news 2020

Recognizing Hidden Voices: Extending New Narratives in the History of Philosophy

June 05, 2020

A major SSHRC Partnership grant, with Lisa Shapiro as Principal Investigator, aims to diversify the philosophical canon through reframing criteria for inclusion. The $2.78M award enables 12 partner institutions across the world to establish open access resources and training programs to help young researchers develop digital research skills, ensuring that previously unrecognized voices are heard and remain accessible to future scholars.

The Department of Philosophy is very pleased to announce the award of a major SSHRC (Social Science and Humanities Research Council) Partnership Grant, with Professor Lisa Shapiro as Principal investigator. Extending New Narratives in the History of Philosophy will bring together more than 85 academic scholars and librarians from 12 partner institutions worldwide to transform the philosophical canon by increasing the diversity of voices recognised as contributing significantly to the subject.

Over the next seven years, a combination of archival grunt work and scholarship from other disciplines will retrieve the work of women philosophers and others from marginalised groups. By confronting tacit presuppositions about genres of writing and what counts as central philosophical questions, Extending New Narratives in the History of Philosophy will reframe inclusion criteria to recognise the value of those philosophical contributions.

“Further developing accessible, searchable digital resources of these women and their works as well as training a new generation of scholars ensures that women’s philosophy will no longer be written in disappearing ink,” Shapiro explains, referencing notable historian of philosophy, Eileen O’Neill, who led recent efforts to retrieve the work of women philosophers.  

A Strategy for a Sustainable Research Programme

The Partnership Grant extends from and builds on a previous partnership development grant (2015–2019) that focused on women philosophers in the early modern period (roughly 1560-1810).  

A multi-faceted approach will build a sustainable research programme that will full integrate women and other neglected thinkers into the history of philosophy. These strategies include:

Strengthening existing research networks and building new ones.

  • The team extends an international research network of scholars researching women philosophers and other neglected thinkers of the past.
  • They will work together to train a new generation of scholars to develop lines of inquiry on neglected figures in the history of philosophy.
  • These new students will develop skills in archival research methods but also in digital tool-development to ensures that previously unrecognized voices are heard and remain accessible to future scholars.

Developing open-access digital resources to support research and teaching. 

  • The team will develop local digital collections at academic libraries (like the one at the SFU library) to store retrieved writings sustainably, and network these collections to make resources easy to find.
  • They’ll also continue to develop resources like Project Vox to support instructors in incorporating these women philosophers into their courses.
  • Part of the project is to launch an online open-access scholarly journal focused on neglected figures and themes so scholars can share their results.

Reaching out to a wide audience.

  • The project wants to shift the cultural expectations by increasing awareness of the intellectual contributions of women and those from other marginalized groups in the general public through public talks, podcasts, blogposts, and interviews
  • Providing secondary school teachers with resources will help inform their curriculum, and so reach the next generation of students.

The Absence of Women in Philosophy

Shapiro, who has been with the Philosophy department since 2002, first noticed the ‘absence’ of women philosophers while working on her doctoral dissertation. It was, and still is, a common view that ‘since we don’t know of any women philosophers of the period there must not be any’. Women were often described as ‘learned ladies’, dismissed as mere love interests of male philosophers and their work thus discounted.

However, Shapiro’s research on the 17th century philosopher, René Descartes included his correspondence with Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia. Although Elisabeth corresponded extensively with Descartes, questioning and exploring his philosophical principles in depth, she herself was not considered a philosopher. Her writing is only now being recognised as having philosophical worth of its own.

As Shapiro notes however, exclusion shapes the canon. “Overlooking writings simply because they don’t fit a standard form means we don’t learn from a huge number of voices.”

Why Does It Matter? Who Are We Missing?

Many academic disciplines now understand the importance of supporting diversity to encourage inclusion by providing role models attract students from previously marginalised groups. This is being actively promoted within STEM, for example, to increase participation and contribution by women.  

Here are some examples from who is ‘missing’ from Philosophy.

