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WALK INTO EILEEN O'NEILL'S CLOSET-SIZED OFFICE in Bartlett Hall, sit down in the standard issue office chair, and talk with this new associate
professor in the department of philosophy, and you enter the opulent hall where Madeleine de Scudéry conducts her salon in seventeenth-century Paris, amidst the din of aristocrats honing moral maxims on acerbic tongues.
Or you find yourself on the doorstep of Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, seeking sanctuary along with your fellow itinerant mystics, including the recent convert Anna Maria Van Schurman, once acclaimed as "the Star of Utrecht" for her knowledge of seventeen languages and her treatise The Learned Maid, now banished, along with the rest of your anti-ecclesiastical group, from all of Europe's cities.
Or you assume the very eyes of Elisabeth of Bohemia, following the nib of your quill pen as it scratches across the paper, but not seeing it, so deep in thought are you as you query your new acquaintance, René Descartes, in May, 1643, "I beseech you, tell me how the soul of man, since it is only a thinking substance, can determine the spirits of the body [meaning bodily fluids] to produce voluntary actions?" You dispatch the letter, never knowing it will be discovered in a castle in the 1800s and published, clarifying the flaw you pointed out in the views on free will held by the father of modern philosophy.
Walk into Eileen O'Neill's office and sit down across from her, and you see the changing face of the history of philosophy.
O'Neill takes down one of the small black-and-white prints propped up against the spines of books on a jam-packed shelf. She holds up the image: a fair young woman in a gown. "This photo has graced the covers of at least two books on Margaret Cavendish, the duchess of Newcastle, who was the most prolific female writer of natural philosophy in the early modern period," she says, and pauses, giving an amazed shake of her head. "And yet, a colleague, Nina Scott, has recently learned from the museum that owns the original painting that it's not Margaret, but her sister Mary."
Such is the nature of the work of unearthing women's contributions to philosophy. This ground was broken with a backhoe in 1987, when Professor Mary Ellen Waithe of Cleveland State University published the first volume of her four-volume History of Women Philosophers, which identifies and discusses scholars from 600 B.C. up to the present. Waithe cites having the optimism of Nancy Drew, the sagacious suspiciousness of Agatha Christie, and Sargeant Friday's dry penchant for the facts as keys to her sleuthing.
Eileen O'Neill's slim frame, lively blue eyes, and shoulder-length blonde hair make her the perfect Nancy Drew, but as a 1990s gal, she draws more inspiration from "The X-Files," she says. "Philosophy is made up of more than the single great mind of an era," O'Neill asserts. "It requires all the small changes and connections provided by smaller people that the greats had to respond to." She wants to bring these connections out of the shadows of history. She believes that, as Agent Fox Mulder would say, "The truth is out there" and if she digs long enough, she'll find it.
In the early 1600s the dawn of the early modern era, on which O'Neill's detective work is focused René Descartes was wresting philosophy from the monasteries, where scholastics were trying to subordinate the natural sciences to Christian theology. Descartes kicked off the Age of Reason, when grands hommes such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and John Locke and femmes hardies such as Lady Damaris Masham, Émilie du Châtelet, Gabrielle Suchon, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz roamed the earth, questioning the nature of matter and being, asking what knowledge and morality are, and debating women's fitness for scholarship.
"Philosophy was now being done in convents, religious retreats for laypersons, the courts of Europe, and the
salons," explains O'Neill. "Philosophical networks communicated through letters, published pamphlets and treatises, and scholarly journals." Many women, mostly from the ranks of nobility and self-taught or educated by a progressive-minded father, participated in those networks. Yet none have made it into today's standard histories of philosophy as significant contributors to the discipline's past.
To move along the overdue discussion of these women's writings and whether they deserve a place in the philosophy canon, O'Neill is preparing a book for Oxford University Press called Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: A Collection of Primary Sources. It will be the first collection of a large number of the original philosophical texts of women who wrote in Latin, Spanish, French, and English. O'Neill is doing the translations herself. With a laugh and characteristic modesty, she explains, "I have my Catholic school early education to thank for my Latin, growing up in a Hispanic neighborhood in New York to thank for my Spanish, and my mother's earnest desire to thank for my French."
She has only herself to thank, however, for her tireless devotion to what she describes as the "incredibly complicated detective work" of tracking down the original writings of the forty women who will be featured in the book. The majority wrote anonymously or used pseudonyms, practically guaranteeing obscurity. In addition, because many people didn't believe women were intelligent enough to write philosophical works, their writings were often attributed to men male relatives, for example, or male publishers.
"I began my research by reading the letters and biographies of all the male philosophers for any mention of a woman. I checked this list of names in the Dictionary of National Biography and came up with little. In many cases, I had to start with a man the woman was related to, often her father. In his biography there might be one sentence mentioning the woman, possibly giving a date or a title. From there it's to the card catalogues; this stuff's not online." She cites Lady Mary Shepherd as "an easy case," requiring trips only to the Columbia University Library, New York Public Library, and the University of Pennsylvania Library; finding her works took over a year.
It was O'Neill's scholarship that, in 1994, inspired professor Robert Sleigh to wage an all-out campaign to get her to leave the City University of New York, where she'd taught for twelve years, and join him and professor Vere Chappell, also specialists in the history of early modern philosophy, at UMass. "Getting Eileen was a coup," says Sleigh. "In the normal course of events, adding a third historian of the early modern era would be unheard of. But the administration liked Eileen's specialty and liked her."
Sleigh also had the idea of hosting a conference on early modern women philosophers at UMass. "The conference needed to be done, period," he stresses, but in addition, he hoped that offering O'Neill the position of content director would lure her away from CUNY. "Eileen was just the person to do the conference," he says. "Everyone knows she's ahead of the field in knowledge of the philosophical work that was actually done by women, because she's working with the actual texts."
In the end, it was enough to inspire this native New Yorker to learn how to drive a car "I was up all night worrying before the test," she confesses and leave the city for the Pioneer Valley. The small conference fifteen scholars from all over the United States and Great Britain presented papers was held in November and was a thorough success. Headed up by O'Neill, with Chappell providing organizational support and Sleigh garnering financial support, the conference "had a `Who's Who' quality in the list of speakers," says Jonathan Vogel, who teaches the history of philosophy at Amherst College and chaired a session.
Energizing the conference were debates over whether early modern women philosophers truly were philosophers, and if so, whether their contributions are significant. The discussions raise two sets of questions, says O'Neill.
"First, what are the borders of philosophy? What are considered legitimate philosophical issues, and what are considered legitimate forms and methodologies of addressing them?"
For example, is philosophy only the systematic development of a theory in a journal article, the approach that was started by Kant, who ended the early modern era, and that continues today? Can't a philosophical claim be put in the mouth of a character in a novel? What about the fact that society allowed women only certain roles, such as the friendly critic working within the framework of male scholars to help them do their work?
"Second," continues O'Neill, "Say we find a work by a woman that falls within our definition of philosophy. The added problem is that history has gone on responding to, for example, Descartes. We need to find lines of influence stemming from some of the women philosophers."
A herculean task, maybe. But, says O'Neill, "Given how much we now know of women's philosophical writing that we had no idea about ten years ago, I believe they could exist." Like Mulder, O'Neill is just trying to find the truth.