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).

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      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.



Constraints on Feminist Reclamation?

Sarah Tyson’s book Where Are the Women? Why Expanding the Archive Makes Philosophy Better (Columbia University Press, 2018) offers many rewarding possibilities for feminist thinking. The book engages with the thought of powerful thinkers such as Luce Irigaray, Michèle Le Doeuff, and Genevieve Lloyd (and so many others) with the goal of providing a complex critical framework through which to engage in transformative feminist reclamations. In addition to the comprehensive treatment of feminist scholarship, Tyson provides novel and provocative readings of Diotima, Sojourner Truth, and The Declaration of Sentiments. The bulk of the book is concerned with the complicated and thorny discussions between feminists about various reclamation strategies in the history of European and Anglophone philosophy. This history has, over its long, fraught journey, participated in the erasure and prohibition of women’s participation. It has, in part, become what it is through the erasure and prohibition of women. To varying degrees of success, the numerous reclamation strategies discussed by Tyson are meant to remedy these exclusions and to provide us with insight into an important concern in past and present feminisms.

Tyson consistently reminds the reader that the historical archives that we turn to, to mine possible sites of reclamation, may themselves be shaped by these very exclusions. Vigilant readers and scholars must therefore constantly highlight the limitations of the projects in which they engage so as to not repeat the kinds of prohibitions they mean to ameliorate. Feminist reclamation is not, therefore, a matter of finding missing files (a most unlikely possibility) but of challenging the very notion of the archive (or perhaps, canon) itself.

Tyson carefully argues that critical reclamation reopens readings and interpretations of figures and texts that have been historically fixed in meaning. Unearthing possibilities obscured by time and myopia, readers are encouraged to reread historical texts, as well as to envision different possibilities of current social and political arrangements. The method, therefore, has the overall effect of reconfiguring the past, as well as of seeing the present in a new light. One of the most powerful tools employed by Tyson is Le Doeuff’s uchronic reading method, which, Tyson explains, “helps us bring into focus many aspects of our current social and political structures that perpetuate and depend upon the subordinate treatment of women. Indeed, one of the strengths of the method is that even short forays of the imagination are critically fruitful” (186). The uchronic method championed by Tyson’s utilization of Le Doeuff is one wherein we ask questions about what would the world be like if certain voices had been heard? Tyson reminds readers that this technique is one in which the reader should both use imaginative expansion to appreciate what could have been the case and what might have been a different contemporary outcome had women’s voices been heard in the past, as well as being critical of the hierarchies that remain unchallenged in the works under study.

Tyson’s work encourages readers to shift perspectives on the past and to critically imagine different present and future realities; additionally it entreats them to reconsider what counts as philosophy. She writes, “We can think differently—live philosophy in new ways—through treating the work of disregarded historical thinkers as philosophical” (206). Tyson is therefore acutely attuned to mourning what is lost (as well as what was never heard). She reminds us that “the uchronic exercise helps us to lament the opportunities that were lost with women’s voices, [and] reflection on the uchronic exercise helps us to lament the failure of those voices to articulate a more completely transformed world” (189). As Tyson’s own feminist reclamationist readings of thinkers such as Truth and Diotima, and historical documents such as the Declaration of Sentiments form such a central part of the book, I turn to two questions that emerge from this critical and transformative strategy. The first question surrounds the way in which the uchronic method functions in the play between “facts” and “fictions” broadly construed. Simply put, my question is this: how much freedom are we to take in transformative reclamation? I admire the tactic of imagining a world where an idea might have taken hold, or taken hold differently, and I think it is productive for feminism. Tyson is right to remind us that we are not likely going to “find” lost writings by women to reclaim, and therefore it is important to read creatively and imaginatively—sometimes even with very scant “factual” evidence at our disposal. But what are the hazards of this method? While reclamation must be ever-vigilant against exclusion even as it seeks inclusion, can imagining how things might have been different—if only we had another history where Simone de Beauvoir would have had other resources by women, or, if only Olympe de Gouges’s 1791 social contract would have been taken seriously—go too far? Can we, that is, simply spin into pure conjecture and thereby produce a different kind of exclusion—one wherein the very voices we want to hear become pure fantasy? This question, in part, came out of my reading of María del Rosario Acosta López’s paper “One Hundred Years of Forgotteness: Aesth-Ethics of Mourning in Latin America.” This essay discusses the history of occlusion and fictional preservation of the 1928 Columbian Banana Massacre (matanza de las banaeras). In a manner that shares aspects of the annihilation of voices of women in the history of philosophy, this event—where workers at the United Fruit Company were murdered at the hands of the Columbian army—has been systematically expunged from official Columbian history. However, it is preserved in powerful fictional form in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. While there is scant historical evidence of this massacre, any Colombian reading the fictional account would know exactly to what it refers. While the imaginative fictionalizing of the account could be said to further its erasure by making it all into just a story, Acosta López argues convincingly that given the violent erasures practiced by coloniality, truth needs to be heard not only through its factual accounting, but importantly through its narrative traces.1 While this is not an example of uchronic reading, it is not unrelated to what Tyson is doing and I think can add important possibilities to how much and how far imaginary reinvisioning can and should go. Acosta López’s use of memory through fiction offers what I think is an important component to this strategy.

