Issues in Philosophy Why Philosophy Needs Literature: Interview with Alice Crary

Why Philosophy Needs Literature: Interview with Alice Crary

Alice Crary is a moral philosopher. She is currently Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, and her most recent book is Inside Ethics: On the Demands of Moral Thought (Harvard, 2016).  I spoke with Alice about why philosophy needs literature, humanities, and the arts.

Why do you think that philosophy (in general) needs literature, the humanities, and other arts?  

The answer to that question goes to the heart of my recent book Inside Ethics which is—this is one way of putting it—an argument for placing greater importance on the humanities, including literature and the other arts, within moral philosophy in particular. I bring out how we need these disciplines’ non-neutral methods to arrive at the kinds of empirical images of human beings, and also of animals, that we seek in ethics. One of my core claims is that, absent humanistic methods, we can’t bring clearly into view certain egregious wrongs to human beings and to animals.

There is a moral here that extends beyond ethics. I set out to challenge ingrained ideas about how we get the world into view in a manner pertinent to ethics, showing that humanistic and literary contributions are immediately relevant. Along the way, I contest received beliefs about what objectivity and rationality are like. What emerges is a lesson that has application in every part of philosophy—a lesson about needing to widen our understanding of the objective world, and of the types of thinking capable of revealing it. In the book, I bring these ideas to bear, for instance, on philosophy of mind, arguing that our thinking has to reflect this new framework if we are to do justice to mental phenomena.

How did you come to appreciate literature, humanities, and the arts?  

My interests in these domains as decisive for philosophy developed relatively late, when I was already in graduate school, in the mid 1990s. I was at the University of Pittsburgh, and my partner was living in Boston. To endure the drive back and forth between the two cities—I think it took me about eleven hours—I started checking out books-on-tape from the university library. The collection was limited, slanted heavily toward the British novel, but not bad. I listened to, for instance, the Brontës, George Elliot, Forster, Austen, Dickens and Henry James. I also listened to criticism, biography and history. I was hooked, and to this day I overindulge in audiobooks.

But in those days, outside the car, I would sometimes start a novel and not sleep for a few days until I had finished it. A friend of mine said: “If you’re going to do that, you had better make it part of your research.” It was good advice.

And just a little bit later, while still a graduate student, I spent a year at Harvard, where I worked as a teaching assistant for Stanley Cavell’s big film course, and began in earnest an education in film.

It wasn’t long before I realized that what I was reading and watching was exciting for me in large part on account of my philosophical interests. At the time I was exploring—in relation to strands of 20th century British and American moral philosophy, and also in relation to phenomenology—conceptions of cognitive and moral development according to which our ability to understand morally and politically salient aspects of the world is tied essentially to the growth of sensibility. Some of the literary works and films I was exploring invited imaginative engagement in situations foreign to me, and this made it possible to bring into focus relationships and circumstances in my life that I hadn’t understood. So I had in my own experience a model for ideas about moral and intellectual formation that had already struck me as very plausible.

What works outside of academic philosophy have been the biggest influences on your thinking?  

It’s an interesting question—I hadn’t thought about my work specifically in these terms. Although there are some works to which I return at intervals, different works have been important for me at different times.

As I was arriving at some of my views about ethics and connecting them with literary themes—in graduate school—I was also starting to seriously explore social criticism, especially feminist social criticism. Together with other things I was reading in moral epistemology, I read, for instance, Marilyn Frye, bell hooks, Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, and, together with other literature I was reading, I went through works of authors such as Susan Glaspell, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Doris Lessing and Toni Morrison. Many of these authors were very important to me as I first tried to make sense of feminist ideas and first got involved in feminist politics.

Before I left graduate school, I began to think about questions of animals and ethics, about the awfulness of things human beings do to animals, and about how some of the ethical traditions I had mastered fail to equip us to talk about our relations to animals. Searching for alternatives, I found inspiration in, among other works, poems of Wislawa Szymborska’s, stories of Tolstoy’s and the writings of W.G. Sebald.

And more recently I have been thinking very specifically about discussions of disability, and of race, and these interests are reflected in the literary texts, histories and memoirs I have been reading…so, perhaps because my interests have continually developed, it doesn’t seem natural to me to point to any work—or small set of works—and say that they have had the greatest influence.

Do you have a favorite work of literature or art?

I can remember being passionate about particular works at particular times, but I am also always searching, always looking and always learning from the next thing.

What are the risks of not considering the arts and humanities in academic philosophy?

There are aspects of the world that we can only bring into view if we go in for the kind of non-neutral thinking that is the mark of work in the arts and humanities. So, if we neglect these domains, there is a straightforward risk of depriving ourselves of a good understanding of our lives and the world around us, and so of philosophizing in an unproductive, blinkered manner.

I want to add to this a reflection about—laudable and needed—recent efforts to challenge the shameful homogeneity of philosophy, and to be more inclusive of members of historically underrepresented groups. Many valuable discussions of these matters focus on how to restructure our institutions in ways that minimize things like implicit bias and stereotype threat. And in these discussions there’s often a recognition that the science-oriented way in which philosophy in the analytic tradition is mostly pursued needs to be taken into account in explaining the role played by harmful gender and racial stereotypes. It’s somewhat less common to ask whether we ought to be assuming, in our philosophical research programs, that the only empirical methods we require are ethically neutral methods of the sorts associated with the sciences. Yet, isn’t it possible that analytic philosophy in its current guise falls short with regard to inclusiveness, not only because it happens to align with damaging societal schemas that should by all means be contested, but because its methodological precepts exclude legitimate modes of expression that some members of underrepresented groups find key to what they want to say? The things I have been saying about bringing the humanities and arts into philosophy give us a way to take this possibility seriously—as it is now taken seriously in significant work in the area of social epistemology, for instance, in the work of the loose family of thinkers whom Charles Mills has described as championing ‘alternative’ epistemologies.

What sort of impact do you hope that your thinking will have in public discourse and legislation? 

Let me answer with reference to Inside Ethics in particular. I hope that the book will have a galvanizing effect on public discussions about—to mention the book’s central cases—the lives of cognitively severely disabled human beings and the lives of animals. I hope it gets more people to recognize that the mere fact of being human, quite apart from the possession of individual cognitive capacities, is morally important—and that the mere fact of being an animal is as well.

I do recognize that, like many academic works in philosophy, my book is likely to be read by a relatively small audience of people who are already preoccupied with related topics in moral philosophy. I say this without being at all cynical about the value of this kind of philosophical work. Public debates about individuals with intellectual impairments, as well as about animals, to a very striking extent bear the imprint of the approaches to moral philosophy that I argue against in Inside Ethics. At a fundamental level our public culture is in conversation with our philosophical culture. Transformative contributions to our philosophical culture are a key part of a larger strategy for changing our public culture in productive and liberating ways.

Photo: Memorial to Slaughtered animals in Wroclaw, Poland, courtesy of Alice Crary.


If you would like to submit a contribution or have an idea for an interview, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us via the submission form here.

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.



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