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Empowerment and Interconnectivity

Toward a Feminist History of Utilitarian Philosophy

Catherine Villanueva Gardner


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Empowerment and Interconnectivity

Toward a Feminist History of Utilitarian Philosophy

Catherine Villanueva Gardner

Empowerment and Interconnectivity is an important, finely reasoned, politely radical book that will be widely discussed. It makes a persuasive case that histories of philosophy need to be reconceived to ‘fit’ feminist philosophy rather than the other way around. Centering on methodological analyses, the book both honors and revitalizes a philosophical heritage of justice-seeking feminists no longer marginalized, even erased, from ‘patrimonial’ histories.”


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Feminist history of philosophy has successfully focused thus far on canon revision, canon critique, and the recovery of neglected or forgotten women philosophers. However, the methodology remains underexplored, and it seems timely to ask larger questions about how the history of philosophy is to be done and whether there is, or needs to be, a specifically feminist approach to the history of philosophy. In Empowerment and Interconnectivity, Catherine Gardner examines the philosophy of three neglected women philosophers, Catharine Beecher, Frances Wright, and Anna Doyle Wheeler, all of whom were British or American utilitarian philosophers of one stripe or another. Gardner’s focus in this book is less on accounting for the neglect or disappearance of these women philosophers and more on those methodological (or epistemological) questions we need to ask in order to recover their philosophy and categorize it as feminist.
Empowerment and Interconnectivity is an important, finely reasoned, politely radical book that will be widely discussed. It makes a persuasive case that histories of philosophy need to be reconceived to ‘fit’ feminist philosophy rather than the other way around. Centering on methodological analyses, the book both honors and revitalizes a philosophical heritage of justice-seeking feminists no longer marginalized, even erased, from ‘patrimonial’ histories.”
“Catherine Villanueva Gardner’s work provides a careful analysis of feminist philosophers in the utilitarian tradition. Fresh readings of old canonical favorites—Bentham and Mill—are complemented by the resurrection of long-forgotten philosophers—Anna Doyle Wheeler, Frances Wright, and Catharine Beecher. The book is more than an erudite expansion of the canon providing a gender-sensitive analysis of writings by marginalized women authors. It maps a central criterion for developing a properly feminist history of philosophy: namely, empowerment. Just how does a particular author and set of texts actually free women to participate more broadly in society?”
Empowerment and Interconnectivity is a wonderful exemplar of how to identify and interpret feminist theorizing in the history of philosophy. Using the empowerment of women as her interpretive lens, Gardner spells out the limitations of traditional approaches, crafts incisive analyses of often overlooked nineteenth-century feminist philosophers such as Catharine Beecher and Frances Wright, and demonstrates how to read a range of genres—including domestic advice manuals—for their philosophical significance. Writing with clarity and grace, Gardner gives us a thoughtful, imaginative guide for doing feminist philosophy reflectively and responsibly.”
“This is a well-written and interesting book that offers a new approach to ‘forgotten’ and traditionally categorized feminist philosophy that requires, and begins to develop, a sophisticated theoretical apparatus. It will make a significant contribution to current feminist philosophy and, for sufficiently open-minded philosophers, to innovative ways of reading historical texts by utilitarian thinkers, the import of which is clearly philosophical despite their often having been written in styles unfamiliar or even puzzling to the makers and adjudicators of canonicity. In short, it breaks new ground and does so in an engaging way. Readers will find much to discover and much to reconsider.”
“In addition to its theoretical proposals, Empowerment and Interconnectivity makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of several nineteenth-century feminist philosophers, bringing some of them to our attention as philosophers for the first time.”

Catherine Villanueva Gardner is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.


Introduction: Empowerment and Interconnectivity

1 Wheeler and Thompson: The Appeal and the Problem of Empowerment

2 Catharine Beecher and Writing Philosophy for Women

3 Frances Wright: Interconnectivity and Synthesis

4 Tea and Sympathy with John Stuart Mill

Conclusion and Next Steps




Empowerment and Interconnectivity:

Toward a Feminist History of Utilitarian Philosophy

The central figures in this book are all nineteenth-century utilitarians of one stripe or another. They also have in common the fact that they have been seen as feminist, although they do not all share the same type of feminist views. Two of them—Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill—are major figures in our Western philosophical canon. Others—Anna Doyle Wheeler, William Thompson, Frances Wright, and Catherine Beecher—are on the margins of our history of philosophy, their work neglected or their philosophical substance questioned or unrecognized.

What originally drew me to these philosophers was my study of the history of feminism, specifically British and American nineteenth-century feminism. The nineteenth century in these countries is often depicted as one of activism rather than theorizing. Much of the writing about the history of feminism at this time in the United States and the United Kingdom has focused on the activist work of figures such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Emmeline Pankhurst.

Perhaps this is how it should be; after all, it was the political organizing of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that lead to material changes in women’s social, political, and economic lives.

Relatively speaking, compared to studies of the history of feminist activism, feminist philosophical work has been largely ignored. This neglect is unsurprising, given the tremendous achievements of the activists of this era. Similarly, general histories of nineteenth-century philosophy tend to be male dominated. Moreover, even though such general histories may discuss the feminist work of a canonical philosopher, such as John Stuart Mill, these histories tend to neglect the existence of feminist philosophers. However, as inheritors of the rights fought for by these activist foremothers, we now have the relative luxury to investigate the feminist philosophical work of the nineteenth century. Indeed, we can ask not just whether there were a few isolated philosophers who wrote on feminist issues, but whether there is an identifiable history of feminist philosophy. If such a feminist history of philosophy exists, we would need to determine its relation to “mainstream” or canonical history of philosophy. More important, we would need to ask about how we would decide who is to be included. In other words, we would need to ask how a history of feminist philosophy would be done.

This then is my focus: what can be said about nineteenth-century British and American feminist philosophy? This, however, is not an easy task. Twenty-first-century feminist philosophy is no one thing, moreover, to apply modern definitions to works that existed prior to the conceptualization of the subject area “feminist philosophy” (or even feminism itself) will strike many as inexcusably anachronistic. But I think it is worth the risk of such accusations to claim that feminist philosophical thinking has deep historical roots. Even with a limited focus on Anglo-American works, feminist philosophy is not a monolithic theory; however, it is possible to offer a working definition that is both applicable to contemporary thought and suitable for an examination of nineteenth-century works.

The fundamental distinction between contemporary feminist philosophy and mainstream philosophy in the Anglo-American tradition is that the former does not claim to search for knowledge solely for its own sake, but rather for the sake of a political goal: identification and elimination of the subordination of women. Here we are provided with our initial working definition for the examination of my chosen texts. As we shall see, the distinctive feature of nineteenth-century feminist philosophy will be what it has to offer its female contemporaries for their empowerment. We shall see that support for women’s suffrage or critiques of the social injustices faced by women will not be enough to identify a particular text or texts as specifically feminist philosophical work or a particular philosopher as a specifically feminist philosopher. It is important to understand that my conception of feminist philosophy requires nuance; it is an initial working definition that will be developed as my overall argument progresses.

I recognize that there have been many valuable feminist readings of traditional texts that have sought understanding or clarification of the implications of these texts for women (either past or present) without any apparent goal of knowledge that will produce change (i.e., readings that do not reflect my working definition). Yet there is a sense in which the success of these readings seems more by accident than by design. My concern is that there is nothing common to all these individual readings that can be identified as an explicitly “feminist approach” to the reading of these texts: there is nothing that can provide a foundation for a distinctly feminist history of philosophy. What I want to do throughout this work is to draw attention to the need for self-consciousness about the political and ethical dimensions of our theorizing. This is something we can also learn in different ways from the philosophers I study, and it is a worldview that is a corollary to the characterization of feminist philosophy with which I am working. It is this corollary about our ethical and political awareness—and thus accountability—that I claim is at the foundation of a feminist history of philosophy.

