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5 great books by women philosophers to check out this International Women’s Day

I know I don’t post here as much as I should, or even as much as I’d like to. I hope to change that – and what better opportunity than International Women’s Day?

There are so many wonderful books on the history of philosophy written by women, that any attempt at writing an exhaustive list is beyond my capacities on a Thursday afternoon. Instead, I thought I’d keep my list to philosophers currently working in the history of philosophy, and in particular those whose texts I’d read or re-read relatively recently – so these are all books that are somewhat fresh on my mind, or which had a big impact on the course of my own PhD studies in some way. I couldn’t pick a favourite, so the list is in no particular order.

1. Genevieve Lloyd – The Man of Reason

the man of reason - cover

 

I don’t know if Lloyd’s book should count as a “history of philosophy” book – the point it makes is very meta-philosophical. It is however one of the formative texts for my approach to the history of philosophy, and it gives us an important reminder of the way our conceptions of gender have shaped our thoughts.

2. Jacqueline Broad – Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century

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This book introduced me to a several figures I’m now working on, and is brilliantly clear and lucid in presenting and contextualising these womens’ ideas.

3. Lilli Alanen – Descartes’ Concept of the Mind

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There is a longstanding caricature of Descartes that analytic philosophers of mind like to bring out in week one of survey courses on their topic to pose him as a boogeyman who had terrible ideas. Alanen is a strong and powerful opponent of that caricature, and this book is an excellent study of Descartes’ philosophy of mind.

4. Susan James – Passion and Action

passion and action cover

This is the single best book on early modern philosophical theories of the passions. It’s so good that it’s worth reading and rereading frequently to catch all of the nuance.

5. Catherine Wilson – Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity

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This was one of those books that shifted completely the course of my education. I got it somewhat on a whim – my, then, honours supervisor was reading it and said it was good. I bought it, because he seemed a good model to emulate. Wilson’s philosophical prose set a new standard for what I expect of myself in terms of detail, clarity and persuasiveness. And frankly, it’s just a really great topic.

The Younger Pliny’s fantastic reply to a friend who stood him up for dinner

Pliny the Younger was a prominent statesman in Rome in the early days of the Roman Empire (during the so-called “Silver Age” of the Empire). Today, he’s probably best known for his published correspondence. They are literary in style, and organised according to the order “they came to hand” (I.1).

Pliny was definitely a kindred spirit to those of us who value literature and art. In his letters he praises Rome for allowing the arts to flourish, while at the same time chastising people from not adequately taking note of the genius of the writers living in their city.

The best letter, however, is one he wrote to a man named Septicius Clarus, a prefect of the Praetorian Guard, and friend to Suetonius. Clarus, evidently, accepted a dinner invitation and then didn’t show up:

Who are you, to accept my invitation to dinner and never come? Here’s your sentence and you shall pay my costs in full, no small sum either. It was all laid out, one lettuce each, three snails, two eggs, barley-cake, and wine with honey chilled with snow (you will reckon this too please, and as an expensive item, seeing that it disappears in the dish), besides olives, beetroots, gherkins, onions, and any number of similar delicacies. You would have heard a comic play, a reader or singer, or all three if I felt generous. Instead you chose to go where you could have oysters, sow’s innards, sea-urchins, and Spanish dancing-girls. You will suffer for this – I won’t say how. It was a cruel trick done to spite one of us – yourself or most likely me, and possibly both of us, if you think what a feast of fun, laughter and learning we were going to have. You can eat richer food at many houses, but nowhere with such free and easy enjoyment. All I can say is, try me; and then, if you don’t prefer to decline invitations elsewhere, you can always make excuses to me. (I.15)

Is he overreacting? Perhaps slightly. But who of us hasn’t felt those same sentiments when dealing with a thoughtless friend?

The extract is taken from the 1969 edition of The Letters of the Younger Pliny, trans. Betty Radice. Penguin Books, London.