In this interview Helen De Cruz, Associate Professor (Senior Lecturer) of Philosophy at Oxford Brookes University, talks about growing up near Ghent, Belgium, Black Pete, her early obsession with the Italian Renaissance, homo universalis, being unimpressed with Hume, dialup, naturists, Lute, English folk music, steampunk, studying art at Ghent University, comic books, Birth of A Nation, why post-18th century music took a nosedive, meeting her husband, soft money, criticisms of the Templeton Foundation, water color and digital painting, the unpleasantness of philosophy majors, losing interest in Vermeer, getting into philosophy via a non-western route, working as a security guard, deep, sometimes creepy, philosophical conversations with her kids, notched artifacts and the cognitive science of mathematics, emic and etic perspectives, The Formal Epistemology Project at University of Leuven, working in a department that was not friendly to women, a bad interview at the Eastern APA, overcoming workaholism in Oxford, science and religion, Plantinga, the God Helmet, her interviews with philosophers working outside of academia, our duties to the community and the aim(s) of What Is It Like to Be a Philosopher?, working on a book about philosophical science fiction with Eric Schwitzgebel, explaining religion to extraterrestrials, The Arrival, The Thirteenth Floor, Leiter and how the internet can make philosophy flatter, job mentoring and Philosopher’s Cocoon, Mengzi, Bryan Van Norden, the Analects, al-Ghazali, Brexit, xenophobia, misogyny, and Kate Manne, Descartes, music recommendations, and her last meal…


Where did you grow up? What was your family like?

I grew up in a small village close to Ghent, which is in the North of Belgium. My mother is the daughter of a general-major in the Belgian army with the air force. That meant growing up, I’ve seen plenty of military parades, military folks visiting my grandparents, and engaged in lots of discussion with my grandfather about war, leadership, and negotiating without resorting to military action (he saw it as a last resort). While my mother came from a “good family” in Brussels, my father came as an economic migrant from Malaysia to Belgium in the hope of building out a better life for himself. He lost his own father aged 12, and was brought up by his grandmother along with his six younger siblings and her younger children (so his younger uncles and aunts) in Malacca.

They all lived together in a house on stilts near the beach, part of a small community of Eurasian fishermen. My mother met my father at a detention center for immigrants, where she volunteered. It was love at first sight. She wasn’t even a regular volunteer there, but was visiting a friend who worked there. The friend wasn’t there, but my father was. He had his guitar—my mother also played the guitar, and the rest, as they say, was history. Her parents though only very grudgingly accepted their son-in-law, and my father’s lack of a higher education diploma meant that he could only find a job in construction, as a bricklayer.

What did your mom do for a living?

My mother became a homemaker. My father insisted that he would be able to support my mother and his children through his work. So we lived in this little village on a bricklayer’s wage, in a house right across from an old-fashioned dairy farm. It was an idyllic place, but also homogeneously Catholic and somewhat racist, in that casual way that characterizes lots of European communities, the sort of racism where Black Pete is unproblematic, and where it’s okay to say that someone’s house stinks if there are unusual fragrances of food—laksa curry and rendang—emanating from it. Our household was cultural Catholic: we went to church about monthly or so, we attended the major feast days, and my sister and I attended Catholic schools. But religion was a thing we practiced, and not so much about belief.

We had a wide range of friends—both from my father and mother—and they would often come to the house. I remember watching in fascination the heavy, large wooden karrom board (a striking game a bit similar to pool) that my father took out and would play with his Iranian and Pakistani friends in the evening. Lots of my father’s coworkers who were white Belgians also came over regularly, encouraging him to take the foreman exam (which he never did). My mother had a motley crew of friends who were divorcees, alcoholics, and women living on welfare. Some of these people had huge issues, such as abusive stalking boyfriends, I was only dimly aware of all of this at that point.

As a kid, what did you do for fun?

My parents were pretty permissive and let my sister and I do what we liked. I was very interested in music, and I also liked drawing, poetry, and reading. Aged 14, I got became fascinated by everything around the Italian Renaissance. I read (in translation) Machiavelli, Castiglione etc. We saved up money to go to Rome and Florence to see the great Italian Renaissance artworks, such as the Sistine Chapel. In spite of its rather male-gendered flavor, I found Renaissance concept of homo universalis (universal human being), very appealing. I hoped to aspire to become a well-rounded human being with wide-ranging cultural interests and appropriate skill. This is still something I think an ideal philosopher should be—someone who knows a bit about everything and has a few thorough skills they draw upon (I particularly like unusual combinations, e.g., I admire philosophers would combine, say, Africana and formal philosophy). At that time I wasn’t particularly interested in philosophy as such. I read Sophie’s World (when I had the flu quite badly), read Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature from the local library, and wasn’t particularly impressed by either.

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with da Vinci! You weren’t impressed by Hume?

Nope. He’s grown a bit on me since though!

Sounds like a fairly working class background.

We were not well off, but we managed, cutting coupons, and much of my childhood my parents drove an ancient second-hand sturdy Toyota they bought when it was already over 10 years old. We had chickens in our garden that generated a reliable output of eggs (when it became less reliable, they were expertly slaughtered by the farmer who lived across from us—my mother would say that meat tasted so wholesome, almost “like game”). We bought all the cheapest brands in bulk. Still, we had various computers in the house when that was something of an oddity. I remember as a 10-year-old programming in BASIC on a primitive (maybe a Dragon, I think, not sure anymore) computer with tiny built-in screen, and then storing the programs on a cassette, which was connected with a cable to the computer. It’s surreal to think that was all less than 30 years ago. Our house was the first to have a dialup Internet connection and later also the first to have a broadband Internet connection in the neighborhood.

As a teenager, did you get into any trouble? Did you start thinking about what you wanted to do in college, if college was even on the table?

I was a model straight-A student – never got into trouble, did well in everything except in sports. Getting good grades was easy, so I had lots of spare time. I took on a regular babysitting/nanny job for a seven-year-old boy in a family of naturists. [editor’s note: link NSFW] That was a little weird at first for me, but I got used to it! The money I used for buying a Renaissance lute and paying my first music tuition. Belgium has an amazing music tuition program where you pay, adjusting for inflation and different currencies, I’d say about 250 dollars a year for three hours of music tuition a week except in summer. My teacher was a famous lutenist too with his own band, making CDs—he just happened to teach in the local music school. Further activities included a medieval dance ensemble and the local church choir. I loved reading books of all sorts: the classics, but also science fiction, fantasy, and comics. Drawing was the one art I did best in, and I was seriously considering a career in visual art (I briefly tried after college).

Why lute, of all things?