To return to my question then, how much fictionalizing is to be involved (allowed?) into our recreations?2 For example, Tyson’s own speculative engagement with Diotima gave me pause at times. At the risk of putting too fine of a point on it, what if Diotima really isn’t . . . real? In many senses, the fictional handmaid from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is more real than Diotima, whose historical status will be endlessly debated with no definitive conclusion. Perhaps, they both share a kind of fictionalized realness that produces concrete effects but in philosophically different ways. Tyson, of course, is aware of this potential criticism and essentially rejects it as missing the point (147–49). However, I am interested in the ethical boundaries of the uchronic questioning advocated by Tyson. Perhaps due to how important the questions of fact and fiction are to my own philosophical interests, I wonder about the limitations of blurring the lines between fiction and reality.3 Is there such a thing as going too far in overreading with transformative feminist reclamation?

Second: I think that Tyson does a fine job of walking the thin line between challenging the very idea of a philosophical archive (as it is built upon and defined by the exclusion of women and other marginalized groups) and advocating that it should be expanded in creative ways to include women and thereby to make “philosophy better.” But what would Tyson say to someone who was to assert that the whole idea of archive is rotten to the core and we should just jettison it and find a new way to talk about philosophy and feminism? While I do not advocate for this position myself, it is not uncommon to hear colleagues in various subfields of philosophy making arguments to simply dismantle the whole academic structure. What is, then, the difference between the archive and, say, the canon? Should one be preserved and one be destroyed?


Works Cited

López, M. d. 2019. “One Hundred Years of Forgotteness: Aesth-Ethics of Mourning in Latin America.” Philosophical Readings 11(3): 131–39.

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

  1. “Thus, what survives in and through the novel is not the truth of the events, but rather the truth—the mark and the trace—of their history; a history that is stamped by the very act of erasure and forgotteness” (López 2019, 135).

  2. For example, regarding something like Truth’s (unwritten) speech or Saidiya Hartman’s “critical fabulation” of the lost voices from the violence of chattel slavery that Tyson discusses.

  3. Even beyond the possibility of “obscuring the need to critically think about the negative consequences of our ideals” (Tyson 2018, 187).

  • Sarah Tyson

    Sarah Tyson


    Response to Shannon Musset

    To Shannon Mussett’s first question: “How much freedom are we to take in transformative reclamation?” I want to observe that the question is put in terms of freedom. My first answer then is that we should take all of it. We should take all the freedom we can in transformative reclamation. But to do such freedom taking requires restraints, and I understand that to be Mussett’s question—what are the restraints? Her concerns with spinning pure conjecture, producing new exclusions, and fantasizing, rather than hearing, are central problems in telling philosophical history. Concerned to criticize European and Anglophone philosophy for doing all those things, have I suggested a method—uchronic history—that might license more?

    Maybe. First, I want to take one step back to observe that transformative reclamation is the name I give a diverse set of practices that seek to reshape European and Anglophone philosophical practice in light of its history of exclusions. Uchronic history is one of a range of transformative practices. Uchronic history takes moments of partial or complete failure and imagines our own time had those moments gone differently. If, for instance, the women of Seneca Falls had secured women’s ability to speak in public, would Greta Thunberg, for instance, be met with death threats? There is a limit to this kind of speculation insofar as it asks us to consider our own time in relationship to specific antecedents. We can look critically at an earlier event to think how it could have restructured what came after, such that our lives could be different. Uchronic history can aid us in imagining our own time differently given the radical potential in what people before us said and did. Uchronic history can disorient us from what seems so natural to our own time. The practice requires careful attention to what we know and the limits to what we can know about past events—that is, it requires careful and fallibilistic historiography. It requires dwelling with how strange that history can seem to us now and use that strangeness as a goad to think anew about our own time. So, I think the danger with this method, as Mussett points out, is a tendency to pay attention to the “good bits” in history and ignore their (likely) problematic scaffolding.

    The example from Márquez is, I think, an example of a different technique that can be used for transformative reclamation: critical fabulation. Critical fabulation is the name Saidiya Hartman gives to her work of narrating what the archive cannot yield up. Hartman tells the story of two girls about whom we have little record that is not already the fantastical record of their enslavement—fantastical because we have little more than the epithets by which slavers invested in their lives as commodities and took license to kill them. Hartman writes of the impossibility of telling this story:

    The intent of this practice is not to give voice to the slave, but rather to imagine what cannot be verified, a realm of experience which is situated between two zones of death—social and corporeal death—and to reckon with the precarious lives which are visible only in the moment of their disappearance. It is an impossible writing which attempts to say that which resists being said (since dead girls are unable to speak). It is a history of an unrecoverable past; it is a narrative of what might have been or could have been; it is a history written with and against the archive.1

    Hartman is clear about the limits of this narrative work, and I think this speaks to Mussett’s concerns:

    Narrative restraint, the refusal to fill in the gaps and provide closure, is a requirement of this method, as is the imperative to respect black noise—the shrieks, the moans, the non-sense, and the opacity, which are always in excess of legibility and of the law and which hint at and embody aspirations that are wildly utopian, derelict to capitalism, and antithetical to its attendant discourse of Man.2

