Today’s New APPS Interview is with Berit Brogaard, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Missouri – St. Louis.
Hello, Brit, thanks for doing this interview with us. Let’s start with your personal practice of philosophy. What are the pleasures and pains of philosophy for you?
One of the things I love most about philosophy is the writing process. I love to write and work on outlines for new papers or books. When I know I have two hours an afternoon to just work on my papers, I feel like a little kid on Christmas Eve waiting for Christmas morning to arrive.
Have you always found pleasure in writing?
Yeah, writing has always been my passion. I started out as a writer back in Copenhagen. I published three collections of poetry, a children’s book about Darwin and a young adult novel. I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to get rich by writing books in a language spoken by only 5 million people.
Well, I’m not sure you’re going to get rich in philosophy either! Unless you write a best-selling logic textbook I guess.
Oh yeah. I forgot about that. Anyway, I gave up my writing career and decided to focus on my studies at the university instead. I soon realized that my passion was writing, not just fiction, but just about anything I knew anything about. So philosophy was a perfect field of study for me.
I definitely prefer to single-author papers and books. I don’t feel lonely even if I am spending a couple of weeks or months just writing and not seeing anyone. That rarely happens, of course. But I love it, when it does happen.
Well, we’re all multiplicities, so there’re always plenty of voices you can listen to even when alone.
That’s a good way to put it! Of course, sometimes it’s not possible to single-author papers. My neuroscience projects are almost always collaborative projects. I really do enjoy collaborating with people on these projects. But the main part of these projects isn’t the writing.
No, it’s defining the research question, setting up the experiments, and so on, right?
Exactly. Finding subjects, too, can be difficult. Right now, we are looking for new blindsight subjects. Where do you find them? It’s not like you can just advertize at your university or your local grocery store. First you have to contact M.D.s working with patients with V1 lesions. Usually they have no idea whether their patients have blindsight. So you have to test the patients before you can even think about beginning your studies.
I can see how complex it gets!
In these kinds of cases it’s great to be a team. But when I write philosophical articles, I prefer to be alone. That said, I wouldn’t enjoy writing if I knew that no one would read my articles. I always write to an audience.
Yeah, the internal multiplicity thing can only take you so far. You need some real empirical others, if I can put it like that.
Definitely. Conferences are a great way to make it feel like you have an audience, regardless of whether you have one outside of the conference. There is the audience actually listening to you talk. And then there are all your conference friends who are interested in what you are working on and who want to talk philosophy with you.
Sometimes I just hang out in the lobby and talk to people there. But I do go to papers too. But the ratio of the former to the latter seems to be increasing for me!
What about the other aspects of being a philosophy professor, the more unpleasant ones?
Right, I certainly don’t love everything about philosophy. I don’t like to serve on committees. I hate meetings. And grading often feels like a chore. But I try to be a good sport. I do serve on a lot of committees and attend a lot of meetings and try to make the best of it.
Being a good departmental citizen is rarely joyous, though you can get some satisfaction from a job well done. Though probably not from the sort of busy work admins dump on us more and more. What about research frustrations?
Like everyone else, I hate the rejections. They are inevitable in academic research. But I still hate them.
My wife says you can never take rejection personally; there are always too many factors involved. You can only take an acceptance personally, and even then …
Right! I tell my students that rejections are part of being an academic and that they shouldn’t take them personally. But I always take them personally. Over the years, I have managed to reduce the time it takes to get over a rejection. I used to be a little down for a couple of days after a rejection. Now, I am sometimes able to move on when I open the next email.
You mention your students. How do you find teaching?
When I first started out as a professional philosopher, I hated teaching. I felt it was something I just had to get through, so I could get to my research. However, my attitude toward teaching slowly changed. I actually really like teaching now. In big lecture courses, I truly enjoy trying to make each lecture a talk to a general audience, each time learning from my mistakes and improving my approach. In graduate seminars, I enjoy the discussions as much as I enjoy philosophical discussions with colleagues or peers at conferences.
