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Where have all the female sages been hiding?

  • Another age-old conundrum

What do Thales, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Byron, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bentham, Mill, Marx, Bergson, James, Dewey, Russell, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus, Foucault and Ayer have in common? Bingo, if you guessed that they are all philosophers who have sadly passed on. You should be especially proud of yourself if you also knew that they are all – to a man – males. Indeed, women are nowhere to be seen when it comes to the field of philosophy. Which is unfortunate, really, for we could have done with wisdom from 50pc of all human beings that ever lived.

The dearth of women in philosophy over the centuries – indeed, their complete absence when it comes to ground-breaking, trend-setting, important philosophy – is a hard one to explain, even though their representation in letters and arts, for example, has been similarly disproportionate to their numbers. For here there’s a hypothesis – not mine, feminists to note please – that it’s the beauty of members of the fair sex that has inspired men to indulge in these creative pursuits, in the process producing great works of art. Women have no such inspiration – and considering the average male specimen they are not to blame one bit – which explains their rather poor showing in these areas.

Coming back to women and philosophy, some people (mostly women) hold women to be more practical than men. In this view, philosophy is at best a useless ‘academic’ pursuit that has no bearing on the real life, and vice versa. And then there are valid criticisms of philosophy. Richard Feynman, for example, lampooned philosophers who are eternally debating (without resolution) whether, when they are looking at something, they see only its light or the object itself: ‘This is one of those dopey philosophical things that an ordinary person has no difficulty with. Even the most profound philosopher eating his dinner has difficulties making out that perhaps what he is looking at might only be the light from his steak. But it still implies the existence of the steak, which he is able to lift by the fork to his mouth. The philosophers that are unable to make that analysis fall by the wayside through hunger.’ This criticism of philosophy forever going around in epistemological circles instead of settling issues has a lot of merit. That said, if the practical nature of women is accepted as a valid explanation for the question at hand, what is one to make of women’s lack of representation in science and technology, albeit not quite as bad as in philosophy.  After all, what can be more practical than science and technology? The answer obviously lies elsewhere.

Socrates had this excellent advice for men: “By all means, marry. If you get a good wife, you will be happy. If you get a bad one, you will be a philosopher”

There’s a competing hypothesis according to which women do realise the utility of philosophy, but they simply don’t want to do it. Just like they don’t want to change tires or troubleshoot the water-heater. For my part, I am loath to give credence to any explanation that presumes to know what women want. Dr Sigmund Freud had this to say about the issue: “The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?'” I hope I will be forgiven for being skeptical about anybody who claims to know more on these issues than the inventor of psychoanalysis.

Then there’s the traditional explanation that drudgeries of housework and childcare (over the centuries) have been responsible for women not playing their part in philosophy. This explanation ignores the fact that an overwhelming majority of all men that ever lived were also too preoccupied to make ends meet to take up philosophical speculation. That said, there have been enough men, as well as women, in history who were lucky enough not to find themselves bogged down by the mere problems of survival and existence.

Hegel has an opinion on the issue, which today would be called extremely sexist: “Women can, of course, be educated, but their minds are not adapted to the higher sciences, philosophy, or certain of the arts.” Political incorrectness aside, this explanation is unsatisfactory (in itself) because it merely shifts the question one step back, namely: Why their minds are not adapted to certain pursuits?

Could it be that as with music and poetry, women are the reason why men have been taking up philosophy? Socrates had this excellent advice for men: “By all means, marry. If you get a good wife, you will be happy. If you get a bad one, you will be a philosopher.” Note that there was no parallel advice to women, which tells its own little story. While Russell and Ayer took the advice very enthusiastically (they got married four times each), not all philosophers heeded Socrates. Some were obviously too good at philosophy to even contemplate marriage.

Finally, could it be – I’m going out on a limb here – that women have not felt attracted to philosophy because they’ve always had answers to all questions already?

Hasan Aftab Saeed

The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at

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Hasan Aftab Saeed

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