    The method of critical fabulation does not seek to console us with what we imagine, but to put us in closer contact with the rapacious violence that constitutes the history of our moment. Critical fabulation without the restraint Hartman delineates, it seems to me, could be exactly what Mussett describes: pure conjecture that produces exclusions as part of a fantasy. We would get something like Frances Dana Gage’s account of Sojourner Truth’s 1851 Akron Speech, which has come to us as “Ain’t I a Woman?” And much as I try to keep that account in play in my own reading of Truth’s speech, I hope readers come away with a sense of the particular fantasy at work in Gage’s narrative: she has Truth carry the women’s movement, “in her strong arms,” over the “slough of difficulty” (Tyson, 223). No one can carry a movement, but certain strains of feminism never seem to tire of trying to find arms strong enough. I think it is right to proceed with caution about our fantasies, to practice the narrative restraint Hartman outlines, to consider how we can fabulate critically.

    As all of the commentators have pointed out, Diotima is crucial to the structure and thematic development of the book. In relation to Mussett’s pointed question, I want to lay my cards on the table, because, as she notes, I think the priestess’s status as real or fictional is beside the point. I wonder if by saying what I think, I can make you think it’s beside the point, too. Here goes: I just can’t believe it of Plato. That after all that care, all that work to weave in historical figures in all those dialogues, I cannot believe that he just made someone up. I think people who think she is fictional do not respect Plato. Which points to my point about Diotima—the debates about her reality aren’t about her. They are about us here now doing the thinking. And this is true of Plato, too. We do not doubt his reality, but that does not make us more certain of what he was telling us. I agree with Hartman that “transparent sources” are fictions of history.3 Philosophers in the European and Anglophone tradition are quite comfortable when it comes to uncertainty with Plato—we laud his aporetic approach to thinking; we spend a lot of time trying to get students to appreciate it. Meanwhile, we try to quell uncertainty about Diotima.

    But she fairs better, in general, than “black noise—the shrieks, the moans, the non-sense, and the opacity, which are always in excess of legibility and of the law and which hint at and embody aspirations that are wildly utopian, derelict to capitalism, and antithetical to its attendant discourse of Man.” Diotima gets a debate. Philosophy in the European and Anglophone tradition has often set itself up as the discourse of Man and guardian of reason against shrieking. What Where Are the Women? aims to do is show possibilities for reclamation as a practice of questioning such traditions.

    1. Venus in Two Acts, 12.

    2. Venus in Two Acts, 12.

    3. Venus in Two Acts, 11.



Love and the Materiality of Discourse

In Where Are the Women? Why Expanding the Archive Makes Philosophy Better (Columbia University Press, 2018), Sarah Tyson makes a much-needed and successful argument for not only the inclusion of women in European and Anglophone philosophy, but for specific frameworks to set right that which the makers of history have refused the philosophical world. She argues for and charts the history of “reclaiming” women philosophers and their philosophical thought. Tyson breaks that reclamation framework down into four subcategories, arguing that only the last can remedy the long history of women overlooked by philosophy: enfranchisement, alternative history, corrective history, and transformation.

In Tyson’s own words: “That strategy, transformative reclamation, can transform philosophical and feminist practice through engaging historical women’s philosophical authority” (143). By thinking with and simultaneously critiquing women philosophers, transformative reclamation makes room for the speculative reconceptualization of history and of the present, opening paths towards newly conceived futures. I happily report that Tyson’s argument can be applied widely to treat the ways that various groups are repressed, what Tyson would call “the history of massive exclusion” (172)—such that, while this is a book of and about philosophy, it is certainly not only a book of and about philosophy.

And so, how does Tyson suggest that we practice “transformative reclamation”? At the risk of reducing Tyson’s complexity, methods for “transformative reclamation” include, but are not limited to:

  • examining the work women philosophers for evidence not only of what they have contributed to thought, but for the ways that they have reinforced their own and other women’s censorship;
  • self-critique;
  • disrupting reading practices or “[jamming] the machinery” of discourse by primarily paying attention to “the blanks and silences in discourse” (88–90);
  • practicing uchronic accountings of history; and,
  • perhaps most importantly to my discussion of Tyson’s work: love.

Tyson calls for us to change our relationships to discourse by undermining the existing power dynamic of discourse—as readers, historians, philosophers, and as people that exist in a world that we attempt to understand and alter. She challenges us to refuse the subjugation to which discourse would have us relent. She suggests that we defy discourse’s power as the inevitable order. She suggests that we approach discourse as if it can and will be changed—to challenge if not change the power dynamic prescribed through discourse by applying the methodologies listed above and, more fundamentally, by first imagining this destabilization as successful. In the same way that she confronts the work of the philosophers at the center of her study, she asks us to imagine the frameworks, histories, and organizing principles that exclude women from the record of philosophical thought as malleable—wax made soft in the hands of her readers. She tasks us to return to the silences and fissures, the accidental and criminal exclusions, those untold histories, to search for new voices and imagine as if those late-reclaimed voices had always been there.

