The Female in Aristotle's Biology: Reason or Rationalization

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While Aristotle's writings on biology are considered to be among his best, the comments he makes about females in these works are widely regarded as the nadir of his philosophical oeuvre. Among many claims, Aristotle is said to have declared that females contribute nothing substantial to generation; that they have fewer teeth than males; that they are less spirited than males; and that woman are analogous to eunuchs. In The Female in Aristotle's Biology, Robert Mayhew aims not to defend Aristotle's ideas about females but to defend Aristotle against the common charge that his writings on female species were motivated by ideological bias.

Mayhew points out that the tools of modern science and scientific experimentation were not available to the Greeks during Aristotle's time and that, consequently, Aristotle had relied not only on empirical observations when writing about living organisms but also on a fair amount of speculation. Further, he argues that Aristotle's remarks about females in his biological writings did not tend to promote the inferior status of ancient Greek women.

Written with passion and precision, The Female in Aristotle's Biology will be of enormous value to students of philosophy, the history of science, and classical literature.

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About the Author:

Robert Mayhew is an associate professor of philosophy at Seton Hall University. He is the author of Aristotle's Criticism of Plato's Republic.

Review:

“Mayhew’s main treatment is divided under five headings: entomology, embryology, eunuchs and women, anatomy, and ‘the softer and less spirited sex.’ . . . Mayhew’s account is in general careful and informed by close reading of the actual texts. . . . It vindicates Aristotle (to a large extent: Mayhew allows that occasionally Aristotle may have been guilty of a careless reliance on chauvinistic idées reçues) of the charges of misogynistic rationalization.”

(R. J. Hankinson Isis)

“A book on the female in Aristotle’s biology is welcome. Mayhew treats a range of issues in separate chapters: on sexual difference in bees and wasps; on the contributions of male and female parents to conception; on the analogy drawn between eunuchs and females; on scattered comments about anatomical differences (other than in generative organs) between male and female; and on differences in character that might be based on biological differences.”

(Marguerite Deslauriers Journal of the History of Biology)

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