Today’s New APPS Interview is with Beth Lord, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Dundee.
Thanks for doing this interview with us today, Beth. Let’s start with your personal practice of philosophy. What are the pleasures and pains of philosophy for you?
The proportion of my time spent actually doing philosophy is probably very little, but those times are highly affective. I find philosophical writing difficult, anxiety-inducing, and even painful, but I think a life without these feelings, which probably accompany any intellectually worthwhile activity, would be much less rich. Moments of clarity, when I finally figure out how to resolve a problem or interpret a passage, are very satisfying.
No gain without pain, to use the athletic saying. Of course there’s no guarantee that pain leads to gain, but that’s a story for another time! Tell us about isolation vs group work: how does that work for you?
It’s important to find a balance. The solitary study of philosophy, while necessary, can be isolating, and I tend to be miserable and unproductive if I have too much solitary time unmixed with other activities. So summers and sabbaticals can be too empty, whereas term time can be too busy to get much philosophy work done. One day I’ll find the perfect balance! I enjoy sociable ways of doing philosophy – the ideal is the focused seminar or reading group where everyone is well prepared and participates. That’s sometimes achieved at smaller conferences (but rarely at large ones).
What is your daily practice? Do you have a set routine?
I have my morning coffee, sit down at the computer and try to get back into whatever I’m currently working on. I find I can only work on philosophy for about six hours a day – after that, the ideas get muddled, and I’m better off spending the rest of the day catching up on email and admin. I don’t work on weekends if I can help it: it’s important to take time off.
Six hours is very good, I think. In what ways, if any, do you integrate art, science, politics, and other areas of life into your philosophy?
Some of my research involves philosophy and museums, so every museum visit is potentially an exercise in philosophical thinking! I have also written philosophically about art and artists, literature, and natural history. My two cats have had an important input into teaching Hume this year. Cats are very imaginative, in Hume’s sense of that term.
Yeah, and they often imagine themselves our masters, don’t they! Please tell us about how you integrate teaching and research, if you would.
I started researching Spinoza’s Ethics because I was asked to teach it at Dundee. The kind of intensive learning you have to do in order to teach something to others often leads to new ideas for research. By contrast, trying to teach something that you have done a lot of research on can be difficult – you tend to know the material too intricately and deeply to be able to communicate it at undergraduate level.
Very good point.
The ideal is to teach something you’ve just started to become interested in. Teaching and research are very strongly integrated for me; I couldn’t do one without the other. My favourite piece of writing is my guidebook to Spinoza’s Ethics, which developed directly out of my teaching.
It’s a model of the genre; I learned a lot from it! After this discussion of teaching, would you tell us how you came to study philosophy?
I became interested in philosophy fairly early. Most of my childhood was spent in Toronto, with earlier stints in Ottawa and southern Ontario. My father studied philosophy at university, and both my parents were politically active. I grew up in a family of strong opinions and critical discussions, where reading, thinking and questioning were encouraged. The first philosophy book I remember reading was Bertrand Russell’s Wisdom of the West, followed by a phase of reading lots of Sartre, Dostoevsky, and Andre Breton at high school.
What about high school? Did you know philosophy existed?
Philosophy wasn’t specifically taught at my high school, but it came in in other ways. I did a project on the French philosophes for a history class, and in a communications class we did a unit on argumentative fallacies. I was very much into drama in high school. I enjoyed performance and the camaraderie of putting a play together, but an important aspect for me was finding the ideas within a play and bringing them to expression.
How about your undergraduate days?
I went to the University of Toronto, which for me represents the ideal of what university should be like. I intended to study Drama – I wanted to be a theatre director – but ended up majoring in Philosophy and Literary Studies because the Drama students were so awful.
They only wore black, I guess.
I think we all wore black, but the Drama students did so in a particularly self-important way! I have strong memories of my first year history of philosophy survey course, taught by Graeme Nicholson. He was a terrifically engaging teacher and our tutorial group had fantastic discussions, thanks to our TA Jennifer Bates, who is now at Duquesne. Both of them were big influences on me.
Toronto is a huge school.
Yes. Because it was so large, it was possible to take courses on almost anything. I tended towards the history of philosophy and continental philosophy courses – the analytic ones just didn’t appeal.
It’s all about affect, isn’t it?
