Carrie Jenkins is Canada Research Chair in Philosophy at the University of British Columbia. In this interview, she talks about growing up with a single mum, the Malory Towers and Famous Five novels, light high school mischief, why academics aren’t as radical as they might think they are, privilege and magic at Cambridge, Miranda Fricker, working at a chocolate shop, Borges, Kafka, cake, philosophy and the idea of genius, being seen as arrogant while feeling worthless, depression, suicide, happiness, the metaphysics of love, the future of philosophy, what she would do if she were queen of the world, and her last meal…
[12/18/2017, photo credit: Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa]
So, where are you from?
No answer more specific than "the UK" feels right here. I was born in England and grew up in Wales, and we moved around quite a bit.
What was your family like? What did your parents do for a living?
My parents divorced when I was young, and I lived with my Mum who was a single parent to four of us. She was a social worker. We did not have a lot of money.
As a kid, what did you do for fun?
I was not a popular kid, and I was often bullied at school, so "fun" mostly meant things I did on my own. I played piano and I read, mostly things like Enid Blyton's Malory Towers and Famous Five novels which I loved at the time. Now that I look them up on Wikipedia it says: "[Blyton's] books have been criticised as being elitist, sexist, racist, xenophobic and at odds with the more liberal environment emerging in post-war Britain," and ... yeah, that is true.
So what drew you to those novels at the time?
I think it was as simple as their containing story worlds that grabbed me, especially in the case of Malory Towers, which followed a traditional pattern in British YA fiction of one book per school year (the literary tradition that evolved into the Harry Potter books). At that time I was very invested in the idea of school and education as the way to expand my world, I suppose because I didn't see there being any other routes available to me.
Oh man, I can relate! Was education encouraged at home?
Very much so.
Did you get along with your siblings?
I grew up with a slightly younger brother, and we didn't really get along until we were adults. I have much older half-siblings and I got along with them in the same sort of way as one might with aunts or uncles.
Did you enjoy school?
That's a complicated question. Certainly there were some things about it that I enjoyed. I was good at school work and there were some teachers I'm permanently grateful for. I made some friends, but I wasn't socially comfortable in school. I also wasn't considered attractive by boys my age, which obviously is the kind of thing that has an intense psychological impact on women and girls in social contexts where attractiveness to men is taken to be the primary measure of our value. And I couldn't afford most of the things my peers could, which was sometimes awkward. I went to a private girls' secondary school, which we could only afford because I won various scholarships.
Did you get into mischief in high school?
Hardly ever. I am not one of nature's rebels and I didn't want to risk my education. I worked hard and got good grades. At the end of sixth form, I started smoking pot occasionally. There was some under-age drinking and the occasional cigarette in the park. I think the worst thing I ever did was this one time, on a school trip to France, when I snuck off on my own to see a boy I'd met the previous evening. My friends agreed to cover for me. We literally just went for a walk in a park and held hands, but the teacher found out and asked my friends if I was on the pill. But she didn't tell anyone about it when we got home, because she didn't want to get into trouble for not supervising me properly.
How were your perspectives back then similar to your perspectives now? Different?
There are definitely similarities. I was always left-wing, and always a feminist. Thanks Mum! I always wanted to write, and I still do. I've found my way back to creative writing for its own sake (as opposed to academic writing as a philosophy delivery mechanism) over the last few years. I wish I had never left it behind; it feels like I was missing a part of my self. But it would have difficult to maintain my writing alongside my graduate work and early career, which were intensely demanding in all kinds of ways.
But there are some major differences too. I used to be a happier person overall, and more of an optimist. Working in academic philosophy has killed that. A few years ago, once I had reached a certain level in my profession, I could no longer fail to be aware of the fact that academic philosophy was (and is) being walled off to all but a very limited range of perspectives and participants. Nor could I ignore how unwilling most people in a position of power are to do challenge that situation (whether because it wouldn't be good for their careers, or simply because they did not care). These days, I've come to see academia as playing out a microcosm of the social conservatism which, writ large, is responsible for the current political situation in the US: a reactionary backlash against perceived threats to the privilege until now reserved for a small group of rich white men.
