Greetings, Cindy! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview with us. Let’s start with your personal practice of philosophy. What are the pleasures and pains of philosophy for you?
Most of philosophy would be pleasurable if there were just enough time. The lack of time—for teaching, writing and everything else in your life--is the major source of pain. But I will say that philosophy deepens everything else in life, and that is a very rich pleasure. Just raising the clichéd question, “what is the meaning of life?”, can make experience richer, and regardless of whether you think you know the answer. In fact, the question might be richer due to the sheer uncertainty of an answer. Wrestling with the mystery of meaningfulness is much of the pleasure of philosophy.
What’s the relation of solitary and collaborative work in your experience?
It is hard to replace the camaraderie of graduate school, but co-teaching and reading groups are pure delight. I regret that philosophy, unlike the sciences, tends to happen most of the time in solitary study rather than in groups. But it’s easy enough to account for the difference: many philosophers often enough develop a personal voice and a singular style even as they address questions of larger relevance than themselves.
Do you work with others?
I have also found it wonderfully rewarding to write with others, including my sister Julie Willett, who teaches History at Texas Tech, with each of us negotiating through some of our own concerns and style of thought for the sake of the joint effort in coauthored essays.
What about other collaborative genres?
It would be interesting to experiment with a dialogue form. And not just as an occasion to pose counter-arguments, although that’s good too, but to develop a multiple weave of thoughts. I’d like to see more experiments with different approaches to writing. This could mean integrating digital media into prose.
What is your daily practice? Do you have a set routine?
As for now, my work routine is fixed by my children’s schedule. Pretty much, I work intensely when they are in school. The change of pace back and forth between raising kids and philosophy is intellectually challenging, more challenging than philosophy alone.
How did you come to study philosophy? Can you tell us a little about your childhood?
I grew up in Texas and in Missouri, with a father who is part jazz musician, part physicist, and a mother who is a yellow-dog democrat from the Ozarks. The late sixties and the seventies was a time for improvisational and experimental politics—new visions of society from feminists, civil right’s leaders, hippies, Marxists. That is my background. I worked in politics and in lots of campaigns through junior and high school. Among the many people I knew then and worked for was Shirley Chisholm.
What about your university experience? Did you intend to study philosophy right from the start?
No, not really. I studied political science (and psychology) as an undergraduate and in graduate school with the intention of going into politics--until the Reagan revolution. When the range of conversation in US politics narrowed, and shifted further to the right, I found that philosophy could deepen the basis for critique and maintain an opening for progressive visions of society. That’s when I turned to philosophy, and especially, the philosophers of subversion like Derrida and the poststructuralists. I thought I would return to politics, but I waited out the 1980s at a number of graduate schools: University of Minnesota, Texas, Toronto, Harvard, and Penn State.
That’s a lot of different schools!
Yes, I suppose it is. I studied literature and drama at Harvard, with scholars like Barbara Johnson, who had a philosophical bent to them. As Deleuze among others has pointed out, the 60s and 70s led many to question conventional ideas about family and career, and to seek meaningful alternatives. Philosophy provided a space—not just to argue--but to rethink the very terms of life. This desire to rethink the underlying concepts and to work against intuitions led me finally to the more experimental thinking of continental philosophy and Africana and feminist literature. Penn State was a fairly open philosophy department.
That’s where we first met, at Penn State. What did you do your dissertation on?
My dissertation attempted a left dialectic that took in the lessons of post-structuralism. The idea was to bring together critical and visionary thought into an encompassing approach, which I called ecstatic dialectic (in contrast with the stoic, cathartic models). This was a critical approach towards social justice based on a jazzy kind of eros. I am still working in the eros tradition of social critique--a tradition associated with the Freudo-Marxists, Irigaray, Foucault, Deleuze, among many others. I wonder if Donna Haraway would fit in that tradition.
What was your early professional life like? Where was your first job? What was the teaching load? What were your colleagues like? Did you like teaching there? What were the students like? How did you integrate teaching and research?
My first tenure-track job was at Le Moyne College and it was lovely. We had a 3-4 teaching load with students who were very much into existential questions. It was 1988. Susan Bordo was one of my colleagues, and I was hired to teach a range of world and multicultural philosophies. I did lots with Latin American and Africana and feminism, often by ignoring the disciplinary boundaries of philosophy, especially with literature and sociology, because these boundaries function to keep lots of interesting ideas and critical voices out of the discipline. We have no Toni Morrison in philosophy proper. And there are so many other missing voices. With my wonderful colleagues it was easy to pursue exciting possibilities for philosophy.
What were your first publications? How did your early research relate to your dissertation?
