Symposium Introduction

As feminist philosophers continue to radically change European and Anglophone philosophy, the exclusion of women from this tradition is increasingly recognized as a central problem not just for the demographics of the field, but also for how philosophy is practiced. In light of this growing awareness, many philosophers have begun to rethink the canon and how it is transmitted. Yet, even with the acknowledgment of some women as philosophers, little progress has been made in changing the composition of the field or dominant conceptions of who is really important in its history. In Where Are the Women? Why Expanding the Archive Makes Philosophy Better, Sarah Tyson diagnoses why many efforts to reclaim historical women as philosophers have had little impact on who is afforded philosophical authority. She argues that as long as the norms built on women’s exclusion remain operative, reclamation will not fundamentally affect European and Anglophone philosophical history or practice.

Tyson argues that transformative reclamation practices can change this situation. Through investigating the role of exclusion in dominant norms of philosophical practice, transformative reclamation offers new norms arising from engagements with historical thinkers, especially those typically afforded little philosophical authority. Tyson outlines transformative reclamation strategies based on the work of three influential theorists of exclusion: Genevieve Lloyd, Luce Irigaray, and Michèle Le Doeuff. Each offers powerful approaches for redressing the erasures and prohibitions that have helped define European and Anglophone philosophy as a field.

Following the possibilities opened up by these thinkers, Tyson reclaims two texts from the early women’s rights movement in the United States: The Declaration of Sentiments approved at the 1848 meeting on women’s rights in Seneca Falls, New York, and Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech in Akron, Ohio. Through speculative readings of these texts, Where Are the Women? engages their philosophical authority, displacing the obscuring legends that have grown up around them. Truth’s actions, in particular, have become legend and the speech she gave in Akron, a feminist touchstone. Truth is widely believed to have thundered out: “Ain’t I a woman?” to a crowd hostile to the idea of women’s political rights. She is typically read as offering a corrective about race to the movement started in Seneca Falls. Yet, this version of events not only fails to be substantiated by documentary evidence, it also screens the plurivocal way Truth was intervening into the debate about how to define and advocate for women’s rights. Tyson revisits this history to engage Truth as a philosopher of freedom and to offer a case study in how reclamation can change philosophy.

Holly Longair


Absence and Silencing

Two Methods of Exclusion

Sarah Tyson’s Where Are the Women? provides a detailed exploration of the exclusion of women from the history of European and Anglophone philosophy, and the various ways in which scholars have tried to reclaim space for women philosophers in and around that tradition. The ways in which this exclusion has taken place appear to me to fall into two broad categories: absence and silencing. However, Tyson does not discuss differences between these two forms of exclusion, or how they help to produce her concern that many reclamation strategies lead to permissive prohibition.1 In what follows, I will analyze how absence and silencing operate in the examples that Tyson discusses and the reclamation strategies she critiques, and I will argue that Tyson’s concern with permissive prohibition can be productively understood as a worry about how these strategies enable practices of silencing.
By absence, I mean to refer to places in the history of philosophy where there are no women, or where philosophers claim there were none. This is where reclamation plays its most obvious role, trying to find women that have been forgotten or written out of the canon. These absences create voids in the literature where philosophers have often claimed no women are to be found.

Silencing, on the other hand, I use to indicate places in the history of philosophy where women were present, but are not heard as women or as they intended to be heard. These are not just silences, but places where women have been silenced.2 Langton describes two ways in which the powerful silence the powerless. One is where the powerless are prevented from speaking (Langton 1993, 299). This is closely related to the idea of absence described above. The second, however, allows the powerless to speak freely, and be present. However, it stops that speech “from counting as the action it was intended to be” (Langton 1993, 299). Dotson highlights two specific practices to elaborate that second kind of silencing. In the first, testimonial quieting, an audience “fails to identify the speaker as a knower” (Dotson 2011, 242). The second, testimonial smothering, occurs when the speaker perceives their audience “as unwilling or unable to gain the appropriate uptake of proffered testimony” (Dotson 2011, 244).3 All of these aspects of silencing can be seen in the examples of exclusion that Tyson describes. For the sake of space, I will focus on the two.