I like a challenge! (Seriously tuning that thing already takes ages, with its 15 strings). It’s a legacy from when I was into the Italian Renaissance as a teenager, there happened to be a good lute teacher living in my area and with state-subsidized music tuition as happens in Belgium it was the right choice. The lute is a beautiful instrument. There is a rich repertoire for it, and a nice song repertoire. I’ve been playing it since I was 16 and try to play a bit every day. Presently, I am part of a small ensemble that meets in a pub regularly to play early English folk music (there are fiddles, hardanger fiddles, plenty of accordions, and recorders in it).

Favorite comics?

French or Belgian comics for sure. Take a look at Francois Schuiten’s Cités Obscures. Beautifully drawn steampunk with philosophically exciting stories (in fact my first forays into steampunk).

When you applied to college, what was the long-term plan?

One thing to note about Belgian universities is that the actual selection process takes place a lot earlier than in the UK or the US. You do exams age 12, then get sorted into either academic or less academic middle school and high school, and that determines your ability to enroll at university. Once you have your grades, you either meet the qualification or you don’t, and if you qualify, you get in automatically. The concept of prestige hierarchies at universities so common in the US and UK was entirely alien to me, and I’ve always looked at that as an outsider or an anthropologist looks at an alien culture. I just wanted a university diploma, but beyond that no clear ideas.

But in a way it is more elitist, right? The sorting occurs so early, it seems like Gattaca.

That is right, and it is also laden with lots of implicit racism. Kids from non-white immigrant backgrounds get sorted into the non-university track. My parents had to insist I could do the university track.

Right. So where did you apply?

I decided to apply to Ghent University, which I could reach by bicycle or bus simply from home. As my parents were poor, I qualified for a student grant and only paid about (again adjusting for inflation etc.), I’d say less than 150 dollars per year, and got more money in grants for books and materials. In Belgium you choose your major right away and I chose archaeology and art studies, because of my interest in visual arts. I applied during my last year in high school, and was accepted.

Was University what you expected?

I had no idea what to expect of university. Nobody in my family had gone there, not even my grandfather. I was afraid to fail, and to disappoint my family. At the end of the first year, I didn’t go to the ceremony in which grades were revealed because I was so worried I would fail (I ended up top of my class).

Did you live at home?

For the first two years I lived at home with my parents. It was a familiar environment, and cheap to live in, but it wasn’t a good study environment.

Did you move out?

For the final two years, I lived in a small flat with my boyfriend. Its only virtue was its low price—for the rest it was in a dangerous and unpleasant neighborhood. When we lived there, our apartment building (but thankfully not our flat!) got broken into several times, a few times people got mugged in the street right under our window as they were taking money from the ATM there, there was a serial rapist operating in the park close to where we lived (which made walking home in the evening by oneself that bit more challenging—it was a big park and so a detour to circumvent it. It took ages before the rapist was finally caught). There was loud music from our neighbors, and the bottom floor had a dry-cleaning service which emitted nasty vapors.

Bad times. What did you major in?

In Belgium, an undergraduate degree takes four years and you start the major straight away—at the time that was two years for the bachelors, and two years masters. I started out with archaeology and art sciences as I was interested in visual arts, and then specialized in world anthropology of art for the final two years.

What did you do in your spare time?

I continued with music and painting. I also went, with my boyfriend (now husband), to lots of movies, and our favorite was an old movie theatre run by the university film club, where they played a silent movie every week during term time, which was usually introduced by a movie expert, and accompanied with live piano music. I think I’ve seen all the classic silent movies, including the great German ones (Metropolis and the like), as well as very disturbing racist ones such as Birth of a Nation (I did not know the movie or its reputation when I went to see it).

The fact that you watched it doesn’t mean you approve of it right? How did you meet your boyfriend (now husband)?

We met as undergraduates during our second year, working as guards in a museum of fine arts. Turned out we were studying for the same degree (class sizes in Belgian universities are quite big – it’s not unusual to be in a lecture theatre with hundreds of people studying different majors, so I did see him in the lecture theatre before but had no interactions prior to that). He told me about this science fiction novel he was reading (something in hard SF involving a planet that had more than one sun but I forgot the author), and it turned out we had much in common, including interest in SF/Fantasy and the belief that music went downhill after 1700.

Interesting point of view! Why did music go downhill after 1700, you think?

The orchestras became too big (a gradual development, only really pronounced in the 19th century). Subtlety was sacrificed for spectacular, big orchestral music (Beethoven and the like).

Hey, I dig Ludwig Van! What does your husband do?

He’s a philosopher too (Johan De Smedt)! we co-wrote a bunch of stuff, including a monograph published with MIT Press. He’s still on soft money with a Templeton grant we have on the paleoanthropology and evolutionary ethics.

Cool project! Explain what you mean by 'soft money' if it isn't too much trouble.

It means grants money. Basically, you get a grant and the grant pays your salary to the university that employs you. Some philosophers have made long, distinguished careers out of this—especially if they’re based outside of the US. One example is Neil Levy, who was on soft money until 2015. The main thing is to stay on top of the game and get enough grants. It’s stressful.

I can imagine. What do you make of criticisms of the Templeton Foundation?

Having worked with them, both directly and indirectly, through big grants (e.g., Immortality Project) I’ve had excellent experiences with them. For our present grant we have five referees and two review rounds—the referee comments were very useful in informing the project. I do have a concern: Templeton focuses on a particular niche (big questions) and so you’ve got an imbalance in philosophy in terms of funding, due to the sheer amounts of funding JTF can provide. The little questions don’t get quite so much funds, especially if you’re in the US, which does not have a grants culture (unlike Europe, or Australia, say). Also while many JTF projects have no religious content they still need to be on board with the idea that religion and science are compatible (this is due to the donor intent of Sir John), so it won’t fund projects overtly critical of religion. Now while I do think religion and science are compatible, I think it’s important to explore alternative approaches that see them as incompatible, so again there’s a funding asymmetry.

Do you sell your paintings? Give them away? Hang them up in your house?

I have just one hanging in my house—not my best work but it’s been tradition to move it in all our houses, I think we moved seven times the past 15 years or so; the rest are all in sitting in a large folder because watercolor is delicate and bleaches in the sun. I’ve recently been making digital art, including a series of illustrated philosophical thought experiments. The pictures – according to friends – are making their way onto people’s PowerPoint presentations, and my picture of Mengzi’s child at the well made it on a 1000-word philosophy article. I have never sold a painting or done an exhibition. A neighbor once offered me a few hundred euros for an original artwork when I was in grad school, but I didn’t want to sell.

When you make art, what's the goal (if any)?

