If a piece of wisdom is supposed to be transcendent or beyond dispute, it’s often framed as maternal advice: “Like your mother told you”, or “Just like Grandma used to say”. As a literary device, it works. Strictly from a biological perspective, nobody is more certain of their investment in a child than a mother. Paternity may fall into dispute
, but maternity can’t.
■ This almost iron-clad faith in the goodwill of the advice of mothers is nothing new. The first chapter of the Book of Proverbs contains the 2,500 year-old passage
, “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and reject not your mother’s teaching
; A graceful diadem will they be for your head; a pendant for your neck.”
■ How plainly astonishing, then, that so little of the wisdom of those mothers and grandmothers makes its way into the canon of philosophical literature. Under-valuing the wisdom and intelligence of women is a mistake human civilizations have made over and over, through the course of millennia, and it’s a travesty that we have no obvious recourse to get it back.
■ That there were so few women
heard from isn’t because they didn’t have things to say. Nor is it excused by the woeful inattention to the education of women provided in past eras (a condition lamented by Benjamin Franklin
, among others): We still study the works of Leonardo da Vinci today, even though he had no meaningful formal education
. Surely there have been at least as many women as naturally gifted as the men we study today, but we just don’t have records of most of them.
■ What’s missing is vast, either because it was never written in the first place, or wasn’t preserved because it wasn’t valued. But the prospects of artificial intelligence and massive digitization might make it possible to either reconstruct or to synthesize small portions of what’s missing.
■ Reconstruction, or reverse-engineering what may have been said by looking at the artifacts of what was recorded by others, would be the most authentic. We can begin to reconstruct some of what Elizabeth Hamilton
wrote in her lost letters by looking at the content of what Alexander Hamilton wrote in reply. But reconstruction assumes the existence of a record.
■ Synthesis may be useful for those many cases where finding a record is impossible, because it never existed in the first place. We may be able to turn to tools like the OpenAI GPT-3 to write
what was never written in the first place, allowing us to ask questions like, “What would Aristotle’s older sister have written after studying and debating with him?”.
■ The value in these exercises (and in others like them) would be to offer a sort of placeholder in the literature of big ideas, to acknowledge that women were left out of much of the process of creating what we accept now as the Western intellectual canon, but that we should be cognizant of that absence. It is too easy to passively overlook what’s missing unless some kind of marker reminds us.
■ Civilization is going to need those reminders for a while – it’s only been for a single century that women were even allowed
to study at many elite schools or even to vote
. Parity in the intellectual canon is going to take a long while, but like reserving a seat for the deceased
or putting on a missing-man formation
, sometimes we need to see symbolically what’s missing. We live in an exciting moment when it may begin to be possible to put some worthy symbols in place.