Carrie Jenkins is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, Canada, who has developed a public audience through her research on the Philosophy of Love.
The Public Life of the Mind spoke to Carrie to learn about her experiences as a public philosopher.
PLM: Hi Carrie, so to start could you talk a bit about your general philosophical background?
Carrie: Let's see, so my PhD was in the epistemology of basic arithmetic and for the first few years of my career - really up to the first 10 years - I was focused on a bundle of issues around knowledge of apriori, or apparently apriori, knowable facts like arithmetical knowledge, logical knowledge. I was interested in metaphysics as well. The metaphysics of arithmetic was part of my motivation for the epistemological views and then I got beyond that interested in other kinds of metaphysics; questions about realism and anti-realism, how much of the world is out there compared to projected by us, that kind of bundle of issues. And then a bunch of related questions about how language works to capture or depict the world and also how concepts work, so tools for thinking as well as tools for speaking. I think that's a good summary.
From that, I transitioned to, well, at the moment I have this focal project on the metaphysics of love. Basically, one way to put it is the interactions between the biology of love and the social construction of, especially, romantic love. That's kind of been the first phase of the love project represented in [What Love Is and What It Could Be ] and now I'm transitioning into thinking about some connections between love and other things, including love and happiness; the idea of a happy ever after is especially weighing on my mind at the moment. Also, connections between love and agency, so, responsibility, control, action, as opposed to just feelings which a lot of the work tends to concentrate on.
PLM: It's interesting to hear how your initial work on the metaphysics of love is developing. What Love Is was fantastic and from reading it you can tell there are so many routes it could develop down.
Carrie: It's kind of taking off from the book's last section about the 'Choose Your Own Adventure' idea, which broadens out into this work on agency and choice and responsibility and control and all of those things.
PLM: So, turning now to your public philosophy experiences, what was interesting going through the questions beforehand was that with others interviewed so far their experiences in this area have generally involved one kind of foray into something. That is to say, what they're doing in one instance is their public philosophy and what they're doing elsewhere is their, well, not so much 'private' philosophy but...
Carrie: Academic philosophy?
PLM: Definitely academic but also... Well, actually in these particular cases it's an academic/public distinction, yeah.
Carrie: I'm never quite sure what the opposite of public philosophy is either! I mean, it's not exactly private but, what is that?
PLM: Right? Is it even possible that you can just sit there philosophising on your own, or even when you're doing it on your own whether you're really not engaging in a kind of conversation perhaps? But, yeah, thinking where to focus on with your work in public philosophy initially led to, well, What Love Is, as it is a book for a public audience. Yet, the book itself is part of two other things: part of this wider research project into the metaphysics of love and then also part of the additional 'public' elements of your research, your podcast and so on. In addition to that, there are all the things which can start to blur the idea of when you are doing philosophy; the media requests and interviews et cetera.
Carrie: I do think that's a really good way of putting it - the blurring of... I mean, that is getting to the heart of some of my feelings about this stuff which is that there is not a sharp line and that it may be not too healthy to think about there being a sharp line there, between what we think of as public philosophy and then other philosophy. Really, I'm just trying to do philosophy in a way that moves within the academy and beyond the academy and I'm not doing one thing for over here and another thing for over there. I'm doing, you know, philosophy, and it looks in all those directions.
PLM: Definitely. It's clear that there can be - and that you yourself are engaged in - quite a seamless process of, as you say, moving from facing one direction to another. Just for those who aren't familiar, could you give a basic outline of your metaphysics of love project?
Carrie: So, the project has expanded as it's been going along but the way it started out was, it's interdisciplinary, so one of the things that it's trying to do is very consciously take input from outside of philosophy and use that in philosophising and thinking more broadly about the metaphysics of love. One of the focal questions is "what is love?", especially what is romantic love; the nature of romantic love - and it kind of ties back to those questions about realism and anti-realism, right - to what extent is it discovered out there in the world, to what extent is it created, projected. But using not just the existing philosophical canon but a lot of other things as well and especially creative writing, poetry specifically, as a means of communicating and thinking through ideas about love that may extend beyond the normative in a lot of directions.
