Francey Russell is a Postdoctoral Associate in the Humanities and Philosophy departments at Yale University, after receiving her PhD from the University of Chicago. She works mainly in ethics and moral psychology, especially in Kant and Freud, with special interests in moral self-knowledge and self-opacity, moral repair, and the relationship between ethics and aesthetics. She also writes art criticism for the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Boston Review.
What excites you about philosophy?
The fact that philosophy cannot quite settle the question of what it is or how it’s done. Each form that philosophy has taken—dialogue, confession, aphorism, essay (and, literature? film?)—can be viewed as a new attempt to answer these questions. I think this diversity and constitutive uncertainty also explains why philosophy can sometimes be, unfortunately, a “border control” discipline, invested in adjudicating what “counts” as philosophy and what doesn’t. I think we absolutely should ask what philosophy is and what could count as doing it—that is a fascinating question. But this is a properly philosophical question, the answer to which constitutes a substantive philosophical claim. What seems unfortunate is when the difficulty and responsibility of this question is sidestepped and reduced to a territorial, disciplinary dispute.
What are you working on right now?
I’m revising two papers, one on Kant on self-conceit and another that argues that apologies are paradoxical. In terms of new work, I am beginning a paper that tries to articulate the idea of a “critical” moral psychology, and another on the idea of aesthetic self-knowledge. I’ve also been thinking about the aesthetic and political significance of seriality in the Dardennes brothers’ films, and hope to get a chance to put something together soon.
What topic do you think is under explored in philosophy?
Bernard Williams said that to discover the right style is to discover what you are really trying to do. We’re often told that an idea or argument isn’t clear until you can say it clearly. But this isn’t just a matter of moving from confusion to clarity, but of finding the style proper to the idea. Ideas call for particular modes of expression; certain ideas simply cannot be expressed in certain styles. I think the depth of Nietzsche’s commitment to finitude, for example, can only be expressed in a style that frustrates the impulse to extract, summarize, and reify his ideas; instead one must move through his precise articulations, repeatedly, in time. So, literally, his ideas take time. I think reflecting seriously on style in philosophy is especially important now, as a certain, narrow philosophical voice and mode of writing has become quite pervasive in journal articles. Not all thoughts can be expressed in that quite specific argumentative voice, and it would be such a huge loss if we were to conclude that such thoughts are thereby not philosophical.
What is your favorite film of all time?
Some favorites include: Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, Sally Potter’s Orlando, the Dardennes’ The Kid With a Bike, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story, plus a very strange animated movie that formed me as a kid called The Last Unicorn. But my official favorite is Todd Haynes’ 1995 [SAFE], which straddles horror, science-fiction, melodrama, and art film genres. The movie is about a wealthy white suburban housewife named Carol (Julianne Moore) who, inexplicably, starts reacting to her environment with increasingly severe physical symptoms. Even though the film centers on Carol, she is totally opaque, both to herself and to the viewer (this opacity is achieved not just through narrative but formally: Haynes often films Moore from behind, or swamped by imposing interiors). Eventually Carol leaves LA for a remote wellness center, where she finds a vocabulary to make sense of her experience, in a community that seems to understand her. And yet when Carol does finally elaborate herself, using the discourse of the wellness center, this is presented not as an achievement or insight but as a loss; and the moment of greatest existential honesty involves Carol acknowledging her own opacity, and can thus be seen as emphatically anti-epiphantic. The film works through so many ideas: self-knowledge, gender, labor, anxiety, uncanniness…I recommend it to everyone.
What would your childhood self say if someone told you that you would grow up to be a philosopher?
She really wouldn’t believe it! I was a hyper kid and not a very strong student in high school or as an undergraduate. I also didn’t really know what graduate school in the humanities was, so that makes it hard to project oneself into a possible future (this is something I’ve also seen quite a bit with students: many know they love philosophy but have no idea what that could mean for a life). But even though I didn’t think of myself as academic, my thinking naturally tended to go fairly abstract or conceptual. For a long time I found this to be a bit alienating, so when I finally clicked into philosophy, it really felt like, oh there’s a method and a history and a community for this kind of thinking, which felt very special and grounding.
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?
Freud. What’s exhilarating about his work is that he was writing at the limits of what he could think, which—given that he was thinking about the unconscious—turns out to be the limits of what anyone can think. I would want to talk to him about what it was like to theorize in the dark like that, what he really thinks about drives, and why he thinks sexuality has such strange significance for us. In a footnote in Civilization and its Discontents he wrote “sex is a biological fact which, although it is of extraordinary importance in mental life, is hard to grasp psychologically.” It is extraordinarily important and yet we cannot make sense of it—why is this and how should this way of thinking about sexuality inform how we think about human being?
If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know?
I wrote my dissertation and continue to work on the idea of self-opacity—our failure to know or understand ourselves or what we do, and the ethical and existential significance of this. I want to take self-opacity seriously in thinking about agency and moral psychology, while retaining the idea that these concepts need to be analyzed internally, from inside the first-person perspective. Some questions that arise are: how does self-opacity show up from the first-person perspective? And what does it mean to know ourselves as the creatures who fail to know themselves? Another question that I began to think about is: are there values that hinge on our being to some degree self-opaque? What human goods does self-opacity make possible? This is where I find a connection with aesthetic experience. But because of all this, I’ve sort of committed myself to turning down the offer of the crystal ball.
What is your least favorite type of fruit and why?
The pineapple, it is just so extreme in every respect.
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