Why We Should Read Günderrode as a Philosopher

The question of why we should read Karoline von Günderrode (1780-1806) as a philosopher is only a specific instance of the question about the value of studying historical women’s writing in general for its philosophical contributions.

The discipline of philosophy, as it is carried out in academic institutions in the west, has historically tended to marginalise or exclude women’s thought.[1] This tendency was particularly pronounced in Europe from the late 18th century to the early 20th century and, as a result, there are relatively few recognisably philosophical texts by women from this period. Nonetheless, women did philosophy then, as at all times throughout human history. If we want to know what historical women thought about the important questions of human experience, we need to work to dig their ideas out from the piles of restriction, suppression, dismissal, gendered interpretations, plagiarism and obscurity under which they have been buried and reburied. In the process, we often discover important and unacknowledged contributions to the development of the history of ideas, or solutions to problems that were not considered by male thinkers with whom we are already familiar.

There is currently a movement within the discipline of philosophy to do this work, beginning the long process of uncovering, revisiting, and reinterpreting work by historical women philosophers.[2] However, there are still barriers to recovering philosophy by women. These include:

  • The fact that, as an intellectual endeavour, philosophy has historically been considered a “masculine” pursuit, inaccessible to women or that women are less able to do;
  • The differences between the types and levels of education provided to men and to women in the past;
  • Canonisation, in which the works of a restricted number of (male, European) thinkers are regarded as philosophically valuable and work by other (especially female and non-European) thinkers is neglected, belittled and dismissed;[3]
  • Implicit and self-reinforcing biases, e.g., refusing to see philosophically interesting ideas in the work of women even when they are there, or assuming that women’s ideas are unoriginal and derivative of work by men.[4] 

Largely due to these barriers, and as numerous commentators have discussed,[5] women in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe in particular often couched their philosophical projects in “non-standard” philosophical forms such as letters, diaries, poems, dramas and novels. And even women such as Günderrode, who wrote more easily recognisable philosophical texts alongside their literary work, are at risk of having their writings dismissed as lightweight, unoriginal, derivative, unsystematic, or not adequately rigorous. 

In light of these difficulties, it’s especially important to consider women’s writing carefully and not rush to dismiss it as unphilosophical or insignificant simply because it does not obviously fit the standard format of writings by canonical thinkers or because we have not yet been exposed to analysis of their philosophy. However, doing this takes time and effort. As Eileen O’Neil points out, while describing the recent reception of early modern women philosophers:

“[A] presupposition of the editor and the historian is that the philosophical value of women’s texts would be transparent at first reading. […] Determining the philosophical value of a text requires that we first understand the context in which a text was written, what its philosophical goals are, what the argumentational strategies are, and so on. Accomplishing all this in the absence of any pre-existing critical and historical literature on the text is very difficult. It typically takes many scholars, working hard for some time, before we can properly interpret, and thus be in a position to evaluate the philosophical significance of a text.”[6]

Similarly, in Where Are The Women? Sarah Tyson notes that “The accumulation of scholarship, interpretive disagreements, and a great deal of contextualisation are necessary for a figure to be appreciated.”[7]

In other words, we cannot expect to grasp a writer’s philosophical significance until after we have done the work of interpreting their work and unpacking it for its contributions to the history of ideas.

To turn to Günderrode, there are at least three reasons to read Günderrode as a philosopher: (1) there already exists a growing secondary literature considering her philosophical ideas; (2) her work contributes in a unique way to several philosophical discussions that were ongoing at the time she wrote and that still interest philosophers today; (3) there is evidence that she influenced the development of work by her contemporaries that is already considered philosophically important.

First, a considerable and growing number of philosophers already consider Günderrode’s writings to be philosophically significant. For example, in “Stages on Kant’s Way,”[8] Christine Battersby argues that Günderrode contributed to a concept of the “feminine sublime” that can address problems Battersby (and others) identifies with the Kantian sublime; Battersby later updated this argument for her book on aesthetics, The Sublime, Terror and Human Difference.[9] Karl Heinz Bohrer has argued that Günderrode presents a radical and novel conception of personal identity (as has Dieter von Burdorf).[10] I have argued that Günderrode provides original reconceptualisations of the nature of personhood, agency, freedom and death[11]; related arguments are made by Liesl Allingham,[12] Barbara Becker-Cantarino[13] and Lorely French. The forthcoming OUP publication Women Philosophers of the Long Nineteenth Century: The German Tradition[14] includes translations of Günderrode’s notes from her philosophical studies. OUP is also publishing a volume of Günderrode’s philosophical writings in English translation, titled Philosophical Fragments, as part of their series Oxford New Histories of Philosophy. The forthcoming Palgrave Handbook of German Romantic Philosophy[15] includes a chapter on “Early German Romanticism and Women” that argues for the importance of considering the writings (not just the biographies) of Günderrode and other women associated with Romanticism when discussing Romantic theories about women and gender. (A second chapter in the Handbook considers Günderrode’s critique of the mythologisation of science in poetry.) The Encyclopedia of Concise Concepts by Women Philosophers, produced by the University of Paderborn’s History of Women Philosophers and Scientists project, includes three entries on Günderrode.[16] A recent CFP from the philosophy journal Symphilosophie specifically requests papers on Günderrode[17] (the resulting edition includes my paper on Günderrode’s account of friendship). Günderrode’s work is also being taught in undergraduate and graduate courses in philosophy.[18]

