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Major award seeks to revive and recognize hidden philosophers’ voices

July 03, 2020
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By Amanda Maxwell

If you struggle to name a woman philosopher from before the 1950s then you’re not alone. But change is coming. Researchers at Simon Fraser University and 11 partner institutions around the world will use a $2.7-million Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant to reframe the criteria for whose voices to include among recognized international philosophers.  

The project, Extending New Narratives in the History of Philosophy  aims to revive the previously discounted work of women philosophers and other marginalized groups.

Through archival grunt work, and examining scholarship in other disciplines, researchers will make these groups’ ideas more accessible while also recognizing their importance and relevance to both historical and contemporary discussions. They will also establish open-access resources for scholars and the general public, train students in archival methods, and develop digital tools.

Lisa Shapiro, principal investigator

Principal investigator Lisa Shapiro, an SFU philosophy professor, says the award will help place women philosophers among other recognized philosophers and ensure their continuing accessibility to future scholars.

“Creating an accessible, searchable digital resource for these works and training a new generation of scholars ensures that women’s philosophy will no longer be written in disappearing ink,” says Shapiro. She references notable historian of philosophy Eileen O’Neill, who led recent efforts to unearth the work of women philosophers.

The partnership brings together more than 85 academic scholars and librarians worldwide. It will include training young philosophy researchers in digital research methods, to creating a new generation of scholars eager to pursue new lines of inquiry into neglected historical philosophical figures.

Shapiro joined SFU’s philosophy department in 2002 and first noticed the absence of women philosophers while working on her doctoral dissertation.

‘Since we don’t know of any women philosophers of the period there must not be any’ was—and still is—a common view. They 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 recognised as having philosophical worth on its own.

As Shapiro notes however, exclusion shapes the compilation, or canon, of recognized philosophers.

“Overlooking writings simply because they don’t fit a standard form means we don’t learn from a huge number of voices.”

Shapiro says wider recognition for women philosophers will bring Elisabeth, Marguerite Porete, Gabrielle Suchon, Olympe de Gouges, Sophie de Grouchy, Karolina van Günderrode, and many others, to prominence.

The grant also aligns with the university’s equity and diversity initiative (EDI) and next year’s 30th anniversary of Canada’s first credit course in Women Studies. in SFU’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS).“Our goal is to effect change within the discipline,” says 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 (USA)

University of Pennsylvania (USA)

 

Columbia University (USA)

Monash University (Australia)

University of Sydney (Australia)

Jyväskylä University (Finland)

Université de Paris X-Nanterre (France)

Université de Lyon 3-Jean Moulin (France)

New Narratives in the History of Philosophy http://www.newnarrativesinphilosophy.net/