The reason I started out looking at the intersection of philosophy and poetry was because I see something in common in those two practices. They overlap in a certain way around this idea of trying to say something that's not quite sayable yet, that we don't quite have the right concepts for yet but we're trying to work towards, trying to get there in some way, and so using poetry as a way into some of those ideas, as a way of exploring more than just unpacking the status quo - trying to look beyond that. This was helpful and what happened was that rapidly expanded into multidisciplinary interaction with not just creative writers but economists, literary theorists, people teaching in English departments and scientific work - both in psychology, neuroscience - all different kinds of inputs that it became obvious were relevant, right? And that needed to be brought into the bigger picture of what I was trying to do and trying to think about. That culminated in what I'm thinking of as this first phase, this dual-nature account [of love], which is inadequate in lots of ways because, of course, the two strands I talk about in the book are not the end of the story, but they are at least two of the main things I wanted to think about, the biological and the social dimensions of love.
But the project has a goal which is deeper than finding the answer to any question and this is the part where it has to move in the public sphere as well as just in the academy and that goal is to promote and to enable more conversation, philosophical conversation, about the nature of love and the possibilities for thinking about love as it manifests in people's real lives. The reason I say that conversation has to happen not just within closed academic communities but far beyond that, is because this is something that I think of as a practical matter, right? Not just an intellectual puzzle. It is an intellectual puzzle as well, but it's also something that is out there very dramatically influencing how people live and how their lives pan out. So, the goal of promoting thoughtful, informed, expansive conversation requires that public facing element and that's the reason why things like the podcast exist, for example, and the book and media interviews. I couldn't achieve any of those kinds of goals by just writing a monograph or journal articles.
You know, it almost ties back to your question as to whether there's such a thing as private philosophy, because, I'm coming more and more to understand philosophy, the nature of philosophy, as a conversation, as dialogue and not one person finding out the truth and then announcing it to everybody else. The way I see it, the more voices that are included then the more perspectives are included then the better philosophy is going.
PLM: When speaking to others doing public philosophy projects of quite varied kinds there is that similar experience that people tend to have, viewing it more conversationally. For some people that might have actually been their academic experience of philosophy but probably for many it is quite a revelation to realise, "Oh! That's a feature of philosophy!"
Carrie: Right! To realise, "That's a feature, not a problem!", that's good.
PLM: Definitely, and as you rightly say it's actually core to the process of the thing that you're trying to do anyway, to understand the world and so on.
Carrie: Yeah, yeah. The more perspectives you hear the more expansive your view of possibilities becomes and that's part of the reason why... You know, I know that some kinds of work are very specialised and require a lot of training to get into. I have that background in the philosophy of mathematics and that's just not something that, sadly, everybody wants to talk about! And that's okay. But there are other parts of philosophy and other ways of doing philosophy that are like that, that are expansive in that way and so it is partly a question of making space within the idea of what philosophy is for both kinds of work; the highly-specialised, knowing a background knowledge of a lot of things kind, and the kind that expands and seeks conversations that go as broad as they possibly can.
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PLM: So, given your experience with the book and the wider project but also the things that come par for the course of it being a public-facing thing, it'd be interesting to hear how you view this work in relation to other sorts of philosophical practice. In your interview with What it is like to be a Philosopher? last year, you talk about your willingness to send things out into the world and that that's connected to how you view philosophy as a process and a conversation and that, when we maintain or valorise the opposite we end up dismissing voices. We, as you said, "[...] destroy the kind of conversations that real philosophy consists in". If you want to move on feel free as you've already touched on this point, but did you want to expand on that idea of the practice?
Carrie: Let's see. I mean, there's a lot more that I could talk about under that heading. Maybe this is one useful thing to say: there's one conception of public philosophy that mirrors this ideology where the philosopher is the genius expert and they announce their truths and their findings or whatever. Sometimes that can spill over into the image of the public philosopher as a kind of pronouncer of 'deep truths' or, you know, fascinating theories or whatever. That conception I try hard to avoid and one of the reasons that can be tough is because, especially with something like love, often people are in the position of looking for what they think of as 'expertise' and that can happen for lots of reasons. Maybe they don't understand what's happening with love, they're confused and they want someone to tell them the answers or solve the problems, or what have you.
