Why I had to dump Spinoza, my long-dead boyfriend

Being a woman in philosophy is hard enough without finding out that your long-term Dutch philosopher boyfriend (deceased) thought women were intellectually inferior to men

Fri, May 9, 2014, 01:00

Adolescence is always a search for meaning, despite us recollecting it as the most deplorably shallow time in our lives. Indeed, the crippling disgust with which most of us recall our adolescence comes largely from the embarrassing knowledge that we sought meaning in what we now consider to be the most meaningless places: hair gel, terrible music and deeply codependent relationships with boys.

The most tragic sort of adolescent, however, eschews such paltry mainstream sources in his or her search for meaning. I belonged in that category, along with the type of boy who outgrows his trousers every three months and pretends to have views on “the stuff happening in Crimea”.

What can a teenage girl who is filled with resolve (towards nothing in particular) do but seek out a locus for it? Feeling fundamentally misunderstood in that unique way in which all adolescents feel identically misunderstood, I sought comfort in the writings of the most tragic and misunderstood shower of outcast misanthropes I could find: philosophers.

Since the word philosophy comes from the Greek term meaning “love of wisdom”, my teenage self considered it a reliably meaningful pursuit. Ultimately, it didn’t help my crippling existential angst and sense of otherness in groups of people my own age.

Shockingly, it turns out that vociferous, greasy 17-year-old girls with a fondness for Plato don’t have boys queuing down the street for their phone numbers. In the shark tank of adolescent peer groups, early physical development, rather than knowledge, equates to power. During the entirety of my adolescence, I never experienced meaningful connection with the opposite sex.

This lack of connection with males might be the genus of my problem. A friend, at grievous inconvenience to me, summarised it over coffee one day. She turned to me, cheeks swollen with a fruit scone, and brashly declared: “Do you know, all the men you’re attracted to are dead?”

My mouth fell open in preparation for some sort of rebuttal – philosophers are not thrown by insults, being frequently subjected to them, mostly by other philosophers. Nothing emerged. She was right.

Not a necrophiliac
I could have attempted some manner of self-defence by pointing out that the men I found most appealing simply happened to be dead. It wasn’t by virtue of their deadness that I found them appealing.

Knowing that wouldn’t entirely exonerate me from her disgraceful (but justified) accusation, I could only wipe the remnants of scone spray from my collar and point out, with what I hoped was a measure of dignity, that I was not a necrophiliac.

However, I realised in that moment that all of the serious relationships I had had in my early 20s were with long-dead philosophers and were conducted entirely inside my own head. Fortunately for me, that didn’t constitute any diagnosable mental-health condition that there was an existing medication to cure.

It’s simply the case that no young man I had ever encountered was sufficient competition to threaten my devotion to Baruch Spinoza. Of all the gin joints he could have sauntered into, he had to choose mine. That certainly isn’t to imply that he physically did anything much at all. Dying in 1677 will limit you that way.

However, with liquid brown eyes that implied his parents were a giraffe and a King Charles Spaniel, and a philosophical prowess that makes academics shudder with awe inside their tweed blazers, he was the most compelling man I’d ever had the pleasure of not meeting.

My love affair with Spinoza followed the trajectory of any normal, deeply unhealthy relationship. There was the tentative early stage. We’d meet secretly in Trinity’s Ussher Library, and I would feel largely confused by the things he said. Over time, I became more confident around him and would challenge his ideas. I would find myself in everyday scenarios thinking: what would Spinoza say about this? Apart from the minor issue of posthumous consent, Spinoza was my boyfriend.

Philosophical woman
Even with the sense of support that comes with being in a committed relationship with a long-dead philosopher, pursuing a career in philosophy has proven difficult.

Recent research shows that just 18 per cent of professional philosophers worldwide are women. Considering philosophers influence the way we think about politics, ethics, religion and other fundamental social structures and norms, that’s rather depressing. Philosophy examines the fundamental questions of what there is and what is good. Casual discussion with women on the street is sufficient to show that they are engaged in asking questions. They’re just not doing it professionally.

I have yet to meet a woman who doesn’t hold strong opinions. The fact we are so poorly represented in philosophy is not due to some inherent inadequacy. It is more likely that we have been taught not to say too much, and not to say it too loudly. We have been taught that others probably know more than we do. When we find ourselves in a room full of men who argue aggressively, we tend to become quiet.

It turns out that being a woman in philosophy (as opposed to a girl with an interest in it) is no more comfortable than standing among a group of teenagers who are drinking behind the local supermarket.

A love of philosophy didn’t necessarily ease my blind stumble through the crusty, footless sock of adolescence, but it did equip me with skills that proved useful enough to lead me to study philosophy at university, and then to pursue a PhD in it.

Whenever I found that the machismo of my male-dominated environment awakened the psychological remnants of my misunderstood, disenfranchised adolescent self, I would seek succour in those closest to me. Among them, obviously, was my long-term boyfriend, Spinoza.

It’s not me, Spinoza, it’s you

however, I discovered in my early 20s, once I had read all of Spinoza’s work, that it wasn’t going to work out between us. I was seeking comfort in the wrong place. It turns out that in Spinoza’s famous work, the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, he had addressed the issue of women – for we are apparently an issue.

I realised a couple of years into what I thought was an excellent relationship, that Spinoza had written that women should be subject to, and were the intellectual inferiors of, men. He could offer no advice on my struggle in a male-dominated arena, because he obviously thought that I should not be there to begin with.

Even the knowledge that I, an upstart harlot (probably), was reading his work would likely be sufficient to have him spinning in his grave like a rotisserie chicken.

I had to dump Spinoza. We still see one another a lot professionally. I encounter him in the library often, and I don’t feel angry any more. Part of being a woman in philosophy is embracing one’s struggle to prosper. Spinoza couldn’t help with that. I have to help myself.

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