The Florida Student Philosophy Blog warmly welcomes Kate Lindemann to the blog to chat about her new website, Women-Philosophers.com.
FSPB: Hi, Kate, welcome to the blog!
You have just launched a website called Women-Philosophers.com. What exactly is the idea behind it? What, in other words, is the website about and what information can be found there?
Kate Lindemann: Hello, Jennifer. The women philosophers’ web site is sort of an encyclopedia of women philosophers from earliest to modern times. My aim is to make this a global and not just Euro-American resource.
Right now the site has mostly women from the Euro-American cultures but I know there are women philosophers (lovers of wisdom) in the Native American, Maori and Latin American traditions as well as other Asian and African cultures. My hope is that the web site will encourage those who know about these women to send information. (Just a few days after launching the site, a student from Hebrew University contacted me with the name of a woman from the Jewish tradition and then a researcher in India sent me a copy of one of her newspaper articles.)
The second part of the site is an Honored Women section. Its purpose is to give public honor to women who by their lives or works deserve acknowledgment. This is not limited to women philosophers.
History has done a poor job of recognizing women. Women are so seldom acknowledged for their lives or their contributions. Many of us have been inspired or helped along by some woman: a relative, a teacher, a writer, someone we read about or met in our travels. I feel that many of us know of women who deserve recognition but there are so few vehicles for giving them public acknowledgment. The Honored Women section provides an opportunity for us to correct that.
Of course, I dream of expanding the site so it provides additional services but right now I need to concentrate on getting more of the basic information online.
FSBP: When and how did you come up with the idea of the website?
KL: The idea for the Women-Philosophers.com did not come all at once. Let me see if I can pull out the threads in its history.
There are really four aspects of the project.
First, it is a web page and not a book or series of articles.
This was the earliest piece of the project. Back when desktop computers first came on the market, I had the good fortune to have Ruth Chaya as a colleague. Ruth foresaw that desktops would become widespread and she introduced some of us to this innovation. Ruth went on to co-author one of the first books about teaching with computers and she got some NSF grants to teach elementary school teachers about this ‘new invention’.
I had trouble with the ‘flicker’ in the early monitors but I soon became enamored of web pages because they allowed me to incorporate background information and asides into written work via links. This really fit my normal way of thinking and teaching – unlike essays which had to follow a sequence of one-thing-after-another.
So I taught myself html, created some web sites, was the first faculty member at our college to have a web site. It was a ‘teaching web site’ with all sorts of helps for students. Also I shifted my course requirements and asked students to put their term projects as web sites instead of term papers. (I used to give classes in basic html to those who did not know any code.)
So my choice of doing a web site is really grounded in that experience. An added piece is that the web, once you have an Internet connection, is free and so the information is widely available at a very low cost. Access to scholarly material has always been important to me. I want everyone able to have access no matter what their income level.
Second, why women philosophers?
I had read Beatrice Zeller’s translation of the seventeenth century History of Women Philosophers. Then when Mary Ellen Waithe posted to the SWIP list looking for volunteers for the History of Women Philosophers Project, I got involved, wrote a couple chapters, suggested some authors.
Of course part of my interest in the HISTORY of women philosophers arose from an experience when I was a sophomore in college. I took my first philosophy course and loved it. One day after class the instructor asked me what my major was. I said, “English but I am thinking of changing to philosophy.” He said that I could not do that and among his reasons was that “There are no women philosophers. Women can not do philosophy.” So I have ALWAYS been interested in women philosophers and ever since I knew of their existence, I wanted to be sure that their lives and work are widely known so no other young woman could be told what I was told.
Third, why the global aspect to the project- why not just European and American?
This comes out of an experience I had in Bogata, Columbia. In the 80’s, I met Sister Mary Christine Morkovsky who is a remarkable philosopher and multilingual scholar. She is the person who introduced Latin American Philosophy of Liberation to the United States’ philosophical community. We co-wrote a paper, “Latin American Philosophy of Liberations and North American Feminism: Possibilities for Dialogue,” that we presented at the Philosophy of Liberation session at an Inter-American Conference held in Bogata. That conference was my first experience of philosophy in Latin America and I was so impressed with the way the Conference was organized and the important place women philosophers were accorded and that philosophy could be a dangerous occupation. At the Congresso I met some women philosophers from Argentina and Chile and I heard a paper about Pre-Conquest Philosophers that included women. It was like a lightning bolt to my mind. I realized that there were probably women philosophers (lovers of wisdom) in all cultures and I knew NOTHING about them.