I like to make things that are aesthetically pleasing, and I actively try to work with the less predictable elements of visual art. For instance, working in watercolor requires a lot of skill to control the flow of paint (especially when working wet-in-wet), and sometimes you get unexpected effects, but those effects can be very interesting in the final product. Even in digital art, which I am focusing on more now lately, there is a place for the unexpected. I try to give space to those unanticipated elements.

Love the art, Helen! I also occasionally paint, but I don't really make digital art. What program do you use?

For this series I use a no-nonsense program Paper, by 53. I also like Tayasui sketches. A good stylus is essential. I use Apple Pencil.

O.K. back to university… how did you evolve, intellectually?

One unexpected result of having to major so early was loss of interest in the topic I chose. My interest in western visual art declined rapidly as I learned more about it. Since I was a teenager I enjoyed visiting museums and exhibitions (Belgium, with its central location afforded easy access to traveling exhibitions that passed through Brussels, and Paris, London, and Amsterdam were a short distance away). One motivation for studying art was the sense of awe and wonderment I felt at looking at great artwork---such works as Van Eyck, El Greco, Michelangelo, Vermeer, or Constable, but for reasons I still can’t explain, that ability to be wholly absorbed by visual art gradually disappeared. I can still appreciate art, I can still think: this is a really nice effect, and this is ingenuous, but the thrill seems to be gone.

How did philosophy enter the picture?

As my interest in art waned, I slowly became interested in philosophy, albeit through quite an atypical route. My first-year experience of philosophy was not particularly good. I took an intro to philosophy course by a new atheist (before that term became fashionable or widespread), who didn’t teach any medieval philosophy in his course because he said, “Nothing of philosophical significance happened during that period.” Moreover, I found philosophy majors unpleasant people to be around as well; they always seemed to think philosophy some privileged epistemic access on lots of topics they knew little about.

But when I was in my final two years, about half of the program’s credits (world art studies) could filled in with anything students liked. I chose courses such as Introduction to Indian Philosophy and Religion, Islamic Philosophical Theology, Chinese Philosophy and Thought, Comparative Study of Culture (with lots of Native American philosophy, especially as our professor had been studying Navajo culture for years). Our courses on African art and Oceanic art also looked at philosophical ideas, such as the Luba theories on memory and material culture, or the Polynesian concept of mana.

So I found my way slowly into philosophy through all this non-western material. My two absolute favorite courses were Islamic philosophical theology and Indian philosophy and religion. Both professors were passionate about the topic. With our Indian professor, we watched a 5-hour film of the Mahabharata with the class, and we went to a Jainism exhibition in Antwerp. We saw several of the classic darśanas (literally, points of view, of orthodox Hindu thought), as well as unusual heterodox schools such as materialism. Our Islamic philosophical theology professor loved the Mu ‘tazila school and greatly disliked Al Ash ‘ari and Al-Ghazali, blaming them for the decline of everything that was good and proper in Muslim philosophical thinking. He also was a very careful and thorough teacher, trying to impart some Arabic as we went along (always showing the root of each philosophical term as this would help us in our understanding—I am still not sure how that would work). I cherish those courses as they broadened my mind. In spite of my professor’s lack of sympathy for Al-Ghazali, I was, and still am, an admirer of his rigorous and engaging writing.

You ended up getting your PhD at the Free University of Brussels. Why the switch?

After my studies, I wasn’t sure what to do, having lost my passion for art as an object of study. I thought I would like to pursue a doctorate, and I wanted to do it in philosophy. But it was hard to get someone interested to sponsor my application in Ghent, and so I ended up being supervised by Jean Paul van Bendegem, in Brussels. It took three years before I secured funding, after multiple tries (in Belgium, you apply to a centralized grant agency, the FWO for doctoral funding for four years—the universities have backup funds in case that does not work).

What did you for money while you were trying to get funding?

I worked as a guard in a local museum, and was starting a business as a self-employed artist, which in practice meant very few commissions, and mostly teaching people how to do watercolors. When I received the offer of a fully-funded PhD studentship I was quite torn as I just received an offer for a teaching position in a secondary school for art, with job security and at decent pay. I had also just gotten pregnant with our first child. I hesitated, but ended up taking the offer for the studentship and declining the art teaching position. That was a difficult decision!

I imagine! Does having kids influence the way you approach philosophy?

Hard to say. Our daughter who was born while I was in graduate school for the archaeology and art sciences degree; I was 25 at the time, so I’ve never been a philosopher without kids. I’m skeptical of people who say being a parent makes them fundamentally different (or even more brazen—better!) people. Being a parent is epistemically and personally transformative but it’s hard to pinpoint how parent-philosophers would differ from non-parent philosophers, and having never been a non-parent philosopher I’m not sure how being a parent makes me different.

Does philosophy have an influence on the way you interact with your kids?

I am pretty sure it does – for one thing we have lots of philosophical conversations. Kids are great intuitive philosophers. My youngest is five, so he is the ideal age to have some deep philosophical conversations. For instance, I recently discovered he is a mathematical Platonist. My daughter gets quite irritated about philosophy nowadays, and has decided she doesn’t want to do it for her GCSEs (options you need to choose in the UK when you’re about 15 years old, to specialize study already to some extent in high school).

Deepest conversation you've had with your 5 year old?

Kids this age have a remarkable sense of wonder, which they sadly lose (even sometimes still as children, as Rachel Carson remarked). For instance, he said after his birthday party “Today was the best day ever. I hope I will remember it. I don't remember my previous birthday”, or the creepy “When I’m 80 years old you will be dead, but I will remember you”.

haha…amazing…so what was your dissertation on? What was life like while you were working on it?

The PhD was in archaeology and art history, because my major was in that field. That was a disappointment as I wanted to do philosophy, but I decided to write on the cognitive foundations of mathematics and notched Paleolithic artifacts, examining the cognitive capacities that would be required for making such artifacts, and what they can tell us about the kinds of mathematical concepts people had before writing emerged (which was a lot later than the first notched artifacts). During my first PhD, my husband took care of our child, so we lived on just one income, in an old-fashioned house with a leaking roof and no central heating and just one old-fashioned coal stove (this is only romantic in books, a coal fire is high maintenance.)

You moved on to a post doc when you were finished. Who did you work with there?

My dissertation adviser was a very friendly, sympathetic person—I was really lucky with him and with my second advisor. I obtained a postdoc at the University of Leuven with Igor Douven, a formal philosopher who now works at the CNRS in Paris, and who had a cross-disciplinary large grant to work on rational acceptability. He hired a total of eight postdocs and two PhD students.

Did you feel prepared for a doctorate program in philosophy at Leuven?

