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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Michel X.
Michel X.
5 years ago

I chose my topic because I found it interesting. It’s becoming something of a hot topic now, but it was virtually non-existent six years ago. Whether that was a wise move on my part, I don’t know yet, but that’s pretty much the extent of my personal stake in it.

Christine’s second comment (quoted above) really resonates with me, however. As far as I can tell, everyone working in the philosophy of art/aesthetics is told that they have to pass muster as something else. That usually means also being a metaphysician, epistemologist, philosopher of language, or historian. That’s just because otherwise, we risk not being taken seriously as philosophers, as well as being unemployed. I think the same must be true for a lot of the more maligned subfields (I won’t say ‘small’ because phil. of art/aesthetics is actually quite large: we have two major journals and associations, and one of those associations has four conferences a year across three divisions, and about 600 members. Some of the more maligned subfields are small, but others aren’t. They’re just low-status.).Report

P.D. Magnus
5 years ago

It’s a basic lesson from philosophy of science that there is no such thing as “an impartial assessment of the scholarly potential of… topics.”
Sure, we can try to reliably guess which topics will result in a prestigious publication or which will make us marketable at some point in the future. But that’s an anthropological inference about what the community will reward, and selecting topics on that basis reflects a decision to count those things as important.
We can also try to select topics which provide leverage on more questions, rather than fewer, but that will only be a guide to importance if the questions are themselves important ones.Report

quiet conservative
quiet conservative
5 years ago

I chose to stay away from ethics early on not because I don’t find it interesting (i find it immensely interesting) but because I felt like my ethical intuitions weren’t welcome in the academy.

I tend to have fairly conservative views on marriage and abortion, but from my experiences talking to people in the academy, people are quick to label anyone with a conservative view on these topics as being the most vile things (racist, homophobic, sexist, etc) without even considering the arguments for them. Of course, I do not consider myself any of those things, but I felt as if I would be labelled as such if I had to argue for my views at an ethics conference. For that reason, I chose to stay away from ethics and pursue an area in philosophy where you won’t be called a bad person simply because of the conclusions you happen to reach by argument.
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H.F.Ghost
H.F.Ghost
Reply to  quiet conservative
5 years ago

Same, regarding ethics and that I chose to stay away because of something about myself. But it’s not that I have conservative views on marriage and abortion. It’s because it’s emotionally easier to be wrong about the way the world is, than it is to be wrong about what counts as moral. Report

H.F.Ghost
H.F.Ghost
Reply to  H.F.Ghost
5 years ago

*or to be told that one is wrong.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  quiet conservative
5 years ago

I am firmly on the left, pro gay-marriage and pro-choice. I an active, leftist political advocate. I also think that quiet conservative identifies one of the worst problems we have in professional philosophy. There is widespread demonization of those with unorthodox moral and political views, and dismissal without consideration of arguments deemed to have politically offensive conclusions. Indeed, often, in place of a reply to an argument, we get an amateur diagnosis of the one who proposed it. Ironically, these habits make us much less effective as advocates of leftist political philosophy. Conservatives are not the only targets of this, of course. If anything, demonization and dismissiveness within the left is more bitter yet!Report

Sara L. Uckelman
5 years ago

Oh, absolutely my personal live has influenced my choice of research. And I gave up quite some time ago (7+ years) in trying to hide this fact.

I took my first logic class at the local two-year university while a senior in high school; I picked it precisely because I knew I was going to fail spectacularly, having spent the previous 16 years of my life comparing my rational ability to my father’s and always coming up desperately short. By the end of the semester, 6 out of my 7 classmates had come to me for tutoring because I was the only one who had any clue what was going on, and when I went to university the next year, I did every single logic or logic-adjacent course I could. It didn’t hurt at all that by the time I got to the upper level classes, it was usually me and 9 guys — not a bad ratio! I picked the best of the lot and we’re celebrated our 12th anniversary in a few months.

So that’s the second point where personal life influenced research choice: When you’re married to another logician, you have a lot of impetus to continue on in logic, because you have a built in person to talk to. It wouldn’t have made any sense for me to switch to, say, ethics.

