Women and ancient philosophy revisited

Posted on 6 July 2013

A while back there was a discussion about including female philosophers in the podcast; this has inspired me to add a chapter to the first volume of the book version, which will be about women and ancient philosophy. I was wondering what people would encourage me to cover in this chapter. (The first volume goes only up to Aristotle, but I can look ahead a bit to the Hellenistic and late antique periods which will be the subject of volume 2.) Obviously I will talk about the female philosophers of whom we know. A good source on this I found is:

M.E. Waith, A History of Women Philosophers: Volume 1, 600 BC-500 AD (Dordrecht: 1987).

Although in some ways it's disappointing since the evidence for the women philosophers is so thin; very striking is that nearly all the preserved quotations from these thinkers have to do with marital relations and the like. Male authors don't seem to have thought it was worth taking note of female thinkers' ideas on any other topics.

Apart from that I thought I would discuss a bit more (though I already talked about this in the original scripts) Plato's and Aristotle's ideas on women, and look ahead to other (male!) thinkers with something to say about women, like Musonius Rufus. The Stoics are very interesting on this actually. Another idea I'm mulling over is that Platonism goes well with the idea of gender equality since the immaterial soul may not have any gender and that is the true self... at least Plato, in the Myth of Er, talks about the possibility of male-female transmigration. Another reading could be that he assumes that the soul is effectively "male" but might spend some time in female bodies. Would also be worth thinking about what the Neoplatonists might say about this... in ancient Christianity there is an analogous issue when it comes to the resurrection of the body (will we have gender in our resurrected form? will we have sex? These are issues that Augustine talks about quite a bit for instance).

And then I also wanted to discuss at least a little bit the idea that feminist thinking could take inspiration or resources from ancient texts, for instance there is some interesting stuff on Aristotle's lack of a strong opposition between reason and emotion, and on whether his theory of friendship could be adapted for use in feminist thought.

Any other ideas?

Lisa Shapiro 6 July 2013


It's wonderful that you are planning to do this, and the array of strategies you propose gives an inkling about how much the discussion of the history of philosophy can be opened up when one starts to think about how to fill in gaps. Really wonderful stuff!
I am not well versed in the writings of ancient and hellenistic women, but there are a number of interests of early modern women that could be fruitful to set up by discussing the earlier writings on similar topics (whether or not earlier women wrote about them) -- this goes to your last point:
(1) Plato's ladder of desire gets picked up by a number of early modern women in an effort to link up beauty and reason (and thereby demonstrate women's rationality) (see Lucrezia Marinella and Mary Astell, for instance).
(2) education is a dominant theme in the writings of early modern women
(3) utopias -- the imagining of a perfect political order which affords women political power -- another dominant theme
(4) friendship -- a number of early modern women take friendship as a model relationship on which political relationships can be modeled.

Shay Welch 6 July 2013


You'll have to forgive me but my brain is in about twenty places right now. However, I recall very recently reading somewhere a post? article? written by a woman who was mentioning that all of the history of philosophy women are typically categorized under/into Women's Studies/Gender Studies sections at libraries and book stores and that she rarely, if ever, is able to locate these philosophers in philosophy sections. So it may be of use to do some poking around in those areas to find these women. Off the top of my head, I remember her (cannot remember who)listing women such as Hypatia (and some other ancient ladies), Wollstonecraft, Taylor, and Goldman as women who were inappropriately excluded from the philosophy sections in both book stores and libraries. Maybe someone else might be able to recall this piece of writing if you send out a message. This is an important task and I, along with others, appreciate you taking it on; I only wish I could scramble up the source for you.

Shay Welch 6 July 2013


Additionally, depending on how "history" you want to get, many black women were writing and speaking theoretically and philosophically during slavery, etc. but are never accounted for in mainstream philosophy. Beverly Guy-Sheftall's book Words of Fire has a great anthology of such women and their speeches/writings. Moreover, there were a number of Native women doing similar public, political philosophy during the colonization of the Americas, and they most certainly are not accounted for in philosophy.

Kevin McGinnis 6 July 2013


I'm curious as to how you will treat this topic. To separate them off into their own chapter is to suggest that their is something that they all share in common and that they are not worth discussing in the otherwise male-dominated history. Why not include Hipparchia along with the other Cynics or Macrina with her Cappadocian brothers? In terms of ideas, these female philosophers represent different schools of thought that you otherwise don't bring together. Will you focus on the social history of female intellectuals, which probably IS somewhat static across time and space? Or on the role of women in utopian philosophical literature?

If I were doing this, I would probably include them along with their various schools and also do a separate discussion on women's access to higher education and the difficulties facing them in patriarchal societies.

Whatever you decide, thank you again for doing us all such an amazing service!!

