In this interview, Jenny Saul, Director of the Society for Women in Philosophy UK and Co-Chair of the British Philosophical Association's Women in Philosophy Committee, talks about growing up with academic parents, arguing with her brother, becoming interested in nuclear proliferation, South Africa, and philosophy in high school, playing the harp and studying philosophy of language at University of Rochester, coping with a combative, hostile, philosophical environment at Princeton, falling in love, getting married and moving to Sheffield, how she ended up writing a textbook on feminism, getting involved with the Feminist Philosophers Blog and What Is It Like to be a Woman in Philosophy?, implicit biases, the Jesuit Doctrine of Mental Reservation, trigger warnings, and dog whistles.
Where did you grow up?
How would you describe Toledo to somebody who has never been?
I now see that it’s actually a pretty nice place. It’s a Midwestern industrial city—quite diverse, strongly Democratic, with a university, a genuinely excellent art museum, and very nice people. At the time I thought it was basically cornfields and malls, and I wanted to get far away to somewhere more exciting. It’s also completely flat, which led to a desperate lifelong desire for hills. (The hilliness of Sheffield still fills me with joy even after 21 years.) It’s funny going back now to visit my parents, because my 11 year old son views it as a vacation paradise. (My parents live across the street from a neighbourhood swimming pool.)
What did your parents do for a living?
My parents are both physical and forensic anthropologists. This means I grew up surrounded by human bones, and rather gruesome anecdotes. It was awesome. My tiny, smiley, grey haired mother can clear a restaurant in five minutes flat with one of her anecdotes. My partner has learned the hard way not to just pick up an envelope of photos he sees at the house, and not to check out a poster presentation he sees leaning against a wall unless he’s asked about it first.
Do you have any siblings? As a little kid, what did you do for fun? Was there any sign you were going to grow up to be a philosopher?
I have one brother, and I always enjoyed arguing with him. One of my happiest childhood memories is that satisfaction of an interchange that went: "You're King Kong!" "Well, you're King Kong's little sister!" "Yes." Looking back, this may have been an indication of my future career path.
Were you an argumentative teenager? Favorite teacher? Did you start thinking about what you were going to do for a living?
I was a weird teenager who luckily found a few weird friends to hang out with, but I wasn't the partying sort (not then, anyway). I spent a lot of time going to Nuclear Freeze rallies and trying to get my school to divest from South Africa, not really the route to popularity in 1980s Toledo, Ohio. I was really lucky, though, to have a wonderful philosophy teacher in high school-- Stan Fischer, who was an ABD in philosophy from Chicago. We read Plato, and my initial attitude was typical American indignation at the lack of "free speech". Pretty soon, though, I realised how much more interesting Plato, and everything else, was if I just examined the arguments. I was amazed, and fell in love with philosophy. But part of it was also that he was funny as hell and did the things one isn't supposed to--like the time he told a roomful of teenagers about a friend of his in grad school whose dissertation argued that a state of perpetual orgasm was the only life worth living. I wanted to be Stan Fischer, or at least to surround myself with people like him.
You went to the University of Rochester. When you started college, did you know you were going to major in philosophy? Did you consider majoring in anything else?
I went to university planning to double major in philosophy and harp. I had a lot of problems with my arms, which made me have to stop the harp for quite a while, and I dictated all my papers into a tape recorder (in grad school as well). They were typed up by a student paid by the university, who never did learn how to spell 'argument'.
Favorite classes or teachers in college?
The first philosophy class I took was Philosophy of Religion. I was a lifelong atheist, with no religious upbringing, and I still remember my shock at reading the phrase "arguments for the existence of God" in the course catalog. I genuinely thought if there were arguments for this, I really needed to know about them. So I enrolled, seriously concerned that I might encounter an argument that would change my mind. I didn’t. I ended up loving philosophy of language most, first with Dorit Bar-On and then with David Braun, who I eventually co-authored with. I didn't take any feminist philosophy classes, because I thought philosophy was all about puzzling things and that feminism was too obviously correct to be something one could do philosophy about. (My grandmother was a mathematician and 1970s feminist who took me to consciousness raising meetings as a 4 year old.)
When did you decide to go to grad school?
I come from an academic family, which made it easy for me to see myself as an academic, and probably difficult to see myself in a different way. So it seemed just natural to go on to a PhD in philosophy.
Did coming from an academic family prepare you for grad school?
I think one of the most useful things about coming from an academic family was that I had a pretty cynical view of academia. I didn't ever think it was a meritocracy, and I had some idea of how badly people might behave. I was still a little shocked by some of what I came across, and I remember telling my father that what I was seeing was much worse than anything he'd seen. Then he told me some of the stories he'd kept from me when I was younger. I think it's helped me a lot to be able to talk to my parents about the problems of the field, and how to go about trying to deal with them.
