[This is an invited guest post by Lisa Shapiro.--ES]
Thanks to Eric for giving me a part of his space to share these thoughts. These are simply my memories of someone who was certainly an influence, and probably fit into a category that one might call a professional friend -- not as close as a proper friend, but also someone more than an acquaintance either. They resonate, I think, with Eric's own experience in meeting Eileen at the library.
While in graduate school, first in a seminar on Descartes, and later in my dissertation, I read Eileen O’Neill’s work. Her article “Mind-Body Interaction and Metaphysical Consistency: A Defense of Descartes” was a lucidly written, scholarly, takedown of the what had been prior to its publication in 1987 a litany of complaints that Descartes’s claims of mind-body interaction violated the Third Meditation’s causal principle. O’Neill cut through the nonsense to remind everyone that (a) the Causal Principle concerned metaphysical hierarchies – substances could only be affected by other substances or an infinite substance, and infinite substance could only be affected by itself (or another infinite substance, which as Spinoza argues is absurd), and (b) insofar as mind and body were both substances, there is no violation of the causal principle in their interaction. The scholarliness came out in her appeal to Cartesians, like Simon Foucher, who shared her reading. The lesson to a fledgling historian of philosophy was to avoid the cottage industry and cut to the chase.
I first met Eileen in person at the ground breaking conference she organized at UMass-Amherst in Fall 1997 on early modern women philosophers. She had invited my supervisor Annette Baier to give a talk at the conference – perhaps surprising, but not so much if you think about Annette’s 1990 Eastern APA Presidential Address, ‘A Naturalist View of Persons’. Annette suggested that she invite me to give a talk on Princess Elisabeth. I remember being astonished and thrilled at the email and invitation (Annette had said nothing). I had started working on a translation of the correspondence, in imitation of the Beyssade edition. I accepted, and the talk I gave became “Princess Elisabeth and Descartes: The Union of Soul and Body and the Practice of Philosophy.” I cannot recall with clarity now whether the talk preceded or followed another, by a very distinguished philosopher, who claimed that women of the period were not proper philosophers but learned maids. They could not be better counterpoints. I was terrified. The conference was truly incredible. It seemed as if there were 100s of people there. It was an event. I did not fully appreciate its significance. [Charlotte Witt reminds me that she and Lilli Alanen first me there, and their volume Feminist Reflections on the History of Philosophy emerged from that meeting.]
I realize that when she organized that conference she must have been in her early 40s, far younger than I am now. Strangely, though I recall the event, I do not really recall the event. I was shy, I was definitely a nervous wreck about giving the talk, and I was probably a nervous wreck at meeting her. I have a vision of her sweeping around the room greeting people in a fabulous outfit.
A year later, I moved from the College of Charleston to Hampshire College, just down the street from UMass. Despite some concerns that Hampshire and I might not be the best fit, working in the same region as Eileen, as well as Vere Chappell and Bob Sleigh, was a huge draw. I took advantage of the opportunity to sit in on a seminar Eileen was teaching on early modern women philosophers. I still have the course reader. Marcy Lascano was in the class, not yet committed to working on early modern women. So was Dan Kaufman.
I recall having the experience of recognizing just how easy Eileen made something that was extraordinarily difficult seem: providing the framework and then articulating what was philosophically significant – the arguments, the positions – in the writings of these women. I read Marie de Gournay for the first time. I became enthusiastic about working on early modern women. In parallel, I made a connection with Jutta Sperling at Hampshire, an historian whose work involved the writings of women in the 16th century. Jutta and I co-taught a course on early modern women, in which I continued to learn more about the writings of early modern women. I discovered the Other Voice in Early Modern Europe series.
Eileen and I lived not far from one another in Northampton at the time, and we socialized a bit, though Eileen was a very private person. She had a penchant for the heavy oak of Stickley furniture, for Persian cats, for telling stories. She was an amazing story teller. I remember tales of her obsession with 70s serial killers, of her tale of after sixth months of trying finally finding a way in with the woman at the stationary store on Main St. and the resulting theory of the selection principles for inclusion in small town New England. She had the kind of style that would allow her to sport clothing far more elegant than the occasion required in a way that seemed effortless, that allowed us all to bask in her beauty, and yet to feel perfectly comfortable in our own ordinariness. I think many of us, men and women alike, have aspired to that kind of poise. I know I have, and I know I have never come anywhere near close. Somewhere in those three years in Northampton, I met Gary, her partner, who introduced me to some great music. One band has always stuck in my mind – Sparklehorse.