Steve Cooke 6 July 2013


An interesting project. I think it'd be nice to see some evidence (and speculation) on the influence of Perictione on Plato.

Peter Adamson 6 July 2013


Thanks for the responses so far! Just to clarify, I am only going to be talking in this chapter about the ancient world - I can tackle the role of women in other periods of philosophy as I go along.

By the way, I do talk about Macrina and Hypatia in scripted episodes which will appear in volume 2, they are podcast episodes 97 and 104 if you want to listen. Unless I'm misremembering I think the general topic is also discussed in the interview in episode 100.


Yes, I understood that -- I perhaps wasn't as clear as I might have been. I just meant to be suggesting themes which early modern women see themselves as connecting to their ancient predecessors (per your last point in the post). Insofar as this history is going to move forward, one can set out the themes that might well reappear in later times. So ancient thoughts on friendship might be interesting/relevant from the perspective of later thinkers, etc.

It also occurs to me that Renaissance women (like Marinella and de Gournay) spend a lot of energy arguing from authority, and they might well appeal an interesting array of women from the ancient and hellenistic periods. I can have a look, and get back to you if there is any one you haven't yet mentioned.

thanks again!


Thanks very much for the help! Actually looking ahead it would also be very helpful to have suggestions for medieval and renaissance women philosophers (preferably with a tip on what I should read from primary and secondary literature).

wileywitch 7 July 2013


Would it be an academic blunder to address the ways in which some ancient philosophers might have developed their philosophies within a male-dominated world view that they might have considered to be truth itself, limiting it's applications and relevance outside of the agora and ivied towers?

I see the importance of seeing historical work within its own contexts and seeing it's chronological development; but without a touch of historiography, I think, historical works tend to take on a carved in stone, somewhat authoritarian "great man" view that unfairly leaves other valuable works buried in the shadows or found wanting when they may be the most appropriate approaches to dealing with the contemporary world's problems.

Just a thought. I'm happy to hear that you're working on this and appreciate the difficulty of finding women's voices in the hallowed halls of near absolute male dominance in the history of philosophy.

Sandrine Berges 7 July 2013


Women in ancient philosophy:
Peter, I think that although there aren't a lot of texts to play with, there are ways of talking of women in ancient philosophy. Here are a few themes to start off with:
What was women's place in philosophical schools : Plato, Pythagoras, Aristotle and others.

What did a woman have to do in order to do philosophy : hetaera or foreigner? The strange case of Axiothea.

Aspasia : in the Menexenus, Plato claims she wrote Pericles'funeral oration and that she taught Socrates rhetoric.

Hipparchia and the cynics - their philosophy, as you point out in the podcasts, was mostly a way of life. And she did plenty that was challenging.
Secondly, I've posted a draft of a discussion of one of the texts in Waithe's book: Perictione's On the Harmony of Women, where I try to present the main philosophical themes. It's here: http://feministhistoryofphilosophy.wordpress.com/2013/07/07/history-on-…
I hope that helps!

Charlotte Witt 7 July 2013


Kathleen Wider's article "Women Philosophers in the Ancient Greek World: Donning the Mantle" (Hypatia 1 (1): 21-62) might be a useful resource for a discussion of women philosophers in antiquity. On the ways in which feminist philosophers might find resources in classical philosophy Penn State's Re-reading the Canon series has volumes on feminist interpretations of Plato and of Aristotle that cover a range of topics.
Thanks for including these topics and issues!
Charlotte Witt

Meredith Schwartz 8 July 2013


Margaret Urban Walker's 7th Chapter "Made a Slave, Born a Woman" from *Moral Understandings* Second edition, is very useful for thinking about who gets to "know" what about the identities of others. She points out that what is recorded as official 'knowledge' about women does not reflect what women themselves were saying, and only reflects certain women's experiences.

Adriel Trott http://utpa.academia.edu/AdrielTrott has some interesting interpretations of ancient philosophers.

Laura Grams 9 July 2013


All your ideas above sound good, but I am especially interested in the lives of women who philosophized in the ancient world. So if at all possible, I'd like to hear more about women like Arete the Cyrenaic and Hipparchia. Why is Diotima a woman, and was she a fictional character? What about Aspasia, perhaps especially as Plato presents her? What do we know about the women in Epicurus' school, and the significance of their presence there?

Parrhesiastes 10 July 2013


Rabia Basri from 7th century - the first female sufi and arguably the first female philosopher from Islamic world.

Clara Acker 4 October 2013


Dear Peter, your idea is a very good and important one. I've been working on Women and Ancient Philosophy for more than 20 years now. I've just published "Femmes, Fêtes et Philosophie en Grèce Ancienne" in France with nine artcles concerning this subject. Perhaps it can give you some more light about the subject. All the best,

Clara Acker
Professor of Ancient Philosophy - University of Brasilia

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