I had been part of a theology of liberation study group which included Native Americans and after the conference in Bogata, I began to think about women among Native Americans, among the Inuit, etc. So my experience in Bogata is what made me want this project to be global and I figured that with the Internet it could be because people from around the world, students and researchers, could send me information. True, my language skills are limited so I am hoping that the project will attract others to the work.
Finally, what made me think about the Honored Women section of the site?
That was really inspired by the Wall of Tolerance project – where you could send $25 and have your name inscribed on the Wall of Tolerance to show that you support tolerance, etc. It was probably a fund raiser but it also allowed people to make public declaration of their beliefs.
I knew I needed to finance this project. It is not hosted on a university web site. I did not want to fill the pages with Google ads and I thought: there is no place where women’s lives or works are honored that is accessible to the whole world.
When I taught I would often meet students who would say, “If it weren’t for my Aunt” or “my second grade teacher” or… “I would not be here.” There would be others who would say, “I am so proud of my sister or mother or…She has really struggled but made something of her life. She gives me courage.” And I would think there is no way for us to give public honor to such people in our lives.
Then, too, when you are young, you are thinking about “What I will do with my life?” And in mid-life people are really engaged in whatever they are doing, in achieving. But when we reach the age when we have more years behind us than ahead of us, people begin to wonder, “Was my life worthwhile”, “Did I really help or affect anyone or was it just stuff I did?” And so few women are ever acknowledged in this culture.
So, this past summer I figured the Honored Women’s page gives us a way to acknowledge women who we admire or who have helped or inspired us. And their names are accessible to the whole world! I know I felt good about putting the names of women I have known and admired on the page. I wonder if others will want to give their public thanks to women they have known. So the page is there for those who want to give public honor to some women.
So that’s a summary of why a web site, why women philosophers, why global and why the Honored Women’s page.
FSPB: Sally Haslanger’s recent paper has sparked a lot of discussion on the internet. In that paper, Haslanger references Valian’s work on unconscious gender schemas. The idea is that the schemas for ‘woman’ and ‘philosopher’ are likely to clash. Some, and I believe Haslanger herself mentions this in her paper, have suggested that making people aware of women philosophers can be of help here. Most undergraduates in philosophy will learn of Descartes immediately, but may not learn about (for instance) Elizabeth of Bohemia, who corresponded with Descartes asking him to clarify, among other things, how an immaterial substance could cause a material substance to act. Elizabeth also, of course, wrote about the mind-body problem. Your website includes an entry on Elizabeth of Bohemia with really great primary and secondary sources. I wonder, what is your take on the claim that perhaps making female philosophers–past and present–more visible overall could help diminish the biases Haslanger speaks of and, indeed, the biases you experienced as an undergraduate? Do you think, in other words, making female philosophers more visible can disrupt schemas and reduce baises?
KL: Yes. I have not read Haslanger’s paper but I agree with the thesis you cite. In fact ‘making women philosophers more visible’ was one of my motivations for creating this site.
I once heard Prudence Allen (Concept of Woman) speak of how women seemed to disappear from philosophy. She seemed to think that the shift from monastic education, where both men and women obtained education, to the university which excluded women was central to the disappearance of women philosophers from the canon. Since most people research what interests them, it makes sense that the history of women philosophers got lost in an all male educational system.
(It is interesting to me that ‘disability studies’ became part of university research and education in the USA just after the ADA brought a significant number of persons with disability into higher education.)
I am trying to include women philosophers (lovers of wisdom) from around the world for the same reason. We in the United States know so little outside the Euro-American tradition. In some ways creating this site is a political action. My hope is that it will open our awareness to women in all traditions!
(Maxim: If you are going to put a lot of time and effort into something, aim big!)
Also, the Honored Women section is another attempt to make women more visible. I am hoping that there will be hundreds of women’s names on that page. Some will have just a few words after them. Others will have their own web page. As search engines pick up these names and the page is returned on searches, people will become more aware of the contributions of women and that women are valued by others. For example, the site statistics for last week showed that 39 people from around the world read about Eleanor Rae. I expect that by the end of the year that hundreds will have learned of her contributions.
I think that the Honored Women’s page can slowly change people’s perceptions of women and the value of our contributions. And what is just as important, it may change how the women so honored see their own lives and contributions. Any woman listed on the page will realize that someone thought enough of her efforts to give her public honor.
