Weaving the Net of Argument

Three radical women philosophers from the ancient world

Although it is sometimes said that the history of philosophy is the history of human attempts to understand ourselves and the world, if you pick up any introductory philosophy textbook, it doesn’t take long to realise this isn’t quite true. Philosophy may claim to talk about human universals, but it’s hard to sustain this claim when most of the named figures in the historical traditions of the world are men: the history of philosophy is also the history of the exclusion of women’s voices from these conversations about what it means to be human. As Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting write in their book The Philosopher Queens, “The history of philosophy has not done women justice."[1]

This exclusion of women’s voices not only makes the history of philosophy considerably more boring than it otherwise would be. It also undermines the universality of philosophy’s claims. Do the world’s philosophical traditions really succeed in getting to grips with what it means to be human? Or are they just a testament to how men have grappled with the questions that most preoccupy them as men?

So if we want to reimagine what philosophy is, or what it could be, a good starting point is taking more seriously those women philosophers who have attempted to disrupt the assumptions built into the traditions of philosophy we have inherited.

Since the ancient world, women thinkers have mounted border-raids on the heartlands of philosophy, and have pushed back against the assumptions of their male contemporaries. The following three stories are about women thinkers who have pushed back against in this way. All three of these women philosophers resist the idea that men are the only ones who are capable of engaging in philosophy, politics or public life. All three of them subvert the view that women’s domain is strictly domestic. And all three raise questions about the art traditionally associated with women in their societies: the art of weaving. In doing so, they weave arguments of their own that unsettle the philosophical complacency of their male contemporaries.

Weaving the world with Gārgī Vācaknavī

Gārgī Vācaknavī is one of the earliest named women philosophers in the Indian tradition. She is said to have lived sometime around 700 BCE, and she appears in the ancient Indian text, the Bṛhadāraṅyaka Upaniṣad, where she holds her own in a philosophical debate with the sage Yājñavalkya.

The Bṛhadāraṅyaka Upaniṣad tells the story of a debating contest held by King Janaka of Videha. The cocky Yājñavalkya is convinced he is going to win the contest. But he hasn’t accounted for the subtlety of Gārgī. When it is her turn to speak, she starts by asking Yājñavalkya an unsettling philosophical question: what is the world woven on? In asking her question, Gārgī draws upon metaphors of weaving, a skill traditionally associated with women. And perhaps Yājñavalkya already feels he is not quite on solid ground. It is as if Gārgī knows that she’s wrong-footing him, that when it comes to weaving, Yājñavalkya is not quite as sure of himself as he otherwise might be.

This is how the debate begins:

Then Gārgī Vācaknavī began to question him.“Yājñavalkya,” she said, “tell me—since this whole world is woven back and forth on water, on what, then, is water woven back and forth?““On air, Gārgī.““On what, then, is air woven back and forth?““On the worlds of the intermediate region, Gārgī.““On what, then, are the worlds of the intermediate region woven back and forth?”…Bṛhadāraṅyaka Upaniṣad 3.6.1. [2]

With every answer Yājñavalkya gives, Gārgī pushes the question still further: “Yes, but what is that __ woven on…?” And as the debate goes on, it’s clear that Yājñavalkya is out of his depth. Soon, it starts to look like he is making it up as he goes along. And then, after several more questions, Yājñavalkya has finally had enough. “Don’t ask too many questions, Gārgī,” he says, “or your head will shatter apart!”

It is hardly a knock-down philosophical argument. Gārgī decides it is wiser to push her questions no further, and she falls silent. But it clear who the winner is in this debate (you can read more about the debate here).

Weaving politics with Jing Jiang

A century and a half later, over in China, another woman philosopher drew on her expertise in weaving to fashion arguments of her own. Jing Jiang was born sometime around 540 BCE in the state of Lu. Her story appears in the Discourses of the States (Guoyu), which dates to around the fourth century BCE, and in the later Lienü zhuan, or Biographies of Exemplary Women. Traditional accounts say she was praised by Confucius for her knowledge of ritual and social conduct.

But as the scholar Lisa Raphals has argued, Jing Jiang’s ability as a philosopher went a lot further than this.[3] In the Biographies of Exemplary Women, we find her instructing her wayward son Gongfu Wenbo in the art of politics. Wenbo seems to be a somewhat hapless individual. When he becomes a minister in the state of Lu, he makes a hash of it, so his mother decides to intervene. But she cannot intervene directly. In Ancient China, women were denied access to the male-dominated realms of politics and philosophy, and their views were not granted any authority. This presents Jing Jiang with a problem: how to persuade her son that her words have weight when women’s voices are liable to be dismissed?

The account in the Biographies of Exemplary Women tells the story like this.