The dissertation was article-based and considered the origins of higher-level cognition. I needed more background in philosophy, so working in Leuven on the The Formal Epistemology Project, I went to all the lectures and seminars they organized, which was mostly formal epistemology. There was no formal coursework as such, which is the norm for European graduate school. At that point I had been reading lots of philosophy and I was eager to do the doctorate.

Why did you get the second PhD?

I knew that if I wanted to keep on working in philosophy, I’d need a doctorate in that field. Douven moved to Groningen where he was offered a named chair position. This meant the funding for my postdoc—and that of the other postdocs—was cut. Fortunately, I was able to get a competitive postdoc grant in Leuven. As the PhD was article-based, I could combine the postdoc with writing the second PhD. Groningen was far away (it’s all in the north of the Netherlands), but my supervisor and I phoned very regularly—he liked to use the old-fashioned phone rather than Skype, and I received fantastic mentoring from him.

Do you think your training in other fields gave you a different perspective on philosophy than a typical philosopher if there is such a thing?

I think so. My training was very eclectic: archaeological methods of inference, historical-critical methods, anthropological methods to try to analyze other cultures using both emic (using terms internal to the culture) and etic (using terms external to the culture) perspectives. In any case, I got a good training in quantitative methods, which I further strengthened by taking an intensive accredited course in statistics at Ghent University while I was a PhD student in Brussels. I also took further coursework in quantitative methods in psychology in a summer school at Oxford University. Philosophy has broadened out quite a bit since I started publishing. I used to get desk rejects or rejects saying “This isn’t philosophy” – that isn’t happening lately. Or maybe I do a better job at passing!

What was trending philosophically in your program and in general at the time?

Leuven at the time was mostly continental, but the Formal Epistemology Project was very much focused on formal epistemology in analytic philosophy. We read and discussed, and hosted, many Bayesians. Experimental philosophy was on the rise and that was a topic I was very intrigued by. I think empirically-informed philosophy was definitely on the rise then (2008), it was the beginning of this kind of philosophy becoming mainstream.

What did you write your dissertation on?

My PhD looked at the question of how and humans are able to come up with the kinds of excesses that we see in human cognition, such as mathematics and science. I want to steer a middle ground between cognitivism and positions that see our ability to engage in these cultural practices as all down to environment or interactions between minds.

Was there pressure to publish in grad school?

There was enormous pressure to publish for any European graduate student. If you published well it increased your chances of landing a postdoc fellowship in your own name, which was vital to have a professorship in a country like Belgium (it’s not uncommon for people to have six or more years in postdoc fellowships before their first position, although the tenure-track system remains rare). At this point, between roughly 2008 and 2011 I worked long hours reading philosophy, writing articles, combining them into the dissertation, and not doing much else beside (parenting was the only other thing I did, and I was not the primary caregiver).

Did University of Leuven treat postdocs well?

My experiences of Leuven were mixed. They were not a woman-friendly department. At the time there were about 30 tenured professors, who were all male. To give one example of what this environment was like, after I got my PhD in philosophy in 2011, I applied for a tenure-track at the department in analytic philosophy. The people in department were wondering who would get the job, there were five or so postdocs competing, I was the only woman postdoc competing at the time. Professors at the faculty were discussing who would get the job, X or Y or Z, and I asked what they thought my chances were. “Oh you, well you’re a woman. You can find a job anywhere, because of affirmative action.” During the interview (I got shortlisted anyway), I got questions about Hegel and other continental stuff outside of my area of expertise. The other (all male) shortlisted candidates all got questions from their specializations. I didn’t get the job, of course, and in retrospect, I should probably be happy about that.

Yeah. What was the rest of the job market like?

The job market was not good. In general, the prospects at European universities are poor. The one horror story I feel comfortable sharing here is the Eastern APA one in 2012. I am sharing it because I hope someone reading this sometime might learn from my mistake. Anyway, I had a first-round interview for a position at Yale Divinity School. This was (still would be) pretty much my dream job. At the time this interview took place, I was about 4 months pregnant with our second child. I asked Yale for an interview via Skype, but they said no. I didn’t want to disclose the pregnancy, as I feared it would kill my chances for this position. So I flew to the States, for the E-APA interview on a long, exhausting flight (this was my second E-APA). It was a long flight from the UK to Atlanta—I felt sick, jetlagged, and completely out of form. The interview was in a hotel suite that Yale had hired, and I sat face to face with one of my philosophical heroes, Tamar Gendler. While I did my best to make a coherent impression, the interview didn’t go well, and I didn’t get an on campus. The worst was that I didn’t make a good impression. Something odd did happen that evening, someone approached one of the Yale committee members and tried to diffuse the fact that their candidate had broken out in tears during the interview! (Well, I thought, at least I didn’t cry and held it together in spite of nausea and a tremendous headache) I was very surprised that if you’re from a top school, you have people who go and schmooze on your behalf with committee members. I had no idea. They already had so many advantages in terms of graduate school education and networks, they also had people picking up the pieces when they did badly in interviews!

In what ways did you change most, between the time you were admitted to Ghent University and when you were awarded your second PhD (in philosophy)?

After I got my second PhD I had some time to re-evaluate my priorities. I just got a competitive fellowship at Oxford University for one year, and being away from my normal environment in Belgium (up until that point I never lived further than 10 km away from where I was born). Being in Oxford, just in my early thirties, gave me a sense of where I was in life. I knew the job market was grim but I also did not like who I had become: someone who is single-mindedly in pursuit of a job in philosophy, single-mindedly doing philosophy, and letting everything else and everyone around me suffer. It helped me to imagine myself as older (at the time 40 seemed like a formidable age, now I’m thinking I’m still relatively young when I will turn 40!) and not having accomplished anything but philosophy, and thinking whether I’d be satisfied with that. The answer was no. So I made a deliberate effort to become more the sort of person I wanted to be. I went back to church, and made again time for my hobbies—drawing, painting, playing my Renaissance lute, more time for engaging with my oldest (at the time only) child, and taking the time to read fiction. I tried not to work weekends (this still doesn’t work for the most part), and got my overall time working per week down from about 60 hours to about 40 hours, which is what I still do today.

Where did you land your first gig, post PhD?

I was very lucky to land a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship with Somerville College at Oxford in 2013. Oxford was a wonderful environment. I sat in on lectures by Oxford professors and went to the public lecture series, it was really a wonderful time. During this time I discovered a community of friends, co-bloggers and fellow philosophers. I also discovered the support you can have from peers, in my case fellow postdocs I met at Oxford and elsewhere, and how invaluable it is. In particular, I had lots of long discussions with fellow postdocs on the job market, on how to be strategic in it, and yet not lose yourself, or your connectedness with other people.

