Today’s New APPS interview is with Alessandra Tanesini, Professor of Philosophy at Cardiff University. This is Part I; Part II will run next week.
Thanks very much for doing this interview with us, Alessandra. Let’s start with your personal practice of philosophy. What are the pleasures and pains of philosophy for you?
New (to me) ideas and thoughts give me the greatest pleasure. They can come to me when reading others’ work, when engaging in conversation with students or when thinking about or writing my own research. The greatest productive pain is when I struggle to organize my thoughts into a paper.
How do you experience solitary study and writing vs collaborative writing?
I love reading and writing on my own in my study surrounded by my books, especially when no other tasks are making pressing demands on my time. I have written a few joint papers, and the experience has been very different every time. I have never however written anything jointly with a non-philosopher; I suspect that that would be yet a different experience.
What about conferences?
I must confess that as I grow older I enjoy conferences, especially big ones, less. I love the exchange of ideas but I think that small workshops are so much better for that. I do not leave Cardiff often these days and when I do I miss my daily routines. It would be ideal if everyone came to Cardiff instead. Gosh… I am getting old.
So are we all! What is your daily practice? Do you have a set routine?
In what ways, if any, do you integrate art, science, politics, and other areas of life such as cooking, or listening to music, or physical / spiritual exercise – what have you – into your philosophy?
I’m not sure what you mean by ‘integrating’. Some of my political commitments feed directly into my work in feminist philosophy, but overall the relation between philosophy and the rest of my life is more diffuse. I try to do things slowly and thoughtfully (but efficiently) and I suppose that this attitude informs my philosophy as much as it informs my cooking. Food and wine have become very important in my life and I prepare and enjoy them slowly. Since both Bethan (my partner) and I work, eating well requires planning. We cook what we find is good at a farmers’ market that we visit every Sunday. So we cook with mostly local and seasonal ingredients (although in the depth of winter we cheat) and we make great Italian dishes, curries and British fare (yes, there is such a thing as great British food). In the last few years, sailing has become a passion and – I suppose – it is a fairly slow way of going from a to b.
How do you integrate teaching and research?
These days, if I am honest, I do remarkably little of this, despite working at an institution that prides itself on research-led teaching. I, like others, teach what is required to give students a well-rounded education.
How did you come to study philosophy?
I grew up in a smallish town in Northern Italy. My childhood years were punctuated by long summer months at the nearby seaside. I was quite asthmatic as a child so my parents were keen that I spent a lot of time in the open air. I always remember being bookish although I grew up in a house with almost no books so to begin with I mostly read cartoons. My dad’s sisters, however, read a bit more than my parents and had a few books. This is how I ended up reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis at a very young age. The book was thrust into my hands and I was ordered to read it as my aunt rushed to A&E with one of my younger sisters. I must have been 8, I dreamt of turning into a beetle for years.
Yikes! What an introduction to the life of the mind! What about high school? Did you know philosophy existed?
I went to school in Italy where philosophy is a compulsory subject in almost all the Licei (High Schools). It almost put me off philosophy for life. The syllabus consisted largely of learning and parroting the views of dead philosophers; there was very little encouragement of independent thinking or attempt to address topics.
That does sound dreadful. I mean we all benefit from a certain database of philosophical content, but if you cut out the eros in what we do, that’s certainly a way of killing philosophy.
My real entry to philosophy was mathematics. I developed an interest in the concepts of zero and of infinity. I found both deeply troubling, and when my math teacher said that the answers to my questions lay in philosophy rather than mathematics I was hooked.
Fascinating. Plato would certainly agree on the importance of thinking through the philosophy and mathematics connection: “Let no one enter here …” What about your undergraduate days: did you continue the mathematics and philosophy intersection?
I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Bologna in Italy. Unlike the US in Italy students enroll for a specific major from the start (and we have no minors or joint degrees as they do in the US or the UK). For me it was a close call between philosophy and mathematics, what swayed it was that I could do some math as part of the philosophy degree but not vice-versa.
Yeah, the “Philosophy of X,” where X can be whatever we want it to be: what a privilege philosophy has in having such a license! What about your professors?
I can’t say that any of my teachers was memorable but I received a good grounding in formal logic and Frege’s works there and I heard Dummett deliver the lectures that were to become his origin of analytic philosophy book. As I decided to write my dissertation on a medieval treatment of the semantic paradoxes, I discovered that the relevant secondary literature was almost all in English and that is why I took the opportunity to spend a semester in the UK as part of what was to become the Erasmus project. I ended up in Hull in the North East of England. For me it was an eye opener. Instead of classes of 50 and more often 200, I was catapulted in a tutorial of 3 students. We were reading Naming and Necessity, and in the tutorial other students questioned whether Kripke was right. I knew immediately that this was what I wanted to do, and that the way it was generally done in Italy was unproductive.