I think so. I was especially into phenomenology, aesthetics, and literary theory, and became interested in Heidegger in my final year. Kant and Spinoza – the two philosophers I now specialize in – I didn’t enjoy at all, and as I recall I did rather badly on the essays for those courses. I try to remember that when I teach Kant and Spinoza to students now; some philosophers grow on you with practice!
Yeah, I loved reading Deleuze at first, howling with laughter at the jokes and such in Anti-Oedipus, but I never thought I would end up a Deleuzean.
I think that’s often the case – we’re drawn to philosophers whose thinking poses a challenge. I enjoyed approaching philosophical texts in a literary way: reading them closely, working out interpretations and problems, and considering them as texts with historical and social contexts.
Is that necessarily a literary way, or just a careful way to read philosophy?
It’s the way continental philosophers tend to approach texts, which is close to literary study in some respects. What made me want to go on with Philosophy was the combination of working through difficult material on my own in this way, and then discussing it with others who had done the same.
What about graduate school? You went to Warwick, where I spent a very formative post-doc year myself.
Yes. I went to Warwick to do the one-year MA in Continental Philosophy, and was persuaded to stay on to do a PhD. At no point did I have any intention of becoming an academic; I just wanted to carry on doing the kind of work I had done as an undergraduate. The MA was a really productive and busy year, studying Kant with Andrew Benjamin, Hegel with Stephen Houlgate, Heidegger with Miguel de Beistegui, and Deleuze with Keith Ansell Pearson.
All very good philosophers and great folks too!
Yes, it was a great place to do continental philosophy. The PhD was a real contrast to the kind of academic work I’d done up to then – I wasn’t prepared for the isolation of it, and I found it very difficult. But by the time of my final year I began to see how shaping a lot of material into a sustained argument could be very rewarding. Warwick was an intensive and demanding environment, but a very collegial one too. There was a large cohort of impressive PhD students there, many of whom have gone on to great things.
I couldn’t agree more. What was your early professional life like?
I was incredibly fortunate to get a job at Dundee, where I still work now. When I started it was a part-time, fixed-term contract. I was very lucky that my job was made full-time and permanent within a couple of years; that doesn’t happen very often now.
No, sadly not. How did your early research relate to your dissertation?
My PhD thesis was on Kant and the notion of a productive ontology. Quite early on I started the process of turning that into a book, but by the time it was finished – my book Kant and Spinozism – it had become something entirely different. The primary value of the thesis for the book was the bulk of research on Kant that I had done during the PhD, which continues to be an invaluable resource.
What were your first publications? Is there one that stands out as your breakout piece?
It may be too early in my career to identify breakout pieces, but it is interesting how certain articles or events pick up momentum and end up pitching your research in one direction or another. I tend to let my research go with the flow like this; I’m not one for grand future plans.
Fair enough. What were your colleagues like? Did you feel supported?
My colleagues at Dundee have been hugely supportive. It’s a great department; we work very much as a unified team. I’m currently head of programme. I happen to enjoy academic management and administration, and my enjoyment of the role has been enhanced by the cooperation and support of my colleagues.
You’re getting into administration at a critical time. Philosophy and other humanities 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?
UK universities are in the midst of a massive change, and nobody really knows what the outcomes will be. Everyone is anxious, and that’s not a good basis for teaching, research, or good academic management. The effects of this widespread anxiety are not only a disproportionate focus on league-tables and financial gain, but also the demand that research have socio-economic “impact” and that teaching be in the service of “employability”. I’m afraid it’s going to be very difficult to resist these things.
You’re not alone in thinking that! Let’s conclude by coming back to your individual situation. Where are you now? What’s rewarding and frustrating for you?
I get frustrated when things are not well run, and unfortunately one encounters a lot of that in large institutions at times of uncertainty and change. Often, rewarding experiences can be very minor ones: the moment when a classroom tips over from question-answering into discussion, when you find the key quote that supports your argument, or when a conference you’ve planned runs smoothly. The big things that you imagine are going to be rewarding – finishing a book, for instance – often aren’t.
What are you looking forward to doing next? What are your short and long-term projects?
I’ve just started a fellowship at the Natural History Museum in London, which will enable me to use their collections in relation to research on 18th century philosophers’ views on evolution – principally Kant and Herder. Working with objects and archives will be a new experience that I’m looking forward to. I’m also thinking about starting work on a book on Spinoza and Deleuze. I like to have a few different things on the go.
Well, those are two more books of yours I’m looking forward to reading! Thanks very much for this interview with us, Beth, and best of luck with your projects.