The third point came when I finalized my dissertation topic. I’ve been involved in medieval re-enactment since high school — a fact I used to keep hidden because people who dress up in funny clothes on the weekend don’t really fit the bill of “normality” — and then my first term in Amsterdam I took a history of logic course that went chronologically from before Socrates to the 21st C. About five weeks in, we hit the Middle Ages, and I remember distinctly the “Wait, they did logic in the Middle Ages? I can combine my academic and non-academic interests and get a PhD doing so? SCORE!” Medieval logic has continued to be my primary area of research not only for the personal reasons that kicked it off — I still do medieval re-enactment, and one of my best experiences doing so was lecturing on the syllogism in Latin at Raglan Castle, Wales, one year — but also for pragmatic reasons: It’s interesting, people like hearing about it (they keep inviting me to conferences and accepting my papers), and there’s basically an endless supply of primary source material out there. I will never lack for the next research project.

So my personal life has influenced my research trajectory enormously, at pretty much every step of the way. And maybe I’m unusual in this respect, but i actually think the reverse is far more weird: If your choice of research topic is not influenced by your personal life, by things that you and the people around you independently find interesting, outside of the academic context…then what was it influenced by? Why are you doing it? Do you enjoy it?Report

Dale Miller
5 years ago

One of my deans sometimes says that people study what they feel like they lack or need to fix in themselves, e.g., psychology draws people who think that they have some psychological problem. She doesn’t seem to see the fact that I study ethics as a counterexample.Report

Henri Perron
Henri Perron
Reply to  Dale Miller
5 years ago

While I think she’s badly over generalizing, I certainly don’t think it’s an uncommon phenomenon in some fields (and for what it’s worth, I know of some ethicists whom I wouldn’t consider to be very good people).Report

E
E
Reply to  Henri Perron
5 years ago

Eric Schwitzgebel spends a lot of time trying to prove the ethicists aren’t good people. Or at least aren’t any better than non-ethicists.Report

ejrd
ejrd
5 years ago

In my case, I definitely study things that are of personal interest to me. The emotional stresses of grad school left me feeling utterly out of control of my emotions in ways that I found nearly debilitating (in this sense Overall’s second quote also resonates). This made the interdisciplinary study of emotion and meta-ethics (and moral agency) really natural fits for me. It was, in my case anyway, the best form of philosophy as therapy (also…real therapy).

I should add that as an immigrant who grew up in a working class barely-above-the-poverty-line household that was predominantly non-English speak….Overall’s second quote proved *shockingly* true for me as well though this was something that I didn’t really notice until I was in grad school and the only person in the department who didn’t grow up in an upper-middle-class home. Report

ejrd
ejrd
Reply to  ejrd
5 years ago

GAH!… non-English SPEAKING. Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
Reply to  ejrd
5 years ago

ejrd,
I think that you might be interested in the interview that I conducted with Jesse Prinz in the Dialogues on Disability series at Discrimination and Disadvantage (i.e., the series in which this interview with Christine Overall is included). In particular, I think that Jesse’s remarks about “emotional deviation” will interest you. You can read the interview with Jesse here: http://philosophycommons.typepad.com/disability_and_disadvanta/2016/02/dialogues-on-disability-shelley-tremain-interviews-jesse-prinz.htmlReport

ejrd
ejrd
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
5 years ago

Thanks for the link Shelley. I’ve met Jesse before and find myself sympathetic with much of his project. His remarks in the interview also ring true to me and are in part why I also teach (and research) the philosophy of mental illness. Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
5 years ago

“personal life” is pretty broad

if it includes stuff like being broke then this cannot be otherwise, because not all philosophers are rich and many have to pay for things like a car and rent and whatever else. they might not even get exposed to an area of study until grad school, and they certainly can’t move right away to research it more if they so please.

if we’re assuming income is otherwise a non-issue then this is still probably true. answering it will hinge on whether something is more innately neurochemically interesting (in the way that some people just innately find playing certain video games satisfying) or whether something is more interesting because of an event in one’s life that caused significant emotion around that train of thought.

