Work/Life Balance APA Member Interview: Elyse Purcell

APA Member Interview: Elyse Purcell

Elyse Purcell is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oneonta and the Secretary-Treasurer of the APA Central Division. Her research focuses on how various forms of disability present challenges for identity, moral personhood, virtue and social justice. Follow her research interests on

What excites you about philosophy?

The search for truth and knowledge. I grew up in Texas and was raised by conservative Christian parents. After the age of six, we no longer celebrated Halloween. My religious upbringing presented a real challenge for me, because I loved science and learning. In high school, a close friend of mine became concerned with the lack of access to education that was available to children in Texas at the time and we began talking about religion, science, politics and metaphysical topics. As a true Socratic interlocutor, he challenged everything I had been taught and made me question what I had learned. At that point, the fire for my desire for knowledge and truth had been sparked. At the age of sixteen, I left high school and began taking college courses to follow this pursuit. While at the university, I fell in love with learning, i.e., learning about anything and everything. I spent time working with university professors in chemistry, economics, psychology, dramatic arts, and philosophy. By my senior year in college, I took a graduate class on the ethics and politics of the Scottish Enlightenment. I realized philosophy was the path for me, and so many years later I ended up with a PhD. I believe philosophy has so much to offer the world: as a way of life, as a calling and, in my case, as a savior for those who do not have access to better educational systems when they are young. This search for truth is what animates my dedication to the discipline of philosophy and my service with the American Philosophical Association.

What topic do you think is under explored in philosophy?

I think one of the most under explored topics is philosophy of disability. When I was in graduate school, I lost a family member I loved dearly to brain cancer. Watching the friendly, caring and intelligent woman I knew battle this debilitating disease changed my perspective on life profoundly. She lived in a poor section of Mexico and did not have access to a van with a wheelchair lift. Instead, her husband and son would have her step on a little brown box and then they would lift her into the passenger seat. She lost vision in both of her eyes just before her eldest daughter was married; I remember how she sat at the front of the church when her daughter walked down the aisle, and how she cried tears of joy and sorrow because she could not see her. At that time, I was preparing for my dissertation proposal and doctoral comprehensive exams. When she lost the battle in February of 2010, I realized the original dissertation I had proposed was no longer worth writing. I went to my advisers, Dr. Richard Kearney and Dr. Marina McCoy, and asked them if I could change my thesis topic. Both professors were supportive and helped me find scholars outside Boston College in the field of disability research. I received support and encouragement from Dr. Eva Kittay and Dr. Metchild Nagel. Dr. Nagel advised me to develop one of my dissertation chapters for an anthology called “Oppression’s Three New Faces: Rethinking Iris Young’s ‘Five Faces of Oppression’ for Disability Theory.” When I defended my dissertation, Flourishing Bodies: Disability, Virtue, Happiness, in January of 2013, I dedicated the piece to the loving memory of the family member I had loved and lost. The loss of someone close to me provided the impetus for much of my research on the problems of moral status and how a just state aids those with disabilities.

What’s your personal philosophy?

Since college, I have always been inspired by the existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. When I was pursuing my Master’s in philosophy, I worked the evening shift in customer service at a jewelry store in Boston. This job was incredibly boring but gave me ample time to study. Two of the books I read at night were Being and Nothingness and The Second Sex. Each time an irate customer would come to my desk and complain, I would hold my temper and try my best to resolve the problem. Sometimes the customer would yell at me, blame me or insult me. I would think to myself, “You have chosen to be here. You have the freedom to choose to leave at any time.” This perspective helped me survive graduate school and the philosophy job market (especially when an interview went badly). I would tell myself, “Philosophy is a choice. You can leave at any time. It does not owe you anything. If you want to make millions in finance or be a barista at Starbucks, the choice is yours.” While I disagree with Sartre that we are radically free (and would love to argue with him over this), the philosophical concept has helped me survive the challenging times of graduate school, the Great Recession and my father’s battle and victory with cancer.

If you could have a one-hour conversation with any philosopher or historical figure from any time, who would you pick and what topic would you choose?

