What a Woman Needs is Philosophy

Illustration from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology

What a Woman Needs is Philosophy

Let’s say there is some connection between how you live and what you think.  And let’s say philosophy, which in Greek means love of wisdom, gives you the chance to see how your own thinking process might relate to the recorded history of the best (or most influential) thinkers who tried to connect their thinking with how we do conduct our lives or how we ought to live.  And let’s say you’re a woman, trying to do that philosophic relating.  How does that go?

Well, I can’t speak for other women, but I can report on how it’s gone for me.  

In the beginner’s classes that I took as an undergraduate, philosophy was dazzling but also thoroughly disorienting.  It was like walking into a play in the middle of Act 2 or 3.  I had no idea why the players were arguing with each other on some points, while taking others for granted – or even why they were agreeing with each other at interludes in the play.

What’s at stake here?  What set the terms (the “problematic,” as they say in creative writing courses)?  Had a player suddenly leaned down and told me to get up on stage to do an improv, would mine fit into the script smoothly — or seem wildly inappropriate?

Perhaps an ideal prof would have clued me in by saying that I needed to figure out how my personal life problematic might fit in with that of these characters who seem already caught up in the thick of their drama.  But even if I’d got such an advance briefing, I’d still be thinking, hey thanks, but I’m too young to know what my “life problematic” is, or if I even have one.   What I really, — I mean sincerely — wanna do is survive!  I don’t wanna end up on the street shaking a tin cup at the people hurrying by.

Well, Philosophy (personified here as a statuesque woman in classical garb) now gives her response: you aren’t living in vacant space inhabited just by crashing billiard balls of microscopic size, and restricted only by the laws of physics.  You are a human being living in a human culture, — actually a pretty complex one with its own many-layered history – in which many other (previous or exterior) cultures, with their belief systems, are embedded.  What with global communications and history’s upheavals and disruptions, the discontinuous civilizational layers that have survived are here in fractured or upended form.  

Eventually, the statuesque woman continues, the study of philosophy will help you recognize the element in the mixture that was predominant in your personal formation and what part it plays in the whole civilizational mix.  And meanwhile, as you learn to survive and cope with your own challenges, philosophy will help you to recognize the degree to which the people you deal with are acting and reacting in terms of the beliefs made available to them by their own formation and position within the larger cultural complex.  

Back to your main concern: to deal with people and things in a way that helps you survive.  It’s important to understand that people will respond to you from within their own cultural locales, which are partly constituted by beliefs.

When you get to the point where you better understand the grounds on which your particular beliefs have been held, you’ll be in a position to revise them if you think another belief more reasonable or truer.  Or to retain them if the competitors seem to you less defensible.  At such junctures, you are less passively “along for the ride” in the history of you – and more free.

Well, you might say, thank you, Philosophy Personified, for your advice – it’s commendable — but now do please tell me what any of it has to do with women!  Why should I, as a woman, care about any of this?  I don’t even know if I can pay for college or, if I do go to college, pay the debts that will put me in or – considering the financial burden – major in any but the most vocational subjects.  Even if I could afford a major in Women’s Studies, it wouldn’t in any way resemble what you’ve just described and recommended.

Ah, so glad you asked!  Allow me to take you on a time-travel trip through Abbie’s life.  When Abbie is ten, she’s a happy kid.  Philosophy, shmosophy, she couldn’t care less.  Just see for yourself.  She could run and play, cross swords (or anyway dead branches) with girls or boys her own age and all the kids could adopt any good idea for what to play next, no matter where it came from.  Girls, boys, who cares?  Life was simple and life was good!  Let’s let Abbie tell it.


That first moment of sobering realization is bound to come, though to each of us it comes in different ways.  Here’s how it came to me.  A boy named Chuck, who was 12, two years older than the rest of us, came to visit his folks for a few days and Chuck joined our games.  Of course, he and I got to arm wrestling.  How else does one make friends?  Except that this time his two-year age advantage made a world of difference!  It was just no contest.  He was the stronger, indisputably, and by any measure you could name.

Instantly I drew certain inferences.  Uh oh, I said to myself.   We’re gonna have to rethink this lifemanship thing.  I’ll wager there are plenty more where he came from, some of them even more damagingly strong than Chuck, or than I will ever be, no matter what I do, hand to hand.   It follows that — if I ever get in a tight spot — 

I’m gonna have to

think my way out of it.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to What a Woman Needs is Philosophy

  1. Abigail says:

    Well Brian, thanks for chiming in! In my experience, there’s a time to pray & a time to use your intelligence & whatever else can help, like the know-how or wisdom of others when they have some. For example, if the house is on fire, don’t just stand there and pray!

  2. Brian Hennessy says:

    Abigail – I used to try and think my way out of things and most often it was not very successful. And things got worse. Then I found a book that showed me a better way. That book told me “To trust in the Lord with all my heart, and lean not upon my own understanding, and He would make my way straight.” That changed my whole life! 😍

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