Diotima, the Manitean priestess in Plato’s Symposium, is a case Tyson comes back to throughout the book. As Tyson emphasizes, within the dialogue, Diotima “is not there” (98), not physically present. She is even further removed by the fact her teachings are being recounted years after they were given, and they have been passed through several tellers before arriving on the page (xxii). Today, many philosophers in the European and Anglophone tradition treat her as fiction, making her doubly absent by removing her from history as well as the text.
However, Diotima also seems to be a paradigm of the ways in which philosophers of the European and Anglophone tradition enact practices of silencing. Tyson describes several ways in which scholars have tried to discount Diotima’s philosophical authority by claiming that even if she was a real, historical person she existed “only as a vehicle for male ventriloquism” (xxv). This fits Dotson’s description of testimonial quieting, as even a historically present Diotima is rendered incapable of being a knower independent of the famous, canonical men around her.

Sojourner Truth provides another case of exclusion, which is in many ways the inverse of Diotima’s. There is no doubt that Truth was present at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, on May 29, 1851 (174). She is in no way absent from history. In fact, Tyson argues that “far from being silenced . . . Truth’s speech [is] well known” (174). However, I want to push back against this characterization, and argue that Tyson’s analysis actually shows that Truth too is silenced through testimonial quieting. For although Truth’s presence is never in doubt, her voice is. The most famous phrase attributed to her does not even contain her own words, but is instead the result of “a white woman’s use of Truth’s speech” (194). This usurpation of Truth’s presence in history without her real words carries with it the implication that Truth’s own words weren’t good enough, that they had to be amended by an educated white woman in order to have an impact and to be heard. The testimony received from Truth through historical record is not the action that Truth intended when she gave that speech at Akron, and so she is silenced.

In both of these historical cases, absence and silencing interact in complex ways. However, it is clear that the two kinds of exclusion play very different challenges to contemporary attempts at reclamation of women’s role in the history of European and Anglophone philosophy. It is also clear that different kinds of reclamation projects have focused more on one kind of exclusion than another. In what remains of this commentary, I will argue that Tyson’s concerns about the first three kinds of reclamation projects that she identifies originate in a worry that by focusing on absence, we risk enacting practices of silencing.

The first reclamation strategy, enfranchisement, is most clearly aimed at making absent women present in the history of philosophy. However, Tyson argues that “enfranchising women into a canon that all but denies women’s philosophical writing and doing so by using the criteria through which that writing has been excluded risk failing to promote robust engagement with women’s work” (19). This clearly shows that in making absent women present, those who take an enfranchising approach risk silencing the women that they make present in the history of European and Anglophone philosophy.

The second reclamation strategy, alternative history, shows a more complex relationship between absence and silencing. Part of the intent of this approach is to show how women’s absence from the dominant history of European and Anglophone philosophy has created resources outside of that tradition that can be drawn on instead (19). However, Tyson’s concern is that in focusing on these alternatives, scholars who take this strategy risk silencing those women who were not completely excluded from the dominant tradition (25), or women who do not fit a unified conception of the feminine (28). In arguing for the positive effects of keeping women absent from the dominant European and Anglophone philosophical tradition, these strategies risk silencing those women who considered themselves part of that dominant tradition (20) or those whose thinking was produced by the interactions between the two (31).

The third strategy, corrective history, argues that the absence of women from the history of European and Anglophone philosophy has caused that dominant tradition to fail by its own critical standards (31). To remedy this failure, not just women but a feminist voice must be included in the dominant tradition (32). This approach demands the presence of both women and women’s perspectives in philosophy. However, Tyson’s critique raises the concern that this strategy too could result in silencing. She argues that this model “insufficiently questions why European and Anglophone philosophy is in need of correction” (39). As a result, even after undergoing such corrections, the dominant European and Anglophone philosophical tradition could remain fertile ground for silencing, and particularly testimonial smothering.

The final reclamation strategy, transformation, is the one that Tyson sees as having the most potential to reclaim without excluding, and avoiding permissive prohibition. Since these strategies interrogate the origins of philosophy as it is currently understood and the norms that come with that understanding, they are less likely to reenact conditions of silencing. However, even with these strategies there is no guarantee. In connecting Tyson’s analysis with Langton and Dotson’s concepts of silencing, I have attempted to make the case for one source of resources to help identify where practices of silencing risk appearing, and how to counter them.

Works Cited

Dotson, Kristie. 2011. “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing.” Hypatia 26(2): 237–57.

