July 2020: Edith Stein (1891–1942)
Edith Stein’s unique philosophical trajectory began with studying under Edmund Husserl at the University of Göttingen in the early 20th century. She quickly developed her own philosophical ideas on empathy, individual psychology and personhood whilst editing Husserl’s manuscripts and moved to secure her own academic position. After preparing two treatises, ‘Psychic Causality’, and ‘Individual and Community’, Stein’s Habilitation was rejected by the University of Göttingen, who refused to consider a woman for a professorship at the time, leading her to return to her birthplace of Breslau where she experienced a formative engagement with the writings of Catholic theologian and Spanish mystic, Teresa of Ávila.
Converting to Catholicism not long after, Stein was baptised in 1922, and developed a strong interest in Scholastic philosophy which shaped her commitment to Thomas Aquinas and the field of ontology. Translating Aquinas’ De Veritate whilst also preparing another Habilitationsschrift which was rejected by the University of Freiburg, Stein finally renounced the prospect of becoming an academic and joined a Carmelite convent in Cologne in 1933. It was here she wrote Finite and Eternal Being, in which she reflected on notions of essence, being, the body, and the soul, whilst expanding Aquinas’ own notion of essence, departing from Husserl’s transcendentalism and providing a critical review of Heidegger’s existential philosophy.
An ardent campaigner for women’s rights and education from her early teens, Stein remained forthright in her analysis of injustice as the Nazis rose to power in the late 1930s. She called on the Pope to denounce the violence being unleashed on Jewish people, and was later killed alongside her sister as a Jewish convert at Auschwitz in 1942. Her last appeals to justice and accountability reflect a lifelong commitment to the question of empathy in her work alongside the need for constant self-reflection to cultivate deeper sensitivity and understanding towards others.
Read more about Edith Stein here.
June 2020: Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86)
Simone de Beauvoir was a philosopher, novelist, and essayist, who made original and long-lasting theoretical contributions to ethics, existentialism and feminism. She was the youngest person ever to pass the agrégation aged twenty-one in 1929, following her education at the Sorbonne. Deeply influenced by canonical philosophers she read from a young age and the school of phenomenology that preceded her in the French intellectual tradition, Beauvoir cut through what she identified as incomplete ideas and theoretical pitfalls to forge her own focus on the situated subject, which refused to abstract human consciousness as ever being independent of its surroundings or context.
This focus found expression in works and writings, which would develop an ethics of existentialism where none existed, and would lead to her authorship of several novels and plays, including The Mandarins, which won the Prix Goncourt, and the seminal feminist text of 1949, The Second Sex. Defining herself as an author first, Beauvoir built an academic career and life as a public intellectual after ending her teaching in 1943. Her philosophical concerns remained paramount throughout her life and she continued to study, write and analyse the routes through which people became ethical subjects across the personal and political spectrum until her death in 1986.
Often miss-read as a conduit for the ideas of her life-long intellectual partner, Jean-Paul Sartre, Beauvoir’s philosophical contributions have, in recent years, found a wider and philosophically competent audience, who demonstrate the ways her thought challenges and refutes his. Taking in current critical re-evaluations of her life as it reflected or failed to reflect her own ethical commitments, Beauvoir’s contribution to 20th century philosophy remains ripe for discussion and reflection today.
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Susanne Langer received her degree in philosophy from Radcliffe College, the female coordinate College of the all-male Harvard University, in 1920. During her time at Radcliffe College Langer laid the foundations for pivotal contributions to the philosophy of art and aesthetics in the mid-twentieth century. Remaining at Radcliffe College as a tutor until 1942, Langer focused on the centrality of the symbolic realm to all human endeavour and communication. Her focus found particular clarity in the study of creative pursuits, inner feeling, and symbolic expression.
Symbolization was key to her philosophy, which she established in the text, Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art (1941). This work outlined symbolism as the ‘new key’ through which meaning-making in the human mind could be read. It allowed for multiple interpretations of symbolisation including fixed and mutable points of reference, as well as the complex interplay of intended and received meaning between different people. Writing in response to the prevailing philosophies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Langer, greatly influenced by the Idealist tradition of Ernst Cassirer and the logical-positivist school of Wittgenstein and Russell, forged her own path forward as a bridge between the two traditions. She chose to focus on the mind as an ordering, symbol-led device, used by people to grasp all of reality in complex forms, foregoing any reliance on narrow scientific methods in order to do so.
Langer situated the centrality of the symbolic realm to the creative arts in Problems of Art (1957), a work which deserves a seminal place in the philosophy of art. It outlined the complex communication between the inner contemplation of the artist, outer expression, and the mind which absorbs the presentation of art, language, music etc. Throughout her work Langer highlighted the primacy of abstraction as the unique human endeavour, making connections between artistic practice, form, and meaning which remain influential in the field today.