I suspect lots of people would be puzzled by your assessment of academia. Liberals and conservatives alike seem to agree it is a force for social change, for better or worse…
Academics in my experience are liable to fall into an unfortunate trap: thinking they are rather more radical than they are. This can happen for many reasons, but enforced narrowness of specialization, in particular, can lead to a tendency to neglect the rest of reality. Or--let's be honest--even the work of colleagues in the next hallway. The problem is that when you don't understand how the world has moved on, you don't know how conservative your (perhaps once-radical) opinions now sound. I suspect a version of the psychological self-licensing phenomenon could also be at work here: if your self-conception is of a radical person, you might be even more likely to act in ways that are conservative. (The same goes for conceiving of oneself as terribly rational, highly objective, responsive to good arguments, only motivated by “merit” and so on: I suspect all of that often works against actually being so.)
My sense of things is that students are generally a greater force for social change than the (rest of the) institutions of academia. My students are, on average, light years ahead of my colleagues when it comes to understanding contemporary social issues.
Got it. So, did you start thinking about what you would do after high school? If I asked you what you would end up doing back then, what would have been your best guess?
I thought I would probably be a lawyer, until I discovered that I could be a philosopher, then I wanted to be a philosopher. If I'd felt like I had more of a free choice I might have said I wanted to be a writer, or a harpist, but honestly I'd have thought of such answers as akin to "astronaut" or "unicorn."
When did you realize being a philosopher was a thing?
One of my teachers introduced me to the idea in the Sixth Form, as I was thinking about where to apply for undergraduate study.
Where did you end up going to college? Was it what you expected?
Trinity College, Cambridge. It was an incredibly intense experience that I am hardly able to process, even now.
So, what made Trinity so intense?
It's like living in a really spectacular museum that is somehow also a college dorm. That combination makes no sense, but you just land there and you have to get on with life and work as if it did make sense. Tourists try to wander into your library. And your bedroom.
The wealth disparities among students--that is, among peer and friendship groups--are phenomenal. Take some kids like me who were there on our student grants (I was part of the very last year group to receive the means-tested maintenance grant, before it was axed and replaced with repayable loans in 1998 by a Labour government, lest we forget) and throw them in a room with some (literal) millionaires, and members of royal families and what have you, and get them all to have a conversation about On Liberty. That's going to be an intense experience, at least for some of us. Oh and also, of course, the room looks like something out of Hogwarts.
Favorite classes, professors?
There was a lecture course I particularly remember by Miranda Fricker on feminist epistemology. It was part of a Feminist Philosophy course that was an optional "Special Subject" in my final year. But it wasn't available every year; other years, the special subject would be Kant or Wittgenstein. I got lucky.
As an undergrad, how did you evolve as a person, in general?
I find that question really hard to answer. Perhaps I'm not well-placed to know! It was a time when I was moving between social extremes. Like, I'd be talking to homeless folks outside the college gates who were asking me for food and then, say, this member of the House of Lords that I was once seated next to at a college dinner. (I can remember talking to him about schools, actually, because he'd been to another branch of the same school as mine. And I was wearing really old, chipped dark nail polish and hadn't washed my hair because I'd had no idea that, as a scholar, I was in line to be seated at the High Table with the guests of honour.) It was a bizarre time as well as a magical one. Looking back, it was a bit of a daze. I suppose a lot of my mental energies were taken up trying to deal with everything; to make sense of it. I wouldn't say I really succeeded in that.
What did you do for fun? Did you party?
I'm an introvert and to be honest I often preferred staying in to going out. Still, peer pressure is peer pressure, and a certain amount of partying may or may not have occurred. I admit I did drink a lot in my first couple of years of undergrad. There might have been a situation one evening involving unfamiliarity with the dangers of very old, very sweet, college port. And there might have been an expedition to the neighbouring college, St John's (with which Trinity has some kind of ancient rivalry) to steal signage. Don't ask me why. I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time. Late at night we would stumble over to a takeaway place called Gardies, or a van called the Trailer Of Life, and get terrible greasy food.
