How Feminism Is Re-writing the Philosophical Canon (Summary)
Professor Charlotte Witt

Cynthia suggested I summarize "How Feminism is Rewriting the Philosophical Canon" which she has also kindly put on the web. I'm going to simply summarize the paper, and leave my second thoughts for another post.

Introduction: I use a quote from Rorty and Skinner to establish the idea that canons are formed to justify, and to villify, current philosophical viewpoints. They have in mind the split between continental and analytic philosophers. Can feminist philosophers working on the canon be categorized in this way? I note the (unintentional) sexism in the Rorty and Skinner quote and then talk about two special problems that we have looking at the history of philosophy: exclusion and denigration. I end the introductin by asking who "we" are, and suggesting that feminists have read the canon with different ideas of who "we" are: women, the feminine and feminists. I return to this issue in my conclusion.

Section One: I describe feminist readings of the canon that challenge its derogatory characterization of women. These are of three kinds: (i) readings that record the explicit misogyny of "great" philosophers (ii) readings that argue for gendered interpretations of theoretical concepts (like form and matter in Aristotle) and (iii) synoptic interpretations of the canon (like the view that reason and objectivity are gendered male in the history of western philosophy--Lloyd and Bordo). COMMENT: My category of synoptic interpretations maps pretty closely onto Rorty's geistesgeschichte.

Section Two: I discuss the response of feminist philosophy to the myths that there are no women philosophers or, in any case, no important ones. One response has been the retrieval of women philosophers for the historical record; another has been the elevation to the canon of greats (maybe just goods) women philosophers like Wollstonecroft, Arendt and Beauvoir.

Section Three: I examine the way that feminist philosophers have been engaged in rereading the canon looking for antecedents to feminist philosophy in the thought of those philosophers (e.g. Hume) and those theories (e.g. Aristotle's virtue ethics)that are most congenial to current trends in feminism or which provide the most fuel for feminist thought. This is to use the canon as other movements have done--as a resource, and as confirmation that a feminist perspective or problem is securely rooted in our philosophical culture.

Conclusion: I focus on the fact that feminists read and evalute the canon differently. I suggest that the multiplicity of feminist readings of the history of philosophy is rooted in, and reflects, different understandings of what feminism is, what its theoretical commitments should be, and what its core values are.

My summary, alas, leaves out all the feminist work I discuss or mention. For that, you need to go to the web.

Note on the Author: Charlotte Witt ( is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire.

Go to Witt Article Full Text

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