Eileen O’Neill ’75

By Christia Mercer, Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University

Eileen O’Neill may prove to be the most significant historian of early modern philosophy of her generation. Although her untimely death on December 1, 2017, put an end to her own work, it will not curtail the movement she created, one that is changing the way we think about philosophy’s past. Thanks to O’Neill’s philosophical acumen, scholarly tenacity, and personal generosity, there is a growing awareness among experts that that past is richer and more diverse than previously understood. To make the point another way, in twenty years, when young philosophers wonder what led their older colleagues both to reconsider the early modern European canon and to embrace the philosophical richness of the period from the 1400s to the mid-1800s, the answer will be simple: Eileen O’Neill.

Eileen spent her childhood in what was then the rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Morningside Heights, attending Catholic schools before entering Barnard. Women philosophers at the College, especially Sue Larson, Mary Mothersill, and Onora O’Neill (no relation), introduced her to the rigors of the discipline and the challenges of early modern European thought.

As a graduate student at Princeton, O’Neill developed a life-long fascination with central topics in seventeenth-century philosophy. She accepted positions at University of Notre Dame, New York City’s Queens College, and the CUNY Graduate Center, and began researching and teaching many of the long-lost women in the history of philosophy. She discovered and translated texts from early modern French, Latin, and Spanish and used her well-honed scholarly tools to begin to rethink the early modern canon. She took an inexact map sketched by earlier historians and added its most prominent landmarks, in precise detail, explicating some of the main philosophical views of a wide range of women, including Marie du Gournay, Sor Juana de la Cruz, and Margaret Cavendish.

O’Neill’s influence is extraordinary for three reasons. First, she did the scholarly grunt work of traveling to archives, working long hours in cold libraries, and tracking down leads to create the most robust list ever made of these female philosophers’ texts and ideas. In a time before scanned books and Google searches, she produced her own library of photocopied materials, along with a catalogue of citations.

The second feature that made O’Neill’s work so influential—and that sets her apart from many previous scholars—is its philosophical care. It was one thing to find forgotten books. It was quite another to make studying women philosophers respectable. She dared scholars to widen their scope and hoped her subjects’ philosophies would offer significant insights into the period’s central debates.

Finally, O’Neill was influential because of her generosity. If someone in her purview showed any interest in a woman philosopher or a philosophical problem discussed by a female philosopher, O’Neill would offer a robust account of that subject’s importance and then send along references and photocopies. She encouraged, cajoled, and helped.

There is now a groundswell of new research on women and other long-ignored figures in early modern European thought. Due to O’Neill’s work, philosophy’s past will be more inclusive, interesting, and accurate. Students and historians of early modern philosophy owe Eileen O’Neill an enormous debt. •

Latest IssueFall 2023

President Rosenbury Begins Her Tenure, The Skateable Designs of Alexis Sablone ’08, Amplifying Women in NYC Public Spaces, and more!