What is a ‘philosopher queen’?
Rebecca Buxton: The inspiration for the title of our book, The Philosopher Queens, of course comes from Plato’s references to philosopher kings or philosopher rulers in The Republic. In his dialogue, Plato states that women could be philosopher rulers of his ideal city-state with the same status as men, which was quite radical for its time. Of course, women have been largely sidelined in the history of philosophy and, in a way, the idea of the title of the book, referring to them as queens, is also to lift them up to this status which they haven’t been given in philosophy so far. Part of the challenge of the book is that we wanted to question this idea of who counts as a philosopher and who has been traditionally recognized as a philosopher. The title is meant to be quite provocative.
Maybe we could go back a step and Lisa, could you tell me about the book and how you and Rebecca came to edit it?
Lisa Whiting: So we both studied philosophy at university and we were really interested in learning more about women philosophers, because we didn’t study many women during our undergraduate degree. The book started when I went into a bookshop and was quite surprised to find that there were relatively few books about women philosophers. There tends to be a focus on maybe one or two, like Simone de Beauvoir or Hannah Arendt, for example. But we found a lot of books called ‘the greatest philosophers’ or ‘the 100 greatest philosophers’ and it was incredibly stark to us just how few women were in those texts or wrote those books.
It prompted a question for us: ‘Is that because there genuinely have not been women philosophers, because of the systematic discrimination women have faced throughout history? Or is this also partly to do with ideas about who is considered a great philosopher and who gets to decide what that threshold is?’ We really wanted to write a book that reframes and refocuses some of that attention around women who have potentially been overlooked.
The book aims to challenge the notion of the well-defined canon, which typically doesn’t have many women in it. We were also really keen to make a book that was written by women who are working in philosophy.
So, it’s a book that is about women philosophers, broadly conceived, and it’s written exclusively by women. You gathered together a group of contemporary women to write about a range of philosophers, most of whom are not living. How many of the women written about are alive?
Anita L Allen and Azizah al-Hibri are still working. Three of the others were alive when we started writing the book: Mary Warnock, Mary Midgley and Sophie Oluwole. Sadly, we’ve lost three of them in the last 18 months.
Did they know about the book?
No, I don’t think so.
That’s a shame. Particularly Mary Warnock who would have been very interested, I’m sure, having edited an important book about women philosophers which, oddly, is out of print. It’s very rarely in bookshops, though it’s a book you might have expected to see there.
Rebecca Buxton: Yes. I have a copy that I managed to find, but it took me a long time to get it. And, in a way, it’s a bit of a difficult book to read because she gives little outlines and then it’s just selections of each of their texts; it’s an anthology. It’s great, but for an academic audience.
Your book is not an anthology, it’s a book of essays about philosophers. Now, how did you pick the 20 philosophers that feature in it?
Rebecca Buxton: When we started, we didn’t really think that anybody that we asked to write chapters would say yes, so mostly what we were doing was just emailing women philosophers we knew, mostly from our undergraduate degrees, asking them for suggestions of who to contact and whether they’d like to write a chapter. Then, very quickly, we had the full 20.
“We wanted to question this idea of who counts as a philosopher and who has been traditionally recognized as a philosopher”
We had to be more selective towards the end about who to put in, because everybody was choosing the women philosophers you would expect them to choose—Simone de Beauvoir, Iris Marion Young—all white, European, mostly Anglophone philosophers, and mostly women in political and moral theory. At that stage, we started reaching out to specific people to ask them to write about women philosophers who might not otherwise have been included. So, for example, we asked Minna Salami to write about Sophie Oluwole or Nana Asmaʼu, who was a pre-colonial Nigerian philosopher. We also explicitly looked for an expert on Ban Zhao. But, for the most part, the writers chose which philosophers they wanted to focus on themselves.
The book is beautifully illustrated. Who did the illustrations and why did you want illustrations?
Rebecca Buxton: The illustrations are by Emmy Lupin, who is a freelance illustrator. We chose to have the book illustrated largely because the book is not aimed at academics. Essentially, it’s meant to be for me or for Lisa at age 17, someone who has just started studying philosophy and wants to learn more. We want the book to be attractive to women and girls who are looking to start somewhere. We wanted to make the book look exciting, because while there are some philosophy books that are very beautiful, often philosophy books can be quite intimidating or look a bit stuffy. We really wanted to avoid that at all costs.