Human Nature, Dignity, and Human Rights

Late 18th and early 19th century authors Mary Prince and Harriet Jacobs whose writings have been recognized by historians and scholars of English literature, have not been recognized as philosophers. Nonetheless, these former slaves argued for abolition of slavery by through first personal narratives. Not only did these narratives convey the brutality of slavery to a wider public, the first-personal form of writing itself conveyed the personhood of their authors, thereby demonstrating the basic premise of abolitionist arguments and further justifying the demands of human dignity. These appeals to human dignity build on earlier discussions on the inherent dignity of women and develop into assertions of human rights.

Image: By Unknown author - "Harriet Jacobs" By Jean Fagan Yellin, found at Google booksitem provenance: [1]image: Illustration from page 265[2], Public Domain, Link

Equality, Philosophy of Mind, and Education

These earlier discussions about dignity are connected with Descartes’s account of the mind as a thinking thing. Philosophers imagined how an education can develop minds and make both men and women into real thinking things. François Poulain de la Barre argues in his ‘On the Equality of the Two Sexes’ (1673) that ‘the mind has no sex’ and in ‘Education of the Ladies’ (1674) he models what a good education might look like.

Françoise d’Aubigné, Madame de Maintenon, founded the Maison royale de Saint Louis, the first secular school for girls in Europe, in 1684, and developed a very innovative curriculum for the school, which endured until the French Revolution.

Gabrielle Suchon argues in her Treatise on Ethics and Politics (1693) and On the Celibate Life Freely Chosen (1700) that in order for women to be truly free with the possibility of equality, social institutions need to change, and in particular that women need to have options other than marriage or the convent available to them. Mary Astell in her A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694, 1697) argues for women’s education, separate from men, both to cultivate their ability to reason and to free themselves of societal expectations.

Image: By Gabrielle Suchon, Edited and Translated by Domna C. Stanton and Rebecca M. Wilkin - A Woman Who Defends All the Persons of Her Sex (extracted from File:Gabrielle Suchon Portrait.pdf using pdfimages), Public Domain  

Metaphysics and Philosophy of Science

Émilie du Châtelet translated both Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees and Isaac Newton’s Principia into French. Her own Foundations of Physics (1740) presents Newton’s views while covering philosophical topics such as the basic principles of reasoning, our knowledge of God, as well as the proper views of space, time, matter and the laws of nature. It also provides long discussions of the latest research regarding gravity and insights into the right view of the forces of nature. 

There are many other women working in metaphysics, both earlier, such as Margaret Cavendish, in her Observations on the Experimental Philosophy (1666), and later, such as Mary Shepherd, in her An Essay on the Relation of Cause and Effect (1824), and May Sinclair, in her A Defence of Idealism (1917).  

Transforming the Canon

Shapiro is excited both by the sheer number of researchers involved across the globe, and also the potential for bringing change to the discipline of philosophy. Wider recognition for women philosophers will bring Elisabeth but also Marguerite Porete, Gabrielle Suchon, Olympe de Gouges, Sophie de Grouchy, Karolina van Günderrode, Edith Stein, and many others to prominence. Being able to name a woman philosopher before the 1950s won’t be such a challenge in the future.

The grant also aligns with the university’s equity and diversity initiative (EDI), especially for next year’s 30th anniversary of Canada’s first credit course in Women Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS).

“The retrieval, recognition as valuable, and inclusion of women and other hidden contributions to philosophy will affect changes within the discipline,” explains Shapiro. “If we can change our understanding of our intellectual past we can also change the way we value contributions in the present.”

Partner  Institutions

  • Simon Fraser University (SFU)
  • McGill University
  • University of Western Ontario (Western)
  • University of Guelph
  • Duke University
  • University of Pennsylvania (Penn)
  • Columbia University
  • Monash University
  • University of Sydney
  • Jyväskylä University
  • Université de Paris X-Nanterre (Nanterre)
  • Université de Lyon 3-Jean Moulin (Lyon 3)



Study Philosophy at SFU

Prof. Sarah Hutton (University of York), member of the award committee, interviews Prof. Lisa Shapiro (Simon Frazer University Canada), the winner of the first Elisabeth of Bohemia and Herford Prize 2018.

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