Mary Louise Gill Interviewed

Clifford Sosis continues his very interesting series of interviews with philosophers with Mary Louise Gill of Brown University. There’s a lot in this one, which Sosis helpfully sums up:

She talks about reading Gone with The Wind in secret at home (it was forbidden), being required to read J Edgar Hoover’s Masters of Deceit in the 6th grade, her father, John Glanville Gill—-a unitarian minister who was eventually fired for being too radical—and his fight with the Ku Klux Klan in St. Louis, how she realized she was never really religious, getting into ancient philosophy, working with G.E.L Owen, overcoming stage fright as a teacher and a speaker, projects falling apart and coming back together, being Chair of the Classics Department at University of Pittsburgh, finding out about and subverting a secret plan to get rid of Classics, suffering reprisals in the form of rumors, finding peace of mind at Princeton and, eventually Brown, teaching philosophy in China, and what she would do if she was a philosopher-queen!

The interview is here.

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9 years ago

I wonder if it’s just my imagination, but I’m uneasy about a seeming similarity of tone in many autobiographical interviews with philosophers. Perhaps it’s best summed up in this comment: “trial and error is in my view a good way to learn and find one’s own way.”

There’s a breeziness to how they almost haphazardly find their way into philosophy, while, along the way, we see how clearly place and pedigree and mentoring factor in: “Owen was controlling and wanted to decide when and where I’d get a job…”, “Michael Frede came to my rescue and worked with me over the summer…” All of this despite the usual signs of youthful confusion and misdirection: quitting music, then religion, slumming in the Haight, etc.

To my mind, this combination of ordinary youthful trial and error and a professional course where everything always fortunately false into place is shocking, yet I seem to get the same impression whenever I read an interview with a philosopher about how they got started.

It’s particularly interesting in light of the recent discussion on a number of blogs about Brennan’s comments about adjuncts, e.g.:

To borrow the smoker’s terminology: why do successful philosophers, when interviewed, seem so often to have made plenty of “academic mistakes” without penalty, and why do they rarely fit the model of “academic sainthood” that critics like Brennan measure adjuncts and the less academically successful against?

Sine nomine
Sine nomine
9 years ago

Two answers to the question posed at the end by Anon:
(1) Attrition bias. Lots of people made such mistakes, failed to get a job or were denied tenure, and disappeared from the profession. Those aren’t the people who get interviewed decades later, after flourishing careers.
(2) There used to be more of a margin for error. With the vast oversupply of highly qualified PhDs, who often spend longer in graduate school than prior generations, start publishing earlier and so proving their promise, etc., you can’t survive mistakes in your early career any more, since one’s “career” now begins around year 1 or 2 of the PhD. The resulting fragility of the connection between philosophical ability and career success is a shame, but I’ll note that we usually don’t care about the very same phenomenon in graduate admissions, even though the biggest factor there, attending a prestigious, typically private, university with a strong philosophy department, is much more dependent on national origin and on class.