Michaela McSweeney is an assistant professor at Boston University. She works (mainly) on the metaphysics and epistemology of logic, but is also interested in all sorts of other things, including metaphysics more generally, methodology, feminist philosophy, political philosophy, and philosophy of science.
What excites you about philosophy?
I’m really excited by “big questions” in philosophy; the main ones I’ve been thinking about are “what is logic?” and “what does it have to do with reality?”, but I think lots of them are just so gripping. The part of philosophy I love the most is the creative aspect, and in many ways I think about philosophy as fundamentally a creative thing, and so I really love big, beautiful, systematic theories, even when I don’t think they are true. I’m excited by lots of things about philosophy, but really, when it comes down to it, why I’m here is that I feel like I have a lot of things—all part of a big-picture view about reality and our place within it—that I want to write down, even if only two people end up reading them. So, the real answer to this question is: I’m excited by my own projects, and figuring out how they all fit together, and developing my own views.
But I also love reading and thinking about other people’s views. I’m grateful to be in a department with a lot of colleagues who are historians, or at least are better historically informed than I am; even though I don’t work on history myself, the history of philosophy is full of discussion of “big questions”, and I love learning about what my colleagues are writing and thinking about. I am also excited about learning from my students; recently that has involved learning some really cool things about the philosophy of biology from one of our amazing grad students and learning way more about mathematical structuralism from one of our amazing undergrads. Finally, I’m excited about teaching philosophy; I think we undersell how magical, important, and life-altering teaching philosophy can be—if things go right, both for us and for students.
What are you working on right now?
A bunch of stuff I’m really excited about! A book manuscript where I spell out and argue for my views about the metaphysics and epistemology of logic; a multiple-paper project about abstract objects that is directly connected to, but only part of which will be incorporated into, the book manuscript; a paper about (what I claim is the right kind of) anti-exceptionalism in logic; a paper about metaphysical pluralism, two papers about grounding; and teaching intro to philosophy (which is my favorite class to teach) and philosophy of sport (which is a new class to me and has been really fun).
I’m also working on a bunch of stuff I’m less excited about. Mostly, grading and answering emails.
What topic do you think is under explored in philosophy?
Let me answer a different question, which is what I don’t want us to lose sight of while nobly pursuing underexplored areas of philosophy. I think that recent pushes towards public and social philosophy are so, so important: we really need to be engaging with the public, and we really need to be addressing the (incredibly depressing) social and political issues that we are faced with.
At the same time, though, I think of philosophy as partly a creative process and discipline, and I think it would be a tremendous shame if we lost sight of that part of things. I love metaphysics in part because it is one of the parts of philosophy that allows for some of the most creativity; there are fewer rules (or at least, there should be fewer rules—turns out that sadly there are lots of rules for what kinds of things will get published), for the very same reason that many people think metaphysics is worthless: it’s unclear what “the data” are, or whether there are any data, that we are theorizing about, and also unclear what the correct methodology is. I don’t think these kinds of worries are actually particular to metaphysics, because I think they carry over to basically all of human inquiry; and I don’t think they de-value human inquiry. When I think about what I value about human inquiry, an awful lot of that is about what it tells us about our relationship to our world, and what it tells us about us, and also that it is often really beautiful and fascinating and incredibly complex. In the end, I think that super abstract, theoretical philosophy can and does help inform the more obviously applicable-to-real-life parts of philosophy, but I also think it is valuable for its own sake, in the same way that other arts are.
What common philosophical dilemma do you think has a clear answer?
