Barbara Herman is Gloria and Paul Griffin Professor in Philosophy. Her research interests are moral philosophy, Kant’s ethics, the history of ethics, and social and political philosophy. Her article “We are Not Alone: A Place for Animals in Kant’s Ethics” will appear in the forthcoming volume of essays Kant on Persons and Agency. She was interviewed by Daniel Ranweiler. Daniel is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Philosophy.
BH: Let’s start at the beginning. You have an interesting way that you came to philosophy from undergrad. Could you say a bit about your academic trajectory?
I went to Cornell with the thought of either majoring in mathematics or being pre-med. It was pretty clear by my junior year that though I was fascinated by and interested in mathematics, and got good grades, I didn’t have the chops for it. It struck me that it was not a thing to do unless you could do it well. I was also serious about doing pre-med, but then I made a decision pretty early on, though after taking organic chemistry, that the whole process of going to medical school would take forever. (Little did I know how long it would take to do other things!) And so I wound up being focused on history and literature and math. I was ok with being all over the place so long as things stayed interesting. I took philosophy courses as an undergraduate and really didn’t like them. I couldn’t shake the sense of its being about cleverness, and while I could be clever, I didn’t like where it took me. I was interested in ideas; I liked thinking about thinking, about the way people thought about all sorts of things. I was also interested in narrative. I wound up with a double major in mathematics and history and thought I would go on in history, primarily intellectual history, in graduate school.
BH: And so you went on to Harvard's Ph.D. in history?
I did. But, there was another intellectual fork in the road: I thought, to do intellectual history the right way would be to think about the way ideas made their way into culture (Fritz Stern was my hero). That meant thinking about the thought of middle-level thinkers. And did I really want to do that? So I thought, better to do straight-up history, and worked with David Landes, a great social and economic historian. But again, I got stuck. This time by what I saw as the unavoidable underdetermination of historical narrative by facts. And that just drove me mad! You do all this research, collect all this data, but you can tell the story this way or tell it that way, and you kind of hope something will force the balance of considerations—and I just thought, “Oh no, I can’t do this!” (I was both unforgivably arrogant and very naïve.) Fortunately, I had friends in the philosophy department at Harvard who were very excited about what they were doing. I began auditing some courses—Stanley Cavell, John Rawls—that simply stunned me. They offered ways of thinking that inspired me (then, and now). So I did something which in my later adult life struck me as ridiculous: I went to the chair of the philosophy department, Rogers Albritton, and sort of said, “You know, is there any chance…I mean, what would it take to transfer into the philosophy department?” He looked at me slightly cross-eyed and asked, “Have you ever done any philosophy?” And I said, “Actually as an undergraduate I did. I took several courses, including the pro-seminar for the major with Keith Donnellan.” And he said, “Why don’t you get the papers that you wrote for it?” So I called my mother, got her to find the papers from the course that had initially sent me out of philosophy—the cleverness course—and gave them to Rogers. And . . . the answer was “Yes.” So there I was, a philosophy graduate student.
BH: What was it about the Rawls and Cavell courses?
I think the slowness. Questions didn’t get set aside. There wasn’t a sense that “Of course that’s a problem, but that’s not the argument we are chasing.” I felt what distinguished philosophy in the way that they did it was that the hardest questions were always the questions to worry about: if you could ask the question—if it was a well-founded question—then it was worth spending as much time as the question warranted.
BH: Given that philosophy is often talked about as being so male-dominated, and you're one of these women pioneers in philosophy, I'm curious to know: what was your experience like? Did you feel self-conscious about what you were doing at that time?
Well, I certainly felt self-conscious about what I was doing, as a woman, and I certainly felt that the institutions had to change. But there’s something about the way in which, even when I was younger, I negotiated things that didn’t provoke overt sexist reactions to me. So no, I didn’t have as hard an experience as other women did. By the time I finished being a graduate student at Harvard, there were more women (I had been maybe the second or third). Numbers made a difference, but even so, being a woman at Harvard wasn’t easy. That I had an easier time surely had a lot to do with the particular people I worked with—Rawls and Cavell. I never felt that either of them had anything other than respect for me. (It also helped that I had a very active political life outside the department.)