Tyson’s work empowers the philosophers she cites, Diotima, Genevieve Lloyd, Luce Irigaray, Michèle Le Doeuff, Sojourner Truth, along with their critics, Tyson, herself, and those of us reading her work. In other words, she lays out the foundation and then also positions her readers to undermine discourse by reminding them of their own potentially plastic relationship with the power of discourse. Again, the bird’s-eye view reveals the extensive possibility of her exciting model beyond philosophy and, additionally, a call to action that Tyson subtly insists upon through Where Are the Women?

To this end, in the ultimate chapter of the book and with love, Tyson identifies Sojourner Truth as a philosopher. She considers Truth’s “fluid text,” the variety of versions of Truth’s 1851 speech in Akron, and the history and motivations for the multiple versions of a speech written in hands other than Truth’s. I wish to push the readers of Tyson’s book to utilize the very models that Tyson provides as a way to speculate, even further, on the next steps towards understanding Truth’s speech.

It is no mistake that Tyson uses Diotima through several chapters of this book and then concludes with a chapter on Sojourner Truth. Diotima serves as an ancient example of a woman or feminine figure whose voice influenced the very people who ventriloquized her. Thus, Diotima shares quite a bit with Truth, as each woman was ventriloquized by historical figures who and institutions that insisted on and benefited from her reduction if not elision. Moreover, the histories of each rely on legend, first and foremost—which is why it ultimately doesn’t matter (or does it?) if Diotima is a historical figure or not, or if Truth literally said “arn’t I a woman?” Tyson disabuses us of any concerns about Diotima’s historical presence—while, simultaneously, interrogating those moments in philosophical history when Diotima’s critics insisted on her as fiction. Additionally, she reminds us that Truth deliberately used her legendary status to gain exposure so that she might further her political agenda. The connections between these figures moves me to ask Tyson’s text some additional questions.

Tyson wrestles with Irigaray’s fictional account of Diotima’s speech, which acts as an appeal to love. Or, perhaps better said: to inspire readers to a love along with Diotima. Irigaray (and Tyson) arrives to this as an extension of Diotima’s discussion with Plato on the subject of Eros. In Tyson’s own words, Irigaray asserts that in Diotima’s speech:

“Sorcerer Love” does not ask us to trust this instance of discourse because it is a woman reading a woman, reclaiming her from her embedding in a man’s text. Rather, she asks us to perfect ourselves in wisdom by being the readers of her reading. She asks us to consider this activity as philosophy. . . . That is to say, we do not just read for the theme of love, but our reading can be an enactment of love. (95–96)

As contradictory as it may seem, and in the very vein of Irigaray’s call for mimicry, Tyson’s text suggests two things that I’d like to pose, here: (1) that we might benefit from a philosopher who thinks along with Truth and reimagines Truth’s speech in the very same way that Irigaray imagines Diotima: through the lens of love; and/or (2) that we might ask that same philosopher to utilize Truth’s core theoretical lens as the frame through which she imagines Truth’s speech and fictionalizes it for her own reading audience. I contend that Tyson, herself, has already approached parts of each of these potential projects. She has approached Truth with love. She identifies Truth’s philosophical intervention as the moment in Truth’s speech when she says: “I am a woman’s rights.”

Having already engaged with Nell Painter’s fundamental assertion that Truth was metonymically the black woman for her contemporary moment and thereafter for the mid-nineteenth century, Tyson shifts her focus to Truth’s own potential assertion of metonymy. Add to this Tyson’s engagement with the materiality of discourse (and of the body, à la Irigaray and as hinted through her engagement with Hortense J. Spillers), Where Are the Women? asks us to also consider the material relationship between Truth’s body and a woman’s rights—not to mention the gesture to Truth’s arm that serves the speech’s legend.

What if a philosopher picked up from where Tyson leaves us, asking to consider Truth as “a woman’s rights?” What would it mean to look at Truth through the lens of being a woman’s rights, figuratively and literally? Does this mean that the philosopher would, too, have to imagine herself as a woman’s rights? Might this lead the philosopher to imagine herself in David Kazanjian’s words as cited by Tyson: “so forceful that the formal, grammatical distinction between the subject and the predicate breaks down” (201)? Would this further inspire readers, as Tyson herself has done, to reconsider their relationships to the power of grammar, language, and discourse?

And, finally, I must also raise the questions about who this philosopher could and should be (provided that they/she/? should engage in this project, at all). Does it matter if this project is conducted by “a [black] woman reading a [black] woman”? I appreciate that Tyson left this for another philosopher to take on, not only because her project, then, provides an opening for philosophers in her tradition (the tradition of loving feminist philosophers) to take up the mantle, but also because it would require work outside of the scope of Where Are the Women? And yet, it is because of the possibility born from Tyson’s work that we can even speculate.