As noted above, there are good philosophical and historical reasons for the increased interest in historical women’s thought in general and in Günderrode’s thought in particular – it’s not just a question of jumping on a bandwagon. The realisation that women’s thought has been excluded from the discipline of philosophy, not for objective reasons but due to exclusionary institutions and uncritical habits of engaging with historical texts, justifies efforts to uncover the lost contributions of women to philosophy and to bring them into engagement with the (male) canon.[19]

This brings me to the second, and most important, reason to consider Günderrode’s philosophical thought to be significant. The study of Günderrode’s work rewards these efforts of recovery with novel resolutions to philosophical problems, often suggesting exciting new ways of conceiving of fundamental ethical, aesthetic and metaphysical principles. For example, Günderrode conceives of the self as an opaque and radically changeable set of experiences, and rethinks social relations and concepts (such as sincerity and friendship) in line with this model. Also consistent with this model, Günderrode’s conception of death involves a metamorphosis of the individual that (a) requires rethinking the nature of identity, (b) rejects the idea that consciousness is the most essential characteristic of the person, and (c) is perhaps consistent with the type of radical change that individuals go through when alive, on her account. Many of Günderrode’s literary works can be read as including attempts to think through this model – to really imagine what these metaphysical commitments would mean for human experience. In addition, Günderrode’s accounts of gender roles and agency fit broadly within an Early German Romantic account, but trouble the reliance of Romantics such as Novalis and Friedrich Schlegel on the dichotomous view of gender that is fundamental not only to their view of relations between men and women, but also to their metaphysics and their theories of language. All of these ideas and more remain to be thoroughly explored in Günderrode’s writings. 

Lastly, Günderrode’s philosophical thought is significant in terms of the influence it likely had on the development of European intellectual history. Günderrode was connected with numerous figures who are recognised as contributing to German thought in the 19th century, including Georg Friedrich Creuzer, Clemens Brentano, Christian Nees von Esenbeck, Bettina Brentano-von Arnim and Achim von Arnim. Günderrode is known to have conversed and corresponded with these individuals on philosophical topics. As Bohrer has argued, there are similarities (although also notable differences) between Günderrode’s conception of the self and those of Clemens Brentano and Heinrich von Kleist, which are themselves recognised as influential on modern and postmodern conceptions of identity.[20] As a possible indication of Günderrode’s influence on Brentano in this regard, letters from Günderrode to Brentano and others survive in which Günderrode explicitly refers to this model of identity.[21] Similarly, Creuzer’s magnum opus, Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker, which was hugely influential on models of religion, culture, and nationhood in 19th century German-speaking lands, was published just four years after the termination of his affair with Günderrode.[22] Günderrode’s work was also relatively widely read beyond her immediate circle – for example, we know that Goethe read her published work.[23] We don’t know the extent of Günderrode’s influence – so far, it hasn’t been investigated in any detail, and, of course, at that time women’s contributions to the development of ideas often went unacknowledged.[24] However, there are good initial reasons to believe that Günderrode’s ideas did play a role in 19th century German thought.

The field of reclaiming philosophy by historical women is, while growing, still small. Our work is made more difficult by the hostility to historical women’s philosophical writing that still remains within our discipline. This hostility may take the overt form of simply dismissing women’s thought without due consideration, or more subtle forms, such as those explored by Eileen O’Neill and Sarah Tyson in their works on philosophical reclamation.[29] In either case, the result will be the continued neglect of women’s contributions to European intellectual history, and the continued failure of philosophy, as a discipline, to address its own biases. If we are to counter this historical imbalance in academic philosophy, we need to read Günderrode, and other historical women, as philosophers.


[1] Texts providing more detailed exploration of this phenomenon include (among many others): Therese Boos Dykeman, The Neglected Canon: Nine Women Philosophers: First to the Twentieth Century (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1999); Catherine Villaneuva Gardner, Rediscovering Women Philosophers: Philosophical Genre and the Boundaries of Philosophy (Boulder: Westview, 2000); Janet Kourany (ed.), Philosophy in a Feminist Voice: Critiques and Reconstructions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); Le Doeuff, Michèle, The Philosophical Imaginary (London: Continuum, 2002); Mary Ellen Waithe, “Introduction to the Series,” in A History of Women Philosophers, vol. 1 (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1987), ix–xxii.

