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#APS16: Ancient Philosophy Society Talks Gender

Today was the first day of the Ancient Philosophy Society in Portland, Maine, hosted by Jill Gordon at Colby College.  A new day has dawned for the APS when so much discussion of gender in ancient philosophy and explicitly of feminist approaches to ancient philosophy is given center stage.  I was planning on posting a blog on the conference as a whole, but today’s program was so rich, and so focused on gender, that it deserves a post of its own.

Socratic Midwifery and Feminine Power

The very first speaker, Dylan Futter of the University of Witwatersrand, spoke on Spiritual Pregnancy in Plato’s Theaetetus.  Futter calls attention to how Socrates speaks of spiritual pregnancy in terms of the male experience of arousal, intercourse and ejaculation.  Futter’s commenter, Claire Griffen, raised questions about the implications of co-opting female fertility images to describe male experience for Plato’s theory of knowledge.  Futter suggested that male sexual pleasure and female pregnancy are compatible images.  The work I’ve been doing on Greek conceptions of women and the feminine points to Greek anxiety about women’s capacity to carry and birth children.  Women carry the power to continue the community, but they do this in a way that is hidden and difficult to control.  Moreover, this power is also disruptive of the current order–every new birth is the end of the old order–Ouranos is right to be worried about Gaia’s offspring, as is Kronos after him.  Initially, then it may seem that men try to take that power into light to make it their own, but what if in fact, instead, philosophers are perceived as feminine by the Greeks with the same anxieties?  They carry the knowledge in secret in a way that is capable of bringing forth something new, whose lineage may or may not be legitimate, that will disrupt the old order.  This might make more radical Futter’s point in the Q&A that “feminization is the process of education.”

A related point is the debate among the ancient Greeks–the Hippocratics, Aristotle and Galen–over whether women need to have pleasure in order to conceive. That dispute points to whether the females have their own sex or are to be understood as a lack or inversion of true sex, which is male.  This dispute might support Futter’s claim that the male experience and female pleasure are compatible, if we understand male experience of pleasure, like the female’s to be necessary for their to be pregnancy.

Aristotle, Feminism, and Ontology

In the afternoon on Thursday, a panel was convened on “Aristotle, Feminism, and Ontology,” sponsored by Colby College.  Charlotte Witt, University of New Hampshire, was unable to attend, but her paper was read in absentia.  “The Recognition Project.” Witt argued that there are a number of ways to understand how and why the history of philosophy matters to feminist philosophy.  Feminist philosophers engage in a recognition project, in one way or another — an act of seeing what had not been previously visible while at the same time recognizing that the previous invisibility is unjust.  For Witt, the “discovery” of women philosophers is both an epistemic and normative project.  She argues that the political aspect of the “recognition project” is not reducible to or detachable from its epistemic project.

Marguerite Deslauriers of McGill University talks about sexual difference and tyranny with reference to heat, which was great because my current research focuses specifically on Aristotle’s account of heat in sexual and metaphysical difference.  Certain of Aristotle’s claims about the sexes were interpreted by an Italian Renaissance feminist Lucrezia Marinella who published in 1601 a treatise, On Nobility and Virtues of Women and Defects and Failings of Men.  Evidence, Deslauriers maintains, of a long history of feminist interest in Aristotle.  Aristotle is used to support these arguments even as he is used as an opponent. Aristotle argues that heat’s affects the soul, with thin pure blood being best for intelligence, and thus associated both with heat and masculinity.  Reading Aristotle on this point, Marinella argues that being cooler is better and thus than women are better because excessive heat has deleterious effects, which stimulates the nonrational passions.  These position leads Marinella to argue that men are tyrannical by nature, both internally and externally.  They are tyrannized by their desires and they rule tyrannically politically and in relation to women.  They usurp power politically and in relation to men.  Marinella is an example of a thinker who calls on Aristotle as an authority even as she disagrees with his conclusions about gender relations.  Appealing to the men who are her contemporaries who share the principle of not being tyrannical and upbraids them by pointing to their tyrannical relations to women.

Emanuela Bianchi of New York University spoke to the severe, and in her view unrecoverable, gender implications of Aristotle’s metaphysics.  Gesturing to the argument of her recent book, Bianchi drew attention to Aristotle’s metaphysical hierarchy of actuality and form, but also of the given “this,” the self-sustaining organism, with its masculine autonomist inflections.  Bianchi argues that Aristotle binds his metaphysics to gender hierarchy.  She argues for the inextricability of this binding, and thus the corruption of Aristotle’s metaphysics and physics in light of its gender implications.

As a feminist reader of Aristotle, I take particular interest in feminist method in the history of philosophy.  Witt describes the “discovery” of women, both as objects and subjects of the history of philosophy, as an epistemic and normative project.  Deslauriers describes the work of a feminist who uses Aristotle as an authority even as she reaches different conclusions that he does.  Interestingly, she finds it necessary to say, “I don’t agree with Aristotle and I also don’t agree with Marinella.”  This point led me to think about why we study these thinkers if we don’t agree.  The work seems to be less about affirming the position that we might hold and more about excavating roots of positions that still affect our thinking and finding models and strategies for thinking otherwise, not by ignoring these issues, but by going directly into them at their ground, as in the case of Marinella.  Responding to suggestions from Witt, Bianchi quipped that feminist engagements with Aristotle are a kind of “misrecognition project.”  Perhaps our feminist engagements in the history of philosophy are a matter of navigating between recognition and misrecognition.

As I continue thinking about gender in ancient philosophy, I’m gratified by the growing number of diverse and challenging approaches.  As Deslauriers notes, this proliferation is good for feminism and for the history of philosophy.  It strikes me that feminism and the history of philosophy both occupy a suspect sociological space in the field of philosophy today.  Instead of suffering the disciplinary effects of seeking recognition as properly philosophical, this engagement between feminism and the history of philosophy has led to a refinement of and a proliferation of questions and problems facing both.  Onward.

Image of “Ladies in Blue” fresco at Knossos, Crete.

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