The Diotima Problem: Women Philosophers in Classical Antiquity

by Peter Adamson

As someone who is devoted to studying the history of philosophy without any gaps, I have gotten rather interested in the subject of women philosophers. They are, after all, some of the figures most likely to be excluded in histories of our subject. I’m far from alone in this, of course. Increasingly, scholars are shining a light on female thinkers in the early modern period, for example in Project Vox at Duke University. But what about earlier periods? Were there women philosophers in antiquity and in the medieval ages? Who, in fact, were the earliest female philosophers?

This turns out to be a hard question to answer. Moving backwards, it is easy to name Renaissance and medieval figures who might find a place in a history of philosophy, such as Christine de Pizan, Julian of Norwich, Marguerite Porete, and Hildegard of Bingen. I’ve argued elsewhere that these women do deserve our attention, in part because taking them seriously will encourage us to expand our notion of what might count as philosophy in earlier eras. But by the same token, reasonable people might dispute their philosophical credentials. If you believe that mystically-inclined authors do not count as “philosophers,” you probably won’t reserve a place for Hildegard or Julian in your ideal history of philosophy. They’ll be excluded along with mystically-inclined medieval men like Bonaventure or Meister Eckhart.

But whether you’re open-minded enough to grant them the name of “philosophers,” you at least have to concede that these medieval women wrote works that survive to the present day. In the ancient context, even this cannot be taken for granted. If you peruse the first volume of M. E. Waith’s series A History of Women Philosophers, you’ll find a wealth of primary texts that represent the ideas of female ancient thinkers, from Pythagoras’ wife Theano, daughter Myia and other Pythagorean women, to Plato’s mother Perictione, as well as the Cyrenaic Arete and the Cynic Hipparchia. If you’re willing to use Plato’s dialogues as records of historical fact (which you shouldn’t be), you could also throw in two prominent women characters from those dialogues, Diotima in the Symposium and Aspasia in the Menexenus. Then there are late ancient figures like Hypatia, famously murdered by a Christian lynch mob in 415 AD, Macrina, the sister of the Cappadocian fathers, and Augustine’s mother Monica. Nor should we forget that there is philosophy in other ancient cultures too. Women feature in several classic texts of Indian philosophy. The Upanishads even depict women participating in philosophical debate with male sages. If we’re going to admit Diotima into the history of philosophy, then we should also welcome in Gārgī Vācaknavī and Maitreyī from the Upanishads.

At this point you can probably feel an “on the other hand” coming on – and you’re right. On the other hand, not a single philosophical text from ancient Greece, Rome, or India was definitely written by a woman. Most of the female thinkers I’ve just mentioned are known through works by men. Diotima may not even have existed outside of Plato’s imagination; the Upanishads are our sole source for Gārgī; it is Diogenes Laertius who records anecdotes about Hipparchia; Augustine tells us about his mother. Yes, there is extant material from Hypatia on mathematics, but her philosophical interests are indicated only fleetingly and secondhand, as in letters by her student Synesius. The most impressive antique portrayal of a woman actually doing philosophy may be On the Soul and Resurrection, which depicts Gregory of Nyssa’s sister Macrina discoursing on immortality from her death bed, like a female Socrates. But this dialogue was written by Gregory, not Macrina herself.

In short, reading ancient women philosophers turns out to be mostly just another opportunity to read ancient male philosophers. A possible exception is the work of the aforementioned Pythagorean women – an interesting group of five letters is ascribed to three such authors, Theano, Myia, and the otherwise unknown Melissa. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell for sure the gender of their true authors. The letters were composed centuries after the lifetimes of the women who supposedly wrote them, and form just one part of the more general phenomenon of pseudonymous Pythagorean literature. So the question is not really whether the author of the letters of Theano was Theano, but whether it was a woman or a man who adopted “Theano” as a pseudonym.

