspect that she “wasn’t a thinker after all but rather a woman thinker.” In reducing four rich philosophers to mere avatars of their demographic, she commits the same offense. In the end, her identitarianism is so thoroughgoing that it comes to resemble the very essentialism she set out to reject. Not as a woman, but as a person, I think this is not how to think.

Becca Rothfeld is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Harvard and a contributing editor at The Point and Boston Review. Her debut essay collection, “All Things Are Too Small,” is forthcoming.

HOW TO THINK LIKE A WOMAN: Four Women Philosophers Who Taught Me How to Love the Life of the Mind | By Regan Penaluna | 296 pp. | Grove Press | $28

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