Colleague: So, what do you do?
Me: I’m a philosopher, much of my work involves teaching.
Colleague: (Amused) like what, the philosophy of green?
Colleague: So you’re here to do philosophy with the students.
Me: Yes, environmental philosophy.
Colleague: I think that’s great, because students come to me for content and they come to you for this kind of (gesturing as if wafting an unwelcome scent) experience.
Both of these exchanges, and rest assured I have enough of these for a night at the Improv, were with colleagues in environmental science. In fact, most of my interactions are not with other professional philosophers but with scientists and students of science in the Adirondacks. I consider this unusual situation a privilege and one that most of my colleagues in the humanities, philosophy in particular, don’t enjoy and therefore don’t benefit from intellectually – mindfully.
Though from time to time I wonder, when did intellectual curiosity stop at the shore of empiricism? When did it become frivolous or worse, vacuous, to engage in thoughtful discourse about patently irresolvable and fundamentally human notions of ethics, values, personhood, identity, agency, responsibility and so on?
Another colleague that I work with closely precisely because he has never wavered in his certainty that (as I often remind students) this is not nothing, related a conversation to me in which he had explained to a third party “Marianne’s work hasn’t always been taken seriously, so she’s particularly committed to a high standard of academic and scholarly integrity.” The former is true and the latter is kind and yet, ouch!
I spent a little while turning this over in my mind until another colleague came by. I shared with her this bit about being taken seriously and we agreed that this work is bound to have a different contour here among scientists, and that the utility of philosophy outside the silo of the humanities is at once harder to understand and deeply important once it is.
Later that evening I gave a talk to a group of incoming freshmen and returning undergraduates about the critical need for us to interrogate the social/sexual/political “positionality” (as in view point and bias) of established institutions and comfortable habits of scholarship and politics, to name a few. We talked about how “decentering” or removing the privilege of accepted truths and norms that are often the product of a dominant and sometimes oppressive majority is the first step in liberating marginalized communities whose truths and traditions have been relegated to “alternative” status in the process of sanctifying one type of worldview. We talked about “rupturing” (as in creating an opening) in the often codified boundaries that surround disciplines in order to make way for so-called other knowledges to participate in and enrich the discourse.
After the lecture a former student and I stood together quietly until she looked over at me and smiled, “troublemaker” she said. Well, somebody’s got to do it.
They were young, these students, and for some the hour may have been late and some others might have had their minds on the bonfire to follow, but most (most) were enlivened. Emerson called teaching a drawing out of the soul and the Greeks understood happiness as harmony between one’s soul and the good; this is my work.
Photo: Illustration by Johannes van Loon.