You also include a list of philosophers for further reading, because obviously 20 is just a sample. How did you decide which people to put on that list? Because that, in some ways, is a more controversial list.
Lisa Whiting: One thing that we were very aware of was that anyone who saw our selection would naturally say, ‘but what about x?’ We were cautious about not wanting to present this as any kind of definitive list. We also wanted an opportunity to engage people in the development of the book, so we basically crowdsourced that part of the book. We asked people to submit who they thought was an important voice and tried to make sure that it did amplify some voices that you wouldn’t necessarily think of immediately. For example, we had people saying, ‘oh it’d be really great if there was a woman philosopher who was South American, because none is included within the 20 people on that list.’ It was a combination of us and our own research, but also opening it up to the people that had been part of The Philosopher Queens process, so they also felt they had a way to input.
You mentioned the process. It’s really interesting you’ve published the book with Unbound, which is a very interesting model, it’s basically crowdsourced publishing. Why did you go for that, because you could easily have gone to a major publisher with this?
Rebecca Buxton: I have a friend who’s published a few books, mostly poetry anthologies. We went to him for advice and Unbound was actually his first suggestion. We really liked the model of crowdfunding because it is a campaign book. We are trying to get a message across with this book and engaging people in the process of developing it and having them help us along the way was, I think, a good way to do that. Also, as neither of us have agents, and neither of us are writers, we didn’t think anybody would be that interested.
But you had an amazing response. Do you know roughly how many people funded you?
Lisa Whiting: 1363, so far, and we funded it in around 28 days. Honestly, we weren’t very confident we’d even hit our crowdfunding target and we were really pleasantly surprised and heartened by the response from the philosophy community. There were quite well-known philosophers within the academic tradition that were delighted to see that this book could be made. The whole process itself has been amazing for us, to see that there is a desire out there to amplify this kind of book.
Rebecca, you mentioned the book has a message. Could you say what the message is?
The core message of the book is very simple: that there are women philosophers and we should be studying them more. Like Lisa, I went to King’s College London for my undergraduate degree in philosophy and we didn’t study a single woman philosopher in the whole time that I was there, or at least not explicitly—whereas we studied many, many male philosophers. The aim of the book is to amplify the voices of women in philosophy both historically and now and to draw attention to the amazing intellectual work that they have done and the ways in which they have shaped the tradition of philosophy—even if that goes unrecognized most of the time.
What if someone says—I’m playing devil’s advocate here—that it doesn’t matter whether they’re men or women, what matters is good philosophy? Why does gender come into this?
Then they should read all these women philosophers because they’re great! I sometimes get that on Twitter, people saying ‘I don’t see people’s gender, I just read good philosophy,’ and I think, ‘Well, it’s very unusual then, that you seem to have only read men, because there are actually women philosophers who write fantastic work.’ This idea that it doesn’t matter and that gender hasn’t shaped, historically, who we’ve viewed as a philosopher is hard to sustain, given the systematic exclusion of women’s voices. If women have been excluded this whole time we need to work explicitly to include them now.
How did you go about choosing your five books?
Lisa Whiting: So, these books aren’t necessarily the most obvious examples of books written by women philosophers. That was quite a conscious decision. As we were saying before, there is a certain kind of philosophical text by women that has already made it into the mainstream – for good reason. Obvious examples would be A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft or Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. What ties the books we’ve chosen here together is that they are books that are are not traditionally seen within that mainstream history of women philosophers or feminist philosophy. The first book for example, Women, Race and Class, in many ways has typically been seen more as a historical text.
Yes, let’s talk about the books you’ve chosen. So your first choice is Women, Race and Class by Angela Davis. Could you say what this book is, who Angela Davis is, and why you chose it?
Angela Davis is a political activist. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama and experienced racial injustice from a very young age. She has developed a life and career, both as an activist and a scholar, writing about racial and class injustice. She is also, famously, a commentator on prison abolition and the injustices of the criminal justice system, so particularly appropriate for this moment.