More respectably, I played pool for my college. And soccer: I was a goalie, until I broke a finger. And I was into traditional Irish and Scottish music: I used to go to evening sessions with my little harp. Cycling around Cambridge in the dark and the cold with a harp on my back is something I don't miss, though.
I had to get paid work in the holidays. (We weren't allowed to have jobs in term time.) I mostly did bar work, and things like that. And once I had a job in a Thornton's (the chocolate shop). That was amazing: I learned to write in icing on chocolate, and to do proper gift-wrap corners. Also the store manager would let us eat anything we wanted from the shop while we were on our shifts. It was dangerous, but fortunately short-term.
Anybody help you apply to grad school? Where'd you end up?
I stayed at Trinity for grad school. So I was there for seven years, all in all: undergrad, MPhil, and PhD. I don't remember if anyone helped me apply for the graduate degrees, but I didn't apply anywhere else so it was a fairly minimal process.
Favourites are so complicated. I've never been entirely comfortable with the idea of favourite writers, or favourite philosophers. Can I talk about writers I find myself fascinated by lately? One is Jorge Luis Borges. Another is Franz Kafka. In both cases, I'm intrigued by how they are able to find ways into philosophical territory through writing that looks very unlike that of the philosophical traditions in which I was trained. I am interested, both methodologically and intrinsically, in creative ways to engage in philosophy that move beyond the borders of disciplinary training. In some cases, way beyond. Getting outside my comfort zones in this regard has been one of the biggest upheavals to my career since I was appointed full professor. I've heard tenure described as a "straight shot to the grave" and I never want my life--including my intellectual life--to feel like that. Philosophy has infinite potential in every imaginable direction; it isn't functioning at its best when its practitioners are all doing very similar things and moving in straight lines. When philosophy feels limiting and limited, that's because it's been made to feel that way. Usually by people in positions of institutional power.
Love philosophical literature. Part of the reason I got into philosophy. Favorite piece by Borges?
Favourites again, eh! With Borges one problem is having too much to choose from. Let’s say The Lottery in Babylon. I might pick a different one if you asked me tomorrow.
Your earlier work seems focused on issues in epistemology, and recently, you started working on stuff like love. Were you thinking about that stuff back then?
Not in the same way, no. I was working on more conventional topics in more conventional ways, because that's what I was taught to do, and what the system around me presented as valuable, and what was rewarded. I wasn't in a position to challenge any of that yet, and nor did I fully recognize or understand the mechanisms through which it was operating.
Did you enjoy the process at the time?
Yes. I was conforming and considered a success. That feels really nice, until you realize what it’s floating on.
Your husband is also a philosopher. How did you meet?
He invited me to speak at a workshop on philosophical methodology in St Andrews. We met in the Parliament Hall, where the workshop was held. Later, we were able to book out the same room for our wedding ceremony.
Nice! Can you confirm or deny reports that you had a wedding cake made out of cheese?
Your sources are on to something.
haha…biggest philosophical disagreements?
This might not be exactly what you have in mind, but I think we balance each other out quite well in the dimension of optimism and pessimism. I trend pessimistic and Jonathan trends optimistic, and I feel like when we disagree in these ways we are each right about half of the time.
You're extremely productive. What's your secret?
There's no secret. There’s a process of learning how to produce the kinds of things that get published, and much of that is about learning (perhaps internalizing, as I did) a set of norms: basically, the norms that define the contours of what the discipline currently values. Leaning how to conform to these norms is a bit like learning how to pass exams. It's a set of skills that can be acquired through practice and training, not some magical talent. But then there’s also luck—getting your papers into the hands of referees and editors who might like them is largely a crapshoot. But persistence increases your chances with that. I’m always sending things out into the world and getting them rejected. And I'm very willing to send things out into the world knowing they're flawed. That’s connected to how I think of philosophy itself: as a process, and a conversation. It's not about the solo production of rarified works of individual "genius." That kind of thinking is linked to the “great man” conception of philosophy, which serves to justify the quick and easy dismissal of most voices. It destroys the kinds of conversations that real philosophy consists in.
