Kate Manne is an assistant professor at the Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell University. In this interview she talks about growing up in Australia with literary parents, being obsessive, how boys in high school influenced her philosophical interests, working with Graham Priest and Greg Restall as an undergrad at the University of Melbourne, why she found the difficulty of philosophy attractive, working with Sally Haslanger at MIT, being inspired by the prose of G.E.M. Anscombe and Bernard Williams, kittens, corgis, reasons, impostor syndrome, survivor’s guilt, the difference between public philosophy and academic philosophy, how the Isla Vista shootings inspired her critically acclaimed new book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Twitter, trolls, mansplainers, Hillary, Trump, double standards, and the 2016 election, how we ought to treat the work of morally despicable philosophers, teaching students to challenge authority, Bojack Horseman, Orange is the New Black, Black Mirror, and what she would do if she was queen of the world!
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Cottlesbridge, Victoria, Australia, in a fairly rural area, on about twenty acres of scrubby bushland. We had horses and chickens and border collies, and our next-door neighbors had sheep. There were herds of kangaroos that grazed in our paddocks. I loved them and had hopes of befriending one. It never happened, sadly.
What did your parents do for a living? What was your family like, in general?
My father was a professor of political science at Latrobe University, relatively nearby, where he’s now emeritus. He’s written several books, and also writes for newspapers and literary magazines, and edited one for a while. A few years ago he was named Australia’s no. 1 public intellectual, and got a little plaque to prove it, which we all teased him about. My mother stayed home with me and my younger sister Lucy until we were both in school. Then she started a career as a writer. She’s written books on motherhood, narcissism, and a memoir.
Cool! As a kid what did you do for fun?
Well, I remember a series of best friends, having sleepovers and such. Also I loved spending time with our animals. But I was driven from a fairly young age, and tended to study harder than was strictly necessary. I also played the piano and practiced incessantly, which slightly alarmed my parents. My father called me “a little obsessive,” which applies just as much today. It’s both a feature and a bug of my personality, I suppose. On the one hand, I’ve always enjoyed getting completely absorbed in activities that I feel inadequate to. So, despite not being particularly talented and barely being able to reach an octave, I had taken my nine AMEB exams and gotten an A.Mus.A. certificate by the time I was fifteen. On the other hand, all that practicing of big Beethoven sonatas and whatnot gave me RSI, and I could hardly hold a pen for years afterward. But learning to play The Pathetique (however imperfectly) ultimately made it worth it.
When did you start thinking about where you were going to college?
For my last two years of school, I wanted to do the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, instead of the local equivalent. I had a vague idea of applying abroad, to Harvard or Princeton or some such