Women philosophers from Asia, Africa, and Meso America

Gargi, Maitreyi, Sulabha, and Akka Mahadevi from India. Ban Zhao, Jin Jiang, and Mei Danran from China. Im Yunjidang from Korea. Rabia from Basra in today’s Iraq. Aisha Al-Ba’Uniyyah from Damascus. Nana Asma’u from today’s Nigeria. Sor Juana from Mexico.

These are some of the women philosophers and thinkers from the Global South, all born before the 19th century, who Dag Herbjørnsrud covers in his essay «First women philosophers» at Aeon (November 23, 2018).

Excerpts: «Gargi Vachaknavi is one of the many ‘hidden figures’ of women in the history of philosophy in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America – what is often called the Global South. Philosophers today increasingly recognise the contributions that female philosophers have made to the history of European philosophy, such as Elisabeth of Bohemia, Margaret Cavendish and Anne Conway in the 17th century. (Indeed, the new Oxford University Press series Oxford New Histories of Philosophy might revolutionise how we look upon the history of philosophy.) But beyond Europe, female philosophers in general continue to get short shrift, and their contributions go largely unrecognised.»

«Women were also vital to early Chinese philosophy. In the classic Tao Te Ching, Laozi (6th century BCE) argues that a great state is like a clever woman: ‘The feminine always conquers the masculine by stillness.’ In a similar manner, the basic texts of Confucianism stress the thinking and wisdom of the respected Jing Jiang of Lu, who sent her son to study under Confucius (551-479 BCE). In Discourses of the States (4th century BCE), Jing is quoted in an argument against indolence: ‘When people toil, they think; when they think, their good minds are born.’ No wonder Confucius says of her: ‘The woman of the Gongfu clan is wise!’»

«Noteworthy, too, is the extraordinarily prolific 16th-century female scholar ’A’ishah al-Ba’uniyyah of Damascus, who wrote more than a dozen works in prose and poetry. She travelled to Cairo and studied jurisprudence with other scholars, before meeting the Sultan al-Ghawri, possibly because of her reputation as a Sufi master. Recently, Thomas Emil Homerin translated one of al-Ba’uniyyah’s central worksThe Principles of Sufism. In this book, she outlines her philosophy based on the four principles of repentance, sincerity, remembrance and love. Al-Ba’uniyyah refers to seven centuries of Sufist thinking, painstakingly quoting books, hadiths, epistles and hagiographies – commenting on around 100 scholars and thinkers.»

«Another crucial female Muslim philosopher is Nana Asma’u (1793-1864) from the Sokoto Caliphate in today’s northern Nigeria. Like other girls and boys before British colonisation, Asma’u started school when she was five. Her father was a scholar who argued for women’s rights, and he chatted with her daily about reading and writing, as Jean Boyd and Beverly Mack outline in their ground-breaking collections of her texts and life. In adult life, Asma’u became a political leader and a founder of the educational network Yan Taru (‘The Associates’), which is still active today.»

On Kant/Hegel:

«But this millennium-old understanding of the diversity of philosophy was erased from Europe. As Peter J K Park of Dallas University argues in Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780-1830 (2013), curriculum lists from the early 19th century onwards began to be emptied of women and non-European thinkers. Leading European scholars chose to create a canon based on a new Eurocentric version – better suited to their imperial, racialised and patriarchal era. Early among these was Christoph Meiners, a professor in Göttingen and a proponent for white supremacy, who in his influential work History of the Origin, Progress and Decay of the Sciences in Greece and Rome (1781) began to define philosophy as a product solely of the European man.»