When you first came to Princeton what did you think your major would be?
I entered Princeton as a math major, because I took calculus BC as a high school junior, which was unusual in the 1980s, and then linear algebra and multi-variable calculus at a local college as a high school senior. But once I was exposed to everything Princeton had to offer, I didn’t know what to study. I took the sophomore architecture studio, several painting courses, Renaissance gardens and landscapes with David Coffin, a five-person classics seminar on Nero with Edward Champlin, Russian Lit with Ellen Chances, American lit with William Howarth, organic chemistry with Maitland Jones, and philosophy of science with Catherine Elgin—all prerequisites for different majors. I didn’t get a lot of advice from my undergraduate advisor: Charles Fefferman. He was busy with other things. So I chose my courses not on the basis of subject matter, but on the basis of the professors’ reputations for excellent teaching.
What made you decide to major in Philosophy?
Philosophy is interdisciplinary: you can study the philosophy of math, science, art, literature, and so much more. I was able to maintain so many interests. Moreover, this is not going to sound very intellectual, but, to be honest, I liked the other undergraduate philosophy majors. There were no women in math; the scientists were reserved and overly grade oriented; the painters were more personal than political; and the English majors were doing philosophy without the philosophy. In contrast, the philosophy students were quick, cool, activist, and authentic. They read newspapers. They talked about deep questions well into the night. Their humor was clever and dry. They didn’t suffer fools. But, at the same time, they were laid back, not arrogant. They were passionate—about knowledge, about right and wrong, and about social injustices—dreamers without the flakiness. Finally, I think it made a difference that Professor Elgin was female. I was able to see myself as a member of her field. I ended up majoring in philosophy with a certificate in Science in Human Affairs.
One more thing: I fell in love with Hume.
Are there any stories about your experiences as a Philosophy major at Princeton that you would like to share?
Well, I was the editor-in-chief of The Daily Princetonian. So, on top of my classes, I started every school day with a blank 8-24-page newspaper that had to be filled with emerging stories by midnight. This left little time for academic excellence. I received a D in introductory logic, because I assumed I could wing it, but then found the exams written in trees. Later I took a two-person, decision theory seminar with that same professor, Dick Jeffrey. Every afternoon, like clockwork, an Orange Key tour guide would pass by the office window, and Jeffrey would say: “The communists are coming.” I had other memorable courses with Harry Frankfurt, Gilbert Harman, and Dick Moran, who waited until the very end of my senior thesis to fill me in on the disappointing news that Hilary Putnam was a man (after I had used the wrong pronoun many, many times).
What did you do immediately after leaving Princeton?
I had to move back in with my parents, which was dark. The newspaper and my senior thesis (critiquing moral realism) were so demanding, that I didn’t have time to do any career prep during my senior year. After my graduation, I found a local, NEH-funded position assisting with the preservation of three rare collections in the Northwestern University Library: materials on John Cage, Africana, and the early railroad. I then set about making up for all of the school that I had missed by taking evening classes in philosophy, which I parlayed into a master’s degree in philosophy at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I worked for Richard Schacht on his many Nietzsche texts, and a second master’s and Ph.D. in philosophy from Northwestern, where I worked with Arthur Fine and David Hull on post-Humean/post-Wittgensteinian (naturalist/deflationist) approaches to philosophy of science. My dissertation offered a Pyrrhonian critique of several pragmatic theories of explanation.
What do you do now?
I teach logic… without the trees (and many other philosophy courses).
Most recently, my career has focused on ways we might improve philosophy teaching. I currently chair the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Teaching of Philosophy, which has tried to promote teaching as an area of expertise in a field that is especially invested in research: the shadows of logical empiricism loom large; more than 75% of regularly employed philosophers are male, and men tend to prioritize research over teaching; we live in a nation obsessed with quantifiable productivity and return; and philosophy must always fight to secure its claims to social utility. Despite all of this, we can’t forget that philosophy, at its core, is a critical discipline, aimed at teaching people where they’ve gone wrong, so they can get better.
I’ve also tried to sustain my interest in journalism by writing vaguely philosophical, freelance articles on culture for Slate, The Atlantic, and Salon. [This interview was conducted in 2015.]
Maintaining a career in philosophy is extremely difficult: you watch your friends get rich and give to their children everything that follows from that wealth, while your own kids’ lives are disrupted by frequent moves. Despite all of this, I’ve never regretted the decision to major in philosophy or to work as a philosophy professor. Philosophical skills are what make functional democracies possible. For this and so many other reasons, teaching philosophy is extremely rewarding. I feel like I’m making the world better each and every day. I’m building a highly skilled, historically aware, and critically adept citizenry. Moreover, my job requires me to spend my time reading the greatest books ever written. So that’s a plus.
As a very last word, I’d like to emphasize how important it is for women to study philosophy. The fiercest women I know are philosophers. Our discipline demands rigor; the argumentative standards are extremely high. Your interlocutors are hovering, waiting to find holes in your reasoning, so you only dare speak when you know your point is secure—when you’ve thought through everything backwards and forwards. By the time you’re ready to contribute, you know your stuff, and you know you’re right. Becoming a philosopher is the process of becoming unafraid.