Project Vox concerns an important, relatively recent, scholarly development in philosophy: the acknowledgement that a number of early modern women have been unjustly ignored in our narratives of the history of philosophy. From Mary Astell, Lady Masham, Margaret Cavendish and Anne Conway in England to Émilie Du Châtelet in France, many women played significant roles in the development of modern philosophy, but their contributions have often gone unnoticed. The website has three primary goals. First, it seeks to provide students at all levels with the materials they need to begin exploring the rich philosophical ideas of Astell, Cavendish, Conway, Du Châtelet and Masham. Second, it aims to provide teachers with the material they need to incorporate these figures into their courses. Third and finally, it aims to help transform our current conception of the canon.
In the English-speaking world, the history of modern philosophy—roughly, the period from 1600 to 1800—was traditionally focused on a few great canonical figures, especially the “rationalists” Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, and the “empiricists” Locke, Berkeley and Hume. In the last generation, traditional narratives revolving around the metaphysical and epistemic views of these six philosophers have been challenged by two important developments. First, scholars have recognized that many “non-canonical” philosophers—from Henry More and Walter Charleton in England to Pierre Gassendi and Antoine Arnauld on the Continent—played important roles in the development of philosophical ideas. Second, they have acknowledged that traditional narratives have often excluded other figures—such as the “scientists” Galileo, Boyle and Newton—who also contributed to philosophy’s development. (Science and philosophy were indistinct in this period.) But it still remains the case that most students have very rarely heard about any philosophical achievements of early modern women. This website helps us to transcend traditional narratives focused on these various versions of the all-male canon.
Challenges & solutions
How will our website accomplish these goals? Answering that question brings us to realize that three major impediments have prevented scholars from including women in the canon. First and foremost, there is the unavailability of texts: many works by women are out of print, available only in seventeenth-century editions, or have never been translated or published in a critical edition. Several of our collaborators—e.g., Eileen O’Neill on Cavendish and Lisa Shapiro on Princess Elisabeth—have edited and produced editions to help rectify this situation. However, far more needs to be done. One project of our website, and of the international network (see Advisory Board) behind it, is to make philosophically salient texts by early modern women more readily available through both traditional editions and through digital publishing.
Second, the lack of an extensive, long-standing scholarly literature hampers the work of graduate students and scholars. A historian of philosophy who wishes to write about Cavendish’s work in natural philosophy, or Châtelet’s views of Newtonian science, must often strike out on her own, with few books and articles to serve as introductory guides (which normally provide the lay of the land). One of the major goals of our website is to foment the development of a robust scholarly literature.
The third and final impediment is that the vast majority of courses in early modern philosophy—whether undergraduate or graduate—do not yet include the voices of women. As each new class of undergraduates heads to graduate school, and as each crop of newly minted PhDs takes up professional positions, early modern women are often still ignored. We hope that the website can help to break this vicious cycle, replacing it with a virtuous circle: as more instructors use the website and transform their courses, a new generation of philosophy majors will be introduced to the contributions of women, a development, in turn, that will influence the interests of graduate students and ultimately of future instructors.
The Project Vox website is part of important scholarly developments that have taken place in recent decades. In the last generation, traditional narratives have been challenged by two important developments. First, historians have recognized that many “non-canonical” philosophers—from Henry More and Walter Charleton in England to Pierre Gassendi and Antoine Arnauld on the Continent—played important roles in the development of philosophical ideas. Second, they have acknowledged that traditional narratives have often excluded other figures—such as the “scientists” Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton—who also contributed to philosophy’s development. (Science and philosophy were indistinct in this period.)
In 2014 a project team formed at Duke University to build a website that could help support the incorporation of non-canonical philosophers into research and teaching, and they launched the Project Vox website in March 2015. (A portrait of the original project team is included below.) The Project Vox website will be the virtual hub for an international network of scholars to work together in expanding our research and teaching beyond the traditional philosophical “canon” and beyond traditional narratives of modern philosophy’s history.