  • Sarah Tyson

    Sarah Tyson


    Response to Nicole Spigner

    Nicole A. Spigner has articulated the hope of the book: “to inspire readers . . . to reconsider their relationships to the power of grammar, language, and discourse.” I hope further to have given means for how to undertake this reconsideration through the book’s focus on methodologies of reclamation. Spigner emphasizes the method of love as transformative reclamation that I find in Irigaray’s work on Diotima. In Where Are the Women?, I raise several concerns about this method, but Spigner’s reading highlights the degree to which even my use of another method, Le Doeuff’s uchronic history, is inflected by Irigaray’s approach. In light of this new understanding of my approach, I want to develop yet another line of concern about the method of love here and as a way of engaging the last set of questions that Spigner raises.

    In her reflections on how ignorance about women of color is produced, even by the well-intentioned, Mariana Ortega identifies a practice she calls loving, knowing ignorance. This form of knowledge production leads to ignorance in two ways. First, “the perceiver and the knower are actually involved in the production of knowledge about women of color—whether by citing their work, reading and writing about them, or classifying them—while at the same time using women of color to the perceiver’s own ends.”1 The person producing knowledge in this instance does not consider how their own desires and projections may be shaping what is produced. This seems the best diagnosis for the story Frances Dana Gage wrote about Sojourner Truth. Gage wanted to reinvigorate the women’s rights movement in the midst of the Civil War, and so she told a story about a formerly enslaved woman to achieve that end.

    There is a second form of failure Ortega identifies, which is when a perceiver fails to question and check their perceptions. Ortega writes: “We may find the feminist who wants to perceive lovingly, who wants to see women of color in their own terms, does not want to homogenize them, does not want to be coercive with them, does not want to use them but who, despite her well intentions, turns women of color into something that can be used to further her own desires.”2 This perceiver knows the importance of loving practice in knowledge production, but she does not question and check with women of color the knowledge she is producing about women of color. This diagnosis seems apt for some of Irigaray’s work, Between East and West, for example; she does not seem to be in meaningful conversation with women of color.

    Ortega provides a robust set of suggestions for how community can be built and meaningful conversation sustained—how loving perception can be developed—drawing on the work of Audre Lorde, Elizabeth Spelman, and María Lugones, in particular. These antidotes not only provide practical suggestions for how to overcome loving, knowing ignorance, but also provides an overview of how much theorization, especially by women of color, has already called attention to this issue and provided ways to address it. Loving perception, Ortega makes clear, requires vigilant practices that are born of being in community with women of color, guided by the theoretical and practical innovations women of color have been building for decades, if not centuries.

    Irigaray, when she does engage a historical woman, does not engage one about whom questioning and checking can be done, except imaginatively. And, despite my emphasis on imagination and speculation throughout the book, it isn’t enough. As Elizabeth Spelman, quoted by Ortega, writes: “Imagining isn’t the same thing as knowing, nor tolerance the same as welcoming; neither show curiosity and openness to learning what may be disadvantageous to one’s closely guarded position of privilege . . . our recognition of this need (of knowing women of color) must be matched by an awareness of how the legacies of our privilege appear in the ways we may try to satisfy that need: in our confusing imagining women with knowing them; in priding ourselves on tolerance; and in appropriating others’ identities through our desperate rush to find similarity.”3 It is not accident, I think, that it was Nell Painter’s work on Truth that threw the whole project into crisis at a rather late stage—I thought I knew what Truth had said, but out of some ill-defined sense of due diligence, I decided to check with an authority on Truth’s life to be sure. Note: I had already written my analysis of Truth’s speech based on Gage’s version of events. Why didn’t I turn to Painter’s biography first?

    To Spigner’s final set of questions, especially, “Does it matter if this project is conducted by ‘a [black] woman reading a [black] woman’?” I want to return to an important reason I could not jettison the probably apocryphal renderings of Truth’s speech: because of the reading of it done by Angela Davis and the inspiration taken by bell hooks. These thinkers have shown that there is something in this version of events that becomes powerful in reconsidering it. It would be hard to overestimate the importance of their engagements with Truth’s speech. A historical answer to Spigner’s question, then, is yes. And Ortega points to reasons more generally that yes, it does matter who is conducting the project, as well as who comprises their community. If I have opened possibilities for speculation in the manner Spigner contends, that is in no small part due to her.

    1. Mariana Ortega, “Being Lovingly, Knowingly Ignorant: White Feminism and Women of Color,” Hypatia 21, no. 3 (2006): 61,

    2. Ortega, 61.

    3. Ortega, 66–67.



Transcending Gendered Reason

In this short reply essay, I will argue that successful reclamation strategies of historical women thinkers, in addition to meeting the three criteria Tyson presents in Where Are the Women?, should meet a fourth criterion. Namely, that any reclamation strategy move beyond a hierarchical gendered conceptual binary. For, the hierarchical gendered conceptual binary determines the extent of historical and contemporary women’s access to argumentation. The inability to overcome this binary leads Lloyd and Irigaray, unlike Le Doeuff, to formulate reclamation strategies with critical shortcoming, insofar as each compromises women’s ability to engage in argument. In what follows, I examine each strategy in terms of its treatment of Diotima, Tyson’s paradigm case for reclamation.