She has a really wide range of interests and we could have chosen any one of her works, but one of the reasons why we chose this book specifically is because, as you see from the title, Women, Race and Class, it’s a really comprehensive analysis of those three core philosophical concepts. The book is primarily a historical analysis of the injustices faced by black women, starting with slavery and moving through history to more contemporary issues—for example around women’s reproductive rights. It’s a really important book because it looks closely at how these three ideas of gender, race and class overlap and how one-dimensional analyses of these concepts tends to cover up the injustices faced by black women. Black women tend to be at the centre of a lot of these injustices and it’s really important, particularly now, to look at how these concepts overlap and, through how they’re conceived, tend to reinforce and perpetuate those inequalities. That’s one of the reasons why we thought this was a particularly important book.
It’s true of many women philosophers—and certainly the ones that you’ve chosen to be in your book—that they are interdisciplinary. They draw on historical context, political context, case studies, psychology, legal theory. There is a certain kind of philosopher who has a very purist, demarcated notion of philosophy. Is it just the ones you’ve chosen, or do you think women in philosophy broadly are less likely to be purist in that sense?
Lisa Whiting: For me, there’s a distinction between purity and rigour and I think sometimes people tend mistakenly to equate the two. They tend to think because it’s interdisciplinary, because it draws on contemporary examples or historical injustices, that somehow is less analytically rigorous because it doesn’t fit within the traditional, analytic philosophical method. What’s really important in a book like Women, Race and Class is it demonstrates how drawing on historical examples is itself a form of analytical and empirical evidence, because by showing the ways in which these categories of identity have been exploited over time, it demonstrates that our analytical understanding of what these concepts mean can be and is limited.
I would be hesitant about drawing it out as an argument about women in philosophy more generally, because obviously there are women who are at the top of their game in traditional analytic philosophy, but I do think it is important, in reconsidering who brings value to philosophy as a discipline, to understand that people are going to take different approaches and that in part might be due to their own ideas and beliefs and philosophical theories that they advance.
“I went to King’s College London for my undergraduate degree in philosophy and we didn’t study a single woman philosopher in the whole time that I was there”
Rebecca Buxton: Like Lisa, I wouldn’t want to generalize, but I do think you can conceptualize being able to do that kind of very abstract, purist philosophy as a kind of privilege. Many of these writers are discussing oppression that they themselves have experienced. There’s this tendency in philosophy, I think, to want to separate your own experiences from your philosophy, but I think we are now beginning to recognise mixing the two can be extremely valuable. Women, especially marginalized women, perhaps tend to draw on their experiences more, and we want them to do that in order to make our philosophy more expansive.
Obviously we don’t think that there is one kind of philosophy that women do, and it may be that you’re more drawn to the political end of women’s philosophy because of your own interests. But I have noticed that contemporary women philosophers are bringing new topics into philosophy and opening up new areas, rather than pursuing that often rather dry tradition of abstract ethics and political philosophy. That’s been happening in the last 50 years.
Lisa Whiting: Definitely. It’s my and Rebecca’s specialisms, and it’s also true of this list. I’m much more drawn towards the political philosophy and applied ethics space. We haven’t not included women philosophers who specialize in epistemology and metaphysics because they’re not producing as good work, it’s just that our book, as you say, is somewhat skewed to our backgrounds and areas of interests.
Rebecca Buxton: I should add that the Angela Davis chapter of The Philosopher Queens is available free online at the moment and we’re intending to leave that free for as long as possible. So, if people do want to find out a bit more about Angela Davis, that chapter by Professor Anita L. Allen is freely available.
Let’s move on to Kate Manne’s book, which I think surprised the publisher by its massive success, they didn’t seem ready for it. Why did you choose Kate Manne’s Down Girl?
Lisa Whiting: We chose the book, firstly, because we both love it as a book. It’s a really good example of a book that’s incredibly powerful, and both academically rigorous and accessible. That combination is one of the reasons I think it has been so successful.