I aim to show how a feminist history of philosophy could carry out its political goal not just through canon revision and revaluation of neglected women philosophers, but through a consideration of its own methodology. I am not just interested in retrieving and evaluating the work of English and American nineteenth-century feminist philosophers; I am also interested in asking meta-questions about how this enterprise should be done. There appear to be two main questions here. First, what work has been done in what could be called the feminist history of philosophy, and are there already distinctively feminist approaches to the history of philosophy in place? Second, given the political goals of feminist philosophy, can we—and should we—employ what I am calling “standard” or “mainstream” Anglo-American approaches to doing the history of philosophy to these feminist historical texts? My concern is that the feminist content and politics of these texts makes it harder to use nonfeminist methodologies in an examination of them. In asking these questions the actual process of consideration of methodology itself becomes important. The approach—better yet, perspective or lens—I want to develop is less about overturning standard or mainstream approaches and then replacing them with a feminist approach, and more about reflecting on the process of interpretation itself and the political and ethical self-consciousness required for this reflection.

Philosophy has a very distinctive relationship to its history; as Jonathan Rée (1978, 1) points out, it “is much more concerned with its past than any other modern academic discipline.” With other disciplines, their histories are typically seen as separate fields of study; more to the point, this separation is not contentious. Thus physicists may study historical cosmologies, but no physicist who wishes to be taken seriously would combine this historical study with his or her contemporary theoretical work. In the case of philosophy, however, the relationship—and the importance of this relationship—between its history and its contemporary study is far more complicated.

Like other fields of philosophical study, such as epistemology or ethics, there has been feminist work in history of philosophy. Feminist history of philosophy has focused, thus far, primarily on canon revision, canon critique, and the recovery of neglected or forgotten women philosophers. There has been some methodological work, but this has typically focused on discussions of the predominantly male canon. Charlotte Witt (2007) places the feminist historical work done thus far into four main categories. The first category covers (a) work criticizing misogyny in the canon, (b) identification of gendered interpretations of philosophical concepts, and (c) “synoptic” interpretations. Of these three, the synoptic approach is the most radical, as it “considers the Western philosophical tradition as a whole, and argues that its core concepts are gendered male.” Thus, Witt argues, “philosophy’s self-image as universal and objective, rather than particular and biased, is mistaken.”

The second category is revision of the history of philosophy. As Witt states, “Feminist canon revision is most distinctive, and most radical, in its retrieval of women philosophers for the historical record, and its placement of women in the canon of great philosophers. It is a distinctive project because there is no comparable activity undertaken by other contemporary philosophical movements, for whom canon creation has been largely a process of selection from an already established list of male philosophers.” However, Witt points out that retrieving women philosophers—while it is a feminist project—has mainly found women philosophers who did not write feminist philosophy or philosophy in a feminine voice: “Newly recovered women philosophers suggest that there is little overlap among three groups: women philosophers, feminine philosophers and feminist philosophers.” Witt says that the fact that there is no unified “voice” and that there is such diversity may raise the question of why recovery is an important project. She responds with two main reasons: first, it rights history by showing that there were women philosophers, and, second, it affects the image of philosophy in the present. In other words, philosophy is not male, and this is not justified by its history. The “us” of philosophy, as Witt puts it, is both male and female.

The third category is appropriation of canonical philosophers for feminist use; Annette Baier’s work on Hume as a “women’s” philosopher springs to mind here (e.g., her article on Hume as a women’s moral theorist). There is little doubt that feminist history of philosophy, at least that done in these three categories, has been a successful enterprise. Compared to even just a decade ago, the project of the recovery and revaluation of historical women philosophers is well underway, historical women philosophers are slowly starting to be incorporated into the Anglo-American canon, and text books on the history of philosophy are becoming more inclusive of the work of female philosophers.

The fourth category identified by Witt is methodological reflections on the history of philosophy, and here it is important to note that Witt is focusing on the (male) canon. This methodological category remains under-explored compared to the other three. In the preface to their edited collection Feminist Reflections on the History of Philosophy, Lilli Alanen and Charlotte Witt (2004, xi) raise some central questions about methodology: “Is there a distinctively feminist approach to reading the history of philosophy? What makes it a feminist approach? Is it a matter of the questions that are brought to a philosophical text, or is the question of how to interpret the meaning of a historical text also at issue?” They suggest that “perhaps what unifies feminist approaches to the history of philosophy is not any particular methodological assumption about interpreting historical texts, but rather a commitment to emancipatory projects, and to finding a philosophical vocabulary that can contribute to those projects” (xiv).

These are the right questions to ask, but I think we should go further than just asking them about the (male) canon. We have unearthed previously forgotten or neglected women philosophers; the task is now to evaluate and analyze their work. We need also to understand that this task itself must be scrutinized; it must be open to self-reflective analysis. Doing feminist history of philosophy is not simply about canon revision, rediscovering women philosophers, and so forth, it is also about how this is done. What models of philosophy do we employ? What expectations do we bring to the texts that combine feminism and philosophy? How do we define the success or failure of a particular argument or text? How can we justify calling the work of a particular writer, such as Catharine Beecher, philosophy? On the other hand, how can we justify questioning the supposed feminism of canonical philosophers, such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill? What is the overall goal in recovering or reexamining these writers? Is it merely to identify their historical existence? Or is it to include them somehow in our contemporary conversations about feminist philosophy and gender justice? Indeed, what is the relationship of feminist philosophy to its past?

Ultimately, therefore, we need to examine how the history of philosophy is done. More specifically, we need to ask whether mainstream Anglo-American history of philosophy is done in such a way that we can find suitably feminist answers to these questions. I have found that there are different—but interconnected—barriers that make it difficult for me to “revalue” the work of the feminist philosophers I examine in this book. And by revalue I do not just mean that I find feminist philosophers where before there appeared to be none, but I also question standard attributions of feminism to canonical philosophers. I say that these barriers are interconnected because I think they are part—and I make no claims to exposing the whole—of a picture comprising doing philosophy and what philosophy is that is not particularly conducive to the study of the historical works of feminist philosophy. It would be rather harsh to claim that these historical works are deliberately excluded from this picture; rather, I want to claim that this picture is a bad “fit” for the retrieval of feminist philosophers and thereby functions to exclude them, or makes it hard to recover and include them. This claim is not equivalent to an outright rejection of Anglo-American mainstream history of philosophy; rather it is an invitation to consider whether alternative lenses or perspectives exist that may be more fruitful for the interpretation of early feminist philosophers, and I am going to offer one alternative lens or perspective.

Moreover, I need to consider the relationship of this alternative to mainstream approaches: is it completely new and separate, or do the two share certain elements? As I said earlier, my focus is to reflect on the actual process of interpretation and whether this reflection is in itself feminist. As I shall show, trying to overturn mainstream methodologies or replace them with a “new” feminist methodology is part of the mainstream picture of doing philosophy and thus a way of doing history of philosophy that I question. Given all these points, I shall typically use the terms “perspective” or “lens”—rather than “approach”—to refer to my positive thesis (a search for an alternative to mainstream approaches), so as not to imply that I am overstating my claim and offering some new or replacement methodology, but also to indicate its signature characteristics that differentiate it from mainstream philosophizing.

Mainstream” Ways of Doing the History of Philosophy

Within mainstream Anglo-American history of philosophy there are two dominant approaches, and my focus throughout is on Anglo-American philosophy. Obviously, like all aspects of our discipline, there is no complete consensus as to the delineation or existence of these mainstream approaches. However, the purpose of this work is not to focus on these mainstream approaches in themselves; I think there is enough agreement about their delineation and existence for my purposes, as I am less interested in discussions of their internal coherence and more interested in whether they are suitable for feminist philosophy and its goals.

The two dominant approaches are, essentially, history for its own sake and history for the sake of philosophical truths in the present. These are given different names by different philosophers—for example, Margaret Wilson (1992) calls them exegetical and philosophical, while Jorge Gracia (1991) calls them historical and polemicist. Gordon Graham (1982, 38) echoes R. G. Collingwood when he neatly—if perhaps a little simplistically—separates the two approaches by framing them as asking two different questions: “What did he say?” and “Is it true?”

The first approach, which I will call “historical,” aims solely to examine historical texts as artifacts of a certain cultural–historical era. The historians who engage in this approach have no interest in philosophical theory as philosophy: philosophical answers or truths. As John Passmore (1964, 14) states, this may be simply because these historians are not interested in philosophy qua philosophy or because “of the conviction that philosophy is of such a character that to discuss it except in relation to its age is fundamentally to misunderstand it.” This type of approach, according to Passmore, aims to “display philosophical theories in a cultural museum as representative expressions of a period” (18). A slightly looser definition of the historical approach is given by Wilson (1992, 5), who says it “is primarily concerned with interpreting (perhaps to some degree critically) the positions of philosophers of the past.”