How do you endure the rejection? I hate it so much!
This is perhaps closer to being a secret: a huge part of my experience of sending all these imperfect things out into the world is shaped by those parts of the world that respond very negatively to them. And I want to be clear about the costs of that, because I think there are people who see my “productive” public-facing self--maybe they see a smiley face and a list of publications and media appearances and so on--and they make assumptions about what it's like to be me. Like that I'm a confident person with a high opinion of myself, someone who is happy and enjoying all the attention. Some folks think I've gotten ideas above my station, that I am uppity and so on. (A lot of this strikes me as probably being quite gendered, but that's another story.) It is epistemically weird: you really can’t know these kinds of facts about someone from their public persona, but some people think they can.
Anyhow, for what it’s worth, what my inner monologue is actually telling me most of the time is that I am worthless and a fraud and a failure, and that I should quit. So to hear those same messages coming from the outside too can be dangerous for me, because I already believe them. I try to avoid getting too much of this full in the face, which has meant withdrawing myself from a lot of activities and connections I might otherwise benefit from. I used to feel “well-connected” in philosophy; now I generally feel isolated. This sense of withdrawal and isolation is further exacerbated by constantly learning of more and more prominent men in philosophy who have a history of women reporting them for sexual harassment and/or assault. But it's not possible to avoid all these situations entirely and still do my work. My work is conversation. I've spent time in therapy every month or so for the last few years, and I'm on antidepressants long-term now. When these things get very bad I consider suicide, because I can't imagine a future where I'm not doing the kinds of work that I find valuable, but I don't think it’s likely that these kinds of external messages about my being worthless and a failure are ever going to stop, or get better. I don't know if many people realize that this is what it's like for me to be a philosopher these days. That it is a dark place. I'm aware of the stigma around mental illness, and I want to push back on that by talking about this. And I should say that I have had concerns even about doing this interview: about either having to be disingenuous in these answers, presenting a much rosier picture than the real one, or having to face the consequences of being a bit more honest and accurate. So I just wanted to make all that explicit, and also to clarify that what I have felt able to say here is nothing like the whole story. A lot of what it's really like for me to a philosopher I would not feel safe talking about. But being a philosopher, the way I do it, isn’t a safe thing and it isn’t a comfortable thing. And that's OK. I don’t do it because it’s safe, or because I like how it makes me feel. I do it because I think it’s worth something. There is a purpose to it. And at the end of the day, everyone has to figure out what is the point of their being alive and acting in the world. For me, the answer doesn't have much to do with making myself happy and comfortable, and doesn’t emanate from a high opinion of either myself or the world.
I’m glad to hear you are getting help, and I think it’s amazing that you are sharing this. Love the idea that philosophy is not about making us comfortable. It’s about getting at the truth, even if it’s unpleasant, right? That said, were you not happy with the positive reception of your recent book?
No, not happy. But I don't think my happiness is the point. I've been thinking a lot about happiness, actually, since the book came out. Especially in context of mental health, and how often happiness is treated (including by Plato!) as the obvious yardstick for measuring a good or desirable life. Sometimes people say to me things like "It must be nice that your book is getting all that attention." I don't know how to tell them that it's actually for the most part horrible. (That's partly about who I am, not just what kinds of reactions I get. Although I do get some pretty gross reactions.) Sometimes I say, "It's not nice, but it's good."
Any interesting projects on the horizon? You are working on a podcast?
Yes! I have just finished season one of Labels Of Love. And I have two new book projects on the horizon at the moment. One is a kind of successor to What Love Is and What It Could Be. It tries to pick apart some of the ways love and happiness are entangled: they are positioned as the ultimate life goals (as well as being supposedly—but questionably—“free”). It also develops the idea of love-crafting (introduced in my first podcast episode).