Quite often that search for an expert is happening, so like when people approach someone who presents in public as someone with academic interests in a subject matter and some training background in a discipline, they'll be approached in that light to provide that expertise. So I'll quite often find myself saying things like... Well, my main message ends up being, as it is in the book, that the goal here is not to passively receive some pearls of wisdom from the philosopher's mouth, but rather to continue that conversation, to maybe take some ideas about what's said - maybe you can use some of the concepts or the vocabulary that gets thrown around in these conversations - and think through these issues, or have those conversations with the people who matter to you to have the conversations with.
Part of that process is entering the sphere as a philosopher with some humility, right? Not as someone who's announcing things to the public but as someone who is in dialogue with other people. So for me, that's a very important part of the identity when I assume the role of public philosopher, that's a really key part of it. It's not just me standing on a podium and distributing, like, truth nuggets or something! That idea of a public philosopher is quite icky I think and even potentially a pretty dangerous thing, to treat someone in that way. So I don't ever really encourage any kind of hero worship towards philosophers, or indeed any kind of experts on subjects like love because, honestly, I'm not totally convinced that anyone really knows the full story of what's going on there! So it's much more about conversation and enabling or empowering conversations and then letting them happen.
PLM: Definitely. Something that comes up often talking to others about this is that people tend to take this dissemination view - you've discovered the thing and then you put it out there - and what's so undervalued is that what you get from learning philosophy, when the teaching is done well, is that people can become really good facilitators.
Carrie: Very much so. Chairing a good conversation or a good discussion is a massively undervalued skill - it's really hard to do!
PLM: Yeah! Really hard. It's likely that many students won't be aware that, whether you carry on into academia or into the world of work outside of academia, facilitation's an immensely valuable thing. Not that it must be viewed in terms of its transferability but that is a really transferable skill for work and just day-to-day life.
So, just before moving onto some of the last questions, there was one other thing on this point. Looking back at an interview you did with Aesthetics for Birds, they asked you what thought about how creative skills develop as compared to philosophical skills. One part of your response really stuck out, you said:
"I continue to work at acquiring new philosophical proficiencies alongside playing around with the ones that I have"
What's interesting is how this seems to tie-in with a much more recent interview you did where you're discussing What Love Is. You make the point that:
"It's my first book for the world beyond academia. I love to write for scholarly audiences too but this feels very different. It's scary, but also exhilarating: like learning a new language and realising I can suddenly talk to far more people than I ever imagined. Like finding a new voice."
So there seems to be this parallel here: this idea of philosophical proficiencies lines up with what we were just talking about - the things that you can realise you can do as a philosopher. You mentioned earlier that part of your project's interdisciplinary work looks at poetry and creative writing and do you feel like with this public-facing work there are some distinctly philosophical proficiencies that have come up?
Carrie: Yes, I can pinpoint at least two big categories that I would put those new proficiencies (new for me, that is), into. One of them is that I had to learn more ways of engaging in conversations than the ones I trained for. What's good in seminar rooms is not necessarily good in a phone-in on a radio show or a Q&A after a public talk in a town hall somewhere! It's not going to be the same kind of conversation and that's not exactly the same as handling the media or whatever because it is genuinely a conversational skill and a conversation about a philosophical topic where I don't slip into jargon. I have to work really hard at explaining myself very clearly in ways that are accessible and listening very hard to people who might not be expressing things the way I'm used to hearing them expressed. There's a philosophical skill set there around learning how to have more kinds of philosophical conversations, in more kinds of contexts than the ones I trained and practised for.
The other big thing is creative writing as an enterprise. I ended up going back to school - I'm a student now, again, alongside being a professor - so I'm a grad student in the creative writing department at [the University of British Columbia], taking an MFA in Creative Writing because as soon as I started writing [What Love Is] I realised two things. Firstly, I'm not great at writing except for academia! I want to be better at it. I had an amazing editor for that book and lots of help from other people which is why it's not way worse than it is. But also, it was really, really very powerful to learn how to write in different ways and this is that part about finding a new voice or a new language. There's a lot I can do if I have those additional skill sets by way of engaging as a philosopher in the world.
