Do Philosophers’ Personal Lives Influence Their Choice Of Research Topic?


According to the philosophical training that I received, scholars select their research topics on the basis of an impartial assessment of the scholarly potential of these topics. I recognized very early in my career that this is not the case. The reasons that academics choose the topics of their research and teaching are often related to their personal lives; early experiences can have a formative effect on the direction of a scholar’s work.

That’s Christine Overall (Queens University) in an interview at Discrimination and Disadvantage. The interview covers a lot of interesting territory, providing plenty to reflect on, for example:

One thing I have learned from experience is that there is great pressure on everyone to engage in what I call “passing for normal”—where “normal” means possessing a certain gender, race, sexuality, health condition, socioeconomic status, and age, namely, those of young, white, heterosexual, privileged male individuals with no apparent impairments or illnesses. If one can’t entirely pass for “normal” in this sense, one is expected to downplay one’s difference as much as possible, so as to avoid causing those who are “normal” any stress or discomfort…

(There was material I found myself disagreeing with, too, e.g., her comments on Parfit’s thought experiments.)

I thought the passage quoted at the top of this post, about the autobiographical influences on people’s choice of research topics, was an interesting one to discuss. Have you chosen the questions you take up because of events in your personal life or “early experiences”? Historical examples of that phenomenon welcome, too.

(I understand if people want to use pseudonyms in the comment on this post. That’s fine. Please pick one that does not have “anonymous” or “anon” or the like in it. Thanks.)

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