[2] See, for example, Project Vox at Duke University; the History of Women Philosophers and Scientists project at Paderborn University; the APA Committee on the Status of Women and the Women in Philosophy series on the APA blog; and book series with prominent inclusions of the work of historical women philosophers, including Mary Ellen Waithe (ed.), A History of Women Philosophers, 4 vols. (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1987–1995); Nancy Tuana (ed.), Re-Reading the Canon (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press: 1997ff.); Margaret King and Albert Rabil (eds.), The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996ff.).

[3] On the prevalence of “embarrassed politeness” and dismissive humour as responses to the suggestion that women’s contributions to philosophy need to be considered, see: Sarah Tyson, “Women in Philosophy: Who Cares About Women in the History of Philosophy?” Blog of the APA: Women in Philosophy, 22 May 2019.

[4] For more detailed consideration of these barriers, see: Eileen O’Neil, “Early Modern Women Philosophers and the History of Philosophy,” Hypatia 20.3 [2005]: 185–97; Sarah Tyson, Where Are The Women? Why Expanding the Archive Makes Philosophy Better (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).

[5] Barbara Becker-Cantarino and Jeanette Clausen, “‘Gender Censorship’: On Literary Production in German Romanticism,” Women in German Yearbook: Feminist Studies and German Culture 11 (1995): 82, 86; Dagmar von Hoff, Sarah Friedrichsmeyer and Patricia Herminghouse, “Aspects of Censorship in the Work of Karoline von Günderrode,” Women in German Yearbook 11 (1995): 99–122; Lucia Maria Licher, “‘Der Völker Schicksal ruht in meinen Busen.’ Karoline von Günderrode als Dichterin der Revolution,” in “Der Menschheit Hälfte blieb noch ohne Recht.” Frauen und die französische Revolution, ed. Helge Brandes (Weisbaden: Deutscher Universitäts Verlag, 1991), 113–132: Wendy Nielsen, “The Just Warrior in Kleist and Günderrode,” in Women Warriors in Romantic Drama (Lanham: University of Delaware Press, 2013), 73–96; Patricia Anne Simpson, “The Essential Duel: Karoline von Günderrode on the Margins of War,” in The Erotics of War in German Romanticism (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2006), 104–127; Lorely French, “Meine beiden Ichs,” Women in German Yearbook 5 (1989): 73–89.

[6]  O’Neil, “Early Modern Women Philosophers,” 194.

[7] Tyson, Where Are The Women?

[8] Christine Battersby, “Stages on Kant’s Way: Aesthetics, Morality, and the Gendered Sublime,” in Feminism and Tradition in Aesthetics, ed. Peggy Zeglin Brand and Carolyn Korsmeyer (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995).

[9] Battersby, The Sublime, Terror and Human Difference (Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2007).

[10] Karl Heinz Bohrer, “Identität als Selbstverlust. Zum romantischen Subjektbegriff,” Merkur 38.4 (1984): 367–79; Bohrer, Der romantische Brief. Die Enstehung ästhetischer Subjektivität (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1989); Dieter von Burdorf, “‘Diese Sehnsucht ist ein Gedanke, der ins Unendliche starrt.’ Über Karoline von Günderrode – aus Anlaß neuer Ausgaben ihrer Werke und Briefe,” Wirkendes Wort 43.1 (1994): 49–67.

[11] Anna Ezekiel, “Metamorphosis, Personhood, and Power in Karoline von Günderrode,” European Romantic Review 25.6 (2014): 773–91; Ezekiel, Introductory materials in Poetic Fragments (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2016).

[12] Liesl Allingham, “Countermemory in Karoline von Günderrode’s ‘Darthula nach Ossian’: A Female Warrior, Her Unruly Breast, and the Construction of Her Myth,” Goethe Yearbook 21 (2014): 39–56.

[13] Barbara Becker-Cantarino, “The ‘New Mythology’: Myth and Death in Karoline von Günderrode’s Literary Work,” in Women and Death 3: Women’s Representations of Death in German Culture Since 1500, ed. Clare Bielby and Anna Richards, 51–70 (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2010).

[14] Gjesdal, Kristin and Dalia Nassar (eds.), Women Philosophers of the Long Nineteenth Century: The German Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

[15] Elizabeth Millán, ed., The Palgrave Handbook of German Romantic Philosophy (London: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming). 

[16] “Death in Karoline von Günderrode (1780–1806),” “Life in Karoline von Günderrode (1780–1806),” “Love in Karoline von Günderrode (1780–1806),” in Encyclopedia of Concise Concepts by Women Philosophers (https://historyofwomenphilosophers.org/ecc/#hwps).