March 2020: Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe
G.E.M. Anscombe dedicated her philosophical career to original and impactful studies of intention (Intention, 1957), causation (Collected Philosophical Papers, 1981) and morality. Her writing often broke with tradition and challenged taken-for-granted positions on facts, morality and truth. A pre-eminent analytic philosopher, Anscombe tackled a long line of English moral philosophers, and pursued a sustained critique of Hume’s philosophy to secure a seminal place for herself within the philosophy of mind, action theory, moral philosophy, ethics and the philosophy of logic.
She played a significant role translating Wittgenstein, producing the go-to translation for Philosophical Investigations (1953) as well as the explicatory text: An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (1959). As a close friend, many read Anscombe’s philosophical preoccupations through Wittgenstein to highlight the points of confluence in their work. But her contribution remains unique as much as it is indebted, she wrote on topics such as war, euthanasia, and contraception when such subjects were not considered adequately philosophical by her contemporaries in analytical philosophy.
A rigorous thread of logic characterises her discussion of the
moral issues of the day, including the moral philosophy
being taught at Oxford. Unable to accept that any such teaching could be considered ‘ethically neutral’, Anscombe argued for the multifarious and mutable motivations and meanings which lay beneath rigid concepts like causation, intention, good, and bad. Influencing leading philosophers like Donald Davidson, Philippa Foot and Michael Thompson through her distinctive theory of action and approach to ethics and morality, Anscombe’s body of work remains richly comprehensive and worthy of our time today.
Najm al-Din al-Kubra was a 13th century Sufi pioneer, whose life and works helped to establish a tradition of Sufism which persists to this day. Born in Khwarazm, modern day central Asia, and the historical centre for the Iranian Khwarezmian civilisation, Kubra travelled throughout the Muslim world of his time, pursuing a vocation as a scholar of Islamic Traditions (hadith) and theology (‘ilm al-kalam). His relationship to Sufism began in Egypt, and was cemented in Tabriz, Iran where he became a murid (Sufi novice) and was later granted spiritual authority to teach and initiate disciples himself.
Continuing in this vein led to the creation of his own Sufi cloisters wherein a large number of disciples passed through, who themselves would become prominent teachers and exponents of Sufism. No longer concerned with traditional Islamic sciences, Kubra focused on his own writing and teaching within Sufism’s visionary framework. His most influential work, the Fawa’ih al-jamal wa fawatih al-jalal (loosely, Aromas of Beauty and Preambles of Majesty) is a manual of mystical psychology, detailing his own visions and ecstatic experiences, recounted for the benefit of the murid on their Sufi path. Preparing the Sufi novice for the possible states (ahwal), stations (maqamat), and ‘interior events’ (waqi‘a) such as dreams or visions which characterise the Sufi path came to shape Kubra’s output and legacy.
The reach of Kubra’s work established itself through the influential order which bears his name, the Kubrawiyya. The order would later extend itself throughout Central Asia and as far east as the Muslim regions of China, whilst Kubrawi saints influenced mysticism on the Indian subcontinent, people today are able to draw links between the Kubrawiyya and the key tenets of yoga.
Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher, whose magnum opus, The World as Will (1918) attempted to establish his reputation as one of the foremost thinkers of his time. The central focus of this text outlined a complex metaphysics of ‘the will’ which severely criticised Kant’s epistemology. Ranging in focus on subjects as diverse as nature, the self, art, as well as scientific, religious, and aesthetic values. The core argument of the text defined the subjective will as the ‘striving’, non-rational will which defines all action, reflection and representation in and of the world.
Despite the unique focus of his philosophical work, Schopenhauer’s reputation struggled to establish itself in his own time, considered at turns too literary and rhetorical by analytical philosophers; too metaphysical by the logical positivists and scientific naturalists; too ahistorical and apolitical by the Hegelians and phenomenologists.
The interdisciplinary range of his ideas can be seen to have established themselves more successfully in the 20th century, perhaps most interestingly, amongst various artists and writers who invoke Schopenhauer in their work including Gide, Beckett, and Borges. In addition to this influence, recent scholarship and attention has aimed to situate Schopenhauer more firmly within the history of philosophy, not just as a precursor, or influencer of seminal philosophers and thinkers like Nietzsche, Freud, and Wittgenstein but as a philosopher who made fundamental contributions to metaphysics, and who deserves to be read in his own right.
Michel Foucault was a French philosopher and historian, committed to the study of power and knowledge, his most famous works include The Birth of the Clinic (1973), Discipline and Punish (1977), and his far-reaching four-volume study, The History of Sexuality (1978-2018).