Langton, Rae. 1993. “Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 22(4): 293–330.

Tyson, Sarah. 2018. Where Are the Women? Why Expanding the Archive Makes Philosophy Better. New York: Columbia University Press.

  1. Tyson describes permissive prohibition as occurring when women’s presence is acknowledged but their authority is dismissed (xv).

  2. I want to emphasize the important difference between being silent and being silenced. While the first is usually voluntary, the second is always coerced in some way.

  3. Dotson details three circumstances that generally are conducive to testimonial smothering. The first is that “the testimony must be unsafe and risky,” the second that “the audience must demonstrate testimonial incompetence with respect to the content,” and the third is that incompetence must come from “pernicious ignorance” (Dotson 2011, 244).

  • Sarah Tyson

    Sarah Tyson


    Response to Holly Longair

    Holly Longair proposes that reclamation attend to the distinct and imbricated effects of absence and silencing in the history of European and Anglophone philosophy. Longair’s sketch of what can be seen through attention to this distinction is suggestive and points to where more work needs to be done. I worry, however, that this distinction might begin to lose some of the complexity of the history it approaches; as Longair notes: “absence and silencing interact in complex ways.” I will suggest here some of the ways that loss may happen. Longair writes, in relationship to absence: “This is where reclamation plays its most obvious role, trying to find women that have been forgotten or written out of the canon.” Part of the aim of the book is to displace this understanding of reclamation in the European and Anglophone tradition. My argument is that the problem reclamation faces is not that women are absent from European and Anglophone philosophical history, but rather that philosophy has constituted itself as a discipline through the absenting of women. These practices of self-constitution have a history that we can trace, and that starts relatively late in the history of philosophy, but early in the creation of a discipline of philosophy. I am interested in how the categories of women and of philosophy have formed in this process. Perhaps more importantly, I am interested in the norms of philosophical practice that have been developed throughout this history such that we have a discipline of philosophy that not just looks, but also acts like it does now.

    As Longair’s analysis of Diotima highlights, absenting someone can take a lot of work. Longair writes that Diotima is “doubly absent” because the tradition “remov[es] her from history as well as the text.” That double absence—she is not in the dialogue, but rather referred to by Socrates, who is also not present in this dialogue—is also a form of presence that philosophers cannot leave alone. As Elaine Miller noted, I refer to twelve different interpretations of Diotima, and that is a small sample of a very large set. The primary effect of all this work on Diotima is not to block our access to what she said. There are many reasons that our only textual record of her is in a dialogue of Plato’s, but that fact alone means that before the debates about her started, we did not know what she said. Diotima’s fate on this score is one shared by the vast majority of people in history. To have one’s words preserved in an archive somewhere is a miracle experienced by very few. What compels me to attend to Diotima is not that we have a record or potential record of what she said, but that we have such a long tradition of debating the status of words that Plato had Socrates attribute, via hearsay, to a woman. If the history of women’s exclusion from European and Anglophone philosophy were a straightforward project, then the smart move would be to let Diotima have the credit and move on. Tokenization is an incredibly effective means of exclusion.

    But exclusion is not and has not been so straightforward; I am interested in methodologies that enliven us to its complexities. Why all the back and forth about Diotima? Part of the reason is that Plato sort of included her and people have a lot to say about why. I am not trying to add to that debate, but rather point to what the existence of the debate might tell us about our philosophical practices now. How is this debate not just something within philosophy, but a means of establishing how philosophy can be legitimately, authoritatively done?

    Diotima is, in many ways, my set up for a discussion of someone else who did not write down her own thoughts: Sojourner Truth. Longair pushes back on my characterization of Truth’s speech in Akron, Ohio, in 1851 as well known, arguing that Truth was silenced through testimonial quieting—Truth’s speech is not well known. The implication that Longair takes from the story of the transmission of Truth’s speech is that “Truth’s own words weren’t good enough, that they had to be amended by an educated white woman in order to have an impact and be heard.” What has to be remembered, I think, is that Truth included Frances Dana Gage’s version of the speech in The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. That history is part of the reason I do not think we can dismiss the famous version in lieu of one of the numerous contemporaneous accounts of the speech, especially that of Truth’s friend, Marius Robinson, in the Anti-Slavery Bugle. I opt to hold the different versions in tension in my analysis, and look not for Truth’s voice, but for her strategic use of plurivocality. It’s not that Gage got Truth’s words right; it’s that Truth found that version useful. What happens if we respect Truth’s choice here, not as necessarily the right one, but as a strategic one? What if we read these versions together? What emerges?

