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Review of Wilkin, Rebecca. Women, IMagination and the Search for Truth in Early Modern France

Article Citation: 
XIV (2012): 137–142
Author: 
(Barbara Woshinsky)
Article Text: 

Wilkin, Rebecca.   Women, Imagination and the Search for Truth in Early Modern France. Aldershot, Hampshire and Burlington, VT:  Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008.  ISBN 978-0-7546-6138-2.  Pp. 243.  $114.95

This rich, erudite study addresses “the deployment of gender distinctions by early modern intellectuals in order to define truth and to legitimate particular means of attaining [it]” (7). The organization of the book is original.  While Wilkin traces a general movement in early modern French thought from hermeneutics to ethics to epistemology “proper,” she interweaves   arguments in order to avoid an overly linear presentation.  And whereas many studies of early modern philosophy begin with Descartes, Wilkin ends with him, referring to his work throughout as “a confrontation of positive and skeptical modes of seeing” (2). This confrontation is a recurrent thread in the book; “positive” authors tend to denigrate women, while skeptical writers reverse gender hierarchies in order to undermine rigid philosophical or religious systems. 

Although her work acknowledges and builds upon the contributions of feminist research, Wilkin’s perspective differs from her predecessors’ in two important ways.   First, she claims that “through the exclusion of women,  [male writers] articulated the limits of the search for truth and sought to ensure their privileged place within it” (2). In other words, the male-authored works she analyses, though they seemingly deal with women, are not really “about” the female sex but about epistemology and power. Second, Wilkin criticizes earlier feminist analyses that, according to her, “have stressed the sexist ideology behind the emergence of a monolithic and masculine enterprise” (7).  She does not deny—indeed, it would be impossible to do so—that misogyny was a dominant discourse in early modern society.  However, she asserts it was not the monolith it is sometimes imagined to be.  For example, misogynistic views were employed both to attack and to defend witchcraft trials.   Wilkin asserts that these contradictory representations of women “speak … to the fragility of human confidence in its claims to knowledge” (1).

Each of the book’s five chapters focuses on one or two authors. The first two chapters examine the epistemological implications of the witchcraft debates of the mid and late 16th century, beginning with Johann Weyer’s “De praestigis daemonum.”  Weyer (1515–88), a Swiss Protestant physician, argued that witches should not be tortured or prosecuted because their alleged diabolical acts are merely illusions, fabricated by Satan and imposed on the minds of poor, weak females.    Because of their predisposition to melancholia, women are more susceptible to demonic possession than men—a claim that runs counter to other views associating melancholy with male genius (13).  According to Weyer, “that crafty schemer the Devil thus influences the female sex, which by reason of temperament is inconstant, credulous, wicked, uncontrolled in spirit and … melancholic” (11).  No feminist, Weyer’s apparent lenience toward accused witches is based on his low opinion of women.  According to Wilkin, Weyer’s main purpose is not to save women from persecution, but to enhance his own prestige as a physician.    By “demonizing” witches (and women in general) as ignorant, illiterate and gullible, he underscores the physician’s privileged access to knowledge.   Rather than hidden within the female body, truth is in plain sight for those who can see clearly—like physicians.    However, Weyer’s “epistemology of surfaces” (8) leaves him open to critics such as Jean Bodin. 

In contrast to Weyer’s literalist epistemology, Bodin’s hermeneutics are “tortuous” in their insistence on the need to extract hidden meanings from nature. Like Augustine and his later disciple Pascal, “Bodin viewed everything as a text in need of interpretation” (57).  Furthermore, torture, specifically the torture of women accused of witchcraft, lies at the heart of Bodin’s truth-seeking.   By gendering nature as a female who will not give up her secrets easily, he validates the use of violent means to find what is hidden.  In this ideology, the “mastery” of nature ends in its destruction by human (masculine) action.

Politics and demonology are linked in Bodin’s thought by an imperative to subordinate women to men. In Six Livres de la republique (1576), the model for absolutism is the submission of the wife to the husband, whereas in De la Demonomanie  des sorciers  (1580), witchcraft is defined as “divine treason” because it shows insubordination to both man (if most witches are considered female) and to God.  While both works reveal Bodin’s deep misogyny, neither his political theory nor his demonology is really about women (53), no more than Weyer’s work had been.  Weyer had portrayed women as weak and susceptible to delusions in order to strengthen his authority as a physician.  While completely opposed to Weyer’s argument,  Bodin uses a similar strategy to shore up the marginal position of provincial magistrates,  who had criticized the Paris parlement for its leniency towards accused witches: “the extraction of the witches’ confession allows for the demonstration of the magistrate’s hermeneutical prowess” (74). In both cases, women are mere counters in a skeptical/epistemological debate and a struggle for power.  

This theme is recast in chapter 3, which deals with the neo-Stoic response to the intellectual and political crisis of the late Renaissance.  Wilkin adds the element of gender to this mix, arguing that masculinity becomes an unstable category in the writings of the neo-Stoics.  Guillaume du Vair defends the “masle” virtues of strength and constancy shown by the politiques, who had been vilified as effeminate by their League opponents.  At the same time, he reviles the Catholic Leaguers as “womanish.”  For the neo-Stoic Du Vair, masculine characteristics are still portrayed as positive, feminine as negative.  But unlike Weyer and Bodin, du Vair does not found these gender oppositions solely on anatomical differences; rather, gender roles are grounded in the will. Hence, exceptional women, by their actions, can choose to demonstrate male virtue.  As a result, belonging to a particular gender cannot be guaranteed:  men risk displaying a “womanly” nature if they fail to maintain their strong posture and control their “feminizing” emotions.  I would add that this gender trouble is dramatized in Corneille’s Horace:  Horace tragically fails to sustain his performance of vertu whereas his sister Camille displays male constancy.