What is your daily practice? Do you have a set routine?
I don’t really have a set routine. I am the director of graduate studies, the chair of admissions, the chair of the colloquium committee, a member of the governing board of the gender studies program and an editor for Erkenntnis.
So it is impossible to predict what my day is going to contain. There is almost always something: a meeting, a prospective student who is in town, a student who wants to meet about departmental requirements, a speaker who needs to be picked up from the airport. When I do have a few hours to focus on my research, I go home, make a cup of coffee and then lean back on the couch with my laptop. I have a nice desk at home but I rarely use it. I am just more creative and productive on my couch with my laptop in my lap. If my bed had more back-support, I would probably work in my bed.
Can you tell us a little about your childhood?
I was born in Copenhagen. First we lived in an apartment in the very center of the city. A few years later my parents bought a house 5 miles outside of the center. I lived there until I moved out. They still live there.
What were you like as a kid?
As a child I was a real geek. I had very few friends. I spent most of my childhood in my room, reading or writing novels (that were never published or even sent to a publisher). My mom sometimes jokingly says that we had to go to the central library because I had read all the books in the local library.
How about your teenage years?
I moved out when I was 17. I never felt very good when people decided what I had to do. At 17 I wanted to make my own decisions. So I got a place of my own. I stayed in Copenhagen for a while. Then I moved to Juan-les-Pins at the Côte d'Azur in France.
Wow. When I moved out of the house it was to a dorm room at Penn State. Not exactly the Côte d’Azur! In any case, when did you find out there was such a thing in the world as philosophy?
I was quite familiar with some areas of philosophy from an early age. We read Søren Kierkegaard throughout elementary and middle school. In high school we read Plato. I didn’t know back then that these people were philosophers or that the area of study was called philosophy. I didn’t realize that philosophy really existed as a field of study until I was half done with my neuroscience studies.
So those two have been closely linked for you since then?
Yes and no. I was probably about 21 when I first realized that you could actually study philosophy at a university. When I found out I immediately decided to study it in parallel with my neuroscience studies. But at the time it was more a hobby than something I thought I would actually end up in. I finished my neuroscience studies and my degrees in philosophy and linguistics.
What happened next?
At the end of my neuroscience studies I realized that I wasn’t really cut out for all the lab work in neuroscience. The lab work back then was quite tedious. Brain imaging was still a very new method and certainly not one you would let students engage in. It was much too expensive for that. So, most of the lab work consisted in killing animals, such as pigs and rats, isolating receptors and testing various drugs in vitro. When I first decided to go into neuroscience, I made that decision because I wanted to understand the brain, not how drugs bind to receptors in vitro. So I after finishing my degree, I gave up the studies in neuroscience, only to return to them much later.
I see. What was your path?
I didn’t go into philosophy directly. I went into cognitive linguistics. I studied with Leonard Talmy, a cognitive linguist at University at Buffalo. Talmy was blind. So we taped our term papers for him. After completing my first year of course work in linguistics I ran into Barry Smith. I am not sure exactly how, but he convinced me to study philosophy. So I completed my Ph.D. under his supervision.
A fortuitous accident! I’m convinced many people’s philosophical biographies include chance encounters. OK, then, after your degree, what was your early professional life like?
I started out with a one-year position in Rochester and an NSF-funded postdoc at University of Hamburg, Germany. After completing both, I went on the job market and got quite a few interviews and job offers. None of them were at big research universities. But even in 2001 the job market was quite terrible, so I was happy with what I got.
What was that?
I chose a job at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. The course load was a 3-3. I was quite happy there. The pay at the time really sucked big time and the course load wasn’t great. But I was able to live in St. Louis, which was only 25 minutes away, I had several great colleagues, and I managed to write a bunch of papers. So I was quite happy.
Yes, it sounds like it wasn't ideal (what is?) but reasonable.