Another reason I like this book—which ties in with the first, and Manne talks about herself in the book—is that discussions around misogyny or sexism can become so fraught. I think applying this strict, analytical lens to that kind of debate and discussion is very satisfying because it really helps to clarify the concepts that are so often either misconstrued or misunderstood in these kinds of debates.
Also, some of the concepts she articulates, ‘himpathy’ being the most notable example, have really caught on in popular culture, which again, I think, is a credit to her innovative analysis.
Can you gloss ‘himpathy’, for someone who maybe hasn’t heard of it?
Lisa Whiting: Himpathy is the idea that society conditions both men and women to feel greater sympathy for the perpetrators of misogyny and sexual violence and disproportionately focus on excusing the behaviour of men rather than supporting the victims of their behaviour. One of the examples that Kate Manne uses in the book is around Brock Turner, and the overly sympathetic response that was given in his case when he raped an unconscious woman. This has now been applied more widely across a range of different domains.
This book is quite timely. Even over the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen examples of women speaking out about sexual assault in the comedy industry and there’s still a tendency—that’s amplified online—around people’s desire to defend or give far more benefit of the doubt to pepetrators as opposed to their victims.
You mentioned misogyny. It strikes me that Kate Manne gave an unusual definition of misogyny, because the usual one is a personal nastiness towards women. If I’m a misogynist, it means I’ve got a problem with women and I’m always finding fault with them. But she gives a much more structural account.
Lisa Whiting: Definitely. There’s a tendency to view misogyny as a trait of individuals and she points out that you’ll never know for sure whether someone has this visceral hatred of women. Her structured account is powerful because it shows the ways these norms embed themselves in structures and institutions in a way that men and women themselves aren’t necessarily consciously aware of. She provides a powerful argument for furthering this kind of structural analysis to understand better how misogyny embeds itself in all these different ways—as opposed to being this kind of individual challenge.
“Applying this strict, analytical lens to that kind of debate and discussion is very satisfying because it really helps to clarify the concepts that are so often either misconstrued or misunderstood”
It then also becomes quite important in how we respond to this critique. If it’s a feeling about individuals, it’s hard to know what to do to prevent this. Manne herself talks about how hard it is to persuade people to change those ideas if it is so visceral. But in terms of a structural account, it’s obviously not easy, but it does provide some avenues for thinking about how we can bring about change on a larger scale.
To me, a strength of the book is that it’s grounded in real life. It’s not a purely abstract discussion of misogyny. It’s completely informed by case studies.
Rebecca Buxton: Yes. I really remember reading the first chapter of the book when I got it, which is about manual strangulation and the ways in which women speak about it. It’s just such a gripping book.
There’s some pushback at the moment against the tendency in philosophy to use fictional examples. Miranda Fricker has a great book on epistemic injustice, but chose to use fictional examples—when there are so many real-world examples that she could have applied it to. I think one of the reasons that Down Girl is so successful is it doesn’t locate philosophy in all of these abstract or fictional examples or case studies. It locates it in things that people care about and experience in their everyday life. I hope that there will be more books that do this in the future. And I know that Kate Manne has another book coming out this month, Entitled, so I’m really excited to see what she’s done in that one.
It’s ironic how on social media the patterns that she described in Down Girl got reflected back at her by trolls. It must have been very difficult, because it’s not a good place to be attacked by large numbers of people. They’re attacking her and she’s already written about exactly what they’re doing.
Rebecca Buxton: None of the trolls have read her book, unfortunately. It’s the same with Angela Saini, who wrote Superior: The Return of Race Science and she’s just had to delete her Twitter account because she gets so much racist abuse there.
That’s another thing about being a woman philosopher. Lisa and I haven’t received very much abuse on Twitter – most people are very supportive. In a way, the book doesn’t put forward a particularly challenging message, because we’re just saying that we should include women, which most people seem to agree with nowadays. But if you’re working on something like misogyny or race and you’re a woman of colour, you are going to receive a lot of abuse.
What’s your third book?
