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Reclaiming The Place Of 'Sophia' In Philosophy

21/11/2016 7:03 AM IST | Updated 21/11/2016 11:02 AM IST
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Let us address the curious paradox in Philosophy with World Philosophy Day (17 November) last week that while wisdom is embodied in the goddess Sophia, women have traditionally been obscure in the field of philosophy.

Philosophy, in essence, the study of wisdom, seems to enchant more men than women in the Anglophone world. According to a study in 2011, for example, only 24 per cent of the permanent university posts in Philosophy were held by women in UK . The percentage throughout the Anglophone world is less than 30. What might be a reason for this? To answer this question, it is useful to briefly examine how the study of philosophy has been perceived and practiced over the years.

"While wisdom is embodied in the goddess Sophia, women have traditionally been obscure in the field of philosophy. "

Wisdom (philosophy) was believed to be a moral perfection according to St. Augustine (354-430 AD). However, we as mortals are prone to sin and are therefore hindered from attaining the highest wisdom of God. Wisdom seekers, therefore, withdrew themselves from the worldly affairs.

This was the case with Ludwig Wittgenstein, a 20th century philosopher. Depressed Ludwig thought that he would soon be dead without producing any great work in logic and then, having agreed to join his family for Christmas in Vienna, felt like his energy had dissipated. Ray Monk in The Duty of Genius writes:

"In agreeing to join his family for Christmas, Wittgenstein was compromising — going against his own impulses — in order to satisfy the duty he felt to his mother. Once there, further compromise would be inevitable. The energy he had successfully channelled into his logic would have once more to be dissipated in the strain of personal relationships... The experience threw him into a state of paralysing confusion."

Thus philosophy, being the highest form of knowledge, required complete self control and renunciation from family and real world. Could this be a factor in keeping women away from entering this sanctum sanctorum?

British philosopher, David Papineau, while reviewing Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change? in The Times Literary Supplement, attributes the reason to the adversarial style of the subject. He goes on to compare philosophy with a game of professional snooker in which women are allowed to participate but so far none of them has reached the top. He suggests it's not that women are not able to devote themselves to "higher skills", but that, as a group, they do not want to invest their resources "into something which is a complete waste of time." Quoting Snooker world champion, Steve Davis, he says, "practising eight hours a day to get the world championship is among the stupid things to do with your life." Papineau writes:

"Most young people come to philosophy because they want to address important issues, not to make the next move in a technical exercise. When they discover that they need to dance on the head of a pin to get a job, women and men are likely to react differently. Where many men will relish the competitive challenge , many women will see it as the intellectual equivalent of putting balls in pocket with pointed sticks and conclude that they could be doing something better with their lives."

A Princeton professor along with her colleagues in a study published the data on women across the various academic disciplines. Her study concluded that subjects with fewer women, including philosophy, required "brilliance" for their success." Brilliance-prizing fields", it was noted, require raw talent and not just hard work and determination. Raw talent is conventionally thought to be associated with men and not women.

Even Otto Weininger, one of the major influencers of Wittgenstein, was also of the view that philosophy is for men; women are incapable of forming clear judgments. The term genius (which is the "highest morality, and, therefore, everyone's duty") is also associated with men.

Contemporary feminists such as Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous look down on the language of philosophy because of its "masculinist, rationalist, and patriarchal status".

The case in India

There are no exact statistics to determine the percentage of women faculty in philosophy in India. But as far as higher education is concerned, according to reports by the All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE), there has been a gradual increase in the percentage of women pursuing a PhD in philosophy in the last three years. The percentage is even greater at postgraduate and MPhil levels. In fact, for the academic years, 2010-2011, 2012-2013, 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 women have outnumbered men in either post-graduate or MPhil course in Philosophy.

"Nothing prevents a young woman from studying philosophy and then producing philosophical works."Michèle Le Dœuff

Report further states that for the years 2012-2013 and 2013- 2014, Philosophy had the highest enrolment rate at the doctoral level among other non-science subjects. For more data from the AISHE report and on individual colleges in Delhi, go here.

Upon speaking to students and professors of philosophy in Delhi, different viewpoints emerged for the increase in the percentage of enrolment at the doctoral level in philosophy, including the interdisciplinary approach of the subject, interest in the foundational questions, desire to fulfil intellectual pursuits and a personal quest to resolve existential anxiety.

So what explains the increase in the percentage of women joining philosophy? While some students and academicians attributed it to women seeking answers to important questions about life and said that women were channelling their naturally observant bent into academics, one Delhi University professor offered a more pragmatic reason: university teaching jobs after a MPhil degree in philosophy that provide good compensation.

Ultimately, the words of French philosopher Michèle Le Dœuff triumph over Papineau's earlier statement and feminists who blame it on the language of the subject: "Nothing prevents a young woman from studying philosophy and then producing philosophical works."

Just as 'science does not exclude women from science; men do'. Similarly, if historically, men have limited philosophy, this does not mean philosophy is limited in itself. On the contrary, philosophy and science could be used rigorously to fight against discrimination.

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