I recently experienced that moment of teacher gold-dust, when at the end of a meeting with a student she stops to tell you how much she likes your course, how glad she is that you are her tutor. Most pleasingly, though, she especially appreciated the philosophy I had chosen for our class to read.
i.e., All philosophers who happen to be women.
Now I did not knowingly read a philosopher who happened to be a woman until I was in my final, philosophy honours year — most memorably Judith Butler, amongst others. It is likely I had read some philosophy by women before then but not, to my recollection, as the main event, the primary sources, the authority.
So when I had the chance to choose the reading material for a first year philosophy course, they would ALL happen to be women. A vital, obvious approach would have been to look to feminist philosophy, plenty of excellent women philosophers to choose from there! However, I took the equally important, yet alternate tact of reading authoritative, perhaps groundbreaking, or even game changing texts on a central theme in philosophy that just happen to be written by women.
The theme? I went big, perhaps the oldest and the biggest of them all. That gad-fly, know-nothing Socrates searched the streets of Athens for it, Aristotle wondered how to cultivate it, many of us aspire to be it — the good. Not just the morally virtuous, little goody-two-shoes, but the good for, good at, and its aesthetic counterpart, beauty.
In celebration of International Women’s Day, here is my reading list, in reading order (with references). None of these are ‘easy’ reads. All of them are ‘good’ reads.
Christine Korsgaard ‘Two Distinctions in Goodness.’
Things can be good for their own sake, good for some other sake, good in themselves, good from some other thing. Confused? Don’t worry, so seems most of moral philosophy. Thankfully, Korsgaard sorts these out. In The Philosophical Review, 92:2, (1983) pp. 169-195.
Susan Wolf ‘Moral Saints.’
We all want to be morally good, right. We ought always do the right thing. Right? Well, Wolf warns that such moral saintliness is not really worth our heart’s desire. In The Journal of Philosophy, 79:8, (1982) pp. 419-39.
Caroline Korsmeyer ‘Terrible Beauties.’
The terrible — discomforting, confronting, challenging — beautiful? Korsmeyer goes beyond the idea of beauty as merely easy on the eye, to reveal beauty’s emotional depth. In M. Kieran (ed) Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. (2006) pp. 51-63.
Martha Nussbaum, ‘The Speech of Alcibiades: A Reading of Plato’s Symposium.’
Socrates’ good soul is the ideal beauty, while Alcibiades’ beautiful looks cannot save his broken soul. Yet, which is worthy of love? Against the assumption that we should follow Socrates in all things, Nussbaum argues that Plato actually show us that it is a tragic choice between love of good and love of flesh. In Philosophy and Literature, 3:2, (1979) pp. 131-172.
G. E. M. Anscombe, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy.’
In 20 decisive pages Anscombe annihilates the efforts of moral philosophy pretty much since Aristotle. She argues our main mistake is holding onto a special moral sense of good. In Philosophy, 33, (1958) pp 1-19.
Helen Knight ‘The Use of “Good” in Aesthetic Judgments’
We can all point to a work of art and rightly say ‘that is a good painting, sculpture, film, book, etc’. But Knight tells us exactly what we are picking out when we use good. In Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 36, (1935-6) pp. 207-222.
Mary Mothersill ‘The Concept of Beauty’
For us philosophers on the street, beauty is a concept eternal, but for mid-twentieth-century philosophical aesthetics, it fell out of fashion and conversation. So for of the good of us all Mothersill put it back on the philosophical books. In Mothersill, M. Beauty Restored. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (1986) pp. 247-77.
Iris Murdoch, ‘The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts.’
Murdoch not only offers a description of the good, but also argues that it is the unifying concept, fundamental to all philosophy. That it is sovereign. In Murdoch, I. The Sovereignty of Good. London: Routledge. (1970) pp. 77-104.
Eileen John ‘Beauty, Interest, and Autonomy.’
We take for granted that we can judge beauty for ourselves. But, we probably do not think that owning such judgments make us a person in our own right. Or that when do not own them, we no longer own ourselves. John shows us otherwise. In The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 70:2, (2012) pp. 193-202.