The second approach, which I will call “philosophical,” treats historical texts as though they were the work of our contemporaries; the historical aspects of a particular philosopher’s view are not seen as important. If we do not ground a philosopher’s ideas against his or her particular historical background, then our reading of the history of philosophy becomes the categorizing of individuals into a particular school or the search for timeless philosophical questions—which rests on the assumption that all philosophers are concerned with answering the same questions—or the tracing of particular ideas through history and across disciplines—which rests on the assumption that ideas are “somehow atomic units . . . passed, either whole or in part, from author to author, without undergoing substantial changes in themselves” (Gracia 1991, 252).

On the philosophical approach, historical texts are not read because of what we can learn about the history of philosophy but because we can learn about philosophical truths in the present. These texts are important for our modern philosophical enterprise because we can “find insights or even solutions to today’s problems—or at least to uncover mistakes and dead ends we should not emulate” (Freeland 2000, 370–71). Thus we read the history of philosophy with the goal of finding philosophical truths and answers to our current problems. Underpinning the philosophical approach are two assumptions: that philosophy is an autonomous enterprise and that philosophy comprises perennial, unchanging problems. It is only because philosophy can be seen as having a separate set of problems from, for example, those of scientists or theologians, and that these problems are timeless in some way, that the philosophical approach can treat historical texts ahistorically.

The problem for the recovery and interpretation of feminist philosophical work is that neither of these mainstream approaches is particularly well suited for this task. Feminist philosophy—as I am characterizing it—is a search for knowledge for the sake of political and social change, whereas the philosophical approach is better characterized as a search for knowledge for its own sake: a “pure” search. The historical approach could allow for the inclusion of political elements within the historical context of the work of a particular philosopher, but it does not have the theoretical space to allow for a discussion of political and social change itself.

Consideration of the Philosophical Approach

Both mainstream approaches have been subject to criticism within mainstream philosophy itself. Certainly, in their most extreme form, neither appears particularly useful. In the case of the philosophical approach, it leads—at best—to misunderstanding of historical texts as they are examined through the lens of the reader’s own contemporary philosophical interests. At worst, there is no such thing as history of philosophy per se; for example, Collingwood (1939, 59) accuses those philosophers he calls “realists” for thinking that “the problems with which philosophy is unconcerned were unchanging. They thought that Plato, Aristotle, the Epicureans, the Stoics, the Schoolmen, the Cartesians, &c., had all asked themselves the same set of questions, and had given different answers to them.” For Collingwood, these realists understand the “history” of philosophy only in the sense that these different answers had an identifiable chronological order.

Indeed, Collingwood argues that the philosophical approach is not actually possible, for it assumes that we can make a distinction between the historical (what x said) and the philosophical (whether x was correct). Collingwood argues that we cannot know what x thought about a particular—supposedly perennial—problem, as this assumes the existence of perennial problems in the first place; rather, we must first look at the text to see what problem x thought he or she was dealing with in the first place. We can then ask about x’s solution, and thus both solution and problem are found in the same text or passage. In essence, there are not two sets of questions, but only one: the historical one.

Collingwood’s ultimate position—that the philosophical approach is impossible—is radical; however, his concerns about the conceptualization of the philosophical enterprise as a series of perennial problems continues to have traction in more contemporary accounts of the history of philosophy. For example, Gordon Graham claims that the work of Jonathan Rée in Philosophy and Its Past (which Graham criticizes as extreme) originates in Collingwood. Whereas Collingwood denied that there are permanent problems in philosophy, Rée denies that there are permanent positions. Whereas Collingwood does not fully explore his position, Rée offers a thorough account of his own. It is in looking at Rée’s critique of the notion of timeless positions in philosophy, therefore, that we can start to see how the philosophical approach might be a bad fit for feminist philosophy.

Rée argues, like Collingwood, that the history of philosophy is often done ahistorically: the thought is not placed within its historical context. He claims specifically that there is a tendency of historians of philosophy to “project into the past an idea of philosophy as a professional academic specialism—treating Aristotle and Descartes as though they were participants at a modern philosophy conference. . . . They do not explore historical sources other than explicitly philosophical writings. . . . They never consider general problems about the interpretation of philosophical texts; and they are so preoccupied with explicit controversies between philosophers that they fail to notice areas of agreement or of silence” (1978, 2). Rée locates the origins of this approach in the histories of philosophy that appeared in the eighteenth century; in particular, Rée points to the influence of Johann Jakob Brucker’s Critical History of Philosophy. According to Rée, Brucker introduced the notion of philosophy as an explicit activity of “philosophers,” separating it from religion, which had “sources deep in the wordless experiences of masses of non-intellectuals” (6).

Yet the history of philosophy is not something that occurs in isolation from contemporary philosophy. In identifying these “professional philosophers,” their major works, and the trajectory from one thinker to another, the history of philosophy “provides an implicit definition of philosophy, indicating that being a philosopher means being a successor to Plato, Aristotle and the rest and perpetuating the practices which—according to the History of Philosophy—these Great Men have bequeathed” (Rée 1978, 2).

From a feminist perspective, we can see how this conceptualization of philosophy depicted by Rée functions to exclude the participation of women in the philosophical enterprise. Although a few historical women intellectuals were regarded as philosophers (e.g., Damaris Masham), their lack of formal training and prohibitions (explicit or implicit) on women speaking publicly or publishing their ideas, mean that historians of philosophy looking for a trajectory of professional philosophers in the history of the discipline will be unlikely to notice the contributions of women philosophers.

Moreover, there is the question of subject matter and philosophical approach. These are aspects I shall examine more thoroughly in later chapters; suffice it to say at this juncture that studies of the work of historical women philosophers or feminist philosophers have shown that these figures often had philosophical interests (e.g., in the rights of women) that are not those of successors to the “Great Men,” nor did these figures always practice philosophy in the “traditional” manner (e.g., they may have written philosophy in the form of fiction or poetry). Indeed, in Catharine Beecher’s case, I shall argue that part of her philosophy can be found in her domestic advice manuals.

According to Rée (1978, 8), Brucker framed the history of philosophy as battles between schools of thought, and thus the form of philosophical discussion becomes framed as one of quarrels “with which an inward-looking elite filled their leisure.” This meant that it was easy for eighteenth-century philosophes to dismiss the history of philosophy and instead concentrate on what could be discovered through natural reason; therefore, as Rée explains, accounts of history “became more and more like cautionary tales for the instruction of the young.” This notion of the history of philosophy as a series of warring views remains with us in Anglo-American philosophy, and has meant that the study of the history of philosophy has not held much appeal.

This notion of the form of philosophical discussion as battles between competing “isms,” with the history of philosophy a story of these quarrels, is something that should be questioned by feminist philosophers. This notion reflects, and may even reinforce, the dominant gender ideology, for we can see that the problem of the notion of battling philosophers is clearly connected to Janice Moulton’s claims about aggression as a masculine value in her germinal article on methodology, “A Paradigm of Philosophy: The Adversary Method” (1983). Moulton argues that aggression, a trait that has a different social meaning and value for men and women, has been incorporated into the standard paradigm of philosophical technique: the adversary method. In essence, this method frames different philosophical viewpoints and arguments as being in opposition or competition. The aim is to defeat opponents’ arguments through, among other things, challenging their foundational assumptions, exposing their inconsistencies, searching for argumentative fallacies, and showing how their premises lead to unintended conclusions that are untenable.

Moulton argues that this linking of aggression with philosophical ability serves to exclude women from philosophy, as it requires behavior that is not culturally constructed as feminine. Further, Moulton points out that the history of philosophy becomes both distorted and a limited resource, as it is read merely as a series of triumphs or failures among competing views (something I shall explore in the chapter on Wheeler and Thompson). I shall argue, moreover, that an approach that focuses solely on defeat of an opponent also serves to limit philosophy itself; for example, knowledge cannot be produced through dialogue, while subject matter that does not lend itself easily to an adversarial approach is ignored.