This gender instability is reinforced in André Du Laurens’ Discours des maladies melancoliques, the first medical treatise on mental health written in the vernacular.  Du Laurens categorizes pathological melancholia as “hypochondriacal,” meaning that it emanates from the organs below the diaphragm, particularly the uterus.  Thus, men who succumb to tristesse may as well be dressed as eunuchs or castrated.   However, they can avoid this fate by eschewing melancholia and embracing vertu.  For Du Vair and Du Laurens, then, gender differences are not uniquely grounded in the body.  Yet as Wilkin points out, women do not escape the strictures of gender so easily:  “no Stoic would arrive at the conclusion that ‘l’esprit n’a point de sexe’ because they viewed sex as the body’s reflection of a non-corporeal nature that was already gendered” (139).

Chapter 4, “The Suspension of Difference:  Michel de Montaigne’s Lame Lovers,” examines “the intertwining development of pro-woman polemic and the rise of skepticism in Renaissance France” (143).  Wilkin sandwiches her analysis of Montaigne between two works relating to the contemporaneous querelle des femmes:  Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim’s De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus (1529) and Marie de Gournay’s De l’égalité des hommes et des femmes (1622).   The set-up discussion of Agrippa allows Wilkin to clarify the opposing uses of skeptical argumentation in this period.  Agrippa’s skeptical discourse furthers his fideist attack on the arrogance of vain philosophers who try to oppose reason to the word of God.  In contrast, according to Wilkin, Montaigne’s skepticism is not primarily Christian in nature.  As she correctly points out, Montaigne’s “Apologie de Raymond de Sebond” is not a true apology but a sly critique of fideism.  Rather, Montaigne’s skepticism derives from his reading of Sextus Empiricus, whose Pyrrhonianae hypotoses (Outlines of Pyrrhonism) lays out a method for Skeptical practice. Its purpose is not to uphold Christianity but to attain personal tranquility.    Montaigne had quotes from Sextus carved into the beams of his study, such as “I suspend judgment.”  

 Bringing gender back into play, Wilkin argues that “Montaigne’s inversion of the values that other philosophers assigned to masculinity and femininity is among the most thorough expressions of his skepticism” (148).   Montaigne demolishes Stoic ethics by undermining the notion of “male” virtue on which it rests.  Already in his 1st essay, “By Diverse Means We Arrive at the Same Ends,” Montaigne targets stoicism as a cause of violence rather than a solution for it:  showing constancy (or prideful obstinacy) before your enemy may get you tortured. Wilkin’s analysis of later interpolations reveals how Montaigne’s incorporation of gender into this essay became bolder and more direct—a vehicle for skepticism rather than just a critique of stoic ethics.  For example, “feminine” mollesse is recast as a virtue because flexibility and receptivity to impressions protect against rigidity of thought. This flexibility is literally displayed in “Of Cripples” by the buskin that fits either foot (or either sex): like our understanding, it is “double and diverse” (quoted in Wilkin, 174).   

Despite his speculations about the flexibility of gender, Montaigne is not interested in changing social practice.  In 1.23, “Of Custom and Not Easily Changing an Accepted Law,” he argues that given the confusing variety of customs, it is best to retain the ones we are familiar with.   However, the deconstruction of gender hierarchy in “Of Cripples” lays the groundwork for early feminist works like Gournay’s De l’égalité des hommes et des femmes. Unlike Montaigne himself (and Pascal later on), Montaigne’s covenant daughter will not merely relativize customary gender views, but condemn them.

The concluding chapter challenges what Wilkin considers “the dominant feminist interpretation of Cartesian philosophy,” according to which Cartesian dualism continues to exclude women.  Wilkin cannot deny the weakness of some of Descartes’ statements:  to claim that “even” women may possess reason is hardly a wholehearted endorsement of gender equality.   Descartes also stated that he toned down some of the Discours de la méthode because “I was afraid that weak minds might avidly embrace the doubt and scruples which I had to propound” without following his ensuing counter-argument.   However, Wilkin avers that by labeling women’s minds as “weak,” Descartes is merely following readers’ prejudices.  In his correspondence with Elizabeth of Bohemia, Descartes shows himself to be more open than in his published works, arguing that qualities of mind are gender free.  Poullain de la Barre will take up this argument, famously declaring “the mind has no sex.” I do not totally agree with Wilkin’s critique of Erica Harth—whose Cartesian Women Wilkin nevertheless deems “excellent.”  Before Wilkin, Harth had recognized the heuristic value and reformist potential of Cartesian rationalism.  Albeit “conventional and ambivalent,” Descartes’ philosophy opens the door to women as thinking subjects rather than mere counters or boundary markers in a masculine enterprise of truth seeking.  Wilkin’s research shows that, unfortunately, “during the late Renaissance, the exclusion of women from the search for truth was not contingent upon a particular epistemology” (94); yet both Montaigne and Descartes supplied fuel for future pro(to) feminist writing.  

In conclusion, Wilkin’s erudition and textual acumen are revealed in her analyses of early modern medical, philosophical, rhetorical and political treatises.  She also shows a thorough understanding of classical, medieval and Renaissance thought.  Wilkin lightens the difficulty of her topic with witty wordplay, such as “the toxic unctuousness of ultramontane persuasion” (38) and “a rag-tag gaggle of raving hags” (48).  While not easy to read or summarize, this important book merits study by philosophers and historians of science as well as scholars of literature and gender studies.  

Barbara R. Woshinsky, University of Miami

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