You went to grad school at Princeton. Did you enjoy it?
I found graduate school a terrifying experience. I had been very comfortable speaking as an undergraduate, even in graduate seminars, but my entire time at Princeton, I was terrified to open my mouth, for fear of being thought "stupid". This was not helped by the fact that, at that time (Princeton, early 1990s) it was quite normal for faculty and grad students to sit around the lounge talking about who was "stupid" amongst the grad students. At the time I thought this was a great environment-- so many smart people, so much great philosophy, and surely being pushed to excel was just what happened in grad school.
When did you realize it was a bad environment?
I was unable to get the critical distance at the time to see what a terrible environment Princeton was, and what a bad effect it was having on my confidence. I felt that my inability to cope was a personal weakness. I didn't really fully realise how corrosive the environment was until I became Director of Graduate Studies myself at Sheffield, and had what seemed at the time an amazing flash of insight about how to create good and bad environments. Looking back, I have trouble understanding how the problems failed to be obvious. But this experience has made it very vivid for me how hard it is to understand a bad situation when one is in it.
What was your dissertation on? Who did you work with?
I wrote my dissertation on propositional attitude semantics, with Scott Soames.
What drew you to the topic of propositional attitudes?
To be honest, I think it was because it was one of the few places where philosophers were talking about the semantic/pragmatic distinction. As time has gone on, I've discovered that I am not nearly as interested in names, or propositional attitudes, as I am in pragmatics.
Was writing the dissertation challenging?
I procrastinated a lot, which meant that I wrote almost all of it in a few months after landing my job. It was a chaotic time, as 2 weeks before leaving my partner and I learned we would need to get married last-minute for visa purposes. So I had a quickie wedding performed by a good friend who was a minister from the Religion department, in the Tower Room. I'm not religious, but it's nice to have a friend marry you. We had what was actually a really great BYO party in the Tower Room at the department, and I handed in my dissertation to Gil Harman as part of the ceremony.
Any advice for procrastinators?
Find a more fun way to procrastinate-- take a real break! Watch something trashy. You don't need to work all the time.
Specific recommendations on the trashy-things-to-watch front?
I am always happy to re-watch Buffy. And for really trashy there’s nothing like the Patrick Swayze oeuvre. (Our department runs a philosophy series at a local cinema, and—sort of on a dare—I will be doing a pre-film talk on Roadhouse this February. I may live to regret this.)
So, how'd you meet your partner? What does he do?
My partner was in in the Art History department at Princeton, which was if anything an even more problematic place than the Philosophy department. So he was happy to get very far away when I got my job offer at Sheffield. My partner spent 20 years in graphic and web design, but is now doing a PhD applying art historical techniques to images shared on social media, focusing on the refugee crisis. He is the world's happiest PhD student, and it's been great having our interests intersect as I'm now working a lot on racism.
How did you make it through grad school? Are you still friends with anybody (else) from Princeton?
I stayed (relatively) sane by going to NY as often as I could. And some people were lovely. Dick Jeffrey was one of the warmest, most enjoyable people I've ever known. He was the one who videoed my hastily-arranged wedding and swore through the whole thing as he struggled with the camera. I am SO pleased to have a recording of that.
Fortune plays a role on the job market. What role did luck play in your job search?
I was terrible at APA interviews, so really fortunate that Sheffield didn't do those.
Did you ever get over your fear of speaking?
I became very comfortable with speaking again pretty much as soon as I arrived at Sheffield.
Did you like Sheffield from the start?
I fell madly in love with Sheffield, both city and department.
You’re still at Sheffield. How would you describe the department?
It's one of the world's friendliest, most pluralistic departments and it changed me very quickly into not just a happier person but a much better philosopher. At first, I was confused by the discussions, since nobody was trying to destroy anyone else. But I soon realised how exciting and enjoyable it is to do philosophy with the goal of figuring things out, or asking interesting questions, or having an illuminating discussion (rather than expressing dominance). Sheffield's always been a place that takes very seriously areas of philosophy that are more broadly marginalised in the profession-- like Hegel, pragmatism, cognitive science, or aesthetics. Despite being one of only 1 or 2 women in the department until 2011, I never felt marginalised as a woman or a feminist philosopher. My colleagues just thought it was great to have another area of expertise in the department, and loved discussing it with me. And I became a much better philosopher as I learned (especially from Chris Hookway) how to do things like read charitably, ask constructive questions, and understand traditions very different from those I was taught.
How did you get into the feminism stuff?