I identify another masculinist element in the construction of the history of philosophy as a set of battles over timeless positions: the notion of philosophical purity. According to Rée, Charles Renouvier in the nineteenth century took the notion of philosophers battling over timeless questions to its ultimate logical extension. Renouvier claimed that everyone’s doctrine could be reduced to a small number of propositions. The doctrines themselves had no history: “The so-called history of philosophy was really only the story of individuals opting for different philosophical positions; the positions themselves were always there, eternally available and unchanging” (Rée 1978, 17). Bertrand Russell held a similar view: “The philosophies of the past belong to one or other of a few great types—types which in our own day are perpetually recurring.” Russell in writing on Leibniz said that he was doing so with a “purely philosophical attitude”; in other words, “without regard to dates or influences, we seek simply to discover what are the great types of possible philosophies” (quoted in Rée 1978, 17–18).

In this—admittedly extreme—understanding of the history of philosophy, we can see the foundations of the more general philosophical approach to the history of philosophy: philosophy is a self-contained discipline with a fixed, timeless subject matter done by professional individuals (Rée 1978, 32). These individuals consider this subject matter in a disinterested manner; however, this approach is implicitly value laden, as we can see from its characterization as “pure” by philosophers such as Russell. Yet, if the philosophical approach to the history of philosophy is grounded on this conceptualization of philosophy, where does this leave feminist philosophy more generally, and the history of feminist philosophy more specifically?

Feminist philosophy is not self-contained, disinterested, or “pure”; it is about social and political change. Moreover, it also crosses disciplinary lines, connecting with, for example, literature. Strictly speaking, feminist philosophy as a field or identifiable pattern of work began only in the 1970s; indeed, its initial impetus was to uncover and critique the male bias in traditional philosophy. As to the specific eternal positions or questions of philosophy, while it has been argued that, for example, Plato talked about gender equality for the guardian class in his Republic, it is hard to claim that this is the same question or position as gender equality in the new millennium. Alternatively, if we try to squeeze gender equality into the box of a timeless question, we may lose sight of both the fact that it is women who have been targeted for prejudicial treatment and the need to ask why this is the case. This is something I will bring out in the next three chapters, on Anna Doyle Wheeler, Catherine Beecher, and Frances Wright.

Further, gender and gender justice have been typically left out of mainstream Anglo-American philosophical discourse. The reason why they have not been classified as problems in the way that issues of knowledge and metaphysics have been is because discussions of gender justice cannot be an independent intellectual pursuit in the way that philosophy—traditionally defined—needs to be. In order to discuss gender justice, as I shall demonstrate in the first three chapters, we need to introduce empirical elements to the discussion. We need to offer both an explanation of the causes—economic, social, cultural, historical, political—of the oppression of women and a description of their present situation. Finally, and most important, we must address the moral and political wrong of the oppression of women and engage the reader in such a way that he or she wants to end this oppression.

In other words, we start to push against the “purity” of the philosophical enterprise. On the dominant Anglo-American picture of philosophy, our discipline, while by no means completely separated as an intellectual enterprise, is an autonomous inquiry in that it has its own distinct set of problems and questions. Yet an exploration of issues of gender justice requires politicized questions and answers as well as historically and culturally contextualized empirical elements. This notion of purity is also at play in the picture of the history of philosophy as a set of battles over timeless positions; in order for these battles to take place and for these timeless positions to be identified, we must be able to clearly delineate philosophical positions. Further, framing the philosophical enterprise as one of eternal positions or problems, and as an intellectual enterprise that is self-contained, makes it hard to conceive how our new feminist issues and subject matter—whether theoretical, such as gender identity, or practical, such as reproductive rights—can be incorporated into this enterprise. Thus feminist philosophy, because of its dynamic and political nature, does not mesh well with the picture of philosophy as timeless.

The “Patrimonial” Picture of Philosophy

Feminist philosophers have already identified and critiqued the masculinist nature of the dominant Anglo-American picture of philosophy that underlies mainstream or traditional philosophy, in particular in the fields of epistemology and ethics. As we have seen, Moulton has also commented on the masculinist nature of dominant Anglo-American methodology: the adversarial method. However, less work has been done identifying and analyzing the masculinist elements of the picture of philosophy that underlies the two dominant Anglo-American approaches to the history of philosophy.

Underlying the philosophical approach to the history of philosophy is this dominant picture of philosophy that I am going to characterize as “patrimonial,” and the elements of this patrimonial picture that are relevant to the study of the history of philosophy are something I shall explore throughout the work. While this characterization is not to be taken too literally, it can be an illuminating analogy for our understanding and critique of this picture. Jim Jose (2004) uses a similar term—“patrilineal”—to bring out the way commentators have assumed that feminist thought originated in (male) political thought. However, the picture of the history of philosophy given above invokes more than a descent that can be traced from one male philosopher to another; rather than simply being the tracing of a male line (patrilineal), the notion of patrimony is also one of male inheritance, legacy, and heritage. With these latter concepts also come the notions of entitlement and dominance that are passed down from philosophical “fathers.” Moreover, with these concepts come the acceptance of the legitimacy of an inheritor’s right to fight for their inheritance and to protect this inheritance from others; battles between opposing philosophical factions become normalized once we employ this analogy.

The privilege that comes with patrimony means that an individual has no need to justify why they should be allowed to write or to publish, and moreover there is already an established, legitimate—used in both senses of the word—audience for this written and published work. Even if these philosophers are criticized or placed into the opposing camp, their right to philosophy itself and their right to be called philosophers is not questioned; moreover, as we shall see in James Mill’s case, modern interpretations of the works of our intellectual fathers can at times be charitable to the point of creativity. Historical feminist philosophers, on the other hand, have had to justify their position as philosophers, the legitimacy of their subject matter, and even the legitimacy of their audience if their target audience is women.

Inheritance laws historically gave economic and social power to men and maintained women’s subordination and exclusion from the public sphere. In a similar way in the history of philosophy, there are (unwritten) rules about what is inherited (and thus what is considered of philosophical value), who is to inherit (who is to be a philosopher), and how inheritance happens (how one comes to be considered a philosopher) that have functioned to exclude women and feminist philosophers and to maintain male dominance of our discipline.

Central to the patrimonial picture is the ideal of the purity or autonomy of philosophy, and this ideal is bound up with a particular—traditional—conceptualization of the knower, knowledge, and the way in which that knowledge is gained. In essence, purity is an ideal of both true philosophy and the true philosopher. The knowers on this picture are disinterested and autonomous in that they are (supposedly) able to detach themselves and remain separate from the objects of knowledge; these knowers are conceptually disembodied and disembedded. The truths these traditional knowers of philosophy seek are those unencumbered by subjectivity or the trappings of the material world; indeed, philosophical knowledge is to be kept as free as possible from the external world.

It is this ideal of purity or autonomy that is “inherited” on the patrimonial picture, an ideal that I claim is easier for men to inherit than women. Culturally, women have not been identified with the ability to think autonomously or disinterestedly. This is not simply a case of sexist bias; women’s traditional roles as caretaker and homemaker have kept them connected to the material and domestic world. Indeed, partialism toward and connectivity with others are seen as central characteristics for women to be able to fulfill these traditional roles properly. It is not as if there is an alternative space to include women’s experiences, situations, and issues on the patrimonial picture of philosophy, however, for these things are subjective, embedded and, as such, devalued.

In this way we can see that what is inherited—what the discipline of philosophy is considered to be—and who is to inherit are tightly linked. How then does inheritance happen—or, more specifically, not happen? On a direct level, women have had, until recently, restricted access to education. I shall argue, however, throughout this work that there are more subtle ways that women are excluded from being counted as philosophers. We shall see, for example, that the notion of autonomy is at odds with the synthetic philosophy of Frances Wright, and that the ideal of the disinterested knower is in tension with much of Catharine Beecher’s work.