The other is more unusual. This is a creative collaboration with Professor Carla Nappi, who has the supremely wonderful title of Canada Research Chair in Historical Pataphysics at UBC. We are re-imagining Plato’s Symposium in the voices of women. That is certainly going to get interesting. We don’t know yet exactly which women will arrive, but currently we are inspired by Sappho, Pamela Colman Smith, Aphrodite, Medusa, Nemesis, Diotima, and the flute-girl who is sent away. Our reimagining is taking a range of forms: for example, the speech of Alcibiades is becoming A Treasury of Incomplete Curses, Pausanias has become a kind of syllabus of numbered lessons, and Agathon is now A Crown For Aphrodite (a crown of Shakespearean sonnets about winning contests, being best, binaries, and fear of structures collapsing).
A lot of my current work would be classified, under current norms, as “interdisciplinary.” My SSHRC-funded project on the Metaphysics Of Love, for example, is filed under “philosophy” and “creative writing.” I’m also studying for the MFA in creative writing at UBC. As far as terminology goes, though, I prefer “undisciplined.”
Cool! How do you see the future of philosophy? Exciting trends? Troubling movements?
Philosophy itself is a massive collaborative conversation that can't fail to be exciting. It's alive and well, it's moving in every direction, and it's happening all over the place (certainly not just in philosophy departments, or in universities). The academic discipline called “philosophy,” in my opinion, is in trouble. My best guess is that it needs to look outwards more and inwards less if it's going to remain credible. To expand its conversations, get over the idea of a "core" (a small subset of topics supposedly of more value than whatever anybody else wants to discuss), get beyond the voices and opinions that are currently loudest, stop dismissing and tone-policing and gate-keeping and excluding and marginalizing in such a defensive way. If the discipline continues to over-promote just a few voices--to keep peddling the "great man" conception--I think that will eventually kill it off. Apart from anything else, that's boring. I think it's in the silences and absences of our current disciplinary conversations that most of the exciting possibilities (and the viable future of our discipline) are hiding.
Well, one signal to watch for is what provokes the defensive, gatekeeping reactions, like “that’s not real philosophy.” We can listen out for what kinds of voices and questions are being dismissed and belittled by the old guard. If there wasn’t something new and powerful there, the conservative wing of our discipline wouldn’t be so flustered about it.
Perhaps it helps to say this, too: I see my own future as a philosopher as being about trying to enable those conversations, not about bolstering the status quo. And I am often unsure whether that involves continuing to hold a university position. I am deeply, morally worried about the current institutions of academia, and what they do to people. Continuing to be a cog in those institutions feels less and less OK to me over time. And then I look at all the amazing scholars who don't have university positions but would like to, and can hardly feel justified in sitting on one myself (especially when I consider all the ways in which I owe it to things like being white, well-spoken, Cambridge-educated ...).
So it sounds like you are considering abandoning academic philosophy. Why not continue to try to change it for the better from the inside? You know, work within the system?
Hmmm … this way of putting things is a bit too reminiscent, for me, of how many women are persuaded to stay with (and not “abandon”) their abusive husbands, in order to “change” them for the better. It’s not my job to rescue academia from itself! Certainly not at the cost of my own life’s work. In any case, such a huge and possibly-hopeless salvage mission is nothing I’d be any good at. I might stay in academia or I might not, but that will be a decision based on where I can survive, with some integrity, and do my best intellectual and creative work. That’s much more meaningful to me as a life goal.
What was your election night like?
I couldn't watch. Even at the start, when others around me were optimistic and expecting to celebrate. I sat in another room and graded some papers. I had the same hunch a few others had, although we couldn't justify it with polling figures. Like I say, I’m a pessimist. But as Miss Marple puts it, when her friend accuses her of always believing the worst, “The worst is so often true.”
If you were queen of the world, what would be your first move?
I can’t eat when I’m anxious.