Women Philosophers and Their Communities: An Interview with Prof. Christina Van Dyke
by Sarah Virgi
December 2022 – The history of medieval philosophy in Christian Europe often portrays the philosophical scene in the Middle Ages as being dominated by the intellectual debates that took place within the universities. By virtue of this institutional context, this history accounts mainly for the scholastic tradition and, consequently, for a tradition in which only men were allowed to participate. However, this was not the only philosophical scene in Europe during this period. As Christina Van Dyke shows in her new book, about which we will be speaking in this interview, there were other intellectual circles in the Christian Middle Ages where women played a crucial role and where they could make themselves be heard: mysticism and contemplativism. Unlike scholastic debates, mystical and contemplative discussions went beyond the educated elite to include any number of other sorts of communities. They made philosophical ideas available to all through their focus on personal experience, meditational practices, and contemplative prayer. But how do these practices contribute to communal living? And what role, if any, does gender play in the development of these intellectual traditions? Find out Van Dyke’s insight into these and other questions in the interview.
About Christina van Dyke
Christina Van Dyke is Professor of Philosophy at Barnard College at Columbia University and Emerita Professor at Calvin University. Her area of specialization is in medieval philosophy and the philosophy of gender. She is the co-editor of The Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy (CUP, 2010) with Robert Pasnau and the author of the commentary on Thomas Aquinas’ Treatise on Happiness (Hackett, 2016). Her new book, A Hidden Wisdom: Medieval Contemplatives on Self-Knowledge, Reason, Love, Persons, and Immortality (OUP, 2022), is the first comprehensive work on the tradition of women mystics and contemplatives in the Middle Ages.
This interview was conducted on October 26, 2022.
Sarah Virgi: How did the idea of your new book, A Hidden Wisdom, come about? What fascinated you the most in the topic of medieval women mystics?
Christina Van Dyke: The book originally came about because Robert Pasnau and I were working together on the Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy, and we realized that there were no women medieval authors that were being discussed or cited. And we started to look at where medieval women were writing in this period. I was assigned to write a chapter on the topic of mysticism then because that is where most of the women in the Middle Ages were doing their writing: in the mystical or the contemplative traditions. Once I started looking at those texts, I was struck by how deeply philosophical most of them are – not just the women’s texts but the contemplative texts in general. The questions that they are asking and the answers that they are providing seem to me like the natural complement to the discussions happening in the universities, in the scholastic tradition.
SV: You have also written on the philosophy of gender. Did your research on medieval women philosophers have an impact on your reflection on gender? If so, in what way(s)?
CVD: That is a great question because I have always thought about it in the other direction. I was doing work in the philosophy of gender before I was doing work on women authors in the Middle Ages. So I have always thought about it in terms of how my general work in gender studies has made me able to read what these women are writing and then try to work to ‘see’ it in the way that it would have been read and understood at its own time. For example, we often get fixated on how medieval women seem like they are apologizing for themselves, and people read that as the sign as the women really were uneducated and, thus, that they were not really involved in the ongoing philosophical and theological discussions. But when you start to look at the idea of how humility as a virtue and how you had to frame what you were saying at the time, it makes so much more sense, and you do not have to read these women as denigrating themselves or not actually being educated. You read it as providing the formulaic response that lets what they really want to say be heard, understood, and taken seriously. So, I would say that my work on medieval women reinforced my idea that there is not a way that women approach topics or texts. What makes a much more significant difference are other aspects of their experience, for instance, which religious order they are part of, where they are living, and even their socio-political status. And the differences between the views that they espouse are fascinating but also really important for debunking the essentialist idea that there is a way in which women approach philosophy and philosophical questions.
SV: Now, going back to your new book, why do you think that the mystical and contemplative ways were prevalent among women in particular? What is the connecting link between women and mysticism?
CVD: The social status of women prevented them from actively participating in scholastic debates. Women were not in the university system, so the ways that they had to participate in these conversations involved avenues where they were actually going to be heard and taken seriously. In part, because women were seen as more spiritually sensitive, more emotionally attuned, and better at loving than men – men were supposed to be more rational, while women were supposed to be more intuitive – in the late 13th and 14th century, when love becomes this central way of being seen as connected to God, then women were taken more seriously, when they wrote about their experiences and what these made them think. In scholasticism, of course, there was this idea that scholars were sharing universal truths about God, the world, and reality. On the other hand, what you have in the contemplative tradition is much more personal, experience-based, and aimed at how you live and the world around you. Since women were associated with that world, they were taken more seriously than when they talked about it..