This patrimonial picture of philosophy is clearly at play in Rée’s characterization of the philosophical approach as one that projects into the past a notion of philosophy as a professional academic specialty, with an identifiable trajectory from one thinker to another, thus offering us an implicit definition of a philosopher as being a successor to the canonical greats and as maintaining the intellectual practices of these greats. More generally, on the philosophical approach to this history of philosophy, these professional individuals inherit the right to dispute a series of timeless questions that make up the subject matter and thus the delineation of the discipline of philosophy. This activity must be kept pure in that philosophical truths must be kept separate from historical particulars, while the philosopher studying timeless questions must preserve their individual autonomy and do philosophy from a disinterested standpoint.

What I wish to claim next is that—despite the fact that the historical approach to the history of philosophy is usually framed as being in opposition or in contrast to the philosophical approach—the patrimonial picture of philosophy lies behind both.

Consideration of the Historical Approach

Initially, it might seem that an obvious solution to the problems posed by the philosophical approach to the history of philosophy is to acknowledge that philosophical understanding is also historical understanding. As Rée (1978, 30) argues, simply because we are not always aware of our use of historical knowledge does not mean it is not there; indeed, he goes so far as to say that there is “no such thing as a really non-historical approach to philosophical ideas.”

So how far should we embrace the apparent alternative to the philosophical approach, the one I am calling historical? In its most extreme form, for example, on Collingwood’s account, the history of philosophy is basically the history of a certain age. It has no interest in philosophical theory qua philosophy; this may be simply because this type of historian is not interested or because this historian holds that philosophy can be understood only in its historical context.

Jorge Gracia (1991, 66) characterizes the practitioner of this extreme form of the historical approach as someone who holds “that conceptual translation has no role to play in history. The job of the historian is to present whatever concepts past philosophers held without trying to translate them into contemporary concepts.” In other words, we are to understand the philosopher only on his or her own terms; anything else is anachronism. If this is the case, then we can report only what was said at a certain historical period. Anything more would involve interpretation that would be grounded on “contemporary concepts and ideas.” The historian on this picture searches for historical, not philosophical, truth; he or she does not aim to make judgments about the truths of the claims made by historical figures: this is what Garber (2000, 15) calls a (philosophically) “disinterested” history. As Gracia points out, compelling arguments can be made for this position, in particular that our historical account is not distorted by a search for truth, and through learning about the different views of the past we may come to see what is missing in the present. As we shall see, however, this position shares much with its apparent “opposite”—the philosophical approach—in the way that purity and autonomy are framed as central to philosophy as a discipline.

The two main questions to be asked of the historical approach are what value it has, and whether a disinterested history is possible in this way. It can be argued that the historical approach ultimately gives us little more than description. We cannot do interpretation or evaluation, as these would be grounded on our contemporary philosophical knowledge and concepts; moreover, we cannot make connections between the past and the present. Gracia (1991, 66) asks what use this approach is if we cannot build connections between the past and the present; if the past stays just that, then what value is it to us moderns and why would we want to recover this past? Gracia also questions whether a disinterested history is possible. Even though we may not judge the truth of a philosopher’s claims, we make other value judgments about him or her. Ultimately claiming that a philosopher, for example, contributed to epistemology, is saying that there were elements of truth in his or her philosophy. The problem with disinterested history is that no matter how hard we try to do “pure” or “objective” history, we still need to take a position if we want to assess another’s historical thought.

What should feminist philosophers make of the historical approach? Cynthia Freeland in “Feminism and Ideology in Ancient Philosophy” (2000), considers the potential of what she calls the “exegetical” account for feminist historians of philosophy. She claims that feminists can use it, even though it is not particularly feminist in itself. The feminist could write about issues of interest to feminists without actually taking the viewpoint of a feminist. In this way the historical examination would be kept objective and disinterested (375). I would argue, however, that feminists have a political and philosophical agenda, and thus it would appear that adopting the historical approach will not ultimately be fruitful. In other words, we want an interested history and we will need to use contemporary concepts to produce such a history.

Freeland points out, moreover, that social contexts are not value neutral, which adds an additional layer to the question of whether we can actually set a philosopher’s views in historical context. Further, Freeland claims that the ideal of a “true” history of philosophy is itself an ideology. Gender can be acknowledged as part of the broader social context of the history of philosophy, but it is not seen as part of “the integral, essential, ongoing set of issues and problems that are appropriately addressed by scholars in the field” (Freeland 2000, 377). In other words, gender can count as part of the broad social context that “may affect the nature of a philosopher’s views,” but it is not “part of philosophy proper.” This is an important point and connects to my criticisms of the patrimonial picture of philosophy and the purity and autonomy of philosophy that is foundational to this picture.

However, despite the (different) difficulties that both Gracia and Freeland identify with the historical approach, I intend to argue that historical context is vital for any feminist examination of a philosophical text. The question then for feminist historians of philosophy is whether a requirement that we read texts within their historical context need necessarily bring with it the other aspects of the historical approach: disinterestedness and the autonomy and purity of philosophy as a discipline.

The Patrimonial Picture and the Historical Approach

Despite the fact that these two mainstream approaches to the history of philosophy are typically framed as being in tension or contrast to each other, I maintain that they have shared elements, specifically, elements that are part of what I call the patrimonial picture of philosophy. Unlike the practitioner of the philosophical approach, the practitioner of the historical approach does not participate in a shared inheritance of philosophy or a trajectory of thinkers, but this practitioner is an inheritor nonetheless. Texts are objects in the care of historians to be jealously guarded from distortion by contemporary concepts or interested use. While this does not mean that women or feminists are actually excluded from the historical approach, it does mean that feminists may not be interested or may find little of value in this approach.

Both approaches inherit a surprisingly similar object of study. The historical approach is in agreement with the philosophical approach over the autonomy of philosophy as a discipline, and, as such, does not have the potential to dovetail with the feminist philosophical project. Both approaches share a similar inheritance in their ideal of the disinterestedness of knowledge that we gain from the study of the history of philosophy. In the case of the historical approach, the knowledge we gain from the examination of texts is value-free in the sense that we aim not to distort this knowledge by interpreting it through our own historically situated position or by using our contemporary philosophical concepts. In the case of the philosophical approach, we search for timeless truths: knowledge that is free of our historically situated position. Both approaches strive for purity in their own separate way, whereas feminist philosophy, by its very nature, is not pure in the sense that both the historical and philosophical approaches share.

Both approaches aim for autonomy or purity of their subject matter, whether it is keeping philosophical truths separate from historical particulars or keeping textual analysis free of anachronistic interpretation. Both approaches also value the autonomy of the individual knower. The connection between the philosopher studying timeless questions and their individual autonomy is obvious, but perhaps the connection is not so clear in the case of the historical scholar. This connection becomes more evident when we look at, for example, the claims of Collingwood (1939, 274–75), who argues that the historical scholar needs to be autonomous—free of his or her own historical particulars—in order to be able to “reenact” the experience of the past. As I shall show, however, the feminist interpreter/knower of historical texts can draw on their own ethical and political consciousness and a reflection on this consciousness in order to produce an interpretation of historical works of feminist philosophy.

This notion of purity does not simply function as an ideal, it also functions both literally and metaphorically to maintain philosophical inheritance. In the case of the mainstream philosophical approach, if we want to trace philosophical lineage or assign philosophers to sects or groups (e.g., the British Empiricists), we need to smooth away difference and separate “philosophical truths” in a disinterested manner from their historical and cultural contexts. In the case of the mainstream historical approach, the commentator inherits the right to analyze and interpret texts through their own purity—their disinterestedness—and through guarding the purity of the texts they study from distortion from modern concepts of a search for timeless truth.

At present, the claim that the patrimonial picture underlies both approaches is—not surprisingly—skeletal; I shall explore and develop this picture and the shared elements of the two approaches as I study the work of my chosen nineteenth-century feminist philosophers.

Considerations for a More Feminist History of Philosophy

Thus far it would seem that neither the philosophical nor the historical approach is a particularly good match for the goals and requirements of the feminist philosophical enterprise, especially if our particular interest is examining feminist historical works, which aim to describe not abstract truths but the real-life truths of the oppressions of women, and to argue for practical change through the subjective change (empowerment) on a real audience.

As Alasdair MacIntyre (1984, 31) points out, however, it is easy to “imprison oneself within the following dilemma”: to believe we must either translate past philosophies to make them relevant to our present concerns and ignore what cannot be translated, or read them in their own terms so that they end up as a historical artifacts and nothing more. So let us now consider two examples of approaches to the history of philosophy that avoid the extremes of the philosophical and historical viewpoints and aim to combine them in some way.