I had my approach, a synthetic form of critique, worked out in my dissertation, but not yet a larger idea. I wrote articles on political ethics, comic eros and tragic hubris and reconciliation, especially in the context of sexual politics. Unfortunately I had to leave Le Moyne because it wasn’t an ideal place for my husband, Stefan Boettcher. I then accepted a tenure-track position at the University of Kansas. Kansas seemed more likely as a place where he might teach physics when he finished school and post-docs, and it was closer to my family, and so a good place to have children.
What was Kansas like? Sociologically, in terms of the student body, the two places are very different. What about for you, as a philosopher?
KU’s philosophy department was dominated by a nasty hostility to continental philosophy. I was hired to teach the three Hs, Husserl, Heidegger, and Hegel. But given that the analytic philosophers at KU didn’t think these three Hs really were philosophers anyway, I thought why not add more radical challenges yet as long as I was causing trouble? So I taught Hegel alongside Frederick Douglass and Zora Neale Hurston. This was in the early ‘90s.
I can imagine how well that went over! How did your experience of raising children figure into your philosophical trajectory?
During that time, the early 90s, I was having children, and the standard remarks of philosophers made less and less sense to me as a mother—at least when it came to what any of them said about human nature. Can you image raising a child through any of the traditional philosophies?
What do you mean?
Philosophers generally begin with some version of earliest childhood or our so-called primitive human nature as sealed in a narcissistic bubble. It is as though children only gradually emerge into a social world. A third and final stage of moral or philosophical maturity then loosens again the bonds that connect the individual to communal sources of attachment, and emphasizes techniques or practices of detachment from body, affect, culture, history, others. According to a wide spectrum of traditional philosophical views, initially asocial but dependent children mature into asocial but independent adults. Ideally, they grow away from the mother, who represents dependency. Of course, this is a simplification, but contrast the view of us humans as one of the more social animal species. It’s not about a series of binaries -- merged or separate, dependent or independent -- but as interdependent with others throughout our lives. In raising my children I do not see them as primarily self-centered or altruistic, as rational or irrational, but as always needing rich friendships to thrive.
How did this realization change you as a philosopher?
My chair told me that I could not both be a mother and a philosopher, at least not as he understood philosophy. So I decided that to do both classes in philosophical anthropology, ethics, and so on, my teaching would have to be radically altered. I would not teach straight from the traditional views but from the views of unconventional caregivers and the renegade scientists whose ideas resonated with my own experiences. I taught Hegel and Heidegger--but through the critical perspectives of Irigaray, and the psychologist Daniel Stern, and the novelist Toni Morrison. At this time these juxtapositions were way out for the discipline, but then with colleagues who thought that even Hegel wasn’t a philosopher, I figured the sky was the limit.
That’s when you wrote your first book, on maternal ethics?
Yes, my first book idea emerged thanks to conversations with Tom Tuozzo, and also with Andrew Cutrofello and Bill Martin and then Ann Cudd, who returned to KU a couple of years before I left for Emory.
How was it received?
You have to remember that it was a conservative time, intellectually speaking. It wasn’t clear any journal or conference in philosophy would take an interest in this kind of stuff. Even sympathetic journals like Hypatia wrote back that they couldn’t find any reviewers for papers drawing on such figures as Frederick Douglass. Back then SPEP rejected those papers on Africana and some feminist philosophy as well. Continental philosophers thought mixing in empirical research on infancy was old time positivism.
You seem to have worked yourself into a difficult position!
I wasn’t really sure my work as going to be welcomed in any camp. I found it easier to publish books than articles, which were more limited then. As exciting work of Iris Young, Drucila Cornell, Debra Bergoffen, Kelly Oliver, and then also Shannon Winnubst among many many others appeared, I was inspired to keep on in this vein.
Certainly your work is a kind of feminism, isn’t it?
Of course! The experimental openness of feminism has offered some real possibilities to think outside of many of the conventional dualisms, including the analytic vs. continental divide. The same has been true for Africana and Latin American thought. Sally Haslanger’s idea for the e-journal, Symposia on Gender, Race, and Philosophy is a perfect example.
That’s an excellent concrete example. Tell me more about how you see the “continental-analytic divide”? It’s not always a bad thing is it?
I suspect just as there will always be gender and race or ethnic struggles, so too there will always be diverging camps of philosophers, and that divergence is something I affirm. I have worked for methodological pluralism at the APA, and even spearheaded a petition to the NRC for recognizing philosophical pluralism. I myself hope for further diversification, not less.
And you would of course see yourself on the continental side of things?