I know that grants and jobs are zero-sum games. Being more compassionate and engaging with others isn’t going to magically multiply opportunities. And yet, I think we lose something valuable if we buy into this pumped up competitiveness. There is so much resentment in academia. In 2015, I got my first tenure-track job, an assistant professor position at the Free University of Amsterdam.

Advice for folks on the market?

It’s important to keep in mind, whether you get a job is largely a matter of pedigree, luck, or a combination of those two factors, and does not define your worth as a human being. I’ve noticed this tendency of unsuccessful job candidates to blame groups of people for the structural failings of the job market, in particular women and people from prestigious schools. I’ve done research on the latter so I feel in a position to comment on this. It is true that people from top programs have a much easier time on the job market. But this is a structural failure of the job market, not something to be angry, envious and blaming individuals about who—let’s face it, even under ideal circumstances—are not having a walk in the park.

I would advise job candidates who successively do not land a tenure track to seek out a mentor. Mentoring can be a fairly informal thing, you don't need to lean heavily on your mentor (that’s a common misunderstanding of how it works) and you can have multiple mentors. But for me mentoring was crucial: I’ve had many long phone conversations with my advisor, Igor Douven, who was always kind, unwavering in his support, and full of helpful advice. In particular, his faith in me when I had little faith in myself was crucial. “Don’t worry just hang in there, it will happen for you”, he would say. Another mentor I would like to mention is Eric Schliesser, who gave invaluable job market advice. I know not everyone is lucky to have access to mentors, which is why Marcus Arvan and I got the idea to open a job market mentoring scheme for everyone in need of mentoring. So: my main advice would be (1) Live a little (see earlier) while you wait for life to start (2) Don’t become bitter and envious, (3) Find a mentor now!

My mentor was indispensable. Shout out to Mike Bishop! How did it feel to land the tenure track job?

Unreal. I had many interviews where I ended up not getting the job. So I had started to think it was never going to happen and seriously considered leaving academia. I did a series of interviews with philosophers who work outside of academia (it made The Atlantic) and that at least gave me confidence that it was possible to carve out something outside of academia.

How did the piece end up in The Atlantic? So cool!

No idea! I got contacted by Rebecca Rosen about the interviews, she asked me a few follow up questions and wrote that piece.

Interviews with philosophers? Who would be interested in something like that? Kidding, of course! Where did you get the idea?

I’ve been interviewing philosophers for several years now, and also collecting testimonies (just one example is the long job market journeys series at the Cocoon. Interviews can help us get a deeper insight into how our philosophy relates to other aspects of our work. I also hope, with these interviews to give something back to the profession. Maybe you have the same motivation?

Good question. That is part of it! I do this for a lot of different reasons. I think the interviews are intrinsically interesting. I often find these stories moving. Inspiring. Funny! Fascinating even when I’m talking to people I may disagree with, or talking about unpleasant aspects of what we do. I also think they can offer guidance to people who are starting off. They can make us all feel a little less alone. I hope they help us all realize that the people we argue with or try to tear down are human beings, not just argument containers. Plus, I figure the interviews might be historically valuable one day (this is especially important when we are largely focused on articles and books where discussing our personal lives is generally considered taboo). This is one reason they have metaphilosophical value as well, I think: describing not only our ideals, but how the community actually works, and how the community interacts with reality, and how the members of the community are and are not influenced by things other than the purported objects of study. A small number of philosophers would rather I not talk to certain people or allow these people to talk about certain things because of my duties to the community, but I think I have a duty to veracity here, that is almost certainly not in conflict or trumped by my duties to the community (as far as I can tell). The whole point of the project is…wait a minute, who the heck is interviewing who here, Helen? You’re good. Do you think we have special duties to the philosophical community?

As part of a community, the philosophical community—I’m right now at a conference and realize again how tightly knit our community is—I think we have certain rights and obligations qua members of that community. This idea is what motivates us to do refereeing, service for the APA etc. One obligation we might have as members of this community is to try to make the profession a better place, especially for marginalized members, and for people who struggle on the job market. I got several letters, including a hand-written card, from philosophers who have moved out of academia and who say that the series of interviews have helped them. The last one I received was just a few weeks ago, even though these interviews are a couple of years old now.

Any general lessons that can be drawn from the experiences of philosophers who ended up landing jobs outside of academia? I'm convinced I would get along, but just wither up and die, spiritually.

Yes. Two things: (1) the job market for people with PhDs outside of academia is not easy—you need to be willing to network, retrain etc. It’s a serious commitment and not just a fallback option.

(2) People overestimate how soul-destroying life outside of academia would be. We do a lot of soul-stultifying work: for instance, in the UK there is endless paperwork and admin (although my university is quite good at keeping this to a minimum), there are committees, grading, many of us re-teach the same course for many years, refereeing is only sometimes fun. Work outside academia doesn’t strike us as fulfilling but that’s part of the cult effect of academia. I started thinking about these things when my sister got her PhD in 2011 and immediately left academia to work for a meteorological institute. Given her field is physics, she had options. Now she works on long-term climate modeling and projecting rises in sea levels (scary stuff—non-climate scientists don’t quite see how grim it is), and also nowcasting (predicting the weather very accurately for the next few hours). Even the nowcasting involves creativity with climate models and thoughtful consideration of data, and she’s really happy and fulfilled in her job. This got me thinking that as academics we have a very skewed view of what life outside of academia can be. My interviews with philosophers outside of academia confirm this idea.

Why did you leave Amsterdam for Oxford Brookes?

It has little to do with the department in Amsterdam, who were wonderful people, but a lot with the culture of the university. There were no personal offices but open offices and clean desks, and yet the expectation to be at these desks on a daily basis and clear them up at night. Also, we did not quite feel at home. It takes a while to settle, but it just didn’t seem like we found the right place (our two-body problem was unsolved—it’s still unsolved but there was not even soft money, and that surely contributed). Although Oxford is scandalously expensive to live in, we also missed the place. Right now, Port Meadow—the big meadow in Oxford—is in full bloom with tiny buttercups and when I pass there and I see the cows wading in shallow pools, or a dog running, or a couple of swans fly low over the waters, I feel joy.

Since you started, how have you evolved as a teacher?

A lot. At first teaching was terrifying. Now I’m much more confident.

In Amsterdam and when I first came to Brookes I did flipped classroom—just a very brief lecture and for the rest let the students do the work, let them go through focused exercises, group discussions, where they need to apply a principle they read about to a particular case study (e.g., is a beehive an individual? Why or why not?). Recently, I’ve come back to lecturing and now I do a mix of lecturing, small group discussion, and workshop-based teaching. I teach an experimental philosophy course where we replicate studies and go out and poll people, and where students do stats on computers in a computer room, very interactive and workshoppy. For ethics and philosophy of human nature I do lots of exercises and small group breakouts. We do a group visit to a museum for my course on evolution and the mind. But my philosophy of science course has evolved into lectures almost exclusively (with plenty of opportunity to ask questions). I think there is a place for making a thoughtful, engaging lecture and for students to respond to that.

