The treasure hunt for women philosophers

Shilouette of a women with a raised fist

The conference Non-Canonical Women in the Histories of Philosophy is the second part of our conference series on women philosophers in a global perspective. The ambition of this series is to recreate the knowledge of underrepresented women philosophers who have been left out of the canon up to this point. Priyanka Jha (Banaras Hindu University) talks about Indian women thinkers and the quest of reshaping intellectual histories. Un-Sunn Lee (Sejong University) presents critical perspectives on modernity and women of Korean Confucianism. Khimaja Connell (University of the West Indies) gives us an introduction to Caribbean women philosophers and Betty Wambui (State University of New York) shows us ideas of African women philosophers. The first conference Women Philosophers in the Process of Decolonization had a focus on feminist perspectives with presentations by Margaret McLaren, Shay Welch, Stephanie Rivera Berruz and Tiesha Cassel.  

Our research project, called “Histories of Philosophy from a Global Perspective”, headed by Prof. Rolf Elberfeld, is funded for five years by DFG, the German Research Foundation. We started in April 2019. The team consists of seven philosophy researchers, whose areas of specialization or interest cover African, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, feminist, race, and postcolonial philosophies. Our focus is to build a web-based database on the books written on the histories of philosophy in many languages, in order to provide an online forum for global philosophy to show that “philosophy” is and has always been, global and diverse. 

In 2021, we started to establish a theoretical foundation for our research on women philosophers by examining the structural causes that have led to the exclusion of non-European women thinkers, in order to overcome a tradition that has denied the intellectual competence of women in the system of domination throughout the history of colonization. 

Our goal is to find sources to reconstruct the knowledge of marginalized women philosophers who have been excluded from the canon until today. Looking into standard histories of philosophies of all regions of the world, raised naturally the question: Where are the women philosophers and their contributions? Why are they rarely or not at all included? 

It is striking that if philosophical works by women were mentioned, their achievements were often ridiculed. Many times it was doubted whether works originated at all from the women who claimed to be authors. For example, in the case of Phillis Wheatley we see that she had to prove her authorship of her book. The attempts that have been made to reconstruct philosophical writings by women have so far predominantly referred to the European and North American contexts, which shows that a philosophical opening on a global scale has not yet taken place to include non-European women and their achievements. This is not surprising, due to the short history of research on female philosophers on the one hand and on intercultural philosophy in general on the other hand.  

The focus on women in academic philosophical research has been primarily on European women philosophers, who often resisted oppression, stood up for women, and were able to make a difference through their assertiveness and courage. However, revolutionary women thinkers existed in all regions of the world, and the reconstruction of women thinkers of the global South who advocated for their gender through their philosophical activity in different cultures and languages fills a big gap within the works published on women philosophers. The need to explicitly research philosophically relevant texts by non-canonical female authors especially from Africa, Asia and Latin-America and the need to examine interrelated mechanisms of oppression lies in the fact, that there is huge lack of academic research on this topic. By searching for female theorists, who wrote in various languages on different continents, and by reconstructing their works on the basis of a philosophical perspective, we hope that they can become part of a future global historiography of philosophy.

Obviously – if one considers the publications and research projects on the topic to date – women have developed a greater sensitivity regarding the exclusion of their gender from the history of humanity in general and the history of philosophy in particular, and they have endeavored to reform the historiography of philosophy.

It became clear that a feminist historiography of philosophy faces a number of challenges, such as: 

  1. The reconstruction of a tradition that denied women the intellectual abilities of philosophizing.
  2. Overcoming a tradition in which basic philosophical concepts, such as reason, rationality, or objectivity, have gender-specific male and Western connotations.
  3. Investigating the structural causes that have led to the exclusion of women philosophers and their works from the canon. 
  4. Exploring methods and tapping sources for reconstructing the knowledge of women philosophers.
  5. Raising awareness of the powerful influences that patriarchy and colonization have on academic philosophy and its history.
  6. Basic research to find previously undiscovered women philosophers.

Having these challenges in mind, philosophers are currently becoming more aware of the problem of excluding women. Researchers like Ruth Hagengruber and Lisa Shapiro and their projects have shown that decolonial and intercultural awareness increased rapidly. The history of non-canonical women philosophers is a rich and diverse field, spanning many cultures, time periods, and philosophical traditions. The future of academic philosophy lies in the act of questioning dominant Eurocentric narratives, in rewriting the histories of philosophy and in raising critical questions on the intersection of race, gender, power structures and oppression. In conclusion, while the history of non-European and non-canonical women philosophers is a fascinating and versatile field, their contributions have often been marginalized or overlooked. It is necessary to continue to uncover and amplify their voices to ensure a more inclusive philosophical canon.

Non-Canonical Women in the Histories of Philosophy

Online Conference: March 16th and 17th 2023

Namita Herzl works as research assistant at the Reinhard-Koselleck-Project „Histories of Philosophy in a global Perspective“ at the University of Hildesheim. Her research focuses on women philosophers beyond the Eurocentric canon. Apart from her academic work, she is a menstrual artist, a lover of nature and a passionate singer. 

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Namita Herzl (2023, 10. März). The treasure hunt for women philosophers. Kontrapunkte. Abgerufen am 30. Mai 2024, von

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