Yes, I can see the culture shock there – in all the best senses of the term! Tell us about graduate school then if you would.
I had – in a sense – two bites at graduate school. Firstly, I won a British Academy award to study for a PhD in Hull. The award only covered fees so I taught Italian to children and relied on my parents’ financial support as well as some logic tutorial teaching to support myself. One of the advantages of Hull – a fairly deprived town in the UK – was the low cost of living; another was the very active music, poetry and alternative theatre scene. Larkin was already dead, but he had left a legacy of sorts.
Tell us more about Hull as a town.
I loved my years there for many reasons. I could live much more openly as a gay woman there than in Italy, but it was also the first time when I truly lived independently. Most of all, however, I discovered that it was possible to be part of a true intellectual community where philosophy was discussed at lengths. I had a community in Bologna also, and it involved drinking too (wine though not beer) but it was a community of undergraduates with no real involvement on the part of the lecturers.
What did you do for your thesis?
In Hull, I wrote a PhD on Quine and indeterminacy of translation after an initial attempt to say something new about semantic paradoxes. As I was ready to submit the thesis, a lecturer at Hull was made redundant. This was the beginning of a protracted legal dispute that was ended when the House of Lords decreed that academics in the UK can be made redundant, effectively putting an end to the belief that there was an unwritten contract that guaranteed their tenure.
I believe a few people hope that the entire House of Lords might one day be made redundant… But back to your story.
One of the Lecturers Unions’ actions in the process was to boycott the awarding of any research degrees from Hull. I was stuck. But what seemed a great misfortune initially was – seen from today’s perspective – a stroke of luck.
The converse is sadly true as well, but I’m glad not in this case!
As I was entering limbo I met Jonathan Bennett at a conference, I forget whether it was in Oxford or Cambridge, we talked at length and he invited me to apply to study for a PhD at Syracuse where he worked. I applied, I was offered the opportunity to study and to be a teaching assistant and so I went. Syracuse was great to me: lousy weather and nothing to do beyond eat and breathe philosophy.
I spent a few years as a kid in Rochester; I can relate to the bit about the weather!
There were fantastic people there at the time. The faculty included Linda Alcoff, Bill Alston, Jonathan Bennett, Mark Lance, Michael Stocker, Laurence Thomas, Bob van Gulick, and Peter van Inwagen.
What about your fellow students?
Paul Bloomfield, Michael Lynch and Raja Halwani were all in my year, John Hawthorne was still a student there. I became ABD at Syracuse and then the boycott in the UK was lifted and I could defend my Hull PhD. I then applied for jobs in the UK on the off chance and I got offered one. I feel confident that that would not have happened without my Syracuse years.
You can never tell, but that certainly could be true.
Be that as it may, the years at Syracuse made me an immensurable better philosopher, without a shadow of a doubt. They have been the most important years of my education and I have made lifelong friends there. In so many ways I owe it all to Jonathan Bennett and for that reason he must count as the most influential of my teachers. But I also owe much to Mark Lance and Linda Alcoff who have greatly influenced my thinking to this day.
I’m sure they share the idea that meeting you was their good fortune as well! So, after Syracuse, now you are back in the UK. What was your early professional life like?
I came to Cardiff on a 3-year contract, and I was offered a continuing position about two years after that. I seem to recall that almost everything was team-taught then and I had to contribute lots of bits and pieces. The students, as is typical of the UK, were much less vocal than their US counterparts. They also were much more secular in outlook. It now feels like I had a lot of time to do my research then. I had no administrative responsibilities to speak of and the staff-to-student ratio was, I think, much more favorable than it is now.
What were your first publications? Is there one that stands out as your breakout piece? How did your early research relate to your dissertation?
I published a couple of things while I was a PhD student in Hull. A paper on the semantic paradoxes came out in Logique et Analyse and another on the conditionals was co-written with my supervisor, Tony Dale, and came out in Analysis. After a break when I was at Syracuse I began writing on a number of diverse topics none of which relates to my PhD.
What were your Cardiff colleagues like? Did you feel supported? Was there a formal mentoring process?
My colleagues were friendly individuals but there was nothing in the way of mentoring. In many ways I have developed my career by trial and error.
Let’s change perspective a little and consider some meta-philosophical issues. The relation of continental and analytic philosophy has been fraught with tension for many years. How do you negotiate this conflict?