Yeah. You’re very productive. Where do you find the time and energy? I’m so lazy!

I don’t suffer from writer’s block and make sure to put enough time apart for writing every day, also in term time (exception is when the end-of-semester grading comes along and I don’t find the energy to write.). Even just an hour, or two hours, of writing a day goes a long way. I rarely write more than three or four hours a day even when I have no other academic tasks. It just becomes counterproductive for me to do more than that and the quality of the writing suffers.

You worry about your job in Oxford, with the passing of the Brexit referendum?

With that Brexit referendum I sometimes wonder if this was a wise choice. I had vaguely heard there would be a referendum on EU membership but had no idea it would mean that our rights would potentially not be secured, and that we might lose access to European university programs such as Erasmus or Horizon 2020. Anyway, I’m now a spokesperson for a civil rights group (the 3 Million) and write a blog on the topic which uses philosophical tools (for instance, recently using Manne’s conceptual analysis of misogyny to explain xenophobia and the “know your place and be grateful we let you in, foreigner” attitude).

Where were you and what were you thinking when you learned Brexit passed?

I went to bed late looking at the polls roll in and thinking, “This is not looking good”. There was a lot of bottled up anger and the tabloid media had successfully radicalized large swathes of the mainly elderly, well-off white population into thinking migration had to be stopped at all costs. My husband was confident it would be a Leave vote because just a few days or so before the Referendum there was a story on BBC on record net migration from Europe to the UK. I remember him saying, “That’s it. They will vote to leave”. The next morning, he went to have a look and told me “They voted to leave”. I was devastated, even though it was not entirely unexpected. Maybe disappointed is a better term—I had hoped the British would show some common sense and pragmatism, instead, they let their xenophobia dictate their vote. Everything that’s happened since, the snap election, the infighting of the government, confirms my initial thought.

Where were you when you learned Trump was elected? Surreal?

Since I had a good taste of white nativism with Brexit, I was convinced Trump would be elected. A few days after the Brexit vote, we had American friends who came over. They were from California, but staying in the UK on Tier-2 visas. They said “Now we’ve seen this happen, we know Trump can totally happen”. As I saw him rise in the polls I got a sense of déjà vu. I watched the results come in and again went to bed late, but at that time I was already firmly convinced that Trump would win. I saw Florida turn red and thought, “That’s it. Trump will be president.” I saw on FB status updates of friends who were still hopeful. I underestimated the devastation he would wreak. Already in a short time he has destroyed the fragile legacy Obama left behind: international relations, women’s rights, even healthcare. This will take decades to fix, at least should the US ever want to fix it.

What are you working on this summer?

This summer I have several projects planned. I’m presenting a paper on ritual and intergroup cooperation in Antwerp soon. Humans are, along with ants, the only species that engages in intergroup cooperation, and I’m looking at the role of ritual in facilitating such cooperation. I’m finishing up a paper for an edited volume on awe and wonder in science (draft here). I’m presenting at a conference at Notre Dame where I discuss intersectionality in the philosophy of religion (draft here). By the end of this summer, I’ll have coauthored a short book on the challenge of evolution to religion.

God, I’m inadequate. Are you religious?

I’d say so, although I am not very good at the practice of it, such as making it to church regularly. Also, Christianity (except Eastern Orthodoxy or some more stringent forms of evangelical Christianity, not the mainstream protestant churches I tend to go to these days) is the religion for lazy people. If I compare this to what, for example, observant Muslims need to do Christianity is like the novice setting for religion. We’re now in the Ramadan period and my Muslim friends and colleagues manage to not drink or eat anything during the entire day (and there is a lot of daylight – it’s something like from 4 AM to 9 PM). My son’s best friend is Muslim. His mum observes the Ramadan even though she’s breastfeeding his younger sibling. I just can’t imagine doing that. There are no food taboos in Christianity either, or dress codes that will set you apart and make you a potential target of ridicule or othering. Just to say, I don’t particularly take pride in being a Christian or wear it as a badge of honor.

How do your religious commitments affect your philosophical thinking (and vice versa)?

Not all that much I think. Perhaps the mere fact of doing philosophy of religion is a consequence of having a personal stake in it. If God’s existence is at least a live possibility for you, then it makes sense to study it as obviously it’s a topic of enormous philosophical importance. If God doesn’t exist, then religion is still interesting as a cultural thing, a bit like philosophy of music or the philosophy of sports, but not of such huge importance. This asymmetry seems to me to adequately explain why philosophers of religion tend to be theists (around 70% according to surveys Bourget and Chalmers and I did).

How have your religious views evolved?

Due to some personal religious experiences I’ve had over the years, my credence in the existence of God has become quite high (I think anyone who had this kind of phenomenal evidence would be quite confident, or they’d have to doubt their cognitive faculties), but beyond that, I’m not sure about any specific creedal commitments.

I’m not orthodox enough to be a proper analytic philosopher of religion. The vast majority of philosophers of religion seem to subscribe to quite an orthodox religious view: original sin, Jesus is human and divine, the three persons of the Trinity are of equal import, Jesus alone saves, God has the omni-properties, and so on. Theologians tend to be more adventurous. There is a little bit of wiggle room (e.g., whether the Fall was an actual historical event is a serious philosophical discussion) but not much. Now those views may be defensible, and philosophers have done a great job trying to defend them (e.g., Yujin Nagasawa’s ontological arguments), but it would be remarkable if philosophers had got it all correct. I’m not at all confident about any of the statements I just listed and the confidence with which philosophers of religion take all this metaphysical baggage on board strikes me as remarkable.

Would you mind describing the religious experiences? I'm not a religious person, and I haven't really had a chance to talk to many philosophers who have had these experiences, so they fascinate me.

They are as is described in William James and in more recent literature—it’s basically the sense of a presence, and just a couple of times, someone speaking clearly. That’s really as much detail I want to go into, lest people get weirded out at this point (if they aren’t already). Such experiences are quite common, according to polling agencies like Pew forum atheists and agnostics also have them. For me, a religious experience has a unique, peculiar phenomenology in that it feels like the surest thing, but after a while that feeling quickly fades and you wonder about it. So to put it in epistemological terms, it has epistemic forcefulness (as Mike Huemer calls it—he means not mere vividness but a certain forcefulness about its veracity, like a strong intuition). But that feeling does not carry over in episodic memory: all you’re left with is a memory that the feeling was epistemically forceful at the time, but not the phenomenological quality of the experience itself. I still don’t know what to make of them. Since many people have these experiences—also atheists—I think we need to accord them some epistemic weight.