I’d guess the latter group of personal event-inspired philosophers does reach a good number, but probably not as much as people who pursued the field just because they were really good at it and it felt really good for their brains to doReport

Jeremy Pierce
Jeremy Pierce
5 years ago

My personal life played a role, but I initially wanted to work on mainstream metaphysics, until the three faculty members I most wanted to work with all got hired by another institution in one fell swoop. I then decided to pursue something else that interested me that would allow me to make use of my metaphysics background, which was the metaphysics of race approached from a standpoint of how the categories and tools of analytic metaphysics can contribute to the discussion. I have long been interested in race, but it was merely interesting to me, even though most of my closest friends in college were not of my own race. But when my family became interracial, I really grappled with some of these metaphysical questions much more intensely, and that increased my interest considerably. I’m not sure that would have gotten me to write a dissertation by itself, without the potential advisers I expected to work with all leaving just before I had really gotten a project going for them to stay on with. I do think it was more rewarding personally than it would have been to do a more standard analytic metaphysics dissertation.Report

The Skeptic
The Skeptic
5 years ago

I think our personal lives can play a role, even (and perhaps especially) when we’re not aware of it. For example, I work on issues about knowledge, skepticism, the reliability of other people, and how we decide who to trust. It was only near the end of my PhD when I connected my interest in this topic with the fact that I have difficulty trusting people.

This is just one example, but there are others. Once I realized this, I asked many of my PhD friends and a lot of them found a connection between their research and some deep aspect of their personality.

“It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy up till now has consisted of – namely, the confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious autobiography.” – Nietzsche Report

MA Student
MA Student
5 years ago

I have no interest in impartially assessing the stuff that’s worth researching. I wanna research the stuff that seems fun and interesting to me!Report

aix
aix
5 years ago

EJRD wrote: “The emotional stresses of grad school left me feeling utterly out of control of my emotions in ways that I found nearly debilitating (in this sense Overall’s second quote also resonates). This made the interdisciplinary study of emotion and meta-ethics (and moral agency) really natural fits for me.”

I find this really intriguing, EJRD, because I think that personal emotional stress and intense social difficulties had a great impact on my choice to work in logic and highly general metaphysics: I found a tremendous sense of freedom and relief from my own individual turmoil in working on things that didn’t have to do with human beings and their emotions — adopting the point of view of the universe, so to speak.

(Of course, it’s not like one of these reactions is right and the other wrong: I just think it’s interesting how one kind of personal situation can have an impact on one’s research choices in two such different ways.) Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
5 years ago

Though the individual answers to this question are interesting, the general answer is surely rather boring. Some people’s’ research interests are directly related to their personal lives in an obvious kind of way, and some people’s are not. With others still, it’s a mix of the two, that is interests derived from their personal lives combined with out-of-the blue obsessions, topics which just happen to have grabbed them for no readily discernible reason. Indeed you can be passionate about an issue at the personal level without being interested in it as a topic of intellectual enquiry. I am a passionate left-wing social democrat, having devoted a lot of time and effort to the cause, but I have read next to nothing on the theory of the subject, not even Rawls A Theory of Justice. It’s true that I am reading a bit more about this nowadays (when I am about to turn sixty) but only because I am teaching PPE. I ceased to be an activist about thirteen years ago. I have also been an active member of Amnesty International though I have little or no interest in the concept of Human Rights.

You can also become fascinated by a topic for personal reasons though the reasons in question are quirky and fortuitous. I got into the philosophy of conspiracy theories in consequence of an invitation to deliver a sort of short semi-intellectual party piece at a rather boozy symposium where the host happened to be an old disciple of Popper’s. I thought it might be fun to do something on an issue on which Popper had something interesting but mistaken to say. I knocked together a five–minute spiel, and, when the alcoholic fumes had cleared away, it occurred to me that it might make an article. I wrote up the paper which now has over ninety citations. NOW I am passionate about the subject, and am inclined to think that it is is quite important but, I probably would not have gotten into it absent an invitation to drink home–brewed beer from one of Popper’s former students.
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Steven French
Steven French
5 years ago

I’m with Charles on this – it may be that those working in pol phil or ethicky stuff can point to some explicit factor in their personal lives; or maybe not. I suspect there are fewer examples of the former when it comes to phil sci – I can think of nothing (explicit) in my personal life that led me to study physics (none of my family before me ever studied science; indeed none of my family before me went to univ); I got into phil phys only because my physics lecturers got tired of me asking questions that couldn’t be answered by pulling a Hamiltonian off the shelf and sent me to the philosophy dept. Nothing in my philosophical work reflects my personal interests, so far as I can tell, and certainly not my political proclivities (there’s perhaps some advantage to not theorising about the latter when one is up to one’s eyeballs in a particularly tricky union case!).