I think that changing perceptions of ourselves and of others can be slow work but it can be done.
FSPB: Going back to Elizabeth of Bohemia. Your site links to correspondence between her and Descartes, in French. On your website there is a way for people to contact you and you explain there that you’d love help collecting information about women philosophers. If readers would like to help out, I’d imagine you’d like help with something like translating Elizabeth’s letters. What are some other ways readers could help and who do you welcome help from?
KL: Jennifer, I would be delighted for all kinds of help and would be glad to hear from anyone willing to offer their services. (There is a contact form on the site for anyone who has an idea or offer of service.) Let me organize the primary needs into 3 categories.
1. Translations. Because of copyright, I can only quote published English translations of work within the ‘fair use’ limits. But I could publish new translations. Translations would not need to be complete works. I would be glad for a few significant paragraphs or a letter or poem.
2. Enhanced chronologies. If you look at Hild of Streonshalh or Oliva Sabuco you will see that their chronologies really contextualize these women in their time period and culture. I would really like more of the chronologies to offer that sort of historical depth.
3. Bibliographies. If the site is to be of real use to students and researchers, there should be a bibliography of suggested readings for each woman. (You can see one done by a student at the end of the Simone Weil page.)
4. New entries. I do have some additional women researched and ready to list but there must be hundreds of other women I know nothing about. I had information about an early woman from China but lost the file in a computer transfer and now can not seem to find her information on the web. Oh, to be able to read Chinese! I would be glad to receive additional names and/or information.
I should say that I anticipate that many persons using this site will have English as their second language. Also, I want the material to be accessible for high school students as well as college students so essays or papers need to be written in accessible language. Of course I would acknowledge all contributors. I keep thinking that students would have something to add to their resumes and since the work is online, the work could be seen by those looking at the resume so they would understand that the student does ‘quality work’.
Oh, yes. Here is another idea. I would be glad to consider papers or full translations. Eventually the site will offer ebooks or full articles in pdf files. If there were any income for these, of course the money would be divided with the author.
II Technical Help
1. I would really like to offer a search box for the site so anyone looking for Platonists, for example, could find all relevant pages easily. If anyone has the technical savvy to create the code for a site search, I would be glad to hear from her/him.
2. I dream of adding some images of the women. There are a number of images of women philosophers on the web but again, there is the copyright problem. If someone was good at photoshop and could alter images enough so they would be considered originals, I could use them. Of course any images would need to load fast because in many parts of the world people are using dial up connections and high pixel images would load too slowly.
3. If I am going to add pdf files or ebooks, I may need some technical help with uploading those.
1. I am paying for everything out of pocket now. I do need to figure out how to monetize the site. I do not want to fill it with Google ads. I am not sure what else to do. If anyone has any ideas, I would be glad to hear them. If some school or company wanted to sponsor the site, I think I would accept that but I have no clue how to find such a company or school. I wish I could get some business students or a class to take it on as a business project.
2. The site needs links to it so the search engines give it good ranking. (The more links to your site, the more important the spyders think the site is.)
Anyone with a web site or a blog could help by putting a link to the site. Also anyone with an account on MySpace or Facebook or any of the Web2 sites could really help if they mentioned the site and put a link. (I have the code for doing clickable links on the WANTED section of the site).
3. Really, any sort of publicity would help. If someone can get it in a news column or letter to the editor or if students have friends in other colleges or high schools and could tell them about the site, maybe encourage them to link to the site. Word of mouth is soooo powerful.
Maybe I should be asking some marketing students or class for help with improving marketing of the site. It might make a great term project. But I do not know any marketing students right now.
4. Finally, the Honored Women’s section needs publicity too. I would be glad for anyone who will spread the word.
FSPB: One last, perhaps difficult, question, Kate. Is there any one (or two!) woman philosopher who really excited or amazed you when you learned of her?
KL: Ah, two women came to mind immediately. First is Diotima. When I first read her speech in Plato’s Symposium, as an undergraduate, I was so taken by it. Her use of Beauty and the journey from beautiful things to Beauty itself (Eidos) just captured me.
I have always found beauty so compelling and then of course the journey from one beautiful thing through to the Transcendental just gave me such hope – an intellectual quest, an intellectual life could attain such an End. I still find her speech inspiring.
In more recent years I have been thinking that if Diotima taught this to Socrates and Socrates taught Plato, well, the essential movement of Plato’s thought from the material to the abstract to the Transcendental seems to have been set in motion by Diotima.