[17] Symphilosophie Call for Papers for 2020 special edition (https://symphilosophie.com/call-for-papers-1-2019/).

[18] Karolin Mirzakhan, Ways of Knowing. 2018 introduction to philosophy course at Kennesaw State University (https://chss.kennesaw.edu/historyphilosophy/docs/syllabi/fall_2019_syllabi/mirzakhan_phil_2200_tr_11am.pdf); Andrew Mitchell, Fichte and German Romantic Literature. 2018 graduate seminar at Emory University (http://philosophy.emory.edu/home/graduate/courses.html).

[19] For a useful summary of attempts at and justifications for the reclamation of historical women’s thought for philosophy, with analysis or summaries of numerous other works in this field, see Tyson, Where Are The Women?, especially the introduction and chapter 1.

[20] Bohrer, “Identität als Selbstverlust”; Der romantische Brief.

[21] Günderrode, letter to Clemens Brentano, 19 May 1803, in Christa Wolf (ed.), Der Schatten eines Traumes. Gedichte, Prosa, Briefe, Zeugnisse von Zeitgenossen Munich: 1997), 210–211; Günderrode, letter to Clemens Brentano, 1803, in Wolf, Der Schatten eines Traumes, 211–12; Günderrode, letter to Carl Friedrich von Savigny, before 26 February, 1804, in Max Preitz, “Karoline von Günderrode in ihrer Umwelt. II. Karoline von Günderrodes Briefwechsel mit Friedrich Karl und Gunda von Savigny,” Jahrbuch des Freien Deutschen Hochstifts (1964): 194–95.

[22] Lucia Maria Licher suggests that there may be evidence in Günderrode’s letters that she and Creuzer exchanged drafts of Creuzer’s texts (Licher, Mein Leben in einer bleibenden Form aussprechen. Umrisse einer Ästhetik im Werk Karoline von Günderrodes (1780–1806) [Heidelberg: Winter, 1996], 134). See also Barbara Becker-Cantarino, “Mythos und Symbolik bei Karoline von Günderrode und Friedrich Creuzer,” in 200 Jahre Heidelberger Romantik 51, ed. Friedrich Stack (Berlin: Springer, 2008), 281–98.

[23] Goethe, letter to Heinrich Carl Abraham Eichstädt, 28 April 1804, in Goethes Briefe an Eichstadt. Mit Erläuterungen, ed. Woldemar Freiherrn von Biedermann (Berlin: Gustav Hempel, 1872), 87; see also Goethe’s letter to Eichstädt, 3 July 1805, 130.

[24] See, e.g., Gabriele Dürbeck, “‘Sibylle,’ ‘Pythia’ oder ‘Dame Lucifer.’ Zur Idealisierung und Marginalisierung von Autorinnen der Romantik in der Literaturgeschichtsschreibung des 19. Jahrhunderts,” Zeitschrift für Germanistik 2 (2000): 258; Martha B. Helfer, “Gender Studies and Romanticism,” in Dennis Mahoney, ed., The Literature of German Romanticism (Rochester: Camden House, 2004), 229.

[25] Ruth Christmann, Zwischen Identitätsgewinn und Bewußtseinsverlust. Das philosophisch-literarische Werk der Karoline von Günderrode (1780–1806) (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 2005).

[26] Helga Dormann, Die Kunst des inneren Sinns. Mythisierung der inneren und äusseren Natur im Werk Karoline von Günderrodes (Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 2004).

[27] Licher, Lucia M. Licher, “A Sceptical Mohammedan: Aesthetics as a Theory of Life’s Practice in the Writings of Karoline von Günderrode,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 346.3 (1997): 1450–52; “‘Der Völker Schicksal’”; “‘Du mußt Dich in eine entferntere Empfindung versetzen.’ Strategien interkultureller Annäherung im Werk Karoline von Günderrodes (1780–1806),” in “Der weibliche multikulturelle Blick.” Ergebnisse eines Symposiums, ed. Hannelore Scholz and Brita Baume, 21–36 (Berlin: 1995); Mein Leben in einer bleibenden Form aussprechen. Umrisse einer Ästhetik im Werk Karoline von Günderrodes (1780–1806) (Heidelberg: Winter, 1996); “‘Mann kann nicht zweien Herren zugleich dienen.’ Poesie und bürgerliche Ezistenz um 1800. Am Beispiel Karoline von Günderrodes und ihrer Umwelt,” Aurora 59 (1999): 71–91.

[28] Silke Lipinski, “Udohla: Platform für Karoline von Günderrodes philosophische Gedanken,” New German Review 24.1 (2011): 113–122.

[29] O’Neill, “Early Modern Women Philosophers” and Tyson, Where Are the Women?, esp. chapter 1.

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