The Disappearing Women [Global]

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Rae Langton – New York Times – Friday, 06 September 2013 (originally published 04 Sept)

“How many philosophers does it take to change a light bulb?”

It depends what you mean by ‘change’…”

That joke pokes gentle fun at a popular caricature: the chin-stroking grey-beard, with his fetish for word-meanings, his practical irrelevance and his philosophy that “leaves everything as it is,” as Wittgenstein said. The caricature is misleading, for philosophy also prides itself on its capacity to ask hard questions and challenge prejudice. Socrates was executed for stirring up trouble. Descartes began his “Meditations” with a rousing call to “demolish completely” a long-standing edifice of falsehoods — to uproot our “habit of holding on to old opinions,” and look at the world with fresh, unbiased eyes.

That radical power has inspired many women in philosophy, and much political work. The English philosopher Mary Astell wrote irreverently, in 1700, that an opinion’s age is no guide to its truth, that “a rational mind” is not made for servitude, and that a woman’s obligation to a man “is only a Business by the Bye”— “just as it may be any Man’s Business and Duty to keep Hogs.”  From Descartes’s idea that we are essentially thinking beings she deduced a conclusion too daring for her peers: colleges for women. Husband-keeping is like hog-keeping: a contingent duty, not what a woman is made for . . .

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