Maybe like aix there are folk who moved into phil sci because of emotional turmoil but returning to Overall’s claim, I don’t think one can generalise. We do the stuff we do for all sorts of reasons and no doubt many lie ‘below the waterline’.Report

David Ripley
5 years ago

I think my interest in semantic paradoxes is somehow pretty closely related to my being bipolar, although I would find the connection difficult to articulate any more precisely than this.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
5 years ago

Steven French wrote: “but returning to Overall’s claim, I don’t think one can generalise”.
Christine Overall did not, herself, generalize. She said: “the topics of their research and teaching are often related to their personal lives; early experiences can have a formative effect on”

I think it is important to bear in mind the political character of Christine’s claim. That one’s choices with respect to research are political choices is the crux of Christine’s claims cited above. She makes reference in the same context to the feminist dictum that “the personal is political.” Is it a coincidence that most of the philosophers who publish in the area of feminist philosophy are women? Is it accidental that many of the philosophers interested and working in philosophy of disability are disabled? Is it accidental that most nondisabled male philosophers don’t work in these areas? In any case, I think that to adequately and appropriately appreciate Christine’s cited remarks one must read her interview in its entirety. I hope that everyone commenting here takes the opportunity to do so.Report

Steven French
Steven French
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
5 years ago

Fair enough Shelley,
but then the claim that ‘early experiences *can* have a formative effect’ becomes less interesting – sure, they can, in some cases; but not in others. This is not to deny the force of Overalls interview or the significance of what she says in her case (and others). But I have to disagree with you when you insist that ‘one’s choices wrt research are political choices’ – mine weren’t (or at least I don’t *think* they were; there’s always a get out there …), partly because whatever desire I had/have to be politically active was/is taken up elsewhere (CND when I was working on my PhD; union work more recently). Of course, one could always respond by insisting that the choice not to undertake research that could be politically motivated or informed in some way is itself a political choice; to which the obvious response is something along the lines of ‘I play to my strengths’ (which are definitely not in ethics, pol phil or disability studies; some might argue that they’re not that strong in phil sci either, but I do think I’m a pretty good union caseworker!)

Having said all that, I agree that its an interesting interview, and what she says about ageism particularly resonated with me, for obvious reasons!Report

Clement Loo
Clement Loo
5 years ago

I have no doubt that my personal life and history have played an important part in my choice of research topic.

I grew up in the oilpatch of northern Alberta — an area marked in the last several decades by ongoing disputes between various First Nations, industry, and the province of Alberta. Now I find that my research interests revolve around environmental justice and fair participation in decision-making affecting development, environment, health, and resource extraction. That, I am sure, is no coincidence.Report

Michael Cholbi
5 years ago

A large subset of my professional publications are on suicide, grief, capital punishment, murder, hazing, lying, depression, and promise breaking. So short answer to the initial query: Dear lord, I hope not! (Won’t someone be my friend?)Report

RJ
RJ
5 years ago

Habermas having a speech impairment and writing a theory of communicative action; Kierkegaard being physically impaired, not having a lucky love life and writing a diary of a seducer; french existencialism right after WW2… The list is virtually endless. Disregarding politically correct accounts, of course.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
5 years ago

But RJ, don’t you think that Kierkegaard’s Diary of Seducer, reads like a book by somebody whose interest in (and knowledge of) sex were largely theoretical? When compared with similar works such as Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, it is pretty poor fooling. A real seducer would be ratter more interested in getting physical than Kierkegaard’s seducer appears to be. Even if what you are really interested in is power, you are unlikely to pursue power through sex unless you are also interested in sex. Kierkegaard was so far from being such a person himself that he could not think himself convincingly into the seducer’s mindset.

Of course this is not to dispute your point that many philosophers who are in some sense deficient with regard to X often show a theoretical interest in X.