Foucault’s seminal place in the canon of French philosophy was set into motion in 1946 when he began studies at the École Normale Supérieure where Louis Althusser served as the philosophy tutor, deeply influencing Foucault and many of his contemporaries. Making a break with the Sartrean subject/object focus which held sway in postwar France, Foucault’s central contribution was to re-focus attention on to the impersonal, abstract, and historically specific structures which brought people into existence. Tracing the lines of connection between the knowledge, power, and ethics implicit in these structures led to his distinctive historical studies of madness, prisons, the organization of knowledge, and sexuality.
The clarity and currency of Foucault’s ideas led to him taking up the Chair for the History of Systems of Thought at the Collège de France in 1970 until his death in 1984. Whilst his core conceptualisation of the intricate power relations which sit behind false appeals to freedom remain prescient today, maintaining wide influence across the humanities, social and medical sciences.
Iris Murdoch was a British novelist and philosopher, best known for her works of fiction such as ‘The Sea, The Sea’, ‘The Bell’ and ‘The Black Prince’. Murdoch spent most of her life dedicated to her literary and philosophical pursuits. She published 26 novels, 5 works of philosophy and lectured on philosophy for 15 years at St Anne's College in Oxford.
Murdoch's achievements as a philosopher were often over-shadowed by her success as a novelist but her philosophical views on morality, sexual relationships and the nature of self-consciousness permeated throughout her fiction as much as her philosophical works. Inspired by the likes of Simone Weil, Plato and Sartre, Murdoch’s philosophical work comments on the importance of the 'inner' life to moral action. Her fiction provided a platform to enact moral dilemmas while her philosophical works delved deeper into the machinations behind the moral actions.
In recent years, however, a re-appraisal on Murdoch’s contribution to philosophy has recognised her substantial role in post-war Anglo-American philosophy, particularly for her unfashionably prescient work in moral philosophy. Two of her works, The Sovereignty of Good (1970) and Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992), broke new ground in re-introducing ethics as a topic for discussion within the British philosophical tradition.
Dorothea Erxleben was the first woman in Germany to become a doctor of medicine and was also the author of a feminist treatise advocating the admission of women to schools and universities.
Educated and trained by her father who was a local doctor, Erxleben lamented the fact that she was unable to gain a formal qualification to practice medicine on the simple basis that she was a woman. Frustrated she wrote down her thoughts on the exclusion of women from schools and universities which was then subsequently published as a book in 1742. Despite calls of 'quackery' Erxleben went on to pass all of her exams and received her doctorate in medicine becoming the first female medical doctor in theGerman states. She continued to practise medicine until her death in 1762.
Her work of 1742 is one of the most significant pieces of Enlightenment feminist theory, yet it has been surprisingly neglected. Erxleben criticizes the standard prejudices, faulty arguments, and social impediments that exclude women from schooling in general and academic studies in particular. She does so with steadfast appeal to logic, standards of empirical evidence, and the generally shared values of the times, aiming to clear up prejudices with rational argument.
Warnock’s public career as a professional educationalist and ethical consultant was also reflected in the academic areas where her thought had most impact. Her abiding educational concern to communicate the value and purposes of philosophy to a wider public was also expressed in her extensive published output on the history of philosophy, especially on phenomenology and existentialism. Within the area of applied ethics, Warnock was at the very forefront of thought of how recent advances in modern medicine—such as in vitro fertilization and embryo research—might be normatively addressed with a view to the framing of public policy and legislation. She also made notable contributions to the philosophical study of ethics, aesthetics and imagination.
Warnock’s efforts to apply her ideas to the wider problems of policy and practice mark her out as a singular figure in contemporary philosophy. It is hard to think of any others who have similarly combined extraordinary academic fertility with a no less extraordinary extra-academic public and professional profile.
It was to be in the 1860s and 1870s that Ruskin began to focus directly on contemporary social and economic issues, and to formulate a distinctive political economy in opposition to that purveyed by J.S. Mill and the classical school.
Ruskin’s contributions to political economy were offered at a time when market capitalism had acquired a hegemonic status, delivering substantial and rapid economic progress. But Ruskin refused to accept the measures of economic success purveyed by contemporary economic orthodoxy. For Ruskin, success lay not in maximizing the rate of economic growth or amassing material possessions. It was about ‘the producing of as many as possible, full-breathed, bright-eyed and happy-hearted human creatures’.
In articulating such notions, in highlighting the manner in which Victorian Britain had failed, Ruskin’s work served to remind contemporaries of the great moral, social and aesthetic price that had been paid for what passed for economic progress.