Project Vox Travels the Internet

Thursday, April 23, 2015
Humanities Writ Large

Project Vox, a website associated with the Humanities Writ Large Emerging Network Philosophy’s Gender in Historical Perspective, is attracting attention well beyond the confines of academic philosophy. Most recently, it was the subject of a Washington Post op-ed written by Andrew Janiak and Christia Mercer, philosophy professors based at Duke and Columbia, respectively (Janiak, departmental colleague Sara Bernstein, and PhD student Adela Deanova, all at Duke, are co-conveners of the Emerging Network). The project has also been the subject of articles in Times Higher Education and several online journals. Closer to home, Duke Today ran an impressive multi-media feature about the project.

For a quick summary and overview, nothing tops the pithy enthusiasm of Ayun Halliday’s review in Open Culture, a site devoted to “high-quality cultural & educational media.”

A philosophy candidate or feminist scholar venturing into Duke University’s new Project Vox website may experience a sensation akin to discovering King Tut’s tomb.

Such treasures! Not just a scrap here and a morsel there, but a serious trove of information about philosophy writ by females!

[...]

Project Vox seeks to resurrect their overlooked-to-the-point-of-undiscovered contributions by publishing their long out of print texts, some translated into English for the first time. Biographical information and secondary resources will provide a sense of each philosopher as well as her philosophy.

Janiak and Mercer begin their Washington Post op-ed by noting the near total absence of women in even the most recent historical surveys of philosophy. They then acknowledge the usual explanation—women were systematically excluded from intellectual life until the latter part of the 20th century. It’s an explanation that “[m]ost consumers of contemporary philosophy textbooks will begrudgingly accept.”

But, they write, that explanation is “dead wrong.” In spite of the obstacles, women have been making important contributions to philosophy for hundreds of years. Take Elisabeth of Bohemia, for example. She begins a correspondence with Descartes with the self-deprecating claim that she is “an ignorant and intractable person” with a “disordered style.” Then she “pivots to a devastating criticism of his proposals, from which he does not fully recover. Elisabeth’s insightful comments over the course of their six-year exchange influenced Descartes’ developing views about the soul.”

Then there’s the French aristocrat Émilie Du Châtelet. Châtelet fled to the provinces to escape the intellectual strictures of Paris. There she established a salon where European intellectuals gathered and “discussed math and physics, ran experiments, wrote philosophy and debated through the night.” In time she published a 400-page treatise on physics that was plagiarized in Diderot and D’Alembert’s ground-breaking Encyclopédie.

Ultimately, “Châtelet’s reputation quietly dissipated while generations of scholars unknowingly studied her treatment of space, motion, and gravity.” No surprise there. The article in Times Higher Education cites Hegel’s belief that the minds of women “are not adapted to the higher sciences, philosophy, or certain of the arts.” With such deeply sexist convictions, readers would scarcely have been able to imagine a woman as the source of important philosophical thought—the more impressive and influential the work, the less likely credit would go where credit is due. Present-day readers are guilty of an inverse failure of imagination. Their awareness of historical sexism leads to the assumption that women were simply unable to contribute anything significant to the tradition. The disappearance of women like Châtelet from the history of philosophy has been an insidiously self-perpetuating process.

A concrete result of this history, emphasized by most of the articles, is that women are drastically underrepresented in the field of philosophy. Times Higher Education cites “an independent review of top philosophy departments,” which found that only about one in five philosophy professors are female.

Along the same lines, in an article on the website Ravishly, Noah Berlatsky notes that “philosophy as a discipline—even more than boardrooms, even more than books or comics—is shockingly lacking in diversity.” He argues that what Project Vox brings to the field is not just a diversity of faces, it’s a diversity of thoughts.

As Janiak and Mercer explain in the Washington Post, “[p]hilosophy’s past is full of questions that went in and out of vogue.” Some of them were addressed “most astutely” by “marginalized authors.” Marie de Gournay’s “skeptical methodology and cuttingly sharp wit... made her one of the most prominent voices for the equality of women in early modern France.” She had insights into the relation between justice and education—a preoccupation of the time—that few if any men had could match. “Treatises on toleration, abolition and dignity—written by women and former slaves—are also abundant in early modern Europe, as are discussions of rights, community, self-respect and freedom among 19th century African Americans.”

“Given our students’ concerns with education, toleration, justice and dignity,” Janiak and Mercer write, “it seems obvious that our courses should contain historical discussions of these issues.” The two of them, along with Eileen O’Neill of University of Massachusetts, Amherst, are co-editing a more inclusive historical survey, The Oxford New Histories of Philosophy.

“Most young philosophers recognize that undergraduates are more likely to engage with philosophy when it is taught in a way that includes a diversity of voices, while maintaining standards of rigor,” Janiak and Mercer write. By offering an account of their discipline that looks beyond the “traditional story about great men facing great problems,” the authors hope to help their colleagues “rethink their courses and speak to a new generation of students eager to discover the full breadth and variety of philosophy.”

Referenced Projects