A lot of philosophical traditions have used all kinds of styles of writing to work through philosophical ideas - not just the one that's become normative in the academic journals that I learned and trained in - but also public-facing non-fiction writing, and fiction and poetry as well, and all these other kinds of ways of expressing thoughts and ideas and working through philosophical problems. So, partly as this is going on I'm also getting really into writers like Borges and Kafka and the ways that they use fiction to do philosophical work alongside making just really gripping stories as well, at the same time as exploring really interesting philosophical ideas. If one can learn those additional skills... I mean, it's kind of like having the written counterpart of learning how to have more kinds of conversations with more kinds of people.
PLM: That's a really good way of putting it!
Carrie: Yeah! It's all related to that idea that the more people are engaging in the conversations, the better the philosophy is going and the more points of view you're going to be able to engage with and take on board. So, the expansion of skills into public dialogue and media and creative writing, I came gradually to understand that as being part of how I wanted to expand what I take being a philosopher to consist in. So, not just using the toolkit that I have, that I was given as a grad student and using it on more areas of philosophy - although that's great too - but also trying to pick up some more toolkits and see if there's more to be done with those that I could not get by just doing more and more of the same in different areas.
PLM: That’s definitely a really important thing to recognise - the limitations of one toolkit.
Carrie: Mhmm. A lot of people might pick up a novel or poem but never in a million years pick up a philosophy book, so suddenly you've found a way then to engage with a lot more people - or other, just different kinds of people with different ideas about how the world works or what's of interest. It was kind of a revelation to me. It seems obvious now, you know, "Actually, there's a lot more that could be done if I knew how to do more things than journal articles and monographs!"
PLM: So, moving onto the last questions now, these sort of step back a bit. One of the things motivating these interviews was a recognition of two developments which are really hitting their stride now and where there are some really positive efforts in each case. One is this push in the last few years for greater engagement by academic philosophers with the public - or at least this wave of it, because there's been waves of this in the past - and the other is a development quite aside from philosophy in response to the despair that a lot of people have felt, in various places, about the public sphere. Whether that's because of the decline of traditional forums, or decreased trust in the press, or people becoming more atomised and so on. On top of that, there's the hope that people invested in social media and the internet as a public forum that's been dashed to some extent.
What's interesting is that there are these two things going on - and there are lots of people, with a focus on philosophers here, that are trying to do something about it - and so it's important to understand the experience of people at the fore of this. There's this desire for the public sphere to improve and at the same time there's this whole area of academia saying, "We're kind of suited to that (or at least we think we are!) and we wanna do it, and we're gonna try and do it now". So it's interesting to know the experiences of people in the midst of this. So, firstly, how - if at all - have those two things been in your mind with this public philosophy project that you've been engaged in?
Carrie: Yeah, okay. So, they're in my mind a lot because they're sort of in my face a lot! In one sense they're both a little bit external to my own motivation which is more about this realisation that more conversations are possible et cetera but, of course, they're also there in the sort of culture swirling around that decision-making. So, maybe starting with the push to get more academics engaged, there's something that can be troubling about that, in fact there are two things. One is when it is a pressure on people who aren't choosing that form of academic engagement, that's a problem. It's not the only way to be a good scholar.
The other is, and this has affected me more directly, I suppose, is when the push is provided with no support and no recognition that this could be a risk for someone to step out and say something potentially controversial in the public sphere, especially in the light of, as you say, the ways that the internet sometimes is - well, not an ideal free and fair engagement where all voices can be heard. I think universities are being slow, reprehensibly slow, to catch-up with the risks that academics are taking by doing this public-facing work. And I think that's something that needs to change immediately; this is urgent, this is basic health and safety that employers should be a lot more worried about. So that issue I think - because this is changing as we speak - still needs a lot of improvement.
PLM: Definitely. And sorry to interrupt you discussing the other thing but on that point it's great that you've written about what people need to actually consider if they are interested in doing public philosophy.
Carrie: Right? I wrote that because it didn't exist! And yeah, so, the state of the public sphere... there's a lot going on there too! Yes it's true it's gross, it's icky, a lot of it. You know you step out into any sort of public visibility in pretty much anything and you're opening yourself up to, well potentially all kinds of stuff; from just rude, vitriolic comments to threatening messages or physically dangerous situations that you can end up in if people decide to target you for what you said. Or just for being visible whilst saying it.
