For several days now I’ve been chewing on a remark in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Rivka Galchen had her first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances (about a man who suspects his wife has been replaced by a doppelganger), favorably reviewed on the cover. A philosophical first novel by a woman is “extremely rare,” says Liesl Schillinger.
When women do certain things it can be a surprise worth noting. Recently there’s been a flurry of articles about the increase in female terrorism lately. Yes, that’s odd. But is it odd for women to be thinking about philosophical questions? It can’t be that odd, when something like a third of philosophy PhDs are awarded to women, and some of the leading philosophers in the world are or have been female (Hannah Arendt, Martha Nussbaum, Judith Jarvis Thompson, Philippa Foot… to name a few).
Never fear, the authoress (herself an MD, not a philosopher) is not suffering too greatly from gender disturbances. The reviewer notes the “feminine perception” in evidence when Galchen describes a character’s hair as smelling like grass, and such like. Groan. But what about the supposed disconnect between women and philosophy? You do have to wonder why there are fewer women than men in the field.
The reviewer says the novel is brainy, clinical, and objective, and thus not feminine. Now, by itself, this is simply stupid. Half of law school students and half of medical students today are female. To get where they are, these women must have done very well at brainy, clinical, objective things. But there’s a difference. Female lawyers and doctors are brainy in the service of helping people or making a tangible difference in the world. Maybe the extra nurturing urge in women (yes, it’s a reality, why deny it? and isn’t that what makes female terrorism so surprising?) draws them to want a people-connection in their work, some sense of doing good for others. There may be fewer female philosophers not because philosophy is brainy, but because it’s not that easy to see how philosophical braininess helps people or makes a tangible difference.
But maybe there’s hope. Philosophy has the potential to be therapeutic in a very broad sense. Many of the Hellenistic philosophers thought of philosophy as medicine for the soul, as Martha Nussbaum writes in The Therapy of Desire. There may even be a helping element when philosophers teach and write about topics that are not at all practical—as it certainly is worrisome and befuddling to try to understand what we can know, what exists in the world, whether there’s a god, and the like.
The helping element is not immediately obvious, because philosophers spend a lot of their time either in solitary confinement or in bloody combat with each other, but I think it’s a reality. The image of philosophy as helping us sort things out and live our lives might entice women to become closer to half of all philosophers instead of a third. Still, at the moment there are plenty of philosophically-inclined women and it really isn’t a big surprise when one of them writes a philosophical novel.
Hey, the book sounds interesting.