Cynicism and Hope about the Philosophy Profession

What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? has published an interview with Jenny Saul, who is professor of philosophy at the University of Sheffield, blogger at Feminist Philosophersand 2011 winner of the Distinguished Woman Philosopher Award.

As usual, the interview includes interesting information about the subject’s upbringing, education, and work. One thing that comes through in the interview is her early cynicism about academia and the philosophy profession, and the contrast with her more positive outlook now.

Interviewer Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina), asks her about growing up in an academic family. She says:

I think one of the most useful things about coming from an academic family was that I had a pretty cynical view of academia. I didn’t ever think it was a meritocracy, and I had some idea of how badly people might behave. I was still a little shocked by some of what I came across, and I remember telling my father that what I was seeing was much worse than anything he’d seen. Then he told me some of the stories he’d kept from me when I was younger.

He then asks about her experiences as a graduate student at Princeton. She replies:

my entire time at Princeton, I was terrified to open my mouth, for fear of being thought “stupid”. This was not helped by the fact that, at that time (Princeton, early 1990s) it was quite normal for faculty and grad students to sit around the lounge talking about who was “stupid” amongst the grad students. At the time I thought this was a great environment—so many smart people, so much great philosophy, and surely being pushed to excel was just what happened in grad school.

I was unable to get the critical distance at the time to see what a terrible environment Princeton was, and what a bad effect it was having on my confidence. I felt that my inability to cope was a personal weakness. I didn’t really fully realise how corrosive the environment was until I became Director of Graduate Studies myself at Sheffield, and had what seemed at the time an amazing flash of insight about how to create good and bad environments. Looking back, I have trouble understanding how the problems failed to be obvious. But this experience has made it very vivid for me how hard it is to understand a bad situation when one is in it.

Now, she finds herself happy at Sheffield, which she describes as “one of the world’s friendliest, most pluralistic departments,” adding:

At first, I was confused by the discussions, since nobody was trying to destroy anyone else.

So there is the possibility of improvement.

About trends in the profession, she adds:

I am extremely excited by the interest analytic philosophers are starting to take in the social world. There’s so much fantastic work going on, and a great community of philosophers doing it.

The whole interview is here.

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