My responsibility is to tell you the truth. – Dr. Christine Blasey Ford
I used to systematically read the comics each day after making myself and my sister lunch, but I’d over-think them. I liked to read collections of wise sayings and then try them out in imagined conversations in which someone wanted my opinion. Once I read through all the autobiographies of great figures, my librarian insisted I try some light reading—romances or something. Before I found philosophy, I read at random from the outdated encyclopedias that lined our schoolroom at home, to clear and calm my mind.
As a freshman in Philosophy of Religion, I tried to differentiate between the ‘mind’ and ‘soul’ in a two-page paper. Frustrated with anthologies that felt both disembodied and crowded, I piled up books from my professors to solve conceptual problems about reality, perception, and knowledge that I tried to diagram. At the same time, I considered it indulgent reading. I believed philosophy was for pre-law -guys and/or stoners. I also thought poetry was frivolous unless it was written centuries before about war.
I picked up a copy of Being and Time at a basement Albany bookstore on a visit to my grandpa, along with a few old maps. I liked the title and the green spiral on the cover; it was a small copy and it fit well in my hands. I needed a safe retreat. I knew that spacious, radiant feeling I would get racing across the lines of thought. It never occurred to me to look for women in philosophy, or philosophy by women. This was not just my absorbed bias against women as thinkers. I was reading to escape myself: the less resemblance to my life, body, and problems, the better. The only way I could have been more content reading Heidegger would have been if I could actually have read it on the moon.
Neither my relationships nor my education corroborated any other story than the one that conflated elite white male rationalism with validity, clarity, and security. Although the greater part of Western philosophy has been defective, both in identifying the masculine with the human and the human with the masculine, it would be unfair to discredit the tradition built on this fault.
That is, unless such an error contributes to willful amnesia, symbolic misery, and an acute lack of self-representation for people who do not identify with a dominant subject position.
I hadn’t identified as a feminist. I used to think in response to my cursory encounters with feminist critiques, “Well—who cares? The world isn’t fair.” I nonetheless considered myself empowered, creative, strong, and free. I only turned to the idea of approaching the world as a woman-human at the end of my 20’s, after a personal crisis dismantled my system of values and choices, revealing how those about my body and domestic life had been largely unexamined participations in a patriarchal system I’d confused—at great cost–with a safe, sane place.
Where had I gone wrong? I returned to some foundational works I’d read. I noticed Hegel distorted the human and natural by presupposing they were associated with gender, and aligned the lord-bondsman dialectic with marriage. I noticed Heidegger depicted ontology as gender neutral and that the body was conspicuously absent from his discussion of Being. I noticed how Nietzsche was passionately nostalgic in his call for a brutality of spirit and action styled on ‘masculine’ strength, invoking the crudest errors of naturalism and idealism.
I’d glossed over the saint-whore position women had in Sartre’s work, focused on the subtleties of his bromances. When I taught a writing course on Camus, I had to admit his misogyny stood out—but he never pretended to be a ‘good’ guy. Deleuze’s concept of becoming-woman has productive possibilities, but he failed to identify his own position while framing it, abstracting ‘Woman’ for a metaphysical rebellion that underscored her marginality and symbolic exile.
When I turned to these esteemed thinkers, a schism started to form. In the kitchen and bedroom, I was a woman; in books, I was human. This seemed like a nice break, because being a woman was hard. And code-switching was something I’d become very skilled at as a person with degenerative visual loss, so the contradictions didn’t immediately signal any problem. Also, the sublime glory of living with schisms was valorized in a lot of books I’d read. In moments of clarity and/or desperation, I would wonder if things really had to be the way they were. But mostly I figured my distorted thoughts, decreased self-worth, fear, isolation, and pressure from social expectations were inevitable and permanent experiences. They are not.
As I rebuild my self and life, I have a lot of questions. Why did I protect the men of the world of my mind with excuses, when they were largely useless and sometimes hurtful? Why did I pour so much time and care into hosting arbitrary schisms of identity? How had I missed or ignored all the other brilliant, urgent voices? Perhaps most painful of all, how can the pride of my intelligence recover from the blow of having missed such a basic, relevant problem? Truly, life is full of mystery.
A few months ago, I was thinking about chess. Chess was another one of those quiet, calm places I would go as a kid—with my sister, after lunch. The hours would roll by as we’d problem solve, or stare at the ceiling fan in happily absorbed boredom while the other planned her move. Like classical music and philosophy, it is sometimes considered a neutral space, free from the trappings and petty complications of our messy lives: a discipline to train the mind. I realized for the first time the obvious fact that the king’s power is totally symbolic—he has almost no skills of his own, and all the other pieces move to protect him: especially the queen, who is the most versatile in her movement. Is it possible that there is no such thing as a neutral space? Et tu, chess?
Maybe the European phallocentric tradition of Western philosophy can be salvaged and renovated, like one of those fixer upper houses. You know, problems with the foundation, roof, and siding, at the wrong position on the floodplain, but otherwise charming. Granted that charm could be a combination of investment bias and sentimentalism. Better be someone rich. The thinkers still dear to me now from my early readings direct us in their most lucid and ambitious moments to use their work in order to leave it behind. Perhaps the materials can be used, or we could make some kind of museum. But if, as Heidegger says, language is the house of being—we need a house. To quote Rumi, Quick, Take the pickaxe and pry the foundation.