John Passmore, for example, advocates for what he calls a “problematic” approach. He argues that the problem with the historical approach is that it misconceives the philosophical enterprise. Philosophy is more than a historical feature of a certain era; Passmore holds instead that it is “an independent—although not wholly independent—intellectual pursuit.” However, he says that it is possible to bring out the historical and cultural context of a thinker while also demonstrating his or her importance to contemporary philosophy. He is able to hold this position because he sees philosophy as “an autonomous inquiry, in the sense that it has its own problems; but it by no means follows that those problems arise for it in isolation from the problems of scientists, theologians, poets, or independently of social and economic changes” (Passmore 1965, 16). While Passmore does not maintain that there are such things as “the problems of philosophy,” he claims we can “speak of certain types of problems as continuously recurring in philosophy, although in different shapes” (28). Even if these problems are not “solved,” there is little doubt that we make advances in understanding them. Thus, for Passmore, we should be both a historian and a philosopher. We see the inner history of the development of philosophy, but this is not done in isolation from historical and cultural context.

Jorge Gracia (1991, 68), a more modern example than Passmore, holds that we can examine and understand some elements of our history without the distortion of our contemporary lenses. This is because he sees some problems as fundamental to “all thinking beings.” Gracia states that a “proper understanding and account of history entails in a sense becoming part of it, becoming a contemporary, and that involves judgment, since contemporaries engaged in the philosophical enterprise are in the business of judging truth value” (79). In other words, Gracia is promoting what could be called an “interested” history. This approach requires the assumption that there are some shared standards within the discipline of philosophy that are at play both today and historically, and Gracia claims that “there is a sufficiently solid core of standards, based on the most fundamental requirements for communication and the overall aims of the discipline, to ensure that evaluations can take place” (80).

While these more moderate approaches to the history of philosophy may be more suitable for feminist historical enterprise, they are—ultimately—still not a good fit. The problem is the understanding of philosophy itself at play in these more moderate approaches. The identification of philosophy as an autonomous intellectual enterprise with identifiable problems and aims—rather unfortunately—is the foundation for the potential agreement between the philosophical and historical approaches. Yet it is this very notion of autonomy, as we have seen, that makes it hard for feminist philosophy to incorporate its “new” issues—drawn from the material lives of women—into the mainstream philosophical enterprise.

In addition, women have rarely been allowed to participate in discussions of what Passmore sees as recurring problems or what Gracia calls the overall aims of philosophy, either discussions of the problems themselves or discussions where these problems are identified as such. Yet both the philosophical and the historical approaches are grounded on the assumption that the goals and processes of their separate enterprises are objective or unbiased. Feminist philosophers have shown us that this is not the case. Simply put, the construction, whether literally or metaphorically, of what we call the discipline of philosophy has been male dominated and has functioned to exclude women. We want to ask “Whose problems?” and “Whose standards and aims?” To claim that these are “human” problems or aims is dangerous, given our cultural history of misidentifying human with male or men. In other words, we are left with the sense that the revised approaches of Gracia and Passmore are framed against the background of the patrimonial picture of philosophy and thus a patrimonial history of philosophy.

Cynthia Freeland (2000, 380) suggests that it is possible to offer a feminist version of a combined philosophical–historical approach. She calls this the “inheritance approach” and gives the work of Charlotte Witt on the history of philosophy as an example. On the mainstream approach, we read the history of philosophy for truths and the answers to current problems; the feminist version of this is, according to Freeland, that “we can and should make use of our canonical tradition as a resource in developing our own feminist views” (379). This claim can then be combined with a historical study of why a particular philosopher said what he or she did. A central question Freeland asks is whether this approach is feminist enough. Drawing on the work of Luce Irigaray, she argues that this approach requires the acceptance of the notion of “history as roughly continuous and its current goal as problem-solving,” and she questions whether feminists want to become part of a canon that has excluded them (384).

I would agree that the general goals of the inheritance view are important; in reading the history of philosophy as feminists, we want, among other things, to find our intellectual foremothers and offer “historical justification for the importance of ‘our’ theoretical issues and ‘our’ philosophical perspective” (Freeland 2000, 380–81). A feminist approach to the history of philosophy that begins with the canon as a resource is valuable for the feminist enterprise, but I am uncertain that it encompasses the entire enterprise. Surely we should also allow for the possibility of beginning with figures who are potentially feminist philosophers, even though they will typically be noncanonical or even forgotten. Moreover, Freeland’s concerns about whether the inheritance view is feminist enough would appear to share common ground with my more general concerns about the patrimonial picture of philosophy and the history of philosophy.

What then do I want for what I am calling a feminist lens or perspective for the history of philosophy? I have argued that neither the historical nor the philosophical approach is well suited for examining the work of early feminist philosophers. This is not to say that these approaches cannot be used to interpret the work of these philosophers; rather, I am claiming that using these approaches does not ultimately contribute to the feminist philosophical enterprise as a whole. I hold that we should look for another approach (or approaches) that will result in more fruitful interpretations of specific texts and philosophies and the retrieval of previously neglected forbearers, while at the same time—due to both its conceptualization and its actual results—this approach will participate in and develop the feminist philosophical enterprise. I want to avoid another false dilemma. Just as MacIntyre claims that we do not necessarily have to reject one of the mainstream approaches and keep the other, so I want to claim that we may not necessarily have to mount a wholesale rejection of both mainstream approaches in order to produce an alternative feminist perspective. To do so would be to buy into the picture of philosophy as a series of battles or opposing positions with one viewpoint as the winner and the other as the loser.

A new—feminist—lens or perspective should certainly place early feminist philosophers within their historical and cultural context; indeed, as I argued above, this context is central to a feminist history of philosophy. Whereas the mainstream philosophical approach aims to search for truth for its own sake, a feminist approach—simply put—should search for truths about the subordination of women and the knowledge that will end this subordination. In the same way that the two mainstream approaches can be simplified as asking the questions (respectively) of “What did x say?” and “Is it true?” a feminist interpreter should ask “Does it empower women?”

It may be asked where the significant differences lie between the question I have just outlined and the mainstream historical and philosophical approaches I have argued are not a good fit for interpreting feminist philosophical texts. Initially, it may appear that the empowerment question is simply a version of the philosophical approach in that I am asking of historical texts a transhistorical question: “Does it empower women?”

On a strict interpretation of the philosophical approach an interested question, such as the empowerment of women, would be forbidden. But conceived more loosely, it might seem that the philosophical approach allows for such interested questions. Indeed, there have been many valuable feminist readings of traditional texts that have sought understanding or clarification of the implications of these texts for women (either past or present), which means they have employed an “interested” philosophical approach or question.

I would argue that the empowerment question is more than an interested question. It is not simply that we are making value judgments about a particular text or philosophy or taking up a particular position from which to examine a text or philosophy; rather, the empowerment question brings with it the need for self-consciousness about the political and ethical dimensions of our theorizing. Feminist philosophy is not an intellectual game; we theorize about lived oppressions and hope to remove them. This self-conscious interpreter must hold him- or herself accountable, and be held accountable, to the overall goals of the feminist philosophical enterprise. The interpreter is thus a member of and accountable to a community of knowers. This community is one that comprises their contemporaries, but it also contains the historical philosophers and their contemporaries in the much looser sense that the interpreter—through his or her analysis of historical theorizing—is “speaking for” these philosophers and their contemporaries. It is here that I think it makes sense—both conceptually and for the sake of clarity—to shift to talking of a feminist perspective or lens rather than an approach. To call the empowerment question an approach may indicate that I am offering some new or replacement methodology, whereas to call it a perspective or lens points to these signature characteristics that differentiate it from mainstream philosophizing.

As I shall show, the empowerment question is asked against a background of a different picture of philosophy from the patrimonial one. As I said, the knower is a self-conscious knower, who is held accountable to a community of knowers with common goals. These knowers do not just search for philosophical or historical truths; both the end of the search and their understanding of the search are different. Their search is “impure” not only because they are searching for truths that produce the political goal of alleviating the oppression of women, but also because the search is turned on themselves as individuals, both in an examination of their personal motivations and biases and as a way of maintaining their awareness of their political and ethical accountability to the greater community of knowers.

