Thursday, March 31, 2016

Women's History: Snapshots in Philosophy and Science Fiction

Since March is Women's History Month and it's still March (barely), I thought this might be a good excuse to say a little bit about the history of women in two traditionally male dominated fields: philosophy and science fiction.

Agora (2009) - a film based on the life of Hypatia

Is the Very Idea of Philosophy Male?, or, Why the Recovery Project is Important

If you think of a philosopher, you probably think of a bearded man (maybe in a toga) who talks about obscure, abstract things.  The very idea of a philosopher is traditionally coded as male.  But the history of philosophy includes numerous contributions by women even if these contributions are often ignored or unknown. This is something the recovery project in history of philosophy is attempting to rectify.  It's about getting the history right, but it's also about changing the very idea of what philosophy is and who it's for.

In the Western tradition, many people are familiar with giants like Hypatia (who even had a movie made about her - see the picture above) and Elisabeth of Bohemia (who very politely schooled Descartes on metaphysical dualism).  There were also women Pythagoreans like Theano and Periktione.  You can learn a lot more about these and other women philosophers on the Feminist History of Philosophy Blog.

Gargī and Maitreyī

In Indian philosophy it's remarkable that, although women seem to be almost entirely absent in the later classical tradition, one of the earliest Upaniṣads, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, has two women philosophers: Gargī Vacaknavī and Maitreyī.  We can't be exactly sure if these characters in the text correspond to real people, but it's intriguing to think that they might have been real women on the philosophical scene of ancient India.

Gargī is presented as a scholar and philosopher.  In Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad sections 3.6 and 3.8, Gargī engages in a dialogue with the great sage Yājñavalkya on the nature of ultimate reality.  These dialogues became favorites of the Advaita Vedānta school for their explanation of the concept of brahman as fundamental reality.

Maitreyī is said to be one of the wives of Yājñavalkya, with whom she often engaged in dialogue on philosophical topics.  In Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad section 4.5, Yājñavalkya explains to Maitreyī that the self (ātman) cannot be fully described using his famous formula that the most you can say is "not ____, not ____" (which is how Patrick Olivelle skillfully translates the Sanskrit neti, neti).

Does Science Fiction Need a Recovery Project?

Like philosophy, science fiction is often thought of as a male domain (at least by people outside fandom who don't know better and even more sadly by some fans).  Recent debacles like the Sad Puppies and Gamergate show that there's still a long way to go.

What's really strange about this is that the person who arguably invented science fiction was a woman.  These days Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is often shelved in the horror section, but if you think about it it's hard to see how that story couldn't be science fiction with its tale of a scientist doing something no scientist could quite do yet and themes of the promise and perils of future technological advances.  Is Frankenstein gothic horror?  I suppose it is, but it's also science fiction, which also shows, I think, the closeness of horror and science fiction as genres up until the present day (maybe this is why I like both genres!).

Shelley certainly wasn't the last woman to write science fiction.  I'm a huge fan of greats like Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin.  I try to review a fair number of newer books by women on this blog as well.  For instance, see my reviews of recent books by Nnedi Okorafor and Carolyn Ives Gilman (my second favorite book of 2015).  I also really enjoyed a recent anthology of Lovecraftian stories by women, which engages in the important work of deconstructing Lovecraft's more problematic elements.

Can one find women writing science fiction between Shelley and Le Guin?  Leigh Brackett comes to mind as a prolific author of space opera and fantasy as well as the co-author of the screenplay for a little film called The Empire Strikes Back.  It's also entirely possible that there were more women writing science fiction during the 1920's-1950's than it might appear, especially since many SF magazines interacted with authors by mail and women could write under male sounding names (see this Wikipedia page for more, keeping in mind all the usual Wikipedia caveats).

Like the recovery project in philosophy, a science fiction recovery project can serve both to tell the whole story of SF history and to correct the misconception that science fiction is for only half the human race.  If anything should be for intelligent beings of any gender, race, species, planet, dimension, etc, it's science fiction!

Happy Women's History Month!


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    1. Thanks! I appreciate that you took the time to stop by and leave a comment!

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