Rebecca Buxton: Our third choice is Mary Midgley’s What is Philosophy For? Mary Midgley was a philosopher at the University of Newcastle who wrote on a wide range of topics: animal ethics, philosophy of science, philosophy of biology, moral philosophy. She was one of the philosophers who studied ‘Greats’ at Oxford during the Second World War, with the other members of what’s come to be known as the ‘Oxford four’: Midgley, Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, and Elizabeth Anscombe. Mary Warnock was also there at the same time, but a few years ahead of them.
This was a really interesting time for women studying philosophy at Oxford because so many men were away. The men that were left were elderly professors or conscientious objectors and so Midgley, Murdoch, Foot and Anscombe were left with slightly more old-school philosophy professors who were interested in Plato and Aristotle and a traditional form of the history of philosophy.
And it seems that this really influenced all of their work. Think of Iris Murdoch’s view of of ethics in The Sovereignty of Good, and her book, The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists. There was this big influence on all four of them and they all stayed friends throughout their lives. Mary was the last one left and she sadly died about a month after What is Philosophy for? was published.
“She thought philosophy should be reaching out and talking about how people ought to live their lives.”
Midgley had a really unorthodox career in that she only really started publishing articles and books in her 50s when she went back to Newcastle as a lecturer in philosophy after doing other jobs during the war and then taking time off to have children. In a way, that experience comes out in all her books, including the one we’ve chosen.
She always wanted general readers to be able to understand exactly what she was talking about. She was very against the kind of academic philosophy—and philosophy more generally—that was insular and overly specialist. Instead, she thought philosophy should be reaching out and talking about how people ought to live their lives. This book is her last word on that topic, in some ways. It also links to her rejection of materialism, which she’s written several books about. This book is very clearly written, for people who don’t really know very much about it, or for a general reader who hasn’t read her other books. This one is a good place to start.
I had a conversation with her about Oxford philosophy once, and she was quite scathing about what I would describe as the idea of philosophy as a martial art — where you learn how to defend yourself in a seminar with these little moves that you can make and put somebody in their place. She felt it was quite silly, a lot of the posturing that went on in that world of often young, clever men trying to prove who was top dog, to mix my metaphors. Of those four philosophers that you mentioned, she was the least likely to be like that. The others were certainly capable of engaging in that kind of cut and thrust argumentative style.
I think that’s fair. She was very democratic in that way. She didn’t really care about whether or not she had the best argument. She just wanted to get to the right answer. I think in lots of ways philosophy has strayed away from that, especially academic philosophy. I’m in the refugee studies department here at Oxford, but I work on political theory and as far as I can tell there’s quite a big pushback against that kind of over-argumentative philosophy now. Everybody seems to be genuinely trying to expand what we’re talking about.
But because of the academic job market and what you need to do in order to succeed as a philosopher, it’s incredibly difficult not to just pump out these articles that talk about one tiny thing over and over again. Midgley didn’t like that kind of thing and I don’t particularly like doing it. She was very critical of it and it comes across in the book.
My take on it is that you can have different styles of philosophy, one of which is testing ideas to destruction. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when you take the methodology and use it as a way of humiliating people in a seminar or proving you’re the best—rather than that the argument is the best—that’s where it goes wrong. But there’s also room in the subject for assertion as well as argument. Some of the greatest philosophers that have lived specialized in just telling you how it is and showing you another vision of the world. They’re still philosophers, even if they’re not tearing apart people who disagree with them. They’re just showing you another way of viewing the world.
Lisa Whiting: Definitely, and it links to the title of Midgley’s book. The purpose of philosophy shouldn’t be ego. It’s not about using philosophy to demonstrate our own intelligence. When we did our research around women in philosophy, there was a study that asked academics in different professions how important it was to be a genius to succeed in their discipline. Philosophy was one of the highest. It’s an interesting question, the extent that may be related to philosophy being a more male-dominated discipline, because physics was another that scored highly.
I do think asking this question of why we do philosophy is important. One purpose is to deconstruct arguments as far as it can go. The challenge is when that is undertaken in a very aggressive atmosphere, you are likely to fall into a trap of determining a certain type of person who thrives in that environment. Clearly this isn’t directly related to gender, but it’s probably going to have an impact on the kind of people that are attracted to philosophy as a subject if there is only a narrow conception of what “good” philosophy is.