    My purpose in asking these questions in relation to Truth’s work is twofold. First, I think she’s a compelling theorist of freedom who has been important in the history of feminism, so I wanted to add to that conversation. Second, and moreover, there has been little attention to Truth in European and Anglophone philosophy.1 Truth’s and Diotima’s cases are apparently incomparable on this score. Rather than argue they suffer different forms of absencing, however, I argue that it is philosophical practice that suffers. Certainly the practices of their absencing have been different. I suspect many people trained in European and Anglophone philosophy find it confusing that I would even claim that Truth has been absented, since there was never any debate about her inclusion. My point is not that these historical women need us, but rather, we need them. Where Are the Women? aims to make that need felt.

    1. A notable exception is Sarah Jane Cervenak in Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

    • Lucy M. Alsip Vollbrecht

      Lucy M. Alsip Vollbrecht


      Permissive Prohibition v. Silencing

      In her response, Holly Longair suggests that permissive prohibition might be productively understood via the literature on silencing. Tyson disagrees. She argues that absence and silencing do not constitute a sufficiently deep set of concepts to engage historical reality. But, why not? What exactly is the difference between permissive prohibition and silencing? For purposes of clarity, I wanted to suggest what I take to be a primary underlying difference between the two sets of concepts.

      Following a distinct from Epistemic Injustice, it seems to me that permissive prohibition addresses systematic, structural failings, while silencing treats instances of systematic, one-on-one wrongs. The site of critique in permissive prohibition is European and Anglophone philosophy as a tradition and practice. In contrast, the site of critique in silencing is the engagement between individuals. According to Tyson, permissive prohibition “…acknowledges women’s presence in the history of European and Anglophone philosophy while dismissing their authority…” (xv). Thus, permissive prohibition always entails the relationship of the individual and their contributions to the canon. It tells us why the individual is heard, or fails to be heard, based on the history and practice of European and Anglophone philosophy uberhaupt.

      If the above distinction is correct, it is logical that Tyson preference permissive prohibition for conceptual analysis. As she concludes in her response to Holly, “Rather than argue that [Diotima and Truth] suffer different forms of absencing, I argue that it is philosophic practice that suffers”. In effect, she theorizes that successful reclamation operates at the structural or institutional level. The best reclamation practices examine how philosophy as a discipline has formed through the exclusion of women.

      Does this seem like the relevant difference to others?

Elaine Miller


Reclaiming Diotima

In Where Are the Women? Why Expanding the Archive Makes Philosophy Better, Sarah Tyson argues that including works by women in the archive of philosophy not only makes philosophy more representative of human thinking through history but more importantly allows for change in the way in which philosophy thinks of itself. Throughout the book, Diotima reappears as a character in Plato who has been interpreted and reinterpreted, and whose significance as an important feminine figure and even whose status as real has been disputed. By examining various important feminist interpretations of Diotima, Tyson provides a through-line connecting diverging views on the question of feminist reclamation.

Tyson identifies her own approach to the expansion of the philosophical archive as a transformative reclamation, which identifies and seeks to redress the ways in which European and Anglophone philosophy has “substantiated itself as a discipline” (xxix), arguing that women’s exclusion from the archive of philosophy so closely informs the way in which reclamation of these thinkers can be theorized that it cannot proceed independently of an account of these foundational practices.

Tyson examines the work of important figures associated with the transformative approach, including Genevieve Lloyd, Luce Irigaray, and Michele Le Doeuff. The focus on symbolic formations of philosophical reason, rather than social or political or even psychological aspects of the way in which reason has been historically conceived, is a common thread in these thinkers’ work. Because of its focus on the symbolic, transformative reclamation holds the potential to continually change our understanding of the nature of philosophy. Simply broadening the scope of an already masculine philosophical tradition to include women, or correcting its errors without questioning the ideals and categories that gave rise to the exclusion in the first place, would, by contrast, actually strengthen symbolic formations predicated on women’s exclusion (38).

