Revealing Voices: Michaela Manson

Posted on July 8, 2019

Michaela Manson’s post is part of our Revealing Voices blog series. 

In a 2013 letter, philosophers Rae Langton and John Dupre criticize a type of popular reasoning. Their target is the position that physical differences, including brain differences, that correlate with sex categories are both naturally necessary, and normative in the sense that exhibiting these differences is somehow appropriate. The target of their criticism further infers that observed neural differences account for differential behaviors, including differences in the “mental lives” of the sexes, that is, how one thinks or what one is inclined to think about. If true, the phrase “thinking like a girl” would succeed in referring to a distinctive manner of thinking.

To this, Langton and Dupre caution their audience:

Suppose there are some actual mental differences between men and women, whatever their prior causes. (Hard to imagine training up half of humanity one way, half another, without creating some differences between them.) There will then be some neural differences. That doesn’t mean it has to be that way or is designed to be that way.[1]

Their point is that one cannot infer from facts about what happens to be the case to facts about what must or ought be the case in every domain. Even if minds are brains, or if mental differences depend on physical differences, the presence of differences correlating with sex categories does not imply that these differences are either necessary or appropriate. Some of what happens to be the case could be a product of certain contingent factors, say, differentially ‘training up’ segments of the population.

Now, suppose instead of maintaining that minds are brains, or that the mental supervenes on the physical, one affirms a form of metaphysical dualism according to which minds are fundamentally different in kind from material, physical beings. What might such a conception of the mind imply about any apparent differences in patterns of thinking that correlate with sex categories? The early modern philosopher Mary Astell (1666-1731) stands out for her response. She followed a Cartesian tradition of thinking that the mind is an immaterial, thinking thing, while authoring social criticisms concerned with some disparities correlated with sex categories.

In the first part of her work, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694), Astell challenges her intended audience, the ladies, to overcome prejudices that they harbor about themselves which inhibit them from certain achievements. These prejudices include the judgment that their worth ought to be measured by their physical and social appeal to men. According to Astell, such mistaken self-evaluations render one liable to mistake what is truly in one’s interest. This risks that one will squander one’s time and mental energy in improving and preserving one’s outward beauty to the detriment of what Astell calls ‘beauty of the mind.’

However, Astell disagrees with those who take behavioral differences, e.g. differential attention to one’s outward beauty and social appeal, as evidence of women’s having fundamentally different minds:

Altho’ it has been said by Men of more Wit than Wisdom, and perhaps of more malice than either, that Women are naturally incapable of acting Prudently, or that they are necessarily determined to folly, I must by no means grant it;[2]


The Incapacity, if there be any, is acquired not natural; and none of their Follies are so necessary, but that they might avoid them if they pleas’d themselves.[3]

If women do not generally act prudently, a virtue that Astell takes to require one’s having cultivated a capacity to reason and judge well, two paradigmatic mental functions, this is not because such women are determined to be imprudent. Rather, if they lack the capacity for such conduct, it is a consequence of certain contingent environmental factors, the relevant capacity not having been cultivated:

The Cause therefore of the defects we labour under, is, if not wholly, yet at least in the first place, to be ascribed to the mistakes of our Education; which like an Error in the first Concoction, spreads its ill Influence through all our Lives.[4]

As Astell thinks a poor education or training to be a major factor underlying women’s apparent deficiencies, she proposes a better education as the remedy:

Women were they rightly Educated, had they obtain’d a well inform’d and discerning Mind, they would be proof against all those Batteries, see through and scorn those little silly Artifices which are us’d to ensnare and deceive them.[5]

For Astell, education stands to improve the mind, to make it “well inform’d and discerning”. By being better able to judge well, those that would otherwise behave imprudently or foolishly, would act in ways that exhibiting their good judgment.

Moreover, though written three hundred years earlier than the letter of Langton and Dupre, Astell similarly cautions her audience against inferring from facts about what happens to be the case to facts about what must or ought to be the case. If women seem to lack good judgment and reasoning, this is not the inevitable product of essential differences in minds. Rather, it is owing to differences in training. In this way, Astell’s appreciation of the role of social prejudices and education in shaping minds stands to illuminate how such dualist metaphysicians must nonetheless recognize a significant role for the body in shaping one’s thought. It is by means of one’s body that one stands in certain social relations, that one engages and learns with and from others, while bodily differences distinguish the targets of certain prejudices that underwrite various social practices, including education.

Though she does not write about “girls”, Astell could be transliterated as contending there are no essential differences accounting for the referential success of the phrase “thinking like a girl”. On Astell’s view, to affirm otherwise is to accept a prejudice, a premature judgment. Worse, such prejudices can inhibit their target from cultivating the capacities that would offer the relevant counter-evidence to such a prejudice. Rather, if there is anything that qualifies as “thinking like a girl”, it is the result of customary differential training that one receives on the basis of one’s sex category. These differences are not inevitable, and Astell proposes that they may be changed through improved education.

[1] Dupre, John, and Rae Langton. “Gender Differences All in the Mind.” The Guardian. December 5, 2013.

[2] Astell, Mary. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies. Edited by Patricia Springborg. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Literary Texts, 2002. pp. 58.

[3] Ibid, pp. 59.

[4] Ibid, pp. 59-60.

[5] Ibid, pp. 64.


Michaela Manson is a graduate student in the philosophy department at the University of Toronto. Her philosophical interests center around the early modern period, with a particular concern for questions about mind, cognition, perception, and understanding. She was the 2018 recipient of the Jan Wojcik Memorial Prize for graduate students in history of philosophy in connection with her research about Mary Astell.