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New course on woman thinkers in 17th century Europe

The 17th century was a time of new ideas about nature, ethics, art and politics – but it was mostly men’s voices that made themselves heard. A new course at the University of Gothenburg shines a light on woman philosophers and writers. “Their writing can feel freer, more entertaining and more rebellious,” says historian of ideas Cecilia Rosengren.

Rosengren is a Senior lecturer in the history of ideas and science, and is responsible for the Women and Intellectual Life in Early Modern Europe course, which begins at the University of Gothenburg this autumn (second-cycle level, 7.5 credits).

cecilia rosengren“The course takes an in-depth look at the 17th century, a fascinating and turbulent time in European history of ideas,” she explains. “This is sometimes called the early modern period, as it anticipates our modern world in many ways. It was also an era – and we might draw a parallel here with contemporary times – when traditional knowledge was being challenged by revolutionary new ideas about the natural world, ethics, art and politics. What makes the course unique is that we study the intellectual life of the period based on the works of a number of women philosophers and writers.”

The course focuses on four different areas – what are they?

“Women with intellectual ambitions were interested in the same issues as their male counterparts. The themes that we will be studying therefore relate to general questions of: political thought and authority of power, and the transformation of the public sphere that took shape during the early modern period; the implications of the scientific revolution on views about nature, knowledge and perception; the interest during the period in human emotions and the power of passion; and the emergence of a modern individual outlook in the interaction between the public, social and private spheres. The extent to which women’s reasoning differs from that of men is a subject for course participants to discuss. However, without the voices of women, our understanding of the early modern world of ideas falters.”

Will you be focusing on any specific women?

“There are so many interesting women philosophers and writers to highlight! Unfortunately, we will only have the scope to study a small number of them on the course. I believe it is important to follow a line of reasoning from beginning to end, to read entire works and not just short extracts. During this autumn’s course we will be studying Marie de Gournay, who defended women’s right to speak in public and to act as intellectuals. We will also be looking at Margaret Cavendish’s epistemological arguments and her criticism of the emerging natural sciences. Our discussion of moral conduct, ethics and passions will include reading Émilie du Châtelet’s thought-provoking discourse on happiness.”

How were these women and their works received by their contemporaries?

“Being a woman philosopher and writer in early modern Europe was not easy. In slightly general terms, we can say that there were three accepted roles for women – virgin, wife and widow – all linked to household life and childbearing. Few people thought that girls needed to go to school. There was very little demand for educated women. Those who nevertheless made their intellectual opinions heard and published highly complex texts were seen either as remarkable exceptions and put on a pedestal or simply as strange and incomprehensible, and thus not to be taken seriously. And even if their writings attracted a degree of attention at the time, they were quickly forgotten and have consequently not had the same impact as male canonical philosophers on the Western history of ideas.”

moderata fonteWhat can we learn from these women today?

“There is an inescapable energy. These intellectual women took something of an extra-parliamentary approach, often working in the margins of philosophical debate and being excluded from the seats of learning. As a result, their writing often feels freer, more entertaining and more rebellious. It is interesting to study how they put across their arguments and where they found the resources to engage in intellectual pursuits. Without glorifying their situation, we can perhaps take inspiration from their determination.”

Can any parallels be drawn between these women and today’s women intellectuals?

“It’s certainly possible, but the situation changed fundamentally during the 20th century. The fight for equality has resulted in women and men in Europe having equal rights to higher education and access to scientific institutions. Women can and do take their place in public society. But at the same time, there are signs that the conditions are not equal in practice, such as women intellectuals being subjected to social media hate campaigns more often than men. There is also a risk that traditional attitudes towards the intellectual capacities of women and men will be reproduced, even if the ambition is the opposite. Despite attempts to change things, it has been hard for example to include women in our basic courses on the history of ideas because women’s philosophical and scientific contributions are still unfamiliar and are lacking in the course literature, or are simply presented in summary.”

IL2114 Women and Intellectual Life in Early Modern Europe
, 7.5 credits, will be held at second-cycle level during the autumn term of 2019, study period 2 (Nov-Jan), 50 % daytime. The course will be held in English.