I only decided to move when University of Missouri, St. Louis suddenly had a job opening in my area in 2004. At the time the pay at University of Missouri was about twice the pay at Southern Illinois and the course load was a 2-2. So it was a no-brainer. I wasn’t their first choice. Their first choice was Bryan Frances. But he took a job at Fordham. So I got the job. It was an easy move. As I already lived in St. Louis, I just had to move my office.
This is something I ask almost everyone: how do you deal with the continental / analytic philosophy division?
I have not been exposed to the tension between analytic and continental philosophy during my time at University of Missouri. They don’t have any continental philosophers. I am probably the most continental philosopher they ever hired, and I am not very continental. I did teach a course on Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre this past summer, though.
There’s a lot to talk about with those two, on all sorts of levels! Let’s continue with your story, though: how did tenure go for you?
My tenure process was very smooth. I would have liked to go up for tenure earlier than I did. But I wasn’t going to make a big push in that direction. So I just waited until they would let me go up. This was, strictly speaking, 8 years after I got my Ph.D. I did feel that there was a bias against me as a woman, as my male colleagues were allowed to go up for tenure early.
It would be interesting to see some studies here. I wouldn’t be surprised if that pattern was widespread.
Right! I wasn’t going to complain, though. Times were getting touch. 2008, the year I got tenure, marked the beginning of the financial crisis. Soon my university started talking about merging departments, and I felt lucky simply having a job.
Speaking of the financial crisis, philosophy and other humanities disciplines are under increasing pressure to justify their existence in universities on short-term economic criteria, sometimes in number of majors or tuition income, sometimes in terms of outside grants. How is this pressure manifest at your university? How do you respond to it, practically and theoretically?
The financial situation in Missouri is not currently getting better. So our program is on a 3-year probation list. After our recent 5-year review, we were told that our number of majors wasn’t high enough. So the four people who left or are leaving are unlikely to get replaced until our numbers are up.
Well that’s almost a Catch-22: how are you going to get more majors with fewer faculty members?
We are doing a lot to get our numbers up: philosophy salons, university-wide philosophy debates and advertisement. We even have a slogan now: “Philosophy: We have the questions for all your answers.”
I like that a lot!
It’s too early to tell whether this is helping. I have also started teaching the big lecture courses, sexual ethics and love 101. These courses are supposed to attract minors and majors.
It’s very important I think that departments analyze the courses that produce majors and minors and make sure that they are taught by quality teachers. Do you make a point of recruiting promising students? That is, do you ask those who do well “have you ever thought of a philosophy major”?
Very often. But I usually start by luring them into doing a minor. Then I go from there. I have gotten several people to major in philosophy that way.
What does your department do with regard to preparing graduate students for non-academic work?
I can’t say that our department is doing much to prepare students for non-academic work. But we do a lot to prepare our M.A. students for a Ph.D. program. We don’t have a Ph.D. program. So part of our success can be measured in terms of how many students we get into good Ph.D. programs. Though last year was bad, we have had a lot of success in placing students in Ph.D. programs. The previous year we placed about 10 students in very good Ph.D. programs.
That is an enviable record! Let’s conclude by coming back to your individual situation. Where are you now regarding your research?
It took me a long time to find areas I felt were really mine or areas where I felt I really could make serious contributions. But my many ideas and contributions to all the core areas of mainstream philosophy finally narrowed down. My main areas now are synesthesia and perceptual reports.
What are you looking forward to doing next? What are your short and long-term projects?
I have a book coming out on time and propositions with Oxford University Press. Once I am done with the proof-reading, I am going to focus on my next book, Seeing and Saying.
Can you give us a brief idea of what you’ll be doing in that project?
In Seeing and Saying I provide a semantic analysis of reports containing perceptual verbs, such as ‘look’, ‘seem’, ‘feel’ and ‘see’. I then show on the basis of this analysis and the assumption that these reports often are true that certain theories of perception are false. Finally, I defend a version of dogmatism, the view that if p seems true, then you have some degree of justification for the belief that p.
You’re going to attract a lot of attention with this project I think. Very interesting stuff. So thanks, Brit, I really appreciate your doing this interview with us!