I also think Midgley’s work is particularly relevant for this moment in time. Coronavirus has meant we’re living in a time where science is particularly important. We’re very aware of scientific analysis and the prominence of scientists within our public life and clearly this is important. But Midgley’s book is also good at articulating that science is one lens through which to see the world. We’re also living through a time when ethics and philosophy are particularly important because we’re wrestling with questions about competing principles—between privacy, security, collective action and rights. It’s a timely reminder that philosophy has a unique contribution to make to these kinds of crises and the challenges that can arise when we assume science can provide us with all the answers to these questions.
I agree. Unfortunately, philosophy tends to move quite slowly. Five years down the line, we may get a response. I think all of the thinkers we’ve discussed so far are drawn to what are sometimes called ‘wicked’ problems: complex, changing problems where there isn’t a simple solution—there are just better and worse attempts at solutions, which can always be improved on. So, they’re very different from what I would call crossword puzzle philosophers, where you set yourself very strict parameters and then solve an issue. They’re grappling with the toughest problems about how we should live. They’re historically contextualized and the history changes and so we have to adapt with it.
What’s your next choice?
Rebecca Buxton: Our next book is Judith Shklar’s American Citizenship. Judith Shklar is actually my favourite woman philosopher, so I had to get her on the list. She was a Harvard political theorist at the same time as John Rawls and Robert Nozick. She was a Jewish refugee who fled Riga, Latvia, with her family in the Second World War and she went through the Soviet Union, Japan, the US, and then eventually settled in Canada. She then ended up going back to school in America after she went to McGill University for undergraduate studies. She eventually became a professor at Harvard and was the first woman to receive tenure in the Department of Government, but she’s never really received as much attention as any of those other post-war political theorists like Rawls and Nozick or even other exile political theorists like Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt. She seems to be having a bit of a resurgence recently, and I hope people start paying attention to her work because it really is excellent.
“Judith Shklar is actually my favourite woman philosopher”
Shklar didn’t ever exactly produce a big overarching theory like Rawls or Nozick. But she had this very interesting methodology which is essentially focusing on questions of injustice and cruelty rather than questions of justice and fairness. So instead of looking at the ideal, like Rawls did, she said that we should instead turn our attention towards the negative, unjust aspects of society, and how to avoid them. Amartya Sen actually says something similar in his work. It seems to me that this is such a good and clear methodological way to do political theory that people don’t really pay enough attention to.
And this book?
American Citizenship is based on Shklar’s contribution to the Tanner Lectures on Human Values. We chose it because it’s a very good introduction to her way of writing. She was a political theorist rather than a political philosopher.
What’s the difference?
The difference is debated, but for me the difference is that she uses history and politics to inform her philosophy—whereas political philosophers can (at least in some sense) ignore history and politics. So Rawls is an archetypal political philosopher and Shklar is very clearly a political theorist.
This distinction between a political philosopher and a political theorist would be one way in which you could eliminate some women from the history of philosophy. If you’re in the demarcation game, people who want to distinguish between those two activities can quite conveniently say that she’s not doing the same thing as Rawls and Nozick—so of course she wasn’t mentioned in the same breath.
Rebecca Buxton: I agree. It’s disciplinary policing in a way, this distinction. I do political philosophy about migration so I often tread the line between being a political theorist and a philosopher. I think political theory is well-informed, practical, political philosophy, so there’s not a very clear distinction.
What’s the main theme of American Citizenship?
In American Citizenship, Shklar looks at the historical struggle for enfranchisement in American citizenship both by women and by black Americans. In the essay, she argues that the fight for the vote was never just about the vote. It’s also about this idea that she calls ‘standing’ and recognition of moral equality. She says that the two very important things for standing are the vote and access to the right to work and earn a fair living, which women and black Americans didn’t have. This links back to the Angela Davis book – Shklar looks at the women’s suffrage movement, which originally developed in the United States alongside abolitionism. Then, when it seemed that black men were about to achieve suffrage before white women, the movement very quickly became racist and instead tried to pander to Southern white women. And so she looks at the idea of how standing can be used as a weapon. If you view yourself, wrongly, as being superior to someone who has the vote already, then you feel like you’re entitled to the vote—which you are, but your reasoning is wrong.
