Karen Detlefsen

Andrew W. Mellon Penn Faculty Fellow in the Humanities

20022003 Forum on The Book

Karen Detlefsen

Assistant Professor, Philosophy

The Book: Women, Philosophy, and the Power of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe

Dr. Detlefsen is intrigued by the ambivalent and complex relationship between philosophers and books. In the early 17th century Descartes wrote, "As soon as I was old enough to emerge from the control of my teachers, I entirely abandoned my literary studies. Resolving to seek no knowledge other than that which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world, I spent the rest of my youth traveling." Such a statement indicates the emergence of attitudes that eschewed the authoritarian knowledge, especially knowledge contained within the books of Scholastic philosophers. Women from the 17th and 18th centuries experienced a similar reaction. Freedom from books' authority - often housed in monasteries and universities from which women were barred - and the belief that one could rely upon knowledge found within one's own soul, allowed women to enter philosophical discourse in large numbers for the first time in history. Their original philosphies of nature did much to advance the discipline. These musings can be found in their private correspondence with their more famous male counterparts. Elisabeth of Bohemia’s letters with Descartes and Damaris Masham’s correspondence with Leibniz are most notable. However, these letters, as well as their philosophical treatises, were often not published in the course of their lifetimes. Or, they were published anonymously because of women’s desire to avoid public censure. Hence, the majority of women philosophers’ works from this period reside in a handful of rare book rooms. This inaccessiblity partly accounts for the history of philosophy - the point in history at which we have arrived. With this in mind, Dr. Detlefsen will explore why it is that some books profoundly shape our intellectual history while other books, other sources of knowledge are lost.