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University of Massachusetts Amherst

HFA Faculty Profile: Louise Antony

 

Professor Louise Antony talks about the importance of philosophy, her mentoring of women in philosophy and she offers advice to interested students.


Tell us a bit about your academic background, and how you came to UMass.


I was an undergraduate at Syracuse University, where I discovered and fell in love with philosophy.  I spent my junior year studying philosophy at the University of London.  I graduated summa cum laude in spring of 1975 from SU with a BA, Honors in Philosophy.  I entered Harvard University the following fall, and spent five years in residence.  I was awarded my Ph.D. in 1982.  My thesis, Realism and the Theory of Meaning, was directed by Hilary Putnam and Warren Goldfarb, but I was also much influenced by philosophers Willard van Orman Quine (Harvard) and Jerry Fodor (then at MIT).  I also was privileged to be able to attend lectures by Noam Chomsky at MIT, at the height of the “cognitive revolution” that he fomented.p

 

What would you tell someone who didn’t know much about the study of philosophy?


I usually try to explain what philosophy is by doing some.

Philosophy starts with questions that come up in everyday life.  Someone serving on a jury might find himself wondering things like this: how much doubt constitutes “reasonable doubt?”  Should “circumstantial” evidence carry the same weight as physical evidence?  If the accused person is mentally disabled, or delusional, or very young, is she really responsible for her actions?  If the victim would not have died if the EMT’s had arrived sooner, is it right to say that the attacker caused the victim’s death? The juror will have to reach some conclusions about these questions in order to reach a verdict.  But he may feel dissatisfied with these answers, that there are complexities not taken into account, or general issues raised for which he has no answer.   So take the first question: the juror might realize that, if he encountered this situation outside the courtroom, he would have no hesitation in saying that he knew that the defendant did it -- think about popular opinion in the O. J. Simpson case – but that as a juror, with weighty responsibilities, his standard of evidence rises considerably.  But that raises a question about what knowledge is: is it a stable state of mind?  Why then can it come and go while the evidence stays the same?  Maybe knowledge is partly a matter of one’s level of confidence – I get less confident as the stakes go up, so I know less.  But would that mean that dogmatists and fanatics know more than reasonable people?  Now we’re doing philosophy.

The academic discipline of philosophy involves attempts to pursue questions like this in a rigorous and well-informed way.  We study the philosophers of years past in order to get the benefit of their thinking about these questions, and we share our own efforts with each other through academic journals, conferences, and a great deal of informal conversation.  Some of us study work in other disciplines when we think that such work bears on the questions we’re trying to answer.  (I happen to be interested in language and the mind, and so I am very interested in what linguists and psychologists are up to.)   Some philosophers are focused on finding satisfying answers to important practical issues; others are more interested in general issues like the fundamental structure of the world, or the nature of consciousness.

 

You co-direct a mentoring workshop for women in philosophy - what do you cover in your workshop, and what do you hope participants will take away?


As you might know, philosophy is, demographically, a very male field: women make up around 25% of the professoriate.  There is a lot of speculation about the reasons for this, but one hypothesis is that women find it more difficult than men to develop mentoring relationships with more senior philosophers.  Mentoring is extremely important for philosophers, because our process is so dialectical – we typically develop our ideas by discussing them with our colleagues, and we read each other’s work and give critical feedback.  We also rely heavily on professional networks, to find jobs, to promote our work, and to expand our professional opportunities.  So if women are not forming good mentoring relationships, their careers are likely to suffer.

My colleague from the University of Kansas, Ann Cudd, learned of a highly successful mentoring program started by women in economics to address the same sort of demographic issue we face in philosophy.  Prof. Cudd and I decided to adapt their program to serve junior women in philosophy.  With the support of the American Philosophical Association, the University of Kansas, and UMass Amherst, we held the first Mentoring Workshop in June of 2011, and we’ll hold the second this coming June.

The Workshop is designed to do two things for each mentee: create an opportunity for her to experience focused, critical discussion of her work, and to establish a close professional connection with a prominent senior woman in the field, and with four of her peers.  During the Workshop weekend, we alternate small-group working sessions with plenary sessions devoted to issues that commonly arise for women in the field.  Each small group consists of one mentor, and five mentees, and each session is devoted to discussion of a paper presubmitted by one of the mentees.  We hope that each mentee will leave the workshop with (at least) one short-term benefit and one long-term benefit: in the short run, critical feedback that will improve her paper and help her get it published, and in the long run, a durable relationship with a senior person who can advise and help her as she progresses through her career.   One thing that Prof. Cudd and I discovered with the first Mentoring Workshop is that there was a great deal of “horizontal mentoring” going on – many of the mentees have developed strong professional relationships with other mentees.  And I think I can speak for all of the mentors in saying that we experienced a lot of “reverse mentoring” – we were blown away by the creativity, insight, energy, and good will displayed by the mentees, not to mention the sharp philosophical talent.  So we felt that our own teaching and research will benefit from the mentoring experience.  (This might be the place to mention that all of the mentors and panelists donated their time!)


What is a “typical day” like for you at UMass?