Iris Marion Young. I have wrestled emotionally with Young’s work for almost a decade. Her work has challenged me to be more critical of certain ideologies and societal practices. Her piece, “Throwing Like a Girl,” both irritated me and inspired me when I was in graduate school. I could understand her account of feminine bodily comportment from two different perspectives. On the one hand, I had been a soccer player for eleven years, so my developed athleticism gave me an independent and confident stride and bodily comportment, which was very much “not like a girl.” On the other hand, however, my mother had been concerned with my lack of femininity in junior high and had placed me into a southern charm school for two months to teach me the “ways of being feminine.” Young’s argument for the social construction of gender and embodiment was a lived truth for me. If I had the opportunity to have a conversation with her, it would be on the development of her theories of social construction and the politics of difference for disability and the intersectional concerns including, but not limited to, race, sexuality, gender, age, class and ethnicity.

Which super power would you like to have?

If I could have any superpower, it would be the power of shapeshifting like Mystique in the X-Men. One of my favorite books is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I was blessed with receiving a Great Books education from the University of Dallas as an undergraduate and enjoyed translating the stories in the Metamorphoses from Latin in an intermediate course taught by Dr. Lee Fratantuono. The piece is a classical work on shapeshifting. One of my favorite myths is the story of Daphne being pursued by Apollo, but before she is caught, she is transformed into a laurel tree. While Daphne’s transformation is only possible with the help of the gods, Mystique’s superpower of shapeshifting is a source of her empowerment and strength which can be used for good or evil. I would generally use the power of shapeshifting for good, but I would also be tempted to shake up a few of my classroom lectures by shapeshifting into different philosophers for mischief and impact. I often teach Peter Singer’s “Solution to World Poverty” in my introductory ethics course, so showing up to class as Peter Singer for a day might be highly effective and entertaining.

What’s your poison?

I grew up in the South, so I am a whiskey and bourbon gal. My favorite drinks include the Old Fashioned (without the orange peel) and the Mint Julep.

What advice do you wish someone had given you?

Be fearless. Philosophy is a path to a better life, not a better career. When I was finishing my PhD and on the job market, I had a conversation with a friend whose specialization was in Medieval History. While we all know that the job market for philosophy is dire, the job market for medievalists in history is even worse. She had completed her PhD, found no job to speak of, and then began a successful nine-year career in real estate. She kept up her research and involvement in various societies as an independent scholar. After nine years, a tenure-track position in her field opened up and she left real estate to become a professor. In complete befuddlement, I asked her why she had taken the tenure-track position. She told me that medieval history was always what she had wanted to do, and why would she not do what she always wanted to do?

I have continued to hear similar stories to my friend’s from philosophers and scholars in other disciplines. Some have chosen to return to their fields in academic posts, while other have had the fearless courage to leave tenure-track or tenured positions to pursue other interests in spite of what their colleagues might think or say. It has been five years since I completed my PhD, and after spending three years on the academic job market, I have come to realize that I wish I had listened to this advice much sooner.  I have been blessed with the opportunities to work in various careers in both the private sector and the non-profit world. There are plenty of jobs and careers such as tech, administration, finance, entrepreneurship, social advocacy, and consulting, that provide excellent pay, benefits and opportunities for advancement. And many of the skills of philosophy as a discipline transfer into these career paths. The truth is, while an academic post may not be the best path for some, the discipline of philosophy will always be there for you regardless of the path you choose – whether to help advance one’s career, to help one navigate challenging decisions, to give courage in the face of adversity or hardship, or to help one escape an intractable life dilemma. Philosophy teaches us not to accept what the status quo tells us a good life is, but instead to ask, “what could that good life be?”

Find out more about Elyse here.


This section of the APA Blog is designed to get to know our fellow philosophers a little better. We’re including profiles of APA members that spotlight what captures their interest not only inside the office, but also outside of it. We’d love for you to be a part of it, so please contact us via the interview nomination form here to nominate yourself or a friend.

Skye Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of 'Existentialism and Romantic Love' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She lectures at Columbia University, Barnard College, and City College of New York, and tweets at @skye_cleary.

Skye Cleary
Skye Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of 'Existentialism and Romantic Love' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She lectures at Columbia University, Barnard College, and City College of New York, and tweets at @skye_cleary.


  1. It always interests me when a philosopher inspects and challenges their religious beliefs. If they go on to discard their religious beliefs, I’m always curious as to whether they then subject their new beliefs to the same process of inspection and challenge. As I’ve expressed in other threads, it seems to me atheism is as vulnerable to challenge as any religion. To me, those who challenge both perspectives with equal enthusiasm are the real philosophers.