Teachers had pointed out the Pythagorean influences Plato’s work but no one ever pointed out that the whole Platonic enterprise of moving from the concrete to the Eidos and from ‘ordinary Eidos’ through to the Transcendentals is really an expansion of Diotima’s “way up from the concrete to the Transcendental of Beauty itself.” I do not know why this is not taught. If Pythagoras is credited, why not Diotima? Odd.
You know I’d like to urge everyone to go and get their copy of the Symposium and reread Diotima’s speech today. If they do not have a paper copy, there is a link to an online copy on the Diotima web page.
My second choice is someone whose work I stumbled across a number of years later, Simone Weil.
Oh, I know. When I say her name all sorts of popular misconceptions pop up in people’s minds. One year I spent a lot of time trying to correct some of these things on Wikipedia but no sooner would I correct them than someone would change them back. I just gave up.
I wish that anyone who ever talks about Weil would read Simone Pretrement’s Simone Weil, a Life before they go spouting opinions about her. Even some respected philosophers and biographers have repeated fictitious claims.
Why do I like her and her work?
First, she is such a role model as a student and scholar. She was brilliant, but a prodigious worker, too. In her Notebooks, for example, she sets out her plan for a year’s work in preparation for her exams and I think I can not even imagine doing all of it. Also she is the person who taught me that I can learn the most from my errors. That going over exam papers and program failures until I have mastered the skills I had missed is the way to really learn.
Then too, she was not afraid of confronting things. In Memories of a Dutiful Daughter Simone de Beauvoir speaks of her encounter with Weil and how de Beauvoir avoided her after that because Weil made her realize that she still had many bourgeoisie attitudes.
Such plain and intense speech was probably something she learned growing up with Andre her brother, who was a math genius. (Few people know that Simone was the ONLY woman who ever attended the meetings of the Bourbaki project which revolutionized the study of mathematics.)
Then, too, she was insistent on knowing – going bodily to find out. When there were rumors about what was happening in Germany, she went to Germany to check them out despite the fact that she was Jewish. So, too, with Italy. And her whole venture into factory work because she wanted to understand.
Her Factory Journal – people always quote the few profound comments but to me what is telling is that her brilliant mind is consumed with calculations of piece work and ‘making the count’. You know she was uncoordinated, perhaps somewhat of a klutz, and so she had difficulty handling machinery. And she just could not work fast enough to ‘make the count’ so she was not going to get paid and she worried about being able to buy bread, pay the rent. To realize that such a brilliant person could become engulfed by ‘making the count’ showed me that none of us is immune to the loss of loft thoughts if circumstances were to change.
Weil says, at one point, that the pain of factory work is having to pay absolute attention to something boring. What other philosophers know that much about such things?
The other thing about Weil is her penetrating analysis of Force, Justice, and of evil as well as her profound sense of the aesthetic. At one point in talking about justice she says that because we do not like the idea of justice (ie. that those of us who have more than enough have an obligation in justice to give to those who do not have enough) we make up the virtue of ‘charity’. We feel good about ourselves when we give in charity but sharing in justice does not let us feel so good.
And of course there is her insight into the distinction between suffering and affliction. I do not know of any philosopher who spends so much time on the condition of affliction. In her essay The Iliad or a Poem of Force she has a line to the effect that it is logically impossible that a human being becomes a thing but that it happens in fact all the time.
One year a student, a young man who was a remarkable photographer but had difficulty with school, passed close on his way out of the room and said, “That was me” referring to that line in The Illiad or a Poem of Force. Other students would say, after we had read The Love of God and Affliction, that they never knew that anyone could understand.
And of course, Weil’s insight that the afflicted are like the Fisher-King; what they need is someone to say to them, “What are you going through?” She notes that most people can not do that. If they do not avoid the afflicted, they want to DO something for them. Few can bear to ask and then listen to an answer to “What are you going through?” And yet that is what is needed. To me this insight has profound consequences for ethics.
Weil has such insight into the human condition. She notes that the afflicted walk among us all day long. They do not stand out – except that at times they may act a little strangely.
When I need to be prodded into some clear thinking, when I need to stop avoiding the serious issues all around us, I pick up Simone Weil’s work. Bang. Clear. No punches pulled. I may not agree with all her thought but it certainly keeps my mind and my conscience awake. And I remember, once again, that philosophy is a very serious and important task.
Kate Lindemann is professor emerita of philosophy at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York.