Would the replication of those experiences under controlled conditions make you doubt the veracity of those experiences?

I think we need to be open to potential debunking explanations for these sorts of experiences. Persinger’s God helmet stuff has been soundly debunked. I’m suspicious of any attempt to try to immunize one’s religious beliefs or experiences from any skeptical claims or arguments. Still, I don’t know how we could debunk these experiences from eliciting them in the lab. Suppose I can elicit in you a very convincing seeming that there’s a red car in front of you with my special lab equipment, I don’t think that should lead you to doubt all your previous red-car seemings.

Might it make you see ‘forcefulness’ isn’t all it cracks up to be?

Yeah, it would be subject to defeaters obviously—knowledge is an elusive thing. I used to be a full-on externalist. I used to think safety was a condition for knowledge. Now I don’t think so anymore.

What is the relationship between religion and philosophy?

I think people outside of philosophy of religion overestimate the degree to which philosophy of religion is a form of apologetics. It does happen to some extent, and Plantinga’s advice to Christian philosophers still looms large. That being said, I am not sure what the relationship is. I did a qualitative survey among philosophers of religion and more recently a focus group study, which suggest it might be a form of faith seeking understanding. But if that’s the case, why aren’t we seeing more earnest engagement with the religious presuppositions and the orthodoxy? Personally, I am interested in why people are religious at all, and so my work focuses on the cognitive science of religion and fleshing out its philosophical implications.

Plantinga’s advice?

The “Advice to Christian Philosophers”, is a set of guideline Plantinga proposes for how Christian philosophers should do philosophy. While I have deep respect for Plantinga, I do not share the enthusiasm some others have for this piece. So for, instance he discusses a hypothetical Christian philosopher who is attracted to Quine. He writes “Quine is a marvelously gifted philosopher... But his fundamental commitments, his fundamental projects and concerns, are wholly different from those of the Christian community-wholly different and, indeed, antithetical to them. And the result of attempting to graft Christian thought onto his basic view of the world will be at best an unintegral pastiche; at worst it will seriously compromise, or distort, or trivialize the claims of Christian theism. What is needed here is more wholeness, more integrality.” Now as someone who is attracted to the Quinean project, I disagree with Plantinga. Moreover, I think it’s not possible to make such assumptions about whether this or that view is incompatible with Christianity without actually doing the work. I have lots of other problems with the piece, but I’ll leave it for now.

How are religion and science related?

I think the two have lots in common, for instance, there’s a recent literature in cognitive science suggesting that awe and wonder play key roles in scientific practice. One neat recent study by Tania Lombrozo and colleagues showed that people who are more prone to awe are, surprisingly, less likely to be young earth creationists, or endorse faulty teleological scientific explanations. There are other studies suggesting that the state of awe and wonder encourage critical thinking and reduce reliance on stereotypes and clichés. To Abraham Heschel (a Jewish theologian) awe is prior to religious faith – it’s a primitive emotion that makes religion possible because it reduces self-importance and thus encourages religious deference (a religious believer, yare hashem, is literally one who stands in awe of God).

Similarly, we have lots of autobiographical accounts of scientists, including Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, who talk about the role of awe and wonder as psychological motivators for their work. Those emotions are the ones that prompt us to go beyond the mundane stuff of providing in our basic survival needs and reproduction, also perhaps to go beyond ourselves and be in a state of deference, which I think is required for science (not only because of a certain need to adhere to the reigning paradigm but just also to be enough invested in the world and a certain picture of it to devote lots of time and energy to it).

Science, religion, and art are the things that make us distinctively human, and thus the things I am primarily interested in as a philosopher. I was recently talking to Richard Potts, the curator of the Hall of Human Origins in the Natural History Museum in Washington. This permanent exhibition has many human fossils and the nuts and bolts of fossils. But visitors who leave messages and comments aren’t interested in how we became bipedal, or how large the cranial capacity of a Homo ergaster was. Rather, they are interested in why we make art, when we first became religious, how we’re able to engage in science and make technological advancements based on it. This interest of the general public is not so different from mine—it’s the main reason I got into philosophy and still engaged in it today. Science and religion are both excesses (at least prima facie) of human behavior that cry out for an explanation.

Church has never made me feel the way I’ve felt in that exhibit. Readers, I highly recommend, it’s…awesome. I think this is why I’m so interested in philosophy of science, and metaphilosophy! Relationship between science and philosophy?

Our philosophical work should be informed by science, and often I read brilliant papers that could be better if the author had bothered to read up on the relevant (cognitive science, often) literature. I’m not quite a Quinean who sees science and philosophy as a continuous project, but I am pretty close to that idea.

Nice. You also dabble in fiction, yes?

Recently, I’m into fiction writing (have finished a few short stories, and have organized a workshop on how to write fiction for philosophers), and there too I try to see if the characters or story lines can surprise me.

Workshop looked really fun! Any interesting, related, projects?

A project I am particularly excited about is a volume with philosophical stories by philosophers and professional SF authors (we have an impressive line-up to be revealed in due course!) I am co-editing with Johan De Smedt and Eric Schwitzgebel.

Eric rules. Going out on a limb: have you read Remembrance of Earth's Past?

Yes, and I found it fascinating. It’s a bit weak in terms of character development, but the story is well-paced. It intriguingly starts with the Cultural Revolution and a discontent, angry character who is so upset with her government she’s willing to get a bunch of space aliens over to end human civilizations as we know them. I gave a copy to my sister, who is a PhD in physics and according to her the physics underlying the trilogy is superb. I also love the game that features centrally in the book and the references to King Wen of Zhou and other mythological figures.

Yes! It’s so good, I use excerpts of it in my philosophy of science class. Favorite, philosophically interesting, science fiction movies?

Arrival (2016) is a good take on Ted Chiang’s original novella “Story of Your Life”, the film differs from the novella, but it works. There’s good dialogue, the film is understated and the aliens are cool. I found the Thirteenth Floor (1999) a better-developed exploration of the brain-in-a-vat skepticism than the Matrix which was released in the same year, based on the underappreciated novel Simulacron-3 by D.F. Galouye. For animated SF films, I recommend the cyberpunk film Akira (1988, terrific script and pacing), and Divoká planeta (1973), a Czech film, gorgeously drawn, where humans are literally vermin and at risk of extermination, and need to assert and convince the large blue aliens they are worthy of rights.

Love Akira. Favorite Shows?

It’s hard not to like Firefly (2002), I also enjoyed the reimagined Battlestar Galactica (2004, including the ending), and I also recommend Into the Badlands (2015- although that verges more on fantasy), which successfully combines Eastern martial arts and Southern Gothic.