In Where Are the Women? Tyson concludes that “transformational reclamation” strategies are most successful. That is, they are more successful than other non-transformational strategies, such as the enfranchisement, alternative history, or corrective models. Transformational strategies look closely at forms of women’s historical exclusion to guide reclamation practices. Such practices engage unrecognized or underappreciated historical women’s works, and, at once, identify and critique the means by which they were silenced, thus improving contemporary women’s ability to do philosophy.

A successful reclamation practice should meet the three following criteria, Tyson holds:

  1. A given strategy should respond or take on the critique that it reconstructs history inaccurately.
  2. A given strategy should name and recognize historical women’s works.
  • Moreover, a given strategy should engage with historical women’s texts imaginatively to see their potential (paraphrased from 142–44).

While these criteria are critical, I hold, they are insufficient for capturing everything essential to a successful reclamation strategy. A fourth consideration is needed: How well does a given strategy negotiate, or more specifically move beyond, rather than adopt the framework of hierarchical gendered conceptual binary?

In philosophy, argument is the prime mover. When we philosophize, we present reasons from which we infer logical conclusions, and to which, our dialogical partners respond in kind. Without argument at philosophy’s core, we cannot make sense of objections, resistance, or critique. Furthermore, argument preserves a view’s subtlety. The hierarchal gendered conceptual binary has long associated reason with masculinity and emotion with femininity. Straightforwardly rejecting reason and conceptualization as masculine, as Lloyd and Irigaray’s strategies do, only substantiates women’s role as non-rational. If reasoning and conceptualization is cordoned off as masculine, then engaging argumentatively will be seen as traitorous for feminist thinkers, and women will not be able to philosophize. A successful reclamation strategy must let women engage rationally and conceptually, or, in short, argumentatively. For, without argumentation, there is no philosophy. Lloyd’s reclamation strategy, according to Tyson’s reading, condemns Diotima as contributing to the masculinization of reason. Her reclamation centers on the role of the symbolic gender of concepts, particularly the masculinization of reason via metaphor. Concepts as gendered relate to one another in a binary hierarchy, which she illustrates using the Pythagorean Table, to which, Tyson, in her reading of Lloyd notes, we can easily add “conceptual; material” to the list. Likewise, the “emotion; reason” distinction follows. Thus, masculinity becomes associated with reason and concepts, while the feminine becomes associated with emotions and materiality. The logical conclusion of Lloyd’s strategy, Tyson writes, is that: “Diotima’s speech incorporates the importance of physical passion into the pursuit of wisdom, but it also maintains reason as superior to the physical body. The second move is part of the history of associations that pair masculinity with reason and femininity with the body. Thus, while the first move appears to bring together reason and body, the second move shows that such subsumption reestablishes a hierarchical binary” (72). Diotima contributes to the masculinization of reason, because in discussing love qua love, rather than favor the material, she preferences conceptual or rational procreation. Tyson, via Lloyd, sees this as reifying the kind of gendered conceptual divisions, and hierarchy, extant in the Pythagorean Table. But, how does this facilitate philosophic reclamation? Given its rendering of Diotima, how can this framework serve historical and contemporary women thinkers? If reason is masculine, then reasoning itself becomes taboo. Rather than say, women ought to have equal access to reasoning, and so, equal philosophical authority, Lloyd’s strategy is totalizing. It condemns reasoning uberhaupt. In so doing, it reinstates the initial division of gendered concepts, including its hierarchy, which as Lloyd herself notes, is a key component of historical women’s exclusion from philosophy. Irigaray’s strategy fails, too, because of its reliance on the symbolic hierarchical gendered binary. Reclamation as a practice of love is exemplified via a reclamation of Diotima. Reclamation as a practice of love consists in disruptive close-reading of historical women’s writing, which is repetitive, incessant, and oriented towards dialogue, not discursive production. In fact, Irigaray critiques Diotima for defining love as towards procreation, physical or conceptual. She writes: “When the circulation of dialogue becomes subordinate to the product of its work, the transcendent becomes inaccessible—we are merely mortal with dreams of achieving an immortality total alien from us” (97). On her view, philosophy is not about producing discursive conclusions, but about continually engaging with one another in dialogue. Irigaray attempts to overcome the conceptual gender binary using “love.” She tells us that love is not a set or definitive concept, but a middle, a daimonic-like in-between, which never is, but is always becoming. Theoretical and practical problems follow. Theoretically, Irigaray is attempting a rehabilitation of “love,” which, as a concept, is typically treated as specifically feminine topos. She tells us, love is not a concept; it exists on neither side of the division. It is a liminal negotiation of the two. But, by simply telling us “love” is liminal, rather than definitive, do we read it as such? In my view, rather than a progressing beyond the binary, Irigaray’s strategy reinstates it. How predictable for women’s work to be reclaimed through the feminine terrain of “Love.” Isn’t this precisely the conceptual contouring to avoid? Redoing the love stuff is a way of reenacting the gender binary, not subverting it. Best practice does not employ the tools of oppression for reclamation. A practical problem follows, too. If reclamation is repetitive, incessant reading, which pursues continued dialogue, not conclusive discourse, how will we hear the conclusions historical women argued for, especially those regarding women’s equality? Women thinkers then and now, have points they want to make, but Irigaray’s strategy threatens to suppress them. While we want to engage deeply and discuss continually historical women, if we cannot engage these thinkers as advocates, as wanting to say something, we cannot claim to have actually rehabilitated their philosophic authority. Argument is philosophy’s bread and butter, and argument is not complete without conclusion.