There’s a lot of variety in my job, depending on what I’m teaching, and when I’m teaching it.  (This variety is one of the things I love about my job).   But here’s what a Tuesday and a Wednesday looked like for me last semester.

Tuesday:

9:30 to 10:50 – Lecture (Philosophical Perspectives on Gender)

11:00 to 12:00 – Email correspondence, responding to student inquiries and logistical issues about class, departmental business, and other professional business (e.g., committee work or official duties for professional organizations, review of manuscripts, travel arrangements for speaking engagements)

12:00 to (about) 1:00 – Lunch: with colleagues if I’ve finished the stuff mentioned above, otherwise at my desk.

1:00 to 3:30 – Preparation for my graduate seminar (Philosophy of Mind: Mental Causation).  This may involve any or all of the following: re-read assigned material, prepare notes on important points, generate questions for discussion.

3:30 to 6:00 – Graduate Seminar

Wednesday:

Morning: Work at home doing one or more of the following: grading quizzes or other assignments for my undergraduate course, preparing lecture for Thursday’s class, preparing or posting course materials (e.g., quizzes, tests or writing assignments; lecture slides; links to external resources; new assigned or recommended readings), reading philosophy, writing philosophy.

2:00 to 4:00: Office hours: meet with any students who come by; otherwise do more of the stuff mentioned previously.

4:00 to 5:30: Departmental business, possibly more meetings with students and advisees, talk philosophy with colleagues, other professional business.

Throughout the week any of the following going on: auditing a colleague’s class or seminar, attending faculty or committee meetings, attending a presentation by an outside speaker.

I want it recorded that I absolutely never EVER do any of the following during work hours: play computer Solitaire, read the Huffington Post, watch missed episodes of Project Runway.  : )

5. What is your favorite aspect of teaching philosophy?

I love it when a student has some kind of new intellectual experience – when she “gets” the concept of logical validity, for example, or the distinction between an interest in the self and an interest belonging to the self.  That happens quite often in philosophy.  I also love it when a student who’s often been told that she’s too argumentative discovers that there’s a place – philosophy – where questions are encouraged and arguments are celebrated.  (As you might have guessed, I was a student like that.)

 

You discuss feminist theory and atheism in a lot of your written work – what about these topics particularly intrigues you?


I think of my work as falling into two categories: “pure” and “adulterated” philosophy.  The issues that fall in the “pure” category are the ones that I simply find intellectually interesting – I’d work on them whether or not they had any foreseeable social benefit.  My work on feminism and atheism are “adulterated” philosophy in the sense that my motives for working on them are mixed – I do find the issues interesting, but I also think that they have social importance, and that someone with my training, and the luxury of an academic appointment has a special opportunity to contribute to our understanding of them.  In feminism, I’m interested in the nature of gender: I want to clarify the respective roles of nature and nurture in making each of us the person we are, to expose the structural features of our society that create unearned privileges for some and unearned liabilities for others.  I’ve started writing about religion in hopes of “normalizing” atheism – shattering the stereotypes of atheists as amoral, arrogant, and insensitive, and emphasizing the possibility of sharing moral commitments and projects despite differences in metaphysical beliefs.  I’m not anti-religion: I don’t think (as some of the so-called “New Atheists” do) that religion is responsible for most – or even many -- of the world’s ills.  Demagogues and dictators will always grab whatever belief system is at hand – whether it’s Catholicism or communism – to manipulate popular opinion, and to divert attention from whatever material issue it is that’s really at stake.  But I do think that, at least in the United States, religion is too often used to stop important conversations.  And it shouldn’t be a litmus test for high public office that one believe in God.


Is there a particular area you would like to explore in your future research?


I’ve become interested in the question of how normativity can arise in the natural world.  This connects quite a few of the issues I’ve already been thinking about, both pure and adulterated.

 

Any particular publishing plans for 2013?


I have commitments to write three or four papers, I’m working on a textbook in the philosophy of mind, and I hope to complete the manuscript of a monograph on mental causation.  I’d also like to do some more writing for the general public – perhaps a column or two for the New York Times’ philosophy blog, “The Stone.”


What advice do you have for students interested in philosophy? 


First of all, I’d say that if you’re interested in philosophy, you should get as much of it as you can while you’re in school.  Don’t be afraid to major in it – contrary to popular opinion, a philosophy degree is looked on with favor by graduate and professional schools and by many employers.  Second, if you want to get the most out of your philosophy program, work hard at it – read more, write more, revise more.  Go talk to your professors.  Attend public lectures by visiting philosophers.  Take advantage of this amazing opportunity to think about things just because they interest you.


What hobbies or interests do you have?


I play the piccolo and the flute in a local community orchestra (the Holyoke Civic Symphony), and I’ve appeared a couple of times in community theatre productions.  I’m an avid knitter – really avid.  I like to hike, and I love to travel.  I’m usually involved in some sort of activism or political work.  Right now I work with the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, advocating for increased support for our public universities, colleges, and community colleges.  I’m an active member of AWOL – Amherst Woman’s Outdoor League – an informal organization of women who get together regularly for some kind of outdoor activity: hiking, biking, skiing, etc., plus occasional indoor events (like watching the Oscars!)

 

 

 

February 2013

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