But if you work in a field such as philosophy where part of the point may be to challenge preconceptions, where that's part of the value that philosophy can bring to the world, questioning basic assumptions that people are making, then those risks are obviously heightened because you are liable to be saying things that challenge precepts that other people hold dear. So, the public domain... Again, we've sort of expanded the accessibility of "experts" to all kinds of responses, including violence and hateful responses, without simultaneously putting in place the kinds of support or moderation or facilitation that are then needed to prevent all the conversations ending and people being silenced.
So, this is part of why I think what you were saying about the value of being able to facilitate a conversation is huge and underestimated because, you know, there's this sort of very simplistic approach to what makes a good conversation continue and that says - basically the very naive version of a free speech view - "Just do nothing! Don't moderate at all and then everybody gets a chance!" which, of course, is not what happens. What happens if there is nothing at all is that the loudest and most aggressive people, who are the least afraid, and which is usually the people who are the most privileged, they get a chance and nobody else does because everybody else is silenced and afraid and threatened and bullied into silence.
So, that kind of naivete is extremely dangerous and extremely damaging and it's one of the things that we need to get beyond in order to understand, at a fundamental level, how to keep the conversations moving, how to keep people engaged in a safe way within the public sphere. And that's a really tough one and there's no easy answer to that problem but it needs to be understood that it is a big question without an easy solution and that certainly free speech is not an easy thing to secure. You don't secure that by just doing nothing; the absolute lack of intervention is actually a surefire route to a lot of people not being free to speak.
PLM: So, one last question. Everything before now has been premised on you being a philosopher but, again, with these two developments in mind, how have they affected you yourself? One person interviewed put this well by saying, in other words, "I can think about these changes, in my line of work and in the public sphere, as so-and-so the philosopher and I can just think of them as so-and-so the person". We’ve touched on this so there might not be much you want to add here but how have they affected you quite apart from thinking about public philosophy, or thinking about philosophy generally?
Carrie: So, yeah, there's not a great gap there and I think this goes to the fact that I think the ways in which I'm trying to understand being a philosopher are pretty infused with the way I try to understand being a human being. I don't really go home at 5 o'clock and stop being a philosopher; I might stop being a teacher but I don't stop being a philosopher. The ways that it's affected me personally, I mean, this is really... It's a very polarised picture. So there's a very dark side to some of the impacts that this has had, you know, attempts to kind of get me to shut up that have taken all kinds of forms have had a very, I think, serious and detrimental effect over the years on things like my mental health which is very challenging and I think that's a very common experience, especially for women who speak up in public. Especially if they say anything even slightly controversial. I've said some pretty controversial things about love and about my own life that some people don't like very much and that can be... yeah.
So, there's that really dark side and then there's the complete opposite of that, things about people's reactions that are absolutely why I do this and which are very sustaining. This happens whenever someone writes to me and says, "Your book helped me understand this better", or I give a talk and someone comes to have me sign the book and they - this happened to me about a year ago actually, one woman who came up and she didn't really say a lot, she just said "Thank you" and she was crying; she had been moved in some way. Those kinds of experiences I hadn't really anticipated; the positive, motivating force of those individual responses to me and to my work. They keep me going. Even though it's very hard and the personal costs can be very high.
I guess it's obvious when I think about it, like, "Well, duh, people who are just 'meh' don't bother to write to me or to say anything, do they?" So you hear from the people who are really happy and who are really angry! But that polarisation is also very disorientating and one of the skills I'm learning is how to accommodate it and how to understand it and process it as a philosopher and as a human being and all of those things. As a philosopher, it gives me a lot of feedback on the work itself, right? Like if I go out and I say something and people react in a certain way, that is then continuing the conversation in some sense, even if that reaction is trying to shut me down. I can use that as a data point at the very least.
So, yeah, my experience has been very polarising in that way. So one of the things that I've sometimes taken to saying is, well, sometimes people will say "Oh, you have a lot of public exposure, that must be really nice" and I say "No, no it's not nice but I do think that it's good; I don't like it, I don't enjoy it, but it is meaningful to me and that's why I keep this work going". So, it's about achieving something that has a goal that feels important and not particularly about being happy about how it feels.
PLM: Thank you very much Carrie, some really, really interesting ideas there and thank you for your time.
Carrie: Thanks! You're welcome.