She’s coming from what—an egalitarian position? Does she carry this across beyond standing in relation to democracy to standing in terms of economic security?
Well, she says that standing is a really vague notion that we have some idea of. She doesn’t necessarily unpack it as its own philosophical concept. She wants it to be something that the general reader can latch onto as knowing what it means. She says that standing can be unequal, but in a way citizenship is a form of giving equal standing in at least one domain, in that everybody has the vote and everybody has a say. It’s not just about having the vote in order to use it. It’s about having the vote in order to be recognized in a certain way.
Does it relate to work, or is it only in relation to your democratic rights?
On work she says that people want a fair wage because it’s valuable as a form of recognition of equality in itself. So, when people lack access to being able to work for a fair wage, they don’t just lack the fair wage, they also lack the recognition that goes along with that.
Let’s move on to the last book on your list, which is not a book I know, The Rights of Others by Seyla Benhabib.
Rebecca Buxton: Seyla Benhabib is a Turkish American philosopher who works at Yale. She’s another person who has very much influenced the area of philosophy that I work on, migration and forced displacement and borders. From my perspective, I find this book her easiest one to read and engage with.
The Rights of Others is about the rights of others who are not from the country that you’re living in?
Rebecca Buxton: Yes, the rights of others is about migrants, but also about refugees and the rights that they have in particular states. The book looks at what she calls this tug of war between universalism and particularism. On the one hand, we have a universal obligation to all human beings as moral equals. On the other hand, we have particular obligations to a smaller set—like families and states. In this book, she characterizes this tension as a tension between self-determination of states on the one hand and this cosmopolitan ideal of universal human rights on the other. It’s a particular problem for liberal democratic states that supposedly espouse universal human rights language, but then don’t uphold it by excluding a very large number of people.
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In the book, she goes through a few approaches and ways of grappling with this tension. She talks about Immanuel Kant on hospitality and Hannah Arendt’s “the right to have rights.” Then she also looks at Rawls’s The Law of Peoples through a cosmopolitan lens.
Benhabib concludes by defending something called ‘cosmopolitan federalism,’ where she basically says that we should just have a huge world state but still with borders within it. The borders are porous and everybody’s always guaranteed universal rights, but there’s some movement for self-determination within that as well. In a way, she ends the book with the same tension as she started and she hasn’t really resolved it for us. A few people haven’t found it completely convincing, the way that she’s characterized it.
But it’s just a really great book for anybody who’s interested in the philosophy of migration or this question of borders.
That’s an approach that runs through all the books you’ve chosen: being in the world and dealing with real problems, not self-created puzzles. Final question: in the process of writing The Philosopher Queens, you probably uncovered more female philosophers than you included in the book. Are you planning a sequel?
Rebecca Buxton: Maybe we’ll do another one, but we were never planning to give an exhaustive list. We don’t want to pump out as many of these books as we can. Maybe if we do two, people will expect a third. In a way, the model is quite lovely because we just get to read these beautiful essays from these women that we’ve commissioned to write for us. We edit them minimally, because they’re so great already. We’re thinking about it, but we will definitely be taking a break. I have a PhD to do; Lisa’s about to finish her master’s alongside her job.
Lisa Whiting: One thing we would love to see is more books published on women philosophers and more women philosophers as public figures. It’s getting better, but public philosophy tends to be quite male-dominated. One of our favourite recent books is Kate Kirkpatrick’s biography Becoming Beauvoir. It would be great to see more books about women philosophers and it definitely doesn’t need to be us writing or editing them.
One thing we’ve struggled with, at times, when creating the Philosopher Queens is the feeling that it never should have really been Rebecca and myself doing it. It’s partly imposter syndrome, but we’re conscious we stumbled across the idea and Rebecca’s view—and I am so glad she persuaded me—was, ‘If not us then who?’ I’m so glad we did it, but there’s no reason why it needed to be us and our hope is that others will be given the opportunity to write about women philosophers if we can show that there’s a market for them.
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