Philosophy for Girls, edited by Melissa M. Shew and Kimberly K. Garchar (Oxford University Press), $35/£22.99
Melissa Shew and Kimberly Garchar’s edited collection Philosophy for Girls contains twenty short chapters on a range of philosophical topics by expert women philosophers. The chapters are accessible, engaging, and philosophically rich. I could easily see myself teaching them, or the book as a whole, in an introductory philosophy class. I have to admit some initial ambivalence, though, about the name Philosophy for Girls. It is, of course, a clear intervention that takes aim at the gender gap in professional philosophy as a whole. My ambivalence about the title has less to do with the book’s position as an invitation, and much more to do with the fact that our discipline is one in which a collection like this still has to be marked in such a way. I caught myself thinking that we should just call this A New Introduction to Philosophy, or better yet – Philosophy for Boys, since boys and men are the ones who need to but don’t always understand that girls and women have rich inner lives. The useful challenge of this ambivalence, though, is that it asks us to step back and ask who our work really is for in the first place.
I’m a feminist philosopher and an Asian-Canadian woman, and there’s a trivial way in which most philosophical work isn’t written for me. After all, most academic philosophy is written for area experts, and there are only so many things any one person can specialise in. But there’s another sense in which a lot of us, especially those of us who don’t fit a particular mold of being a white cis middle-class and non-disabled man, have felt as though a lot of philosophy wasn’t written for us in the first place, either. Some of us might be recognisable as the plot points in thought experiments, but not their central characters. For example, Bernard Williams has a well-known thought experiment in which a character named Jim has to decide whether to have one Indigenous person killed in order to save a bigger group of them. And the Chinese Room argument in the philosophy of mind imagines a person locked in a room and simulating having a conversation through the exchange of Chinese characters, mediated by a large set of rules. Monolingual English speakers immediately recognise that even though (according to the rules of the thought experiment) the conversation they are having is flowing perfectly well, they themselves don’t understand a word of it. Fluent writers of Chinese might think of their linguistic capacities as more sophisticated than exchanging obscure symbols through a look-up manual, but of course that’s not the point of the argument. After all, these kinds of lightly exclusionary practices don’t have to be there on purpose. People often point out that the person inside the Chinese room argument could be exchanging symbols in any language they can’t read, and the people whose lives are in Jim’s hands certainly don’t have to be Indigenous or racialised in any way. But this general point – that philosophical problems don’t have to be explained in ways that exclude people whose experience is already socially marginalised – is exactly what this book is doing with its very contents.
The book is divided into four different sections, each of which deals with a particular philosophical area: Self, Knowing, Social Structure and Power Relations, and Contemplation in Action. Each section then has five chapters, written by a different philosopher with her own younger self in mind. Shew and Garchar’s introduction notes that they asked each of the contributors to write an essay that they would have liked to read when they were just coming to philosophy themselves. As a result, the book contains twenty chapters on a range of philosophical topics coming from a range of philosophical perspectives and traditions. Chapters are relatively short and written for non-specialists in a way that invites readers to consider issues further, rather than being the last word on any given subject. As is appropriate for an introductory collection, there is no single unifying theme, except perhaps for the fact that all of the essays take the lives and thought of women and girls seriously.
The volume itself is introduced with the story of Persephone, inviting us to think of her as a protagonist in her own right. Chapters in this book are similarly motivated by stories about girls and women, both real and fictional. Some of the chapters take girls’ experiences as central phenomena for philosophy to explain. For example, Serene Khader’s chapter considers the code-switching in which the protagonist of the book The Hate U Give engages; Khader gives readers several philosophical tools to help us think through what it means to be our authentic selves in a society with multiple conflicting pressures. Monica Poole’s chapter starts with the story of Cassandra, who foresaw the fall of Troy, and outlines a range of issues related to the idea of credibility. Similar themes are considered through other kinds of stories: Karen Stohr considers what might be distinctive about self-knowledge with the running example of Jane Austen’s Emma, and Julianne Chung introduces the reader to various sceptical arguments by considering the effects of doubt on the character Enid from Ghost World.
Other stories centre on the lives of historical women. Tabatha Leggett’s contribution on consciousness-raising describes feminist activism such as the work of Shulamith Firestone and Tarana Burke. Kimberly Garchar’s chapter presents Harriet Tubman as an exemplar of her account of courage, and Subrena Smith discusses what it means for the practice of science that women like the anatomist Anna Morandi are not often recognised as genuine scientists. Visual artists also figure into different chapters, like Shanti Chu’s exploration of mixed (racial) identity through the work of the painter Frida Kahlo. Two other painters — Berthe Morisot and Agnes Martin — also feature in Patricia Locke’s chapter on art as a way of knowing the world. Works by the writer Ursula Le Guin also serve as inspiration for some of the chapters. The gendered nature of magic in Le Guin’s Earthsea series is a jumping-off point for Gillian Russell’s chapter considering the possibility of a feminist logic. And Charlotte Witt’s chapter on gender centres on a parable that is explicitly contrasted with the lives of the ambisexual Gethenians of The Left Hand of Darkness.
I’ve only been able to describe a bit more than half of the chapters in this excellent collection. The ones I haven’t had space to touch on cover a range of questions as well: personal identity, virtues and vices, empathy, anger, language, technology, living a moral life, and even the nature of questioning itself. But I want to end with Shannon Winnubst’s chapter, tracing the historical connections between the concept of race and the practices of slavery and colonisation. All of the chapters start with stories about girls and women, but Winnubst reminds us of the ones whose stories don’t even make it to print in the first place. For we can also think, as she does, about stories of girls abducted from their homes in the course of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Many of these girls’ lived experiences are hidden from historical record, their agency erased in the service of anti-blackness and misogyny. But this book is a proof of concept that philosophy loses out when it marginalises, or when it only treats one kind of life as the default, yet claims to universalise on that basis. The writers in this collection do not present themselves as the sole authority on an issue, but invite the reader to wonder, to ask further questions, and to perhaps add their own voices to the ongoing philosophical conversations. Philosophy for Girls provides us with a gift, namely a vision of philosophy as a chorus of voices that is enriched rather than diluted by inclusion. And my hope is that those of us who prefer that vision of the discipline will take seriously the question implicit in this project, of whose voices are missing from that chorus, and what we might have to do to be able to hear them.