Does this mean that the whole project of studying women thinkers in antiquity is doomed to failure? Of course not, but it does mean that we may need to adjust our expectations of what could constitute success. Even from the little I’ve said here, we might venture the hypothesis that there were (at least) four distinct stages in the earlier history of women philosophers. We begin with classical antiquity, where we have no texts by women and even the historical reality of the figures in question is often uncertain. Moving forward to late antiquity, we know a good deal about several women intellectuals. Yet instead of surviving philosophical works written directly by them, we have reports set down by the men who knew and admired them. From the middle ages, by contrast, there survive impressive and certainly authentic writings. But were those writings really philosophical? I think so, but would readily admit that these figures were not doing medieval philosophy as we usually think of it: the scholastic and university-based enterprise engaged in by Aquinas, Scotus and the rest. It seems to be only in the Renaissance and, especially, the early modern period that all doubt can be banished, and we have clear involvement of women in (uncontroversially) philosophical debates.

For each of these four stages, there are interesting historical and philosophical questions to be asked. For instance, even if we suspect that Diotima or Gārgī are largely or entirely fictional, we might wonder why Plato and the authors of the Upanishads chose women and not men as characters for these specific contexts. We might also observe that certain types of philosophy are associated with women at certain periods. This goes not just for mysticism in medieval Europe (and the medieval Islamic world too by the way, as with the important Sufi thinker Rabi‘a), but also the branch of practical philosophy called “economics,” in other words household management, in the letters ascribed to Pythagorean women. We might notice too that counter-cultural philosophical movements, like Cynicism, were more likely to welcome the involvement of women. The stories about Hipparchia tell us not only about an extraordinary woman, but also about the extraordinary nature of Cynicism itself. When it comes to the textual basis for the study of women thinkers, then, learning to settle for less may help us to learn more.

Peter Adamson is a professor of philosophy at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. He is the author of the History of Philosophy podcast, which is appearing with Oxford University Press in the form of a series of books, entitled “A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps.”

4 thoughts on “The Diotima Problem: Women Philosophers in Classical Antiquity

  1. For female philosophers in antiquity, Diogenes Laertius’ Lives is a helpful, if occasionally unreliable source; we still do not get direct texts, but we do get accounts of women philosopher’s lives, actions, and sayings.

    • In addition to Hipparchia, discussed by Prof Adamson, one also finds brief, but valuable, mentions of Damo, Pythagoras’ daughter and supposed keeper and disseminator of some of his teachings; Lasthenea of Mantinea and Axiothea of Phlius, pupils of Plato and later Speussipus, who wore men’s clothing; and Philesia, a pupil of Xenophon.

  2. One of the points I find both most interesting and potentially far-reaching is the connection between a focus on women in philosophy and the promotion of philosophical prosperity. Specifically, I take the point to be that the study of women in the history of philosophy is philosophy insofar as it leads us to new thoughts, ideas, and ways of conceiving the world that we would not have noticed otherwise, with the result that encouraging the study of women in the history of philosophy allows philosophy to flourish more fully. In addition, this philosophical point entails a political effect—it would help to off-set the under-representation of women students of philosophy and better the environment for those of us already in it.

    I wonder whether this last point highlights a common ground between the history of philosophy and feminism. Specifically, when investigating women in philosophical texts—as authors or characters—we ask interesting philosophical and historical questions, and these questions seem to me to coincide with those often asked by feminism. I wonder whether this coincidence of goals provides common cause for these two “sub”-disciplines, two which often seem to have very little in common. It would further seem that historical study may work both to disrupt assumptions made about women and philosophy, and to uncover sources of those assumptions. As a result, it may be that feminism actually could find new allies in the history of philosophy that were otherwise obfuscated by more “canonical” figures who may have furthered oppressive assumptions about women. So, when we study women in the history of philosophy as historians we reflect the insight that feminism offers, and may find a way to unite the two disciplines. I think this point reflects another insight of Prof. Adamson’s posts on inclusivity in philosophy regarding women and canonicity, that we as scholars and students of philosophy tend to limit our philosophical material to our own detriment.

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