Outside Philosophical “Comfort Zones”

In a new interview at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher?, Carrie Jenkins, professor of philosophy and Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia, and author of the recent What Love Is, discusses her life and work. A question from interviewer Cliff Sosis (Coastal Carolina) prompts some comments on philosophy’s traditions and borders.

She says:

Can I talk about writers I find myself fascinated by lately? One is Jorge Luis Borges. Another is Franz Kafka. In both cases, I’m intrigued by how they are able to find ways into philosophical territory through writing that looks very unlike that of the philosophical traditions in which I was trained. I am interested, both methodologically and intrinsically, in creative ways to engage in philosophy that move beyond the borders of disciplinary training. In some cases, way beyond.

Getting outside my comfort zones in this regard has been one of the biggest upheavals to my career since I was appointed full professor. I’ve heard tenure described as a “straight shot to the grave” and I never want my life—including my intellectual life—to feel like that. Philosophy has infinite potential in every imaginable direction; it isn’t functioning at its best when its practitioners are all doing very similar things and moving in straight lines. When philosophy feels limiting and limited, that’s because it’s been made to feel that way. Usually by people in positions of institutional power.

Later, she says:

Philosophy itself is a massive collaborative conversation that can’t fail to be exciting. It’s alive and well, it’s moving in every direction, and it’s happening all over the place (certainly not just in philosophy departments, or in universities). The academic discipline called “philosophy,” in my opinion, is in trouble. My best guess is that it needs to look outwards more and inwards less if it’s going to remain credible. To expand its conversations, get over the idea of a “core” (a small subset of topics supposedly of more value than whatever anybody else wants to discuss), get beyond the voices and opinions that are currently loudest, stop dismissing and tone-policing and gate-keeping and excluding and marginalizing in such a defensive way…. 

Jenkins knows that moving outside the safe space of traditional academic philosophical writing is not without its costs, and will vary from person to person. Part of the interview involves a frank discussion of the mental and emotional challenges she has and continues to face in her career.

This is perhaps closer to being a secret: a huge part of my experience of sending all these imperfect things out into the world is shaped by those parts of the world that respond very negatively to them. And I want to be clear about the costs of that, because I think there are people who see my “productive” public-facing self—maybe they see a smiley face and a list of publications and media appearances and so on—and they make assumptions about what it’s like to be me. Like that I’m a confident person with a high opinion of myself, someone who is happy and enjoying all the attention. Some folks think I’ve gotten ideas above my station, that I am uppity and so on. (A lot of this strikes me as probably being quite gendered, but that’s another story.)

It is epistemically weird: you really can’t know these kinds of facts about someone from their public persona, but some people think they can.

Anyhow, for what it’s worth, what my inner monologue is actually telling me most of the time is that I am worthless and a fraud and a failure, and that I should quit. So to hear those same messages coming from the outside too can be dangerous for me, because I already believe them. I try to avoid getting too much of this full in the face, which has meant withdrawing myself from a lot of activities and connections I might otherwise benefit from. I used to feel “well-connected” in philosophy; now I generally feel isolated.

She believes that what she should do, as an established member of the profession, is encourage work that pushes against philosophy’s comfort zones:

I think it’s in the silences and absences of our current disciplinary conversations that most of the exciting possibilities (and the viable future of our discipline) are hiding….

[O]ne signal to watch for is what provokes the defensive, gatekeeping reactions, like “that’s not real philosophy.” We can listen out for what kinds of voices and questions are being dismissed and belittled by the old guard. If there wasn’t something new and powerful there, the conservative wing of our discipline wouldn’t be so flustered about it….

I see my own future as a philosopher as being about trying to enable those conversations, not about bolstering the status quo.

The whole interview is here.

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