As many of you know, Doris Lessing, recipient of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature recently died. Below is a guest post from a Shimer faculty member, Ann Dolinko, reflecting on the impact of the book upon her thinking, her experience, and her teaching.
Susan’s recent post to Shimer’s Bulletin about the death of Doris Lessing made me reflect upon my first time reading Lessing’s book, The Golden Notebook. This novel is about two women exploring what it means to live personally fulfilling and politically and intellectually engaged lives. The narrator and the characters are coming to terms with the fragmentation of identity that many women experience within patriarchy. At the time, I first read this novel I was in my early twenties and preparing to take my exam to earn my Masters Degree in philosophy. It was the summer of 1989 and I had a Bachelors degree in Philosophy and had completed all my course work for my Masters Degree, yet I had never read a female philosopher. I was never assigned a reading by a female philosopher in class and I had never read any feminist philosophy as part of my extensive course work in philosophy. My Masters exam was on Aristotle, Avicenna, Descartes, Marx, James, and Husserl. Until that summer it never occurred to me that there was anything missing in my education, nor that there was anything particularly notable about the fact that all the figures for my Masters exam were male and that all my studies in philosophy up to that point were on male philosophers mostly taught to me by male professors. I had many wonderful and inspiring professors throughout my early education as a philosopher and I had what I thought was a firm grasp of the history of philosophy. But once I began to read feminist thinkers I realized that the education I had was only partial; there was an entire aspect to the world that I had never considered. Of the many books that I read in those first few months of becoming a feminist philosopher there are four that I think anyone who wants a nuanced understanding of the Western intellectual tradition ought to read: A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft, The Subjection of Woman by John Stuart Mill, The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.
What all these books made me realize is that I am a woman doing philosophy. This had never occurred to me before. From this seemingly simple realization followed profound changes in how I understood philosophy, education, and the canon. It never occurred to me to question why I had never read a female philosopher; I never even noticed. Once I did notice, my orientation to the whole world changed. I suddenly realized that I was an embodied being in a world engaged in the discipline of philosophy and that my position within that world had profound implications. These realizations did not make me abandon philosophy or the traditional texts which provide the foundation of philosophical thought, rather it made the project infinitely more exciting. As I read Lessing, Woolf, Wollstonecraft, Mill, and De Beauvoir, I realized that thinking is political and that as a philosopher I have a responsibility to the external world. As I have developed as a philosopher for the past 25 years this insight has extended from studying women to studying many other voices that are marginalized within the traditional philosophical cannon. My experience of becoming aware of my own self as a reader of philosophy has influenced what I teach. I think it is crucial to include works by women and people of color and others who are often ignored in canon formation. While the traditional canon has much to teach us it is not a complete narrative. It is partial. One of the major points that Lessing makes in The Golden Notebook is that women’s narratives are disjointed and hard to trace when we try to do so only through the texts of men.
A few links added by the editor: