N. Heller McAlpin, '77

N. Heller McAlpin — photo by Rachel Hulin
When you first came to Princeton, what did you think your major would be?

I came to Princeton in part because of its stellar Philosophy department.  I had been introduced to Philosophy at my London high school by a teacher who had studied with Wittgenstein, and she definitely sparked an interest in pursuing it further.

What made you decide to major in Philosophy?

Although my first love was and remains literature, I was attracted to Philosophy because it dealt with big, challenging questions -- about ethics, aesthetics, language, freedom, knowledge -- with rigor and depth.  And I felt it was material I was far less capable of plumbing on my own than, say, great novels.  My freshman year, I took Walter Kaufmann’s Hegel, Nietzsche, and Existentialism course.  It was a big lecture class, and I was too intimidated to ask a question aloud, so I went to speak with Professor Kaufmann afterwards.  He was wonderfully accessible, clear, and encouraging. That sealed the deal.

Are there any stories about your experiences as a Philosophy major at Princeton that you would like to share?

I was the only female Philosophy major in my class, which was sometimes difficult.  Not all of my experiences were positive, but a high point was David K. Lewis’s Metaphysics course in the logical possibilities of time travel.  He was truly an original, outside-the-box thinker, and I still ponder some of the conundrums we considered in that class.  I’m also grateful to have taken Gilbert Harman’s Systematic Ethics and Philosophy of Language classes, though I wouldn’t recommend doing them both in the same semester, as I did.

What did you do immediately after leaving Princeton?

After working for John McPhee on Coming Into the Country the summer after my graduation, I went straight to Columbia’s School of the Arts Writing Program, where in addition to writing short stories and starting my first novel, I was able to study subjects I hadn’t had time for at Princeton, most memorably a whole semester of Proust.  While I didn’t continue any formal study of Philosophy, my first nationally published short story was about Immanuel Kant’s initial excitement over Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas.

What do you do now?

I am a book critic.  I review literary fiction and nonfiction (including the occasional intellectual history or philosophy written for general audiences) for NPR, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and other publications. [This interview was conducted in March 2018.]

Final words?

To me, Philosophy represents the epitome of a liberal arts education. While not strictly pre-professional, it offers spectacular training in critical thinking and clear writing -- which are so important for so many occupations besides academics.  Over the years I’ve discovered that a surprising number of my colleagues in the National Books Critics Circle, both male and female, were Philosophy majors.  And although historically Philosophy has attracted far fewer women than men, just look at what they’ve done with it: Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Renata Adler, and Princeton’s own Rebecca Goldstein, to name just a few prominent public intellectuals, all studied Philosophy.