When Wenbo served as minister in Lu, Jing Jiang told him, “I will tell you how the essentials of ruling a country can be found in [the art of weaving]: everything depends upon the warp! The selvage is the means by which the crooked is made straight. It must be strong. The selvage can therefore be thought of as the general. The reed is the means by which one makes uniform what is irregular and brings into line the unruly. Therefore the reed can be thought of as the director […]"— Biographies of Exemplary Women [4]

Raphals highlights the subtlety of Jing Jiang’s approach. First, she gets her son to agree to the analogy between statecraft and weaving (an analogy, incidentally, that Plato also makes in his dialogue The Statesman). Once she has done this, she has gained the authority to speak. Now Wenbo has accepted her analogy, Jing Jiang is free to talk about politics and statecraft (a domain where it is assumed she has no authority) by drawing parallels with weaving (a domain where she has absolute authority). So as she weaves her argument, talking about the mysteries of the loom, she demonstrates to Wenbo that, contrary to the expectations of her time, when it comes to politics, she is both astute and knowledgable. At the end of her discourse, Wenbo is convinced. The text tells us that “Wenbo bowed twice and received her teaching.”

Weaving new arguments with Hipparchia

The third story comes from the ancient Greek world and concerns Hipparchia, one of the most fascinating women philosophers in the Greek tradition. Born in Thrace, two centuries after Jing Jiang, Hipparchia came from a privileged background. When she was still a teenager her family moved to the city of Athens, where she fell in with the Cynic philosopher Crates. The Cynic philosophers were fiercely critical of social norms. They cultivated what they called anaideia or “shamelessness”, and often embraced homelessness and a life of wandering in their quest for a way of living that was in accord with nature.

Although Crates was much older than her, against the wishes of Hipparchia’s parents, the two philosophers got married. After their marriage, they became a well-known philosophical double-act on the Athenian scene. On one occasion, according to the later writer Diogenes Laërtius, they both turned up at a symposium or philosophical drinking party. In ancient Athens, this was nothing short of a scandal. Symposia were exclusive men’s clubs. Women might be in attendance as musicians, entertainers or sex workers; but they could not participate as equals.

The male philosophers were horrified by Hipparchia’s attendance. The philosopher Theodoros was particularly outraged. He directly challenged Hipparchia’s right to be there. Hipparchia replied by saying that if something was permissible for Theodoros, then it should be permissible for Hipparchia. Having made her point, she moved on to crack a joke. It is of course permissible, she said, that Theodoros should punch himself. And if what is permissible for Theodoros is also permissible for Hipparchia, then, she said, it follows that it should be okay for her to punch him too.

We don’t know if Hipparchia actually threw the punch. But in the fracas that ensued, Theodoros tried to strip her of her robe. Hipparchia rose above it all. She was, after all, a philosopher who embraced shamelessness, and it was all the same to her whether she wore a robe or not. So when Theodoros attempted to remove her robe, she was “neither alarmed nor perturbed by that, as one might expect a woman to be."[5]

Seeing that he could not outdo Hipparchia, Theodoros quoted a line of ancient poetry from the playwright Euripides. Who was she, he asked, to abandon her loom and intrude on this men’s world? Hipparchia (readjusting her robe, we can imagine) said that she had no regrets about abandoning the loom because in doing so, she had been able to dedicate herself to the pursuit of learning and philosophy.

Weaving resistance

These three tales about weaving and philosophy from different parts of the ancient world are a testament to the creativity women philosophers have used to regain and assert authority where authority has been denied them.

In India, Gārgī Vācaknavī uses metaphors drawn from weaving to wrong-foot her opponent and to ask subtle questions about the fundamental nature of the universe.

In China, Jing Jiang uses her knowledge of weaving and the power of analogy to demonstrate her skill in argument and her knowledge in the realm of politics—both things denied to her as a woman.

Meanwhile, in Ancient Greece, when Theodoros runs out of arguments against Hipparchia and tells her to go back to her loom, she refuses the idea outright. Because Hipparchia knows what Theodoros doesn’t: that if philosophy—the love of wisdom—is to mean anything at all, it needs to embrace the whole range of human experience.


[1] Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting, The Philosopher Queens (Unbound 2020), p. 7.

[2] Patrick Olivelle (translator), The Early Upaniṣads (Oxford University Press 1998), p. 85.

[3] Lisa Raphals, “Arguments by Women in Early Chinese Texts”, Nan Nü 3.2 (2001), pp. 157-195.

[4] Anne Behnke Kinney (translator), Exemplary women of early China: the Lienü zhuan of Liu Xiang ( Columbia University Press 2014), p. 13. Translation slightly modified.

[5] Robin Hard (translator), Diogenes the Cynic: Sayings and Anecdotes, With Other Popular Moralists (Oxford University Press 2012), p. 99

Image: Men engaging in the political world, while a woman works a silk loom. Painting by a Taiwanese artist, ca. 1850. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

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