And could you enlarge in your point about French existentialism? What is the X and what is the deficiency that you have in mind? Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
5 years ago

The personal may be the political, but a personal and political interest in X may not translate itself into a philosophical interest in X. To cite an obvious collection of examples, many mid-century British philosophers were passionate anti-fascists and anti-Nazis, often not just conscripts but volunteers in the War Effort, whilst displaying little or no interest in the either the philosophical foundations of Nazism or the theoretical foundations of the social democratic order that many of them took themselves to be working towards. Ayer provides a case in point. Despite his political activism, and despite an almost comical tendency to march, or at least hitch his way, towards the sound of the guns (a tendency that was often frustrated by the machinations of disapproving higher-ups) he did not have very much to say about the philosophy of politics. It is clear that many of these (male) mid-century philosophers were committed anti-Nazi warriors without displaying any theoretical interest in either the philosophy of warfare, the nature of nazism, or the philosophical dimensions of their specific moral and political commitments. Austin, for example was a lieutenant colonel in military intelligence, of whom it was said that, “he more than anybody was responsible for the life-saving accuracy of the D-Day intelligence” but he says virtually nothing about either the war or his part in it or what it was all about*. (I suspect that this putting the war behind them was deliberate. ‘Goodbye to All That’ is the title of a famous book by Robert Graves, largely devoted to his WWI experiences, but it probably expresses that attitude of many veterans coming back from WWII. ) One of the few to philosophize directly about his WWII experiences is R.M. Hare who in the course of a typically dry and Oxonian discussion of slavery, suddenly remarks that he himself he has been a slave, having worked as a Japanese prisoner of war on the Burma Railway. But even he usually kept this aspect of his life well away from his philosophical works.

On an even more gruesome level, a surprisingly large number of famous philosophers have been second-tier victims of the Holocaust: that is they did not perish themselves though some of their nearest and dearest did. The list includes Popper, Lakatos, Tarski and Peter Singer, of whom only Singer seems to have confronted the issue directly in his published works. (Though of course, Popper’s Open Society was conceived in part as an anti-fascist tract as were some of his essays in Conjectures and Refutations.) Others such as Kurt Baier**, Hannah Arendt and Ludwig Wittgenstein were forced into exile because of their (sometimes partly) jewish heritage. But only Arendt discusses the issue of genocide directly. Thus a topic can be of enormous personal and political significance to a philosopher without inspiring anything much in the way of philosophical refection. What matters to you personally may not be what matters to you intellectually. You can certainly be the victim (if only in the second tier) of genocide or anti-semitism without wanting to philosophize publicly about either of these themes.

—————————————-
* Not absolutely nothing however. However when Austin alludes to either his or a friend’s immediate post-war experience, he does so to make an epistemic or linguistic point: “However there is a distinction to be drawn here. ‘How do you know that IG Farben worked for war?’ ‘I have every reason to know: I served on the investigating commission’: here, giving my reasons for knowing is stating how I come to be in a position to know.”
** I could be wrong about Kurt as I only have ready access to the The Moral Point of View. He might have discussed these issues in others of his works.
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LUG
LUG
Reply to  Charles Pigden
5 years ago

I will say that Wittgenstein did make some remarks on his Jewishness (in his less popular works) that seem to stem from antisemitic thoughts (the exact relationship of him to his Jewishness is a research project beyond me, for now).Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  LUG
5 years ago

LUG – you are of course correct, in saying that Wittgenstein made some private remarks about his Jewishness. That’s why I added the qualifier ‘publicly’. Wittgenstein DID meditate about jews, his own jewishness and anti-semitism, though his meditations are not such as to raise him in my estimation. But he did not do it publicly as part of his official philosophical agenda. The remarks don’t appear in anything he intended to publish, nor does he seem to have lectured on the topic (bearing in mind that he considered his lectures to be a form of publication).Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
5 years ago

Another obvious example: you can be a female, a feminist and a philosopher without being a *feminist philosopher*, that is a philosopher with a teaching or research interest in feminism. Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

This topic raises at least one serious problem for which I see no solution. Philosophy professor jobs are liable to be filled by people who prioritize their work life heavily over other considerations. It seems plausible that this might skew our ethical and political intuitions in unhealthy directions. What’s more, the more one prioritizes work in this way, the more influence one is likely to have. We can try to ameliorate the problem by better accommodating peoples’ non-work lives, but the problem remains.Report