Summary: An exquisite introduction to important, hitherto often suppressed, strands of philosophy from across history and the planet
The first thing to strike you about the book, The Philosopher Queens, is its startling beauty. It is an exquisitely illustrated book that simply lifts the heart just to look at.
More importantly the substance of the book is vital: the editors and authors have picked up the history of philosophy and shaken it “until the hidden women appear in plain sight,” to borrow a line from Natalie Haynes’ wonderful retelling of the tales of Troy, A Thousand Ships.
Starting with Diotama, a character in one of Plato’s dialogues from around 400 BCE, the book progresses across 20 essays via the great 18th century women’s rights and anti-slavery campaigner Mary Wollstonecraft, to Aziza Y al-Hibri, a Lebanese-American professor of human rights and Islamic jurisprudence.
As al-Hibri’s inclusion suggests the book avoids a northern hemisphere bias including important philosophers from Asia and Africa as well. These include Lalla, “one of the most influential figures in the religious history of Kashmir”, and Sophie Bosede Oluwole, “the erudite and provocative shaper of contemporary Yoruba classical philosophy”. In keeping with the book’s revolutionary approach to its subject, there is also a chapter on the American activist and political philosopher, Angela Davis. I was disappointed that there were no chapters on Rosa Luxemburg, Martha Nussbaum or Margaret Archer – but books are finite things and such omissions merely demonstrate that there is a need for at least one sequel to this volume.
Each of the essays provides a biographical sketch of its subject and their historical context as well as introducing some of their key ideas. However, these are not hagiographic. The essay on Hannah Arendt, for example, introduces her important work on totalitarianism, and her reflections on the “banality of evil” from Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. But it does not shy away from also acknowledging her repulsive racism, and her “inconsistent treatment of Jewish oppression and African-American marginalisation in the US.” In raising this deeply troubling matter, the essay author, and co-editor of the book with Lisa Whiting, Rebecca Buxton makes the vital point that “no thinker should be idolised above criticism”.
The Philosopher Queens is a book that breaks the mould in more ways than one. It is both a fine introduction to the thinkers that it portrays, and an introduction to important though often neglected strands in “western” and “non-western” philosophy alike.
This book should become a compulsory textbook for students of philosophy. But it should also be more widely read to remind people that the world is a richer and more complex place than some folk may like us to think.