Transformative reclamation acknowledges not only the notion that the ideals with which philosophy established itself have been flawed, but also that we fundamentally do not and cannot know in advance what the result of contact between philosophy and diverse other perspectives will be. The philosophical reception of Diotima provides an illuminating case in point. Tyson covers at least twelve interpretations of Diotima’s appearance in Plato’s Symposium. This repetition is important because the Symposium is a work which, like most of Plato’s dialogues, does not end conclusively. Arguably even Plato’s ambiguous use of characters and situations performs the open-ended nature of philosophy that feminist transformative reclamation advocates. Why does Diotima, a woman and a priestess, appear at such a pivotal moment in the dialogue and teach even Socrates that his views on love are wrong? Where are the other women in Plato’s dialogues? Is Diotima a fictional character in Plato’s view? Does Socrates take her seriously? None of the answers to these questions are clear, yet her central importance in the dialogue and its unique status in Plato’s works is undeniable. The way in which any given thinker interprets Diotima provides a barometer of their approach to or rejection of feminist reclamation.

Engaging with historical women’s texts in the transformative sense of reclamation seeks to redress their absence in the archive by asking the question, what would philosophy have looked like if women’s reflection and writing had not been silenced? (121). What possibilities were lost in this omission? Employing a method called uchronic history, which involves imaginatively creating alternative histories in which women’s writings were not excluded from the philosophy of history, le Doeuff reengages the archive of philosophy. The u is the u of Utopia, and the chronic suggests an idealized vision of time, one in which the goal is not wholeness and completeness, but rather an experience of radical lack (114), which refuses to hierarchize or decide in advance what counts as philosophy. Thinking imaginatively in this way opens up excluded realms of thinking, allowing us to consider what they may offer us now (126), and focusing on the activity of philosophy rather than the figures we call philosophers (145). Le Doeuff’s third way between, on the one hand, a declaration that historical women who did not understand themselves as such in fact are philosophers, or, on the other, the conclusion that there were no women philosophers prior to the twentieth century, conceives philosophy’s aim as dynamic, shifting thinking from one state to another (120).

Following this lead, but adding a critical voice, Tyson draws on Penelope Deutscher and Saidiya Hartman to expose the effect of the violent history of colonialism and slavery and anti-black racism on philosophy, and it is to these exclusions that she turns in the final chapter, where she reads the Declaration of Sentiments, delivered at Seneca Falls in 1848, alongside Sojourner Truth’s speech at the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio. Although these two texts do not directly address each other, Tyson engages them uchronically in a dialogue. Her aim is to show Truth’s “incisive challenge to the women’s movement as a white supremacist project” (175), but also to point to problematic statements in the Declaration, when, for example, women’s lack of rights are contrasted to the right accorded to “the most ignorant men—both natives and foreigners” (179). The hierarchizing appeals that imply contempt for the status of both slaves and native Americans manifest the problematic ground upon which the declaration rests.

I wondered that in choosing to focus on the symbolic formations of philosophical reason, Tyson did not at all consider the psychoanalytic account of a possible feminist transformation and renewal of the symbolic order, a project that is essential for Irigaray and that forms at least a part of le Doeuff’s interrogation of philosophy. It seems to me that a psychoanalytic account of important women’s texts, such as Tracy McNulty’s analysis of Teresa of Avila in Wrestling with the Angel, is also eminently transformative in its approach since it follows the idea that women seek inscription within the symbolic while simultaneously working to transform it. Feminist psychoanalytic accounts argue that it is not possible or even desirable to discard the symbolic constraints that make human interaction communicable and lawful, but that it is nonetheless possible to open this space up to desires that it initially fails to represent. I think the distinction between right or freedom, on the one hand, and desire, on the other, is important. While rights or freedoms, such as the right to vote or freedom of expression, are already firmly delineated and form part of an established masculine symbolic order, desires are flexible, alterable, potentially creative, or subversive, and thus more suited to an envisioning of radical social change.