Although Le Doeuff sees Diotima as occupying a permissively prohibited role, she uniquely recognizes Diotima’s transformative reclamatory potential, precisely because her reclamation strategy—uchronic framing—moves beyond the symbolic gendered hierarchy. Uchronic framing allows Tyson to ask her most transformative question: “What if we had, from the beginning of European and Anglophone philosophy, a theory of love and knowledge handed down to us from a woman? What might we do with history like that?” (137). Not only does this question imagine a philosophic tradition, wherein women hold philosophic authority, but, it envisions a philosophic tradition in which authority is not divided along gender lines. Herein, Diotima is pictured as the simultaneous authority on love and knowledge, wherein the two are seen together, rather than in opposition. Uchronic questioning brings the transformative collapse of the symbolic hierarchical gender binary. Uchronia, or ideal time, reclaims historical women’s work by imaging the contemporary intellectual, political, and social differences we would see had they been taken seriously at the time they wrote. In Tyson’s words: “Uchronic history and reclamation together are more than a subjunctive exercise in what might have been” (126). Uchronia is not a simple this is how things are versus this is how things might have been. Rather, in engaging with underrepresented historical women, we observe not only what they argued for, but how they were silenced, in order to correct for the absence of their voices in tandem with the suppressive practices of philosophy today. By envisioning how differently the conceptual gendered hierarchy might look had we taken Diotima seriously, the uchronic method lets us think “love” as a historical and contingent concept, which has been a means of suppressing women’s voices, and as such, must be transcended. In sum, Tyson’s analysis reveals a fourth, though unrecognized, criterion for successful feminist reclamation. The best reclamation strategy will transcend the hierarchical gender binary, and see reason as gender neutral. For, reasoning is the basis of argument, and argument is the basis of philosophy. If reason and conceptualization is understood as masculine, women will never hold full philosophic authority, as is exemplified in the problems that recur in interpreting Diotima’s case.

Works Cited

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

  • Sarah Tyson

    Sarah Tyson


    Response to Lucy Alsip Vollbrecht

    Lucy Alsip Vollbrecht has put a finger on one of the central interests in the book: how to negotiate histories of binarized and hierarchized conceptions of gender in the project of reclamation. That is, how do we resist thinking we know what the category of women is, even as we are trying to reclaim women in the history of European and Anglophone philosophy? Part of what drives my interest in Sojourner Truth’s work is the pressure she puts on the category of women operative at the 1851 meeting about women’s rights in Akron, Ohio, and in the early women’s movement more generally. By attending to her specific argumentative moves, even as we cannot identify a single authoritative text for the speech, we can see how she is responding to the rhetorical framing of the category of women in the early women’s rights movement. That movement has appealed to the status of the enslaved as an analogy for women’s position in myriad arenas. Truth, as I read her, does much more than remind her listeners (and later readers) that some women are/were enslaved, thus making analogy to enslavement an odd move—for some women the experience is/was not analogical. She also highlights the many forces that have made it possible for some women to see their relationship to slavery as merely analogical. She inserts herself into the concept of “woman’s rights” and thus demands that the movement conceive of its goals in new ways, not just for the white, propertied, free (from slavery or its threat), and literate, for example.

    Truth does not thereby tell us what the correct concept of the category of women is. Truth demands that our category must comprehend the specificity of her experiences. She highlights that the category is a site of contestation. One of the points I take from Truth’s work is that what makes the category of women powerful for feminist projects is not its proper definition, but its ongoing reconsideration. Reclamation of women in the history of European and Anglophone philosophy in dialogue with Truth’s demands, therefore, does not have a fixed object to pursue; we can’t just go looking for women to insert in our syllabus. That’s bad news if you think that reclamation’s aim is providing philosophy with a better canon. But if you think the history of philosophy is always a task before us and reclamation is crucial to that task, then Truth becomes an interesting friend to have. And I think Vollbrecht asks just the right question for engaging such friends: “How well does a given strategy negotiate, or even more specifically move beyond, rather than adopt the framework of [a] hierarchical gendered conceptual binary?”

    To the end of taking up that question, I want to look again at two thinkers who Vollbrecht engages as giving insufficient answers to it. As I read her, Genevieve Lloyd does not dismiss reason as masculine. Rather, she is concerned about the conceptual history of reason which has masculinized the concept, particularly through the use of metaphors. Indeed, Lloyd’s work gives us a powerful example of how effective critique of metaphors can be in exposing how a concept has been shaped. And Lloyd continually shows how incomplete the project of masculinizing reason has been, such that it needs to be continually reestablished throughout the history of European and Anglophone philosophy. Interestingly, however, Lloyd does not tend to follow up the breakdowns in the masculinization of reason, but rather tends to conclude that the masculinization has been successful. Relatedly, Lloyd tends to treat the history of European and Anglophone philosophy as a history of men’s work. These tendencies, I argue, show that she has not yet linked the work of overcoming women’s exclusion to the work of reclaiming historical women thinkers. But we can, and Lloyd is a helpful interlocutor for such work.

