As I walk down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, I meet David Hume, Adam Smith, a dozen unicorns and a couple of horses within a few minutes. From most angles on the street, I can see at least two statues of men, elevated above eye-level, of course, to signify their importance. From this experience, you might think that unicorns did more for Scottish philosophy than women - who are the ones that may as well not have existed at all. Unfortunately, people’s experiences of philosophy in general are not that different.
This is why my colleagues from the Mary Shepherd Philosophy Conference committee and I have named our conference after one of the earliest Scottish female philosophers, Lady Mary Shepherd (1777-1847). Following the event’s success, we are now asking the Edinburgh Council to build a statue for her, starting with a petition and a presentation on International Women’s Day. The aim of the campaign is both to raise awareness for an under-recognized philosopher from the past, and to represent a woman thinker who could inspire future generations.
We opted to raise awareness for Mary Shepherd in particular because, as well as being linked to the work of the established ‘intellectual giant’ David Hume, her own place in the history of philosophy is just starting to be assessed. She hosted salons for philosophers and thinkers of her time, and engaged with their writings in her own texts – which included powerful criticisms of Hume. She mostly wrote on causation, metaphysics and God. William Whewell used a Treatise she wrote as a textbook at Cambridge University.
Yet, she is rarely even mentioned. Most people have likely lived in Edinburgh their whole life, or studied philosophy, or indeed studied philosophy in Edinburgh, without ever hearing her name. I focus on reading female philosophers, and have lived in Edinburgh for years, but I haven’t heard of her until a few months ago! Obviously, this is not simply due to the absence of a statue. Rather, it is the other way around. Like countless women philosophers, she has been forgotten by the history-making process along with philosophers from other oppressed groups. The SEP, one of the most used philosophy resources, says that the reasons for this are ‘not entirely clear’ - but her absence in our collective imaginations is not entirely mysterious either.
In fact, it follows an all-too-common script. There are some women philosophers who were believed to not even have existed for a long time, like Diotima from Plato’s Symposium. Contrary to many other characters in Platonic dialogues, she was assumed to merely be a fictional trope. Only in the 1980s did philosophers start to question her fictionality, and researched her life. They concluded that she existed as a real flesh-and-blood person. For centuries, readers believed that a woman engaging in philosophical debate must have been made up, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. Similarly, Mary Shepherd’s life and work has been increasingly researched thanks to scholars like Prof. Margaret Atherton, Prof. Deborah Boyle and Dr. Jennifer McRobert.
Also, the statues of Scottish philosophers in Edinburgh have some other striking features. David Hume, for instance, is wearing an out-of-place toga, assuming an imposing and self-assured stance, and even holding a book that seems heavy with the weight of Western knowledge. Indeed, statues are often symbols of colonialism, and it seems like these are no exception. A lot of them are clearly meant to convey a sense of the ‘greatness’ of Western thought. I want to be careful not to replicate that.
Mary Shepherd’s privileged life undoubtedly enabled her to pursue philosophy. We know that she came from a rich family because her father was the third Earl of Rosebery and she lived in Barnbougle Castle. There are some other facts about her that are unusual for an aristocratic lady: for instance, there seem to be no paintings of her as an adult. The kind of sculpture I have mind with the campaign would be modernist in a way that acknowledges those problems, rather than a style resembling Hume’s statue.
Another reason why this project is important is that there is a dire lack of statues of women in Edinburgh in general, and even those that exist are mostly of unnamed women. A statue of a woman philosopher would convey that women have also done great things, and that philosophy is a discipline that they can excel at.
Just like my walk down the Royal Mile, the under-representation of female philosophers can sometimes be overwhelming: where do I even start? Mary Shepherd, for one, deserves recognition in the city whose intellectual landscape she contributed to shaping.
Viktoria Matejova is a student who organised the Mary Shepherd Conference and founded the statue campaign. Her main areas of interest are feminist metaphysics, social epistemology and riot grrrl activism.