It also seems to me that the choice of how to expand the archive is potentially contentious. I wonder if Tyson would be sympathetic to the desire to bring some criteria to bear upon the choice of texts, without definitively excluding any from the outset. For example, Sojourner Truth’s speech is important, as Sarah shows, because it makes evident white feminists’ unreflective assumptions as to the homogeneity of the group to whom it referred. As such it deepened and troubled what was already a potentially contentious and important debate. The text challenges what Kristie Dotson critiques as philosophy’s assumption of “common, univocally relevant justifying norms” that are required in philosophical circles “in order to establish the positive, philosophical status” of one’s work (Dotson 2012, 9). We might call this challenge the criterion of weight, the expectation that a text should in some way critically intervene into a question or debate, or query assumptions and presuppositions that are taken for granted tacit in putting forth a philosophical or political argument.

Second, the text should be open to dialogue, putting forward an idea, question, or critique with the aim of disseminating it and opening it up to more conversation, drawing together members of a dispersed community. As Sylvia Wynter points out, there are often geographical reasons that are anything but arbitrary, why intellectuals and artists, especially of formerly colonized nations, are isolated from each other, creating obstacles for dissenting perspectives to form a community of resistance. This might be called the criterion of intellectual controversy. This criterion seems significant, especially given the historical exclusion of women from the public realm of intellectual friendship.

Third, the text’s style or genre should add to its meaning. Amir Jaima argues, with reference to literature as philosophy, that the form of discourse is literally part of the content. The way a work is written is as important as the argument it makes. Beauty, on this argument, is not something with which we passively linger in a disinterested manner, but rather it is an activity, one that “arrest[s] and dislodge[s] us from our daily routines” (Jaima 2019, 20). The text in question does not strictly speaking have to be in the form of a written series of pages, but could appear in the form of a film, an artwork, a graphic novel, a piece of music, a podcast, or a series of letters. This would be the criterion of form. Perhaps an offshoot of my query as to whether or not this is a criterion would be the assertion that in the end it doesn’t matter whether Diotima was a real or fictional character.

But does the imposition of criteria from the outset interfere with the spirit of the project? Should the quest for expansion remain as open-ended as the kind of philosophy that it advocates? I ask finally, then, is expanding the archive a constant goal, or does it have limits? Are there reasons to hold reservations about a text’s philosophical status? Texts that express an overt prejudice, that are convinced in advance that they are correct and will not broker questioning or critique, that show no respect for thinking, and that disrespect or advocate harm to others seem likely candidates. At the same time, I wonder if there would be a resistance to setting any limits in advance, and I’d like to discuss why this would be the case if so.


Works Cited

Dotson, Kristie. 2012. “How Is This Paper Philosophy?” Comparative Philosophy 3(1): 3–29.

Jaima, Amir. 2019. “Literature Is Philosophy: On the Literary Methodological Considerations That Would Improve the Practice and Culture of Philosophy.” Pluralist 14(2): 13–29.

Koerner, Lisbet. 1993. “Goethe’s Botany: Lessons from a Feminine Science,” Isis 84(3): 470–95.

McAlpin, Mary. 2005. “Goethe’s Number One Fan: A Neo-Feminist Reading of Bettina Brentano von Arnim.” Comparative Literature 57(4).

McNulty, Tracy. 2014. Wrestling with the Angel: Experiments in Symbolic Life. New York: Columbia University Press.

Tyson, Sarah. 2018. Where Are the Women? Why Expanding the Archive Makes Philosophy Better. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wynter, Sylvia. 1996. “We Must Learn to Sit Down and Talk about a Little Culture: Reflections on West Indian Writing and Criticism.” In The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature, edited by Alison Donnell and Sarah Lawson Welsh, 309–10. New York: Routledge.

  • Sarah Tyson

    Sarah Tyson


    Response to Elaine Miller

    Elaine Miller raises some important considerations about how to expand the archives of European and Anglophone philosophy. My general answer to the question of how the archives ought to be expanded is that we need methods of reclamation that constantly make us consider what we are including in the ambit of philosophy, given the history of its delineation, and how we are approaching what we are including. I will take each of Miller’s proposed criteria in turn to focus this answer. First, I worry in relation to the criterion of weight that philosophical training in European and Anglophone traditions, at least in the United States, produces unfortunate effects in this regard. The culture of justification that Kristie Dotson identifies is quite powerful—those presumed “commonly held, univocally relevant, historical precedents” used to judge “whether some belief, practice, and/or process conforms to accepted standards and patterns” produce normative practices of philosophy that rarely have time for itinerant preachers who say things such as, “I am a woman’s rights,” as Sojourner Truth probably did in Akron in 1851.1 The idea that such a statement could upheave the subject and predicate in a way that philosophically matters, especially when spoken by Truth—well, it took me years to get there even though I was deeply suspicious of not just how philosophical history often gets constructed, but also of feminist’s interested in contesting that construction.