    Similarly, I think Luce Irigaray can be read as identifying the impossibility of sexual difference in the history of European and Anglophone philosophy, a reading very much influenced by Penelope Deutscher’s A Politics of Impossible Difference. Similar to Lloyd, Irigaray shows all sorts of cracks and fissures in the making impossible of sexual difference and invites us to exploit them with her. Irigaray brings her strategic reading practices to a conversation with Diotima. The result is a text, and one that arrives at some conclusions through argumentation. But it is also a text that invites us to think with and beyond it—to not rest satisfied with the conclusions reached therein. Lucy asks: “If reclamation is repetitive, incessant reading, which pursues continued dialogue, not conclusive discourse, how will we hear the conclusions historical women argued for, especially those regarding women’s equality?” I urge us not to hear those conclusions as conclusive, i.e., as having decided the matter. The formerly enslaved Truth heard many people in the early women’s movement argue that what ailed women was that they were treated like slaves. She responded by questioning the vision of freedom produced by understanding slavery as an analogy, rather than as the everyday reality of many women. But even Truth’s arguments are not conclusive. In the book, I suggest that Truth’s project in later life to claim land in the Kansas Territory for freed slaves participated in a vision of freedom that erased Indigenous sovereignty. The point is not to dismiss Truth’s conclusions, but to think with them now—to think the project of freedom now. We can ask, through speculating with Truth: is there a vision of equality in a settler state that can comprehend Indigenous sovereignty? Truth cannot give us a final answer, but part of our work lies, I have argued, in grappling with the conclusions she reached.

    To return to Irigaray for a moment: I think there are risks with Irigaray’s approach that must be contended with, perhaps most important for my project is the fact that she so little engages with historical women. In the face of so much erasure and absence, I wonder why Irigaray has not engaged more with historical women’s work, even if she thinks it can only show us the impossibility of sexual difference. Again, my aim is not to dismiss what Irigaray has done, but to think it in relation to the project of reclaiming women philosophers. How can her work help us think anew? That is the guiding question of Where Are the Women?

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      Lucy M. Alsip Vollbrecht


      Reconsidering Lloyd and Irigaray

      Thanks so much to Sarah Tyson for her response to my commentary.

      From Sarah’s response, I take two things. 1. The additional criterion, which I suggest to augment her three, is well-suited to identify successful reclamation practices. 2. While the criterion is useful, I am insufficiently generous in my evaluation of Lloyd and Irigaray’s strategies given said criterion. In what follows, I’ll respond briefly to Tyson’s evaluation of each.

      Lloyd’s strategy, Tyson maintains, really is a helpful tool to transcend the hierarchical gendered conceptual binary. I am inclined to agree with Tyson here. Lloyd identifies how the symbolic, and metaphor, in particular, is mobilized to masculinize reason. While she concludes that this masculinization is successful, her theory does not necessarily lead to this conclusion. As Tyson points out, Lloyd continually shows the contingency of these metaphors, and how much effort is required to maintain the illusion they paint. These observations give us tools to transcend hierarchical gendered conceptual binaries, even though Lloyd herself does not do so. Just because reason has been masculinized, does not mean reason is masculine.

      Likewise, Tyson argues for the benefits of Irigaray’s strategy. I am less convinced here. My worry with Irigaray’s strategy as “repetitive incessant reading” is that it does not allow us to make our own conclusions, nor hear the conclusions of historical women thinkers, particularly those regarding women’s rights. Tyson maintains that Irigaray’s strategy does allow conclusions, just not conclusive ones. There is an important distinction here, but the one Tyson identities is not the one I mean to indicate.

      When I say conclusive discourse (in contrast to continued dialogue) I do not mean to draw a distinction between lower-case ‘c’ conclusions and upper-case ‘C’ Conclusions. On my view, no conclusion is an upper-case one, or in Tyson’s words, one that “decides the matter” in an ultimate sense. To maintain an upper-case ‘C’ Conclusion is to prohibit its further debate. As someone informed by the Skeptical tradition, I hold that all conclusions are lower-case ‘c’ conclusions. An argument’s conclusion, even if proved in a particular instance, can always be re-opened for debate again. This is necessary for epistemic justice and success. If we elevate certain propositions beyond the pale of critique, we move outside of philosophy’s domain.

      The difference I invoke when I say conclusive discourse is that between dialectical, or reasoned argumentative discourse, and mere discussion. The aim of the former is to seek conclusions, while that of the latter is just pure engagement. Continued argumentative engagement is critical in philosophy, but only becomes meaningful when directed by the motivation to revise old conclusions, or form new ones. Continued reading is meaningful because of these ends.

      My worry is not that Irigaray’s strategy means philosophers cannot make Conclusions. Philosophy’s business is not to form absolute Conclusions. I worry, rather, that Irigaray’s strategy does not just re-emphasize the importance of continued dialogue, but de-emphasizes why dialogue is important. Dialogue is important because it moves us, over time, toward conclusions. On my view, Irigaray’s strategy occludes and inhibits this movement.