    I’m not sure if Ms. Purcell has discarded her religious beliefs, and don’t need to know, but it seems she does have a strong belief in the power of knowledge. Is she willing to inspect and challenge that belief too? A compelling case can be made that our outdated “more is better” relationship with knowledge will inevitably lead to the collapse of civilization and suffering beyond our ability to imagine. Do such topics interest her, or is knowledge her new “one true way” whose infinite value she takes to be an obvious given? I can’t tell from the article, so these are questions, not assertions.

    I find it interesting that the first story in the Bible addresses our relationship with knowledge. I’m not religious, and don’t believe that story to be literally true, but it is intriguing that an ancient story written by some sheepherder 3,000 years ago seems to pretty closely track where I see us today, about to expel ourselves from the Garden Of Eden of civilization, due to our greed for knowledge without limit. The similarity proves nothing, and surely there are many competing interpretations of that story. But still, I find myself somewhat suspicious of any notion that religion is old and bad, whereas science and knowledge is new and good.

    Ms. Purcell wishes to be told to be fearless. While I would normally offer such advice, I’m coming to question my own belief here. Being fearless may not show appropriate respect to the awesome power of reason. Sometimes reason can open a pandora’s box of inconvenient insights that are beyond our ability to successfully manage. The life story of Nietzsche comes to mind, a fearless thinker, whose courage led him in to insanity. Is it rational to risk insanity for the sake of some idea?

    My own attempts at fearlessness have revealed to me that intellectual elites have no more idea of where we’re going as a species than the guy repairing my car. I don’t want to learn this, because like any person I want someone who knows what they’re doing to be in charge. But having opened the pandora’s box, I must now look at the inconvenient reality that reason is continually shoving in my face, and truthfully, my perhaps foolish fearlessness and what it has revealed is making me at least a tad mad, in all meanings of the word.

    Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.

  2. Ms. Purcell writes, “Philosophy is a path to a better life, not a better career.”

    To quibble a bit, we might edit this to “reason is a path to a better life”. Philosophy as the term is commonly used, and reason, are not automatically the same thing.

    That aside, let’s get on to the better career part. There is no law of nature which prevents philosophy from being an exciting career path full of opportunity. We could in fact argue, and I would myself argue, that highly educated professionals who are expert in the use of reason are desperately needed by a society racing in to ever more unfamiliar territory.

    The thing is though, if one wants to make philosophy in to a career, an activity which generates income, one is entering the business world whether one wants to look at it that way or not. Business involves identifying the needs of the customer, as perceived by the customer, and then serving those needs better than the competition.

    Your bottom line customer is the general public, because that is who has the money philosophers seek to earn. The existence of various middlemen such as universities should not obscure that fact.

    Does the public voluntarily spend their own hard earned dollars on the purchase of the writings of academic philosophers? Generally speaking, they do not. And that is because the customer accurately perceives that such writings are typically not designed to serve their needs, but rather the academic philosopher’s needs. The general public may not always be able to articulate and explain this reality to the degree that some loudmouth comment section blowhards can, but they still see it, as proven by their lack of purchase.

    And so, by use of the power of reason, philosophers seeking better career opportunity might find their way to this bottom line question. Are you willing and able to serve the customer’s needs, as the customer perceives their needs, or not. Yes? Or no?

    If not, ok, there’s no crime in that, no obligation involved, but perhaps reason would then suggest another career choice where one is inspired to serve the customer’s needs. The worst choice would seem to be to make a huge investment in a business one does not actually want to participate in, or worse yet, to not even realize that any activity which generates income is in the end a business.

    Finally, it might be observed that there is an inherent conflict between philosophy, and the philosophy business. Academic philosophers generally have to color within the lines of the ivory tower group consensus, or they risk being pushed out of the ivory tower by their peers.

    And the thing is, coloring within the lines of any group consensus is not really what philosophy is about, at least in the opinion of this poster. A “real” philosopher, as defined here, will be continually exploring the boundaries of any group consensus they find themselves in, and if one conducts an effective exploration that’s inevitably going to make one at least somewhat unpopular. And being unpopular is bad for business.


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