    To Miller’s second criterion, I think my last point also relates to the difficulties that stand in the way of recognizing that some people might be engaged in intellectual controversy, even when they are not geographically all that disparate. I had to work past my own disciplined understanding of what constitutes a critical intervention to understand that one possibility for what Truth was doing when she said, “I am a woman’s rights,” was both linking and delinking herself from the early women’s movement. Using the powerful claim of rights from the movement, she proposed not her inclusion within them but her existence as them. She was engaged in speculative thinking as David Kazanjian describes it: “Speculative thinking, understood according to the figure of the sentence and enacted by rhetorical form itself . . . draws one away from the formal, static, and the abstract, and toward the recursive, the reflexive, the cyclical, and the open.”2 She understood the power of the early women’s rights movement and its limitations, so she acted in the rhetorical contest to open up the abstract claims and induce reflection on the unities and distinctions of the movement.3 I read her speculative move using the uchronic method from Michèle Le Doeuff, in part, to understand contemporary philosophical and political arguments anew. That is, I ask, what might our own time be like had Truth’s speculation been taken up by the nascent women’s movement? Would the 19th Amendment be cast as its apogee? In part, I think this uchronic move helps show that Truth was involved in an intellectual controversy.

    Third, Miller’s criterion of form points to a crucial aspect of feminist reclamation: its need to be omnivorous. Part of the brilliance of Catherine Villanueva Gardner’s Rediscovering Women Philosophers: Philosophical Genre and the Boundaries of Philosophy is that when she began to appreciate that several historical women may have been doing philosophy in forms she had not been trained to read, she sought further competence, rather than reject works she did not know how to read philosophically. She has broadened the possible philosophical archive through this work, engaging Catherine Macauley, Christine de Pisan, Mary Wollstonecraft, George Eliot, and Mechthild of Magdeburg. Not only that, she has also questioned dominant modes of philosophical practice because they offer so little in relation to the thinking of these women. She uses exclusion as an occasion to critique European and Anglophone philosophy. Her project is not to include the work of the women she engages in philosophy; hers is a project of transforming philosophical practice through engagement with the thinking of these women in the form they chose.

    I appreciate the productive possibilities for feminist reclamation practices in turning to psychoanalytic accounts, as Miller suggests. I want first to note that Truth’s speech in Akron destabilizes an account that construes rights as “already firmly delineated and . . . part of an established masculine symbolic order.” Truth, more than many in the early women’s rights movement, saw exploitable instabilities in the discourse of rights and the symbolic order—and she acted accordingly. Second, while the psychoanalytic work is, as Miller notes, not the work I undertake, I want to point to Hortense Spillers’s use of psychoanalysis as a crucial guide in this possibility. In her analysis of an American grammar book, Spillers argues: “In the historic outline of dominance, the respective subject-positions of ‘female’ and ‘male’ adhere to no symbolic integrity.”4 I returned to this argument time and again in the process of writing the book because I found myself needing to disorient myself from what I assumed happened to consider anew the complexities and contingencies of the records we have.

    I want to slightly displace Miller’s question about the limits of archive expansion to note that we delimit archives all the time. I feel this most clearly when designing a syllabus; I simply cannot include everything that should be included. Thus, I have to select and shape an archive, a particular history, for that class. Similarly, in articles and books, we decide what we must engage with to get some philosophical work done. These ad hoc archives involve judgment and decision-making, but can appear to be foregone conclusions. I think it is right to ask ourselves constantly: how is my archive in this project limited? Do I agree with those limits or was I simply trained to them? Who might challenge the archive I’ve chosen? Why? Where Are the Women? offers methods for doing this work in ways that, I hope, leads us to new possibilities for thinking and acting.

    1. Dotson, 5.

    2. Brink of Freedom, 125.

    3. Brink of Freedom, 123.

    4. Spillers, 66.

Shannon Mussett


April 8, 2020, 1:00 am

Nicole Spigner


April 15, 2020, 1:00 am

Lucy M. Alsip Vollbrecht


April 22, 2020, 1:00 am