Featured Philosop-her Sandrine Berges

As our next featured philosop-her, I am very happy to welcome Sandrine Berges.  She is an Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Her research interests are in Ancient moral and political philosophy, feminist history of philosophy, and feminist ethics. She has published two books : Plato, Virtue and the Law, 2009, Continuum, and Wollstonecraft’s a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 2013, Routledge. She is working on a third book Virtue Ethics : a Feminist Perspective.

Her post follows.


Epistemic injustice and the history of philosophy – why we have to lobby to get things done.

Doing Ancient Philosophy doesn’t normally precipitate one at the frontline of political activism of any sort. If philosophers live in an ivory tower, then those who study texts that were originally written in ancient Greek belong in that small windowless room at the bottom of the long corridor no one ever goes to.

Even as a feminist philosopher, if you want to be political, you need to address contemporary issues without, if possible, too many references to dead Greek guys who thought women had no soul. This is certainly what I believed for first years of my career as a professional philosopher. My work on Plato I considered scholarly, but, if I wanted to become more relevant, I had to move to more contemporary questions such as the Capability Approach. Of course, even then there was an undertow of Greekness (Nussbaum herself draws influence from Aristotle as far as her version of capabilities is concerned). But mostly, there was history, and there was political philosophy.

Of course there’s a sense in which being a feminist philosopher is always perceived as political. Readers always want to know whether you are truly attempting to advance knowledge in the field, or whether you are ‘pushing an agenda’, or worse, that you are using discussions of gender injustice to get ahead in your career. This was made very clear by the recent comment by an Oxford philosopher on the value of discussing epistemic injustice. A feminist philosopher is often perceived as first a feminist, second a philosopher, and it is often assumed that the political enthusiasm that is seen as part of the former taints the quality of one’s work as the latter.

But it was coming back to Ancient Greece that made me realise fully that as a feminist philosopher, one can never really escape politics. I was working on a text published under a woman’s name – Perictione I – probably sometime in the third century BC. I found that very little was written about either her, or other women whose texts belong to the same corpus, that of the Hellenistic Pythagoreans. And that which was written turned out to focus mostly on whether these texts were fake, and whether they could have been written by women at all. Nice.

As a result I got involved in a correspondence with various people writing on that period – something I described in another post. I found myself asking questions bordering on issues of political correctness. Why, I asked, do you refer to these authors as ‘Pseudo-Pythagoreans’ thereby labelling them as forgers, and casting doubt on whether they were even women, when there is no evidence that the texts were forgeries at all ? One author wrote back that he prefered the appellation ‘Hellenistic Pythagoreans’, which is one I’ve now adopted.

There is a strong sense of epistemic injustice at play here : texts apparently authored by women are only judged worth studying if it can be argued that they were in fact authored by men . This isn’t only the case for ancient philosophers, but some have argued that Heloise’s letters were in fact penned by Abelard.

The epistemic injustice committed by the reluctance to treat these texts by women as significant enough to be discussed in research, let alone taught, is compounded by the epistemic injustice done to historical women philosophers at the time they were writing. We know of several women philosophers in Ancient Greece, but have very few remaining writings by them. Does this mean they did not write ? There is no reason to think that, as philosophers, they would have been less given to putting their thoughts on paper than their male counterparts. On the other hand, it is not unlikely that less efforts would have gone into copying, distributing, and preserving their writings . Reflect, for instance, that Plato’s students Axiothea of Phlius and Lastenia of Mantinea, who later taught philosophy under Speusippus, were contemporaries of Aristotle, who made it very clear that women were not capable of doing philosophy !

Doing ancient philosophy doesn’t normally involve you in politics. Doing feminist ancient philosophy, however, does. It means lobbying so that women writers who matter, and who ought to be included in the debate, get taken seriously. This doesn’t mean that feminist historians of philosophy are any less good at doing history of philosophy than non-feminists : it means that we need to have additional skills that we won’t have picked up by learning to read Ancient Greek, skills that most feminist writers, historians or not, need to have.

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