I am still withdrawing from Battlestar. Speaking of which, you’re into science, fiction, and religion. How would you explain religion, religious experiences, and religious practices to extraterrestrials?

I speculate it would not be hard to explain, as any extraterrestrials we would be able to communicate with would have something similar to religion. Maybe they wouldn’t have theistic beliefs, but they’d likely have something like ritual, given how important it is in building cooperation. Maybe they’d have some sort of belief in the supernatural, as broad supernatural punishment theory predicts. The cognitive science of religion indicates that religion is quite robust—it emerges as a result of many different cognitive dispositions, so if space aliens are thus that we can communicate with them, I would expect them to have those sensibilities too.

You are active on the philosophical blogosphere! What do you like and dislike about it?

I like it, on the whole. It got me in touch with so many people that otherwise I would not come to know. Philosophy may not be flat (as Alex Rosenberg said on your blog earlier), but blogs help to lift the valleys. I dislike the occasional meltdowns on blogs. They seem to be inevitable.

I hope not! Have you had a chance to discuss the issue with him?

Not yet! I wrote a brief response on his assertion that philosophy is flat, which to my knowledge he didn’t respond to – the response attaches to a paper I wrote on prestige bias in philosophy which is now available in Ergo. There were two things, doing research for this piece, that struck me in particular. First, prestige plays a huge role in hiring in philosophy but philosophy isn’t exceptional in this regard. Fields like English are worse. In such fields people from unranked departments stand no chance on the job market at all, whereas in philosophy your chances are worse but you can still get a job (in another unranked department). So while philosophy isn’t flat, it isn’t as Himalayan as some other fields. Second, I found it surprising that qualitative assessments, assessments based on character or “roundedness”, and legacy preferences—all tactics that favor white, rich kids for admission in elite universities in the US had their origin in anti-Semitic attempts to shut Jewish kids out of these universities. Anti-Semitism is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

Leiter called you out on his blog. Did that bug you?

He seems to find it interesting to name and engage with particular philosophers who are on his radar. We have different motivations and ideas about what public philosophy and having a public platform that reaches many philosophers should be about.

What do you think of What Is It Like to Be a Philosopher?

I love it, and feel honored to be invited to contribute to it. We recently hosted one of the philosophers you interviewed (Michael Ruse) for a series of talks at my university, and it was so helpful to read about him in advance, in his own words. Your series helps to destroy the view from nowhere philosophy, or that such a view is even possible. There is a deep connection between our life experiences and our philosophy, but it is subtle to identify what it might be.

Definitely (though it might be a matter of degree, still thinking about this)! Do you find any trends in philosophy disconcerting? Exciting?

I’m still very excited by experimental philosophy! It deserves its own journal. I tried to start one but the logistics were too formidable (and talking to Jonathan Weisberg and other journal-starters confirms this, he said it annihilates the self.)

Any areas we spend way too much time on?

No I don’t think so. I do my share of refereeing and I do regularly reject papers that I think are just incrementally interesting. These tend to be papers that look at some hot topics (I’m not going to mention any specific fields lest anyone reading this think I’ve recently rejected their paper!) and they offer a little footnote here or a comma there. But all areas can be of interest. However, there is a concern which José Medina (2013) called “social division of cognitive laziness”, we still seem to have—as a community—an unawareness of broader perspectives. This includes regarding such fields feminist philosophy, philosophy of race, intersectionality, nonwestern philosophy, as fringe. It’s easy to say: let others concentrate on that, but there is a cost to it. It’s still difficult to place such papers in the top journals. So we will need to spend a bit more time and attention in these fields.

Most underrated philosopher (you are aware of)?

Let me rephrase that question to underrated traditions or groups of philosophers…

I’m down.

While it’s slowly changing there isn’t enough attention for nonwestern philosophy in analytic philosophy. I think we’re at the point where one should be at least somewhat shy one has not read Mengzi (especially not given the recent beautiful translation by Bryan Van Norden), the Analects, Xunzi, Mozi, al-Ghazali, al-Farabi, etc. It’s slowly changing but the engagement should be better, also in terms of education. I introduced Chinese virtue ethics in my intro to ethics class and had very thoughtful essays and positive feedback.

Best philosopher you disagree with most?

René Descartes. His Meditations is a beautifully written work and has the virtue of brevity (I know there are all these interesting extra bits in objections and replies), as are his other writings, especially Discourse on Method. I’m not on board with the skepticism and his way out of the skepticism, his ontological argument, his substance dualism, and his presupposition that you can simply cast off the beliefs you acquired as a child and during your lifetime. I disagree with almost everything he says, but I appreciate the approach he takes in the Meditations.

He said he called it Meditations rather than Disputations, “In doing so I wanted to make it clear that I would have nothing to do with anyone who was not willing to join me in meditating and giving the subject attentive consideration. For the very fact that someone braces himself to attack the truth makes him less suited to perceive it, since he will be withdrawing his consideration from the convincing arguments which support the truth in order to find counterarguments against it”. I know he didn’t extend this charity to his interlocutors (in particular, Hobbes) that he required of readers, but nevertheless, it’s an ideal for me on how philosophy can be done.

He was wrong but so good. One book, desert island, what is it?

Not sure. I loved Lord of the Rings when I was younger, but now it doesn’t quite impress me that much. And I get bored with novels eventually. I’m not so much a philosophy book reader. Maybe on this desert island I will take the Critique of Pure Reason (or a huge tome with all three critiques) so I will finally read it. I’ve honestly tried to read it cover to cover, but two-thirds in, I gave up. The prose is just too contorted and the theory, while very influential for cognitive science, metaphysics, continental philosophy and so on, is far-fetched.

Music recommendations?

While they are quite experimental (note their recent Handel Goes Wild, for example) I enjoy listening to L’Arpeggiata, Christin Pluhar’s ancient music ensemble. I also enjoy the Catalonian ensemble Hesperion XXI, who have been consistently making spectacular music since the 1980s or so. Composers: I think it’s hard to play the lute and not love Dowland—he’s so inventive and subtle, and do have a listen to Luis Milan’s vihuela music. There are lots of talented lutenists out there, in particular, Rolf Lislevand, Hopkinson (Hoppy) Smith, Paul O’Dette. World music: lots of stuff to like. Lin Youren was a Chinese guqin player, with a beautiful, unaffected style. Soeur Marie Keyrouz is a Lebenase Maronite nun with a lovely alto.

Last meal?

My father’s lotus root soup. I don’t know where to get lotus root and it takes ages to make. But it is a delightful soup.

Thank you for your time, Helen. It’s been a ton of fun!