My grandmother was a mathematician at Penn State, and after her retirement she devoted herself to 2nd wave feminism and took me to marches and consciousness-raising meetings. My whole family was very feminist. So feminism was always something I cared about, though it took quite a long time before I started seeing ways to do philosophical feminism. I initially thought it was surely all too obvious. I ended up listing feminism as an AOC on my CV because I wanted to learn more. Then Sheffield called my bluff. The person who taught 1st year intro politics left, and Peter Carruthers (then Head of Department) thought feminism would be a great replacement. (A truly remarkable attitude at any time, but this was mid-90s so really shocking.) I wrote a textbook because I wanted to have one, and then kept finding more things to write about.
I became involved in issues concerning women in philosophy through seeing how few there were and talking to my fellow women philosophers about it. Sally Haslanger convinced me to start the Feminist Philosophers blog—I remember being very reluctant, insisting that I’m not the blogging sort. When I founded What is it Like to be a Woman in Philosophy? I really had no idea that I’d be deluged with tales of sexual harassment, and so quite accidentally became heavily involved in the issue. I got involved with SWIP UK because I had feminism PhD students, and it was the main source of feminism conferences in the UK at the time. Through SWIP, Feminist Philosophers, and What is it Like, I got increasingly involved in thinking about issues in the profession, and that led me to research on implicit bias.
I'm really thrilled by how many people, both women and men, are working on issues of underrepresentation in the profession now. There are so many more resources, so much more information, and so much now being done. It’s especially exciting to see vibrant, student-led organisations like MAP. I'm really amazed at how quickly attention to these issues-- and, increasingly, to other and overlapping issues of underrepresentation-- is becoming mainstream. Of course, there's also a backlash, and it gets pretty ugly. But backlash is a sign of success.
What do you make of recent criticisms of the research on implicit bias?
I’m working on a paper right now with Jules Holroyd discussing the relationship between these criticisms and reform efforts in philosophy. In brief: We don’t think the criticisms are nearly as devastating as they’ve been represented as being, though we do think that they show some need for reflecting on incautious ways that things have sometimes been phrased (including occasionally by ourselves). But, perhaps more importantly, we don’t think they have much impact on most of the proposed reforms of the profession, since those can be justified on multiple grounds.
What's the Jesuit Doctrine of Mental Reservation, and why are you interested in it?
The Jesuit Doctrine of Mental Reservation is a thing of beauty. It holds that one can avoid lying by silently adding something on to an utterance that is audible only to God. So, for example, one might say "I did not kill him" then think to oneself *in a public place* or *last Thursday* or *with an anvil*. It's no longer widely endorsed, but a friend working in a Catholic hospital said that the nuns told him they sometimes employed it in order to avoid lying to patients: "Your temperature is normal", they'd say, while silently thinking *for someone in your condition*. Obviously, it's a super-fun case for a philosopher interested in lying and misleading!
Biggest misconception about trigger warnings?
The biggest misconception is that they in any way silence speech. A warning is not a silencing, but an additional bit of speech, which seems to help some students engage with material better. However, I don't think that they should be *demanded* (which they almost never are, incidentally). This is because we do not yet have sufficient empirical evidence either in favour of them or concerning how and when they should be issued. I do think that pressure to provide trigger warnings can become a problem when combined with enormous employment uncertainty. But I think the problem here is not substantially different from the pressure to provide handouts, or to give more As, combined with enormous employment uncertainty. The real issue is the employment uncertainty that makes it more difficult for people to freely make pedagogical choices that they feel are right. So the real target of concern should the effects of neo-liberalism and marketisation on universities.
What are you working on nowadays?
I just finished a year of research leave to help me get my research back on track after 4 years as Head of Department. My plan had been to study subtle racism in political speech, like dog whistles. And I thought there might be some good examples of this in the US election. Obviously, it's been anything but subtle. So I've become very interested in how such a deeply disturbing shift in norms has taken place (and also whether it has, or whether new ways have been found around existing norms). I've written a lot of papers, but by the end of the year I was very glad to have other obligations which meant that I didn't have to think about Trump and Brexit all the time.
I imagine it’s going to be harder to avoid thinking about Trump and Brexit now. Thoughts?
A lot more dread than coherent thought, to be honest. I don’t have a clear vision of how we work our way out of this. Except to fight like hell at every opportunity. Which I’m very glad to see people doing in the US. That is enormously heartening. However, it makes me even more depressed at the moribund state of opposition to Brexit.
What do you make of reports your former dissertation adviser supported Trump?
These reports are clearly true—he signed a statement by academics supporting Trump, and it’s entirely consistent with his long-held political views.
Do you find any trends in philosophy exciting?
I am extremely excited by the interest analytic philosophers are starting to take in the social world. There's so much fantastic work going on, and a great community of philosophers doing it. Some of them I've actually met, but quite a lot I only know through facebook-- which I think has been a remarkable tool for building up this area of our profession.
Queen of the world, what's your first move?
At the moment all the jokes I can come up with seem in poor taste.
What do you do to unwind?
I always need to watch something fun and not depressing before going to bed. My current favourite is Jane the Virgin.