BH: Did you also feel that going into your first position at MIT?
Yes, I thought MIT was all right for me too, but the big difference there was Judy Thomson. It’s a whole other experience to have a senior woman philosopher as a colleague. She didn’t have an easy time as a woman in the profession, and I am sure that contributed to the ferocity of her support for me. I can’t express how much that mattered.
BH: Do you have any advice for UCLA students?
Women have to work at making themselves be present to others as equals. To speak: to always be prepared and to speak effectively. I know that many undergraduate women feel undervalued in the classroom, and that many of them find it difficult to get into the conversation, or feel talked over. Many get depressed or angry, and neither helps. The best advice we can give is: even so, make yourself talk! Just make it happen. Come to class with a question written out and make yourself ask it. And if you make yourself do it, over and over, it will begin to happen more easily. It’s not fair, but it can be done. As an undergraduate, I was shy about speaking up. I still am. I work against it. If I go to a talk in the department I think: “Oh no, I have to ask a question.” Since I have to, I do it. I’ve gotten better at it, I think. So my advice is: take advantage of the opportunity to work on skills. You can survive embarrassment. The same advice goes for women graduate students as well. You wind up taking yourself more seriously.
BH: Why Kant in particular?
I love the close reading of hard texts, and I’m pretty good at it. My attraction to Kant’s ethics is almost hackneyed: it’s about the ideas of autonomy, independence, a kind of authority of self that’s earned by getting things right. Kant is very good about the creative tension between individual and society in a nicely pre-Hegelian way. It’s a powerful moral vision, especially for women, even if Kant himself wasn’t the most attractive human being. There’s a strong Kantian current in feminist thought coming out in Catharine MacKinnon and a strong connection of Kant as a root to understanding some of the ethical dimensions of Marx.
BH: What sort of work are you doing now?
One of the (unintended) legacies of Rawls has been to create a division between political and moral philosophy. Partly this came from a concern of his, late in is work, to have a conception of political philosophy that didn’t depend on buying into shared moral premises. I respect that concern for the diversity of moral views. But I think the unintended consequence—the thought that you can do normative thinking about interpersonal morality without imbedding it in an account of social and political norms (and vice versa)—is a mistake. They are inextricably connected, both in the way that we live and the way that we should be thinking about the way that we live. So if we’re going to be thinking about killing and letting die—even the trolley is someplace—I want to understand more about the social and political understanding of the value of a life. I don’t think in terms of intrinsic values, but of values as connected to norms of people living together, working things out in a rational way. Right now I am trying to finish a book, called The Moral Habitat, that works out a Kantian ethics that keeps the political and the interpersonal together as a unified moral project we have in common. Political notions of property and law shape the way we see what we can do, down to such smaller matters as giving gifts and expressing gratitude, being friends, and providing help.
BH: Last question: what do you love about UCLA philosophy?
A lot! I came to UCLA because there were people here I thought I would learn from, and that’s been true. I thought it would be exciting to be colleagues with people like Tyler [Burge] and David [Kaplan], and that I would become a better philosopher by learning from them. I admire the ambition of the department to be a community of equals. There is all through the department a level of seriousness about the subject that is very high. Faculty and students are interested in fundamental questions; they are willing to take their time. People don’t publish a ton of stuff just because they can. So for me, it’s being in a community where I share its deepest values (or so I think). And I love that very senior faculty teach a lot of undergraduates—that they are committed to teaching undergraduates. I think it’s a great gift—we’re good teachers, and it’s wonderful for students at any level to see philosophy done at its best. I shouldn’t leave out the graduate students—wonderful teachers and philosophers I learn from all the time. So at UCLA I get to be a student and a teacher. What could be better?