My sense is that people who think that longstanding, or oft-discussed, philosophical problems have clear answers probably need to do more philosophy. I tell my students that, and I generally try to take the advice I give my students. When I think something seems obvious, it is almost always because I haven’t thought about it enough, or engaged with others’ thoughts about it enough.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
Getting through grad school. I had an awful time in grad school, for a lot of different reasons: I was incredibly insecure, but also incredibly angry at other people who covered up their insecurity with bravado; I constantly thought about dropping out and doing something that mattered more—I was horrified by how crappy people were to one another, and how unfair everything was, and even more horrified when people would suggest that it was “the same everywhere”—it’s not. No work experience I’ve ever had—and I’ve been around the block, work-wise—is like this. I also went through a bunch of extraordinarily hard stuff in my own life during both college and grad school, and that threw a wrench in things often. I felt like no one understood me and like I was completely out of place, an alien. I also felt like a traitor to my own values, a lot of the time. Maybe almost all of the time. To be clear, none of this was because of my particular department; I would have felt the same way anywhere.
Two things made me get through it: the incredibly wonderful and committed mentors I had (in particular, my especially incredible advisor, Shamik Dasgupta), and the fact that I was genuinely really excited about and committed to my dissertation project. I learned, in grad school, that what I really want is to just be writing. All the bad stuff had to do with things that had nothing to do with my passion for philosophy. So I held on to that passion, and tried my best (with many tears and so much anger and lots of self-doubt) to ignore everything else.
It turns out that, at least in my experience, almost none of the badness of grad school carries over to having a tenure-track job. Even though there is pressure to get tenure, you are no longer trapped in an incubator with a bunch of scared, insecure, overconfident, often straight up mean people. And even though you are way, way busier, you can also exercise so much more control over how you live your life, who you spend your time with, and what kind of person you want to be. (Now, of course, it’s all about finding the time to do my own work, about which I’m still very passionate.)
What are your goals and aspirations outside work?
Ask me again once I get tenure.
What’s your top tip or advice for APA members reading this?
I got a lot of advice when I was in graduate school—less so now—that, given who I am, basically amounted to “don’t be yourself”: present yourself this way or that way; don’t always offer your honest opinion of something; don’t wear this outfit; compromise; suck it up; work with person X who is morally problematic; don’t complain about this injustice, etc. And this advice was often couched as “this is the only way you can possibly be successful”. This made it seem sort of like a threat to me. (Though I hold no ill will towards the people who gave it to me, some of whom are friends.)
The best possible advice I can offer is not to follow the kind of advice I just described. Even if you don’t share the particular values I just described, don’t let people make you believe that you have to make compromises about whatever it is that matters to you the most, about your deepest moral and personal commitments. You don’t. Nothing is worth doing that for; if you have values that you must completely and continuously compromise in order to “be successful” in something, then that job and that success will not make you happy. This should be obvious to us, but I think academic careers suck you in so much that somehow it is not obvious in this context.
I thought a lot about whether this was the right thing to say here because I know I am incredibly lucky to have a wonderful job (which hired me despite—or more hopefully in part because of—me completely ignoring all the advice of the form “change who you are”), and so perhaps this is all easy for me to say looking back on things. But that just makes me want this to be advice to the profession as a whole than to grad students and other people trying to get tenure track jobs; the advice is something like to re-think both what we expect of young philosophers to be successful (sometimes success will be not even trying to get a tenure track job in philosophy, because you realize it isn’t what you want, and we need to recognize that and de-stigmatize it) and what we treat as necessary for success in philosophy (those who do want a tenure track job in philosophy shouldn’t have to compromise everything that matters to them to get it, even if we can’t really control how competitive the market is).
In my mind a necessary condition on a successful, decently happy life is that it doesn’t require you to compromise too much about your most sacred values. I think we should be trying to attract people whose most sacred values include, for example, caring about the well-being of the communities (not just philosophical ones) of which they are a part, and not being willing to trade this off for personal professional “success”. If that is right we should work harder to create an environment in which caring about the well-being of the communities of which we are all part (our families, departments, our universities, the philosophical community more generally, our towns, cities, states, etc.) is valued. This is just an example—what matters to me is that we figure out how to allow (and encourage) people to be decent, good, authentic people instead of making it seem like the only way to succeed in philosophy is to give up certain core values (often, the right values, and ones which we need more of in the philosophical community) that we might have.
Find out more about Michaela here!
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