This stands in contrast to the patrimonial picture of the knower as a disinterested, autonomous knower who is supposedly able to detach him- or herself and remain separate from the objects of knowledge, where the truths sought after are unencumbered by subjectivity or the needs of the material world. I have argued that this position is harder for women to inherit than it is for men. Being able to take up the position of the knower on the empowerment picture, on the other hand, is about wishing to join a community because of one’s common political goals with that community; it is not about inheritance, legacy, or privilege.

The self-conscious knower of the empowerment picture hopes to find truths that will produce political change, did produce political change, or could have produced political change, truths about women’s experiences, situations, and issues under interlocking systems of oppression. Even if it were to appear that the empowerment question is simply a version of the philosophical approach, there does not seem to be a theoretical space for the answers to this question on the patrimonial picture of philosophy that lies behind the philosophical approach.

Thus the approaches themselves are not at issue here; rather, it is the patrimonial picture of philosophy that lies behind them. The approaches themselves are potentially neutral; it is how they are used or can be used and the picture of philosophy that informs them that are my concerns. Certainly, it may be possible to have feminist variants of the two approaches, but while the patrimonial picture of philosophy lies behind these two approaches, these variants will not easily accommodate historical feminist texts. With a shift in how we are constructing the enterprise of the history of philosophy will—obviously—come a shift in what counts as the success or failure of a particular view or theory. I shall argue that success within a feminist perspective for the history of philosophy is less about having an unbeatable argument or a highly original theory, or being remembered a century later, but is rather about empowerment—both as a product, if the theory and its prescriptions are followed, and, potentially, as individual empowerment in its intended audience. In addition, and connected to the feminist philosophical enterprise, I shall also consider how we are to identify historical texts for the feminist project, specifically, what is to count as a philosophical text.

I am not offering an alternative full-blown methodology per se, but I am going beyond offering either some kind of amalgam of the two approaches or the philosophical approach with an added “interested” element. Ultimately, offering an alternative methodology to replace the two traditional methodologies may be self-defeating, as I said above, for to do so would be to buy into a masculinist picture of philosophy as a series of competing positions. Moreover, to attempt to do so would be to run into a central question for contemporary feminist philosophy: how much do we want to break with the—or is it our?—philosophical tradition? There is always something of a balancing act with feminist philosophy. Too radical a break with tradition means that we fight to be recognized and taken seriously; not radical enough and we are subsumed or ignored, albeit for different reasons.

Ultimately, then, I am offering what might best be described as a “politicized synthesis,” a perspective that I will justify using the work of Frances Wright. Calling on Wright is not problematically circular but instead reflects the concept of connectivity at play in both Wright’s work and my interpretive perspective. I aim to offer a working hypothesis as to how history of philosophy should be done for feminist purposes. I will read different philosophical texts using this hypothesis to see what can be learned about these texts. Obviously, I am not doing science so I cannot prove my hypothesis per se; however, I believe that I can demonstrate its plausibility by the explanatory richness it produces and the interest of its results for both contemporary feminist philosophy and feminist history of philosophy.

Throughout the work, I shall demonstrate the problems with using the two mainstream approaches of the history of philosophy for reading the works of early feminist or proto-feminist philosophy; however, as I have said, I will not reject outright both mainstream approaches. Elements of both approaches clearly remain in the “empowerment question” I employ to interpret these texts. Underlying this politicized synthesis perspective is a picture of philosophy and philosophical interpretation that differs from the traditional patrimonial picture; it is a picture of ethical and political consciousness and a responsibility—and thus connectivity—to both to a community of knowers and to the author of a text. This politicized synthesis perhaps could be described as a new methodology for feminist history of philosophy, but only in the loosest of senses; certainly it does not fit traditional definitions of a methodology.

English and American Utilitarian Philosophers of the Nineteenth Century

Examining all the texts that may be works of feminist philosophy would be a massive enterprise and I can show only one facet of the history of feminist philosophy. Thus I decided to look at one small group of works: English and American utilitarian philosophy on the subject of women from the nineteenth century. Each chapter examines a different utilitarian philosopher or connected group of philosophers. Some of these philosophers are well-known, some forgotten or barely recognized; some are clearly feminist, others less so. I examine the canonical philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, as well as James Mill, who, if he is not strictly speaking canonical, is certainly a well-known historical figure. I recover the more politically radical work of Frances Wright and coauthors Anna Doyle Wheeler and William Thompson. I also analyze the work of Catharine Beecher, who—despite the fact that she may have been America’s first female philosopher—remains better known for her work on home economics.

There are two other figures from this era who have been recognized for their feminist thought: Harriet Taylor Mill and Henry Sidgwick. I decided that critical and expository secondary literature on Harriet Taylor has been thorough enough that I had little to add, whereas in Sidgwick’s case it is clear that there are nothing more than a few pro-women or pro-feminist elements in his work, certainly nothing that could even justify a claim that he was in some way an early feminist philosopher.

Focusing on this utilitarian group alone appeared to make sense. Not only was there a variety of work to examine, but there were interconnections between the writers. Moreover, it seemed that looking at a more closely knit group of writers would make it easier to raise meta-questions about doing the history of philosophy than would be the case if looking at a more disparate group connected simply by a time period or some other more contingent factor. This stance in itself, I would argue, is part of doing a feminist history of philosophy. Rather than offering a sweeping history, a series of canonical figures, or answers to the supposedly timeless questions of philosophy (feminist or otherwise), I want to examine philosophy at a particular historical cultural moment. However, I do not want to fall into Brucker’s “sect” trap; while all the figures I examine fit under the general rubric of utilitarian, they are often more differences than similarities in their philosophies.

Another reason for my choice of figures is that, on the surface at least, utilitarianism and feminism are a comfortable match. Giving women equal rights, education, and so forth would seem automatically to bring about the best states of affairs, or in classical utilitarian terms, the greatest happiness overall. However, the relationship between the moral and political theory of utilitarianism and the goals of feminism ultimately proved more complex than I anticipated, and an examination of this relationship forms a secondary, minor element to this book. In particular, I explore whether utilitarianism can truly connect with feminism only when it is not “theoretically” pure, as in the case of Catharine Beecher and Frances Wright.

In the first chapter I examine Anna Doyle Wheeler and William Thompson’s coauthored 1825 work, Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political, and thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery. Both Thompson and Wheeler were originally from Ireland and were part of the intellectual circles of their time, including that of the English utilitarians. The chapter begins with an introduction to this neglected radical work on the rights and equality of women. I demonstrate that neither of the two mainstream approaches can allow for a proper examination of the Appeal. The historical approach cannot allow for an interpretive space within which to evaluate the arguments of Wheeler and Thompson relative to the feminist project of social justice; however, a search for our feminist foremothers is one of the reasons feminists engage in the history of philosophy. The philosophical approach does not appear to have the theoretical space within which we can examine the truths of the Appeal. Wheeler and Thompson are not just producing knowledge or presenting truths for their own sake; rather, they are producing knowledge and presenting truths for a specific political end, one that, moreover, has a particular historical and cultural context.

In examining the Appeal through the lens of the empowerment question, we come to see that the problem ultimately rests with the picture of philosophy itself that underlies mainstream approaches to the history of philosophy. This picture struggles to allow for Wheeler and Thompson’s impure and nonautonomous philosophy of gender justice, with its political, empirical, and historically contextualized elements. Thus an examination of the Appeal allows us to begin building a picture of the features an interpretive lens for feminist history of philosophy might contain. An examination of the Appeal also raises the question of philosophical authorship. Even though Thompson explicitly acknowledges both Wheeler as coauthor and her epistemic authority for the work, commentators have struggled to recognize her role as an equal intellectual contributor. This, I show, is part of what I am calling the patrimonial picture of philosophy.

Despite their best efforts, Wheeler and Thompson fail to offer a theory that truly empowers women. While Wheeler and Thompson’s utopian socialist community would liberate women in many ways, the philosophers remain stuck in traditional female roles and rely on men to provide the necessary impetus for social change. This failure is ultimately due to Wheeler and Thompson’s utilitarianism serving as the theoretical foundation of their call for women’s liberation.