In 2001 Eileen published her edition of Margaret Cavendish’s Observations on the Experimental Philosophy with Cambridge. While I was in no way involved in that edition, I can, from where I sit now, appreciate the work that went into it, and into its philosophically substantive introduction. I think the amount of work involved is very difficult to appreciate, especially for those who have only relied on modern editions of works. Eileen established a text, making it accessible and providing robust guidance for how to enter into it. It is no wonder that it has brought forth what is now a large body of scholarship on Cavendish.
I can only imagine just how much determination was involved in her continuing to do what she continued to do. In 2001, I moved away from Hampshire and so from Eileen, spending a year at Cornell before coming to SFU. I taught a course on early modern women philosophers at Cornell. There were only a handful of students in the course. It was quite clearly of marginal interest to students there. And it seemed like such an uphill battle to be waged. I did not feel I had the energy and determination, and I certainly did not have the infectious enthusiasm and grace of Eileen. Too often imagined pressures prevent us from doing what we want to do. For me, it wasn't until I was well past tenure that I started working on women (other than Elisabeth) into my third year history courses, though I was happy to lead reading groups focused on the works of a particular female philosopher. I think we are finally starting to get past that. Eileen’s courses in the area were not large either, but nonetheless she was clearly certain that the material was worth pushing. She taught those courses anyway, long before it was fashionable, as it is now. I can only assume her colleagues valued what she worked on.
Hers was a field of dreams – if you built it, they would come. And she was right. She played the long game. She built connections with the handful of people already working on women philosophers: Karen Green at Melbourne, Sarah Hutton then at Aberystwyth. Getting her students on board: Dan Kaufman organized a conference in his first year at University of Florida. And look at the work Marcy Lascano has done. Roping in people, like me, like Karen Detlefsen, whenever she could. She was impossible to say ‘no’ to. Karen and I are now editing a Routledge Handbook on Women and European Early Modern Philosophy. We have 42 chapters each with a unique author (we might actually have a couple more…). I know from exchanges with others that Eileen in many ways provided a realization that they could work on the women in whom they were interested. It was as if before talking with her, they had never realized they could go there professionally. Given where things were even just a decade ago, this is really a testament to Eileen’s ground game. She worked the room. She brought people in, she got us all to be excited about what she was excited about. She somehow enabled us to be excited about what we were excited about, but were fearful of pushing forward.
One of the most compelling articles I have every read, and one that always bears rereading is her “Disappearing Ink: Early Modern Women Philosophers and their Fate in History.” The list of names alone. Dear god, how did she even find out about all those women? I know that Eileen connected with those in other departments who were also working on women's intellectual history. Her work shows the fruit of interdisciplinary research.
When I moved to SFU, my focus narrowed on finishing the Elisabeth-Descartes volume, and with Eileen’s help I was put in touch with Theo Verbeek, who, through his connections had finally located the missing manuscript copies of Elisabeth’s letters to Descartes. I made a trip to examine them. Again, something important that would not have happened without her, and her generosity.
A conference was organized in her honour at Barnard in 2009. The video of her remarks at that conference captures a lot of the character I am trying to describe. The event itself brought people together, people who already knew one another, and people who did not. While I might have met Marguerite Deslauriers before, I got to know her a bit better there. I seem to recall spending the weekend with a sinus infection, so I don’t recall it as clearly as I ought. I do recall Eileen walking in in a spectacular red dress and matching jacket. Perfectly tailored. I brought two students along: Lauren Kopajtic, who is still in philosophy, at the Society of Fellows at Columbia and Jen Liderth, who teaches philosophy at a community college in LA. I know that the event made some impact on them. I hope perhaps as they learn of Eileen’s passing, they remember it again. The talk I gave there, “The Outward and Inward Beauty of Early Modern Women” was very much written with Eileen in mind: her own honed aesthetic sensibility inspired the topic, her own generosity, her own intelligence.
I did not see Eileen much, if at all, after that conference (I do recall a Skype call as we brainstormed about the New Narratives project grant applications -- she managed to look fantastic even on skype).
Eileen made an impression. She has changed a subdiscipline. And she did so by hard work, but also by working with people, scholars both younger and those more established, by encouraging us all, by infecting us with her enthusiasm.
People far closer to her than I will miss her terribly, of that I am absolutely sure. I will miss her too. But I also know that she, like my own supervisor, will always be with me. While of course, lots of people have and continue to influence me, without either Annette Baier or Eileen O’Neill, I would not be the philosopher I am.