A Nineteenth-Century Southern Woman Philosopher: Sarah Dorsey’s Papers at the New Orleans Academy of Sciences

by Carol Bensick

The nineteenth century has been prolific of candidates for discovery as women philosophers. Ednah Dow Cheney, Julia Ward Howe, Lydia Maria Child, Marietta Kies, Susan Blow, Anna Brackett, Grace Bibb, Ellen Mitchell, Lucia Ames Mead, Eliza Sunderland, Ella Lyman Cabot, Emma Lazarus, Zitkala-Sa, Anna Julia Cooper, Julia Gulliver, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Christine Ladd-Franklin, are just some of the figures whom scholars have brought back to academic attention since the feminist movement arrived in philosophy. One thing about the list is notable, however, one place where its conscientious inclusiveness seems to fall short. With the admitted, glaring exception of Anna Julia Cooper, it lacks “voices from the South.” Yet surely it would be most desirable, if only to refute accusations or prevent suspicions of Northern bias, to be able to add more Southern female philosophical voices, if we could find them. I would like to begin by nominating one.

In 1874, Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey, the childless wife of a wealthy Mississippi planter, gave, by invitation, the first paper ever given by a woman to the members of the New Orleans Academy of Sciences. Entitled “On the Philosophy of the University of France,” it was an exposition of an article by Paul Alexandre Rene Janet, chair of the philosophy department at the Sorbonne, discussing the work of three emerging philosophers, Felix Ravaisson-Mollien, Jules Lachelier, and Alfred Jules Emile Fouillee, viewed as building a new superior philosophy on the foundation of the older, largely Kantian French school known as Eclecticism, introduced and interspersed with commentary for American readers. The paper was published as a pamphlet which was sent to the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, the journal edited by William Torrey Harris in St Louis which was the voice of the St. Louis Hegelian movement, whose women affiliates, especially Susan Blow, Anna Brackett, Grace Bibb, have been called to philosophers’ attention by Dorothy Rogers. Dorsey was not just sectional or provincial in thinking Janet’s paper from the Revue des Deux Mondes deserved attention: Professor John Means of New York State’s Hamilton College had already published an (unannotated) translation of it in no less an Northern organ than the Princeton Review. Presumably Dorsey’s paper was sent to the Journal of Speculative Philosophy by the New Orleans publisher for publicity and in hopes (futile, if so) of a review. However, the lecture was reported in at least one newspaper as a success and the Academy of Sciences invited Dorsey to give another. This time she spoke on the topic of “The Aryan Philosophy,” a subject she had been studying especially since a visit in London in 1871. This paper too became a pamphlet which was sent to the Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Her philosophical pen was then silent until 1877, when on being honored by election to the status Corresponding Member of the Academy—another first for a woman—she delivered a lecture titled “A Study of the Present Condition of the Question of the Origin of Species,” which was her own survey of the current literature particularly as published in the Revue des Deux Mondes. She also in 1877 provided a translation of one of the topics of her “On the Philosophy of the University of France,” Lachelier’s thesis entitled “The Basis of Induction,” to The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey died of cancer at the age of forty-eight in 1879.

contentCarol M. Bensick was a CSW Research Scholar from 2010 to 2015. She received her PhD in American literature to 1914 at Cornell University. She is the author of La Nouvelle Beatrice: Renaissance and Romance in «Rappaccini’s Daughter.» Her essays appear in New Essays on The Scarlet Letter, New Essays on Hawthorne’s Major Tales, and Hawthorne and Women. She has also published numerous articles in journals and reference publications. She has taught at University of Denver, Cornell University, University of Oregon, and UC Riverside. Her present focus is the status of women in nineteenth-century American philosophy, on which she has given papers at the Summer Institute for American Philosophy and the American Philosophical Association. Her current book-length project is on Julia Ward Howe.  She recently edited A Passion for Getting It Right: Essays and Appreciations in Honor of Michael J. Colacurcio’s 50 Years of Teaching (Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2015)

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