The second chapter, an examination of the philosophy of Catharine Beecher, helps us to see that any proposed feminist approach for the history of philosophy will require a broadening or reconceptualization of both how we define philosophical texts and our notion of philosophical authorship. Despite the fact that Catherine Beecher was one of the most productive female philosophers of the nineteenth century—and it could be reasonably claimed that she was the first female American philosopher with a properly worked out philosophical system—she is best known as domestic economist. This is perhaps not surprising once we consider the dominant Anglo-American model of the “philosophical” and its corollary, the “philosophical author” (this model is at play in both mainstream approaches to the history of philosophy). This author retains a certain level of impersonal detachment and writes on abstract or universal topics for a “general” audience, which in the nineteenth century would have been educated males for the most part. Beecher’s domestic advice manuals and letters of counsel, however, are intimately written and are based on personal experience; moreover, their target audience was women.

On the standard Anglo-American picture of what philosophy “is,” much of Beecher’s work is not philosophy. Accordingly, neither of the two mainstream approaches to the history of philosophy is well suited for an examination of her work. Yet Beecher explicitly chose these particular forms of writing and the type of knowledge she was trying to convey as part of her philosophical approach. Beecher’s primary audience was women, for they are to be the moral leaders in Beecher’s utilitarian plan for the increased happiness of humanity. Domestic advice manuals and letters were acceptable “feminine” genres for women to read; moreover, they would have learned how to “read” these forms, unlike the specialized training needed for reading philosophical treatises. As I shall argue, Beecher in her domestic advice manuals and letters is writing philosophy for women.

Reading Beecher through the lens of the empowerment question requires us to ask about the practical, projected results of her work for an actual, historically situated group of women; indeed, the empowerment question will always require us to place historical works within their historical and cultural context. However, reading Beecher as historically located in this way need not prevent us from asking about Beecher’s philosophical or political connections to the “us” of modern readers, but the empowerment question goes beyond being an interested question that could be part of the mainstream historical approach. As I shall show, drawing from Beecher’s own work on reading philosophy, the interpreters themselves are involved in the search (and its subsequent answers), as they must hold themselves accountable, and be held accountable, to the overall goals of the feminist philosophical enterprise. While there may be room for interested questions on the philosophical approach, there is no room for this politically and ethically self-conscious interpreter, one who will be personally and politically involved with his or her chosen texts and theories, on what I am calling the patrimonial picture of philosophy.

The argument for the interpretive fruitfulness of asking the empowerment question and a closer examination of the features or characteristics of a possible feminist history of philosophy come together in the chapter on Frances Wright. Wright was Scottish, but her important philosophical and activist work was done in the United States. Wright’s central work of philosophy is her Course of Popular Letters, in which she argues for the equality of both American women and African Americans. While Wright’s focus is primarily on offering a social and moral philosophy, she produces a complete philosophical system in that she offers an epistemology and metaphysics that ground her arguments for social justice. Wright’s epistemology is distinctive, in particular for her claim that we are to work together collaboratively to find knowledge. Indeed, we cannot do otherwise, according to Wright, because we are all (humans and the natural world alike) interconnected. However, the rest of her philosophy has been criticized because it is a synthesis of—often “competing”—canonical and radical philosophies, among them Benthamite utilitarianism, moral sense theory, Owenite socialism, and Enlightenment rationalism.

It is these notions of synthesis and collaboration that make Wright unsuitable for the dominant Anglo-American picture of philosophy and thus the history of philosophy. As I have already discussed, this picture is often one of competing schools and an adversarial methodology. Moreover, philosophical truths or knowledge are typically the preserve of the solitary (male) knower, who demonstrates the mistakes of previous theorizing and produces his own distinct system that furthers philosophical knowledge. I would argue, however, that this expectation of “originality” and theoretical purity is part of a patrimonial picture of the history of philosophy.

I argue that Wright’s philosophy does truly offer empowerment for her contemporaries, but, given the differences in our social and political situation, this then raises the question of how we “moderns” can relate to her work. Here we have to leave aside the binary thinking that characterizes mainstream history of philosophy and move toward a different model of the relationship between the interpreter/knower and the text/philosophy. The interpreter/knower does not just read for historical or philosophical knowledge, he or she also searches for political connections with historical texts or philosophers, a search that is grounded on a political and ethical self-consciousness of our role as interpreters and intellectual grandchildren of these early feminists.

This notion of the interpreter/knower requires an alternative picture of philosophy to the patrimonial one, and Wright’s philosophy can offer a way this alternative might look, although I am by no means claiming that this is the only alternative. Wright’s philosophy offers us a picture of the (constantly) ethically and politically self-aware knower who collaborates with a community of like-minded others to produce political change. This knower is linked to others by shared political goals and a common sense of responsibility to one another, those goals, and those whose lives he or she wishes to change. On this picture, commitment and responsibility are “inherited” as much as ideas, positions, or texts, and the analogy becomes one of shared traits among a family rather than patrimonial inheritance.

In the final chapter I turn to canonical nineteenth-century (male) philosophers who have written on the subject of women, and this time I will show how the “empowerment question” can be used not to recapture but to critique. I briefly discuss James Mill and Jeremy Bentham, but focus primarily on John Stuart Mill, specifically his work The Subjection of Women. Mill has been praised for his feminism, and The Subjection has been seen as a (the?) major work of nineteenth-century philosophical feminism. I argue that commentators have misunderstood Mill’s work, in part because Mill’s work has been interpreted utilizing the philosophical approach to the history of philosophy. Asking the admittedly still skeletal empowerment question of Mill’s Subjection, we find some interesting results: I am able to resolve the tensions modern-day feminist commentators have seen in The Subjection, and I also demonstrate that the work is not about the empowerment of women. Somewhat more controversially, I argue that, ultimately, The Subjection of Women is as much a work about the moral requirements for the English in their role as “civilizing” colonialists as it is a work about the liberation of women; indeed, it may have been mistakenly placed in the feminist canon.

In the concluding chapter I consider the empowerment question itself. Neither of the two mainstream methodologies on its own is adequate for the recovery and examination of historical works of feminist philosophy; however, this does not imply an outright rejection of these two methodologies. Clearly, the empowerment question shares elements with the two mainstream approaches; however, the question is asked within a different picture of philosophy and philosophical knowledge from the dominant Anglo-American picture, which I am calling patrimonial. Given that the alternative philosophical background I am proposing is open to synthesis and collaboration, I do not see the inclusion of elements from the philosophical and historical approaches in the empowerment question as necessarily being a weakness.

The empowerment question, as it stands, is not a new feminist methodology; it is better understood as an interpretive lens or perspective. Indeed, it may even be the case that a new feminist methodology, defined in the mainstream philosophical sense, should not be a goal for feminist historians of philosophy. Instead, feminist historians of philosophy may perhaps be more fruitfully engaged in a search for features or characteristics of a feminist approach to the history of philosophy rather than in the construction of a new or alternative methodology. The empowerment question allows us to see some of these features, including—but not limited to—the recognition of the importance of making women’s experiences central to our interpretive investigation, the ethical and political responsibility of the interpreter, and questions associated with the authority to speak for ourselves or for others. Simply put, these features show us that feminist history of philosophy is a politicized inquiry undertaken by a politically and ethically responsible interpreter/knower who acknowledges their own historical and cultural location.

Put so simply, it may seem that there is nothing I am saying that has not already been said by feminist philosophers working in the fields of epistemology and ethics. But surely this is the point. While our feminist “foremothers” and “forefathers” are valued, the binary historical/philosophical thinking of mainstream philosophy still seems to play out in the way that feminist history of philosophy is not integrated into the feminist philosophical project more generally. Early feminist philosophers are valued either for their historical significance or for their potential, ahistorical use for a specific disciplinary discussion or field, such as ethics. If we can move beyond this binary thinking about our own history of philosophy, then we perhaps we will come to see the different fields of the feminist philosophical project as interconnected rather than comprising disciplinary silos like traditional philosophy. We cannot do history without an understanding of epistemology, ethics, politics, and so forth, nor can we do epistemology, ethics, or politics without an understanding of our feminist history.