SV: My next question is very much connected to this. In your view, is women philosophy in the medieval period private or public? And if public, what is the social context in which women’s ideas could develop?
CVD: This question really highlights the paradoxical nature of contemplative literature and mystical literature in general. And you see this in these medieval figures as well: it is not only women who are writing in the contemplative and mystical tradition in the 13th to 15th centuries in the Christian tradition; it is all sorts of people who are included in the university tradition, for instance, a lot of lay people and other people who, for one reason or another, are not in the formal and established conversations about theology and philosophy. So, what you have instead is this really strong interest in how we should live, which is both a private and public question. Because, it is simultaneously the question of how do I, as an individual person, in this particular time and place, live so that I become the best possible version of myself and the most closely connected with God, and it is the question of how do I live in community. Hence, it is never just public or private. Mystical and contemplative literature is always this “both-and” kind of an enterprise, where it is writing that is done often describing these personal experiences, but with for an audience. The experiences are described in a way is supposed to help the people reading them understand their own experiences better and get a better sense of how to perceive themselves and how to think about these things. There is a beautiful interplay between the public and the personal in contemplative and mystical literature that echoes the discussion about the question between ethics and politics that you have earlier in this period as well.
SV: This relates again to my next question. Mystical experience seems, at first, to be something personal and ineffable. However, in your book, you emphasize the role of mystical experience in communal living, as, for instance, in the case of the communities of beguines in northern Europe. Can you elaborate on this paradox?
CVD: This is a fascinating topic because it highlights how the people who are living at this time, who are thinking about the contemplative life, are seeing their intrinsic connection to everybody else as part of what is happening in their private personal experiences. My favorite example of how people in this time thought about the communal purpose of their private experiences comes from Gertrude of Helfta, who has a vision early on in which God comes to her and offers her a choice between two different kinds of experiences: the one would utterly transcend human experience, but she will never be able to explain it to her sisters or to anyone else; the other can be an experience of God that she will be able to share with her community. And she chooses the second one. The way in which this frames how mystical experiences are thought of in the Middle Ages, particularly in these communities of women, is, I think, really important and often overlooked. Today we have been trained to think of mystical experiences as mountain-top, solitary, transcendent moments, whereas in the medieval period, in the Christian tradition, you have this assumption that if God is speaking to you, He is speaking to you for the good of everybody. If you were to hang on to this mystical experience, you would be doing something wrong; God is using you as a channel of grace. This is the way that Francis of Assis sometimes talks and the way that Gertrude of Helfta talks too. So, these individual people were seen as conduits of sharing insight from God with the people around them.
SV: Did your research on mysticism and women philosophers change the way in which you look at the history of medieval philosophy and at philosophy in general?
CVD: One of the reasons that I started doing this project in the first place was because I was working on a book on Aquinas on the afterlife. And I was getting frustrated with the way that, when Aquinas talks about the afterlife, all these very Aristotelian Christian ways to talk about the bodily resurrection become really Platonic. There isn’t a robust role left for the body. And, so, I started to look at what the mystics and the contemplatives are saying about the afterlife, because I think that there have to be people who were expecting this to be a much more physical and active ongoing experience. And it turns out that there are mystics who talk in exactly those ways, and, then, there are mystics who talk about annihilating any sensitive experience whatsoever in the afterlife, and where you merge with God in a selfless way. Suddenly, I was able to see Aquinas’ position as a compromise position between two extremes. In general, the advantage of trying to bring the scholastics and the contemplatives together is the way that they complement each other, that you have conversations going on. They are drawing on different sources and talking in different ways but they are dealing with exactly the same issues. And so, I see this as a really nice both complement and correction to the way that I was taught medieval philosophy and that I did medieval philosophy for the first twenty years of my career. I am now able to appreciate the way in which the intellectual landscape of the time is so much more interesting, active, and complex, and I hope that other people will also start to appreciate this more.