My own preference for continental and also visionary pragmatism over what I think is the mainstream in analytic philosophy comes from my skepticism towards ordinary intuitions and schemas of intelligibility. I suspect that too many of our intuitions and established schemas are sources of prejudice and of social harm. I’m more interested in sparks or even fragments of visions, in innovative styles of thought, as well as in counterintuitive insights than in the craft of argument and clarification. I worry about what I sometimes perceive to be the tyranny of epistemology—an excessive attention to method that hinders the pursuit of critical insights. And I wonder if this focus on method doesn’t control too much of analytic philosophy (as well as the social sciences), ruling out too much of what we may only know through more experimental thought.
But surely this isn’t to say that continental philosophy is somehow superior in some absolute sense?
Of course not! It’s clear that continental and American approaches have their own tyrannies. And despite all our narrow tendencies, every once in a while philosophers work across these ideological differences in ways that are productive and creative. As a bonus, these creative encounters also break free from the tendencies of philosophy to become academic, irrelevant, or jargon-ridden. Creative partnerships across tribal differences can spark new ideas.
Good! I was afraid this was starting to sound like a polemic! So although the differences are to be affirmed rather than covered over, it’s the very differences that make cross-divide work productive in a philosophical sense. What other benefits can come from cross-over work?
I think the effort it takes to communicate across schools of thought also helps in tackling yet another problem: communicating philosophy’s relevance to a larger public. Effective, clear, simple—but not too simple!—communication with the public would make the discipline a lot easier to explain and to defend in the face of university budget cuts. On the other hand, I would never want to collapse the differences between diverse approaches. There’s more to be gained by intensifying these differences as long as they do not become perceived as mutually exclusive.
Let’s conclude by coming back to your individual situation. How does working at Emory and living in Atlanta influence your work?
For myself, philosophy grows right out of my life—my political and personal concerns, especially as I raise children in a predominantly conservative culture and a neoliberal economy. Atlanta on the other hand is a confluence of many cultures—which is great for my kids. And Emory has become an increasingly exciting place—partly for who all is here—I’m in a reading group on science with Lynne Huffer, Deboleena Roy, Sean Meighoo, and Stefan Boettcher; and we just hired Noelle McAfee—as well as for philosophers nearby, Duane Davis in Asheville among others.
Looking back on your career so far, have you developed a single core idea, or have you significantly changed your perspective?
My core project goes back to understanding that we are erotic creatures—we need passionate attachments with others to have a meaningful life, and we are willing to transgress against the powers-that-be to gain them. These attachments begin at birth, even some weeks before, and yet acknowledgment of this pervasive sociality—this call and response, to borrow from Africana culture--is absent from every single major philosophical theory. Perhaps it’s because every major philosophical theory has been proposed by someone not involved in direct caregiving, someone not involved in directly raising children. Calling attention to this, and working out of my own experience as a mother and a philosopher might justify to my old chair my time with my kids, Liza and Joe.
What is your current project?
Now I am working on how the same basis for sociality in the preverbal eros between infants and their caregivers also accounts for ethical relations across species. Over the past two decades, I have learned much from non-modern societies, which foreground social relationships instead of separate individuals in their ontologies. Many cultures treat hubris as a crime against nature, and we in the West have trouble understanding what this really means. Hubris for us is just a character flaw. We think the charge implies the need for humility. But for many cultures hubris is not an individual flaw; it is a name for harm done—and not directly to individuals--but to social relations that hold individuals, communities, and even the natural world together. This was my second big realization—after the importance of eros all the way back to the child in my womb. My work continues to play with these ideas: that social eros and social bonds (those which have to call into question the idea of bound or contained and autonomous individuals) define the waves of meaning and emotion in our lives.
So, corporeality, ethics, eros, affect, motherhood, animality, and non-modern societies. I can see how this creates tension with most of the mainstream philosophical tradition! Yet clearly your work is philosophy; you write books and give talks that use reason to situate the corporeal, the affective, the erotic, the maternal, and so on, in our lives and against the backdrop of the philosophical tradition.
Yes, I’m a philosopher and proud of it! It’s just that I take it that the philosophy of eros tradition offers a nice contrast with the predominantly Stoic tendencies in much of philosophy. Eros emphasizes vital engagement and attachment. And that justice must take into account not just individuals with capacities but—and this is primary--the relationships that sustain us—across natural and social boundaries. I continue to seek out new ways of questioning social practices, seeking new ideas that are left communitarian but radically libertarian (that is, with a spirit of anarchy). Given that I can only express these kinds of ideas in the form of a paradox, you can see I sure do not have any answers. But raising questions seems like a good thing to do.