I probably come to the conflict from a different angle than others. In Italy continental philosophy at Bologna was very much the preserve of the political right, the left was much more drawn to analytic philosophy. This is somewhat of an exaggeration since there were left wing phenomenologists in Bologna but they had been shut out of the philosophy department; philosophy students, however, could take their classes – and they did… in droves. So from an early age I associated the teaching of continental philosophy with conservatism, obscurantism and patronage.
I’m cringing as I hear you say this, but what can I say?
I have then returned to it after being truly immersed in the Anglo American tradition. A lot of what I read and write is influenced by the work of thinkers who are thought as continental but I approach them with an analytic eye. Institutionally, however, I do not think that things are getting better for continental philosophers in the UK. On the contrary, the more analytic philosophers there are who can teach continental thinkers, the more continental philosophers are disappearing from UK departments. The exceptions now are very few.
There is a lot to talk about here! Too much really; the point of these interviews I hope is to spark conversation in the comments and off-line. So let’s continue with the institutional issues. How has the falling percentage of tenure-track positions relative to graduate assistants, part-timers, postdocs, and permanent instructors affected the strategies your department uses in graduate student placement?
I think it is fair to say that the UK has witnessed similar tendencies but as Cardiff philosophy is a small unit with a tight-ish budget we do not really have the cash to employ many graduate assistants and the like. We only have a few PhD students doing some tutorial work. It helps us a bit but perhaps more importantly it gives them some teaching experience.
What does your department do with regard to preparing graduate students for non-academic work?
The UK lags behind the UK in the amount of work departments do with regard to placements of any sorts. We have just begun to develop some workshops to give students ideas about non-academic careers. One advantage of the UK is that the Civil Service is made of mostly non-political generalist officials. Historically, they have always recruited philosophers, classicists and historians. For the time being that seems to be a tradition which is continuing to some extent.
Yes, the Oxford PPE curriculum… What role do you see for the BPA in the current situation?
I am involved with the British Philosophical Association (BPA) and I have been elected as part of its executive. The BPA has a much shorter history than the APA and plays no role in the recruitment process. However, it is making great strides to support the status of women in the profession and to support individuals on fixed-term and or teaching only contracts. It has also been deeply involved in the panel nomination and consultation process of the forthcoming Research Framework Exercise.
Anything to do with the RFE is going to be a very important role indeed. But let’s conclude by coming back to your individual situation. Looking back on your career so far, have you developed a single core idea, or have you significantly changed your perspective?
My career so far has been characterized by the fact that I have so many interests. In purely career terms that has probably been a mistake. I have realized for some time that most people build their reputation through becoming a player in a relatively small area. In this regard I have always been an oddball; I have written on many topics and quite often at the fringes of the mainstream. I think of feminist epistemology here but also of my work on Nietzsche and on Wittgenstein. I have gone where curiosity has taken me and I am enjoying the ride. I have, however, reached a point now where I think I might dedicate the rest of my working life to three big topics: a feminist account of intellectual virtues and the relation of the virtues to public policy making; a direct realist account of perception as an embodied activity; and a constitutivist account of Nietzsche’s moral psychology. I hope to write books on each of these three areas before I retire.
They will be important contributions! But can you arrange the institutional support? That’s always the question, and leads me to ask what was the most frustrating experience of your professional life?
The most frustrating thing is the amount of paperwork I face everyday. This is strange coming from me as I am a believer in paper trails and accountability. I tend to think that the good old system of collegiality gave rise to a lot of decisions based on impressionistic feel (about who is smart for instance). There is good empirical evidence that these are the kinds of decisions which are most likely to be badly influenced by the sort of implicit biases that damage women and members of minority groups.
I see how you’re bringing your feminist epistemology work to bear in reflecting on everyday bureaucracy. An extremely important application!
So I do not dislike what some think are the trappings of a culture of management, but I do dislike forms with macros that do not work, administrators that send the wrong paperwork, software systems that crash all the time. You know what I mean?
We all do, alas! But I can’t just ask about negative experience with a Nietzsche scholar! So what have been the most rewarding experiences?
The most rewarding experiences are discussing philosophy with students and colleagues or friends. Equally rewarding is finishing a paper, and for short while at least being happy with it.
What are you looking forward to doing next? What are your short and long-term projects?
As I said long term I hope to write three books and in the shorter term to write some papers that might eventually find their way into their constituent chapters. My other big project is to help seeing the Humanities and especially the disciplines in my School flourish at Cardiff University and that is why I have agreed to turn myself, partly, into a willing bureaucrat.
That’s a worthy task in itself, but I hope I can say, selfishly as it were, that it doesn’t take away too much from your research! Thanks, then, Alessandra, for the thoughtful approach you’ve taken to this interview!