By Melissa Cranenburgh
I think about this a lot. How, as we get older, the things we choose to read (hear, see) push us about like someone floating on a backyard pool, in just the right season, at a warm – but not too warm – time of day. Encouraged – gently, this way and that – by self-generated currents. We might kick out a leg, to propel us harder in a different direction, but we will soon hit the sides. Sometimes, someone jumps in the pool and fucks things up. Or it starts to rain. Or we get cold and just have to get out. But we know this place, calm consensus. We built it. And here we will stay.
It becomes more and more necessary for those of us coasting to invite discomfort in like an honest friend: to remember what it was like to try to reach those floating in their own safe presumptions, and just hating them for it. (It’s hard to recognise exactly when you became the smug person in the pool. Or just turned around and built your own version of whatever a pool is to you. Just know that you did. We always do. I’m sorry.)
“What is a female philosopher?” And, while we’re at it, “What is philosophy?”
So it’s heartening to read a book that encourages us to challenge our assumptions. To think expansively, and to look at those who do, and how that may be relevant to our everyday. An invitation to a thoughtful life. Julienne van Loon’s The Thinking Woman is that kind of book.
Loosely based on Alain de Botton’s pop-philosophy conceit, the author uses personal anecdotes to guide us through six themes: love, play, work, fear, wonder, friendship. Using these universal themes as an invitation to inquiry, she introduces readers to a cast of influential thinkers. Philosophers. Thinking women.
It’s a primer, of sorts, but much more rigorous than de Botton’s reductive fare. Arriving not at a simple conclusion, but at a place of openness. To new ideas and questions, somewhere off the page. In another book, perhaps. To be picked up by someone else.
As van Loon explains in her introduction, it began as a journey to profile “leading female philosophers”, but as she reads more deeply, increasingly, she asks, “What is a female philosopher?” And, while we’re at it, “What is philosophy?” Particularly because, as Anne Summers observes in the foreword, only one of the women ultimately profiled (socialist feminist Nancy Holmstrom) “can be labelled a capital ‘P’ philosopher”.
Challenging myself to question unquestioning assumptions about gender makes is a bell I just can’t un-ring.
In exploring ideas set out by prominent “thinking women”, it’s no accident van Loon’s structure takes on an idea central to second-wave feminism: The personal is political. So, while she has not explicitly set out to write a book about feminism, its necessary intersections and our need to leave room for questions, in so many ways she has.
The question not asked here, but begging to be, is also What is a female? Or, for that matter, a woman, especially a thinking woman: we – a hugely different lot – who have been defined as a group more by shared oppression, than by a genuinely shared specificity. To be a thinking woman, don’t we need to ask that question? When weighted against other binaries of oppression?
Another thing: the uncritical use of gendered language itself here, when challenging language has long been a tenet of feminism. The thinking woman’s domain. The choice to uncritically use the terms ‘woman’, ‘sex’ and female, in a book about those who think critically, is an interesting one. The language we use changes us, our neural pathways, our modalities of thought. Challenging myself to question unquestioning assumptions about gender makes it a bell I just can’t un-ring. So, it becomes impossible not to ask these things. And these are questions van Loon would no doubt welcome us to ask. Her book’s generosity of thought encourages it; she leaves room.
In turn, she encourages her subjects to reflect on how their ideas are filtered through their personal circumstances and particularity.
The far-reaching profiles – love: Laura Kipnis, work: Nancy Holstrom, wonder: Marina Warner, play: Siri Hustvedt, fear: Rosie Batty, Helen Caldicott and Julia Kristeva, and friendship: Rosi Braidotti – are in some senses admiring, but far from uncritical.
They wind in small slices of van Loon’s life. She recalls playing with her child, and finding it both bonding and revelatory. Leaving her long-term partnership, and questioning why she had washed up on the shores of monogamy in the first place. Getting her first job at a carnival at 13, and the nostalgia with which she reflects upon it – even as she questions the nature of work itself.
She introduces each of the ‘thinking women’ in terms of their critical ideas on a given topic. In turn, she encourages her subjects to reflect on how their ideas are filtered through their personal circumstances and particularity. In each, too, she offers contemporary counterpoints. Encouraging discomfort. Kindly leading us through variegated territory. The author doesn’t offer answers. In many ways, the book feels guided by ideas gleaned from Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman (2013). That “relations between oneself and another – as between friends – have been understood as a binary: difference versus sameness. She argues for difference as positivity.” In each, the challenge to ideas raised feels like an act of respectful difference that is essential to the whole. It begs for its own flaws to be interrogated, too. (And that is a refreshing take.)
It’s interesting then, that I found myself adding a layer to everything I read. I read this book at the same time as Reni Eddo-Lodge’s excellent 2017 polemic Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. I found myself trapped between the two, considering a deconstruction around race. Wondering why that was missing, and how it created a sense of irritating self-indulgence that I was perhaps languishing in more comfortable territory with van Loon’s book, when there were thinkers out there ready to pierce the skin.
The Thinking Woman is a great example of a thoughtful approach to philosophical enquiry. I think it isn’t really likely to attract the kind of pop-philosophical audience of de Botton or other (worse, much worse) philosophical pretenders. But I do think its flaw (complexity) is also its strength. Julienne van Loon is that rare writer: one that invites us to join her, without judgement, and find our own way.
Melissa Cranenburgh is a writer, broadcaster, editor and educator. She spent more than a decade in senior editing roles, including associate editor and acting editor of The Big Issue, and co-editor of the magazine’s annual fiction edition. She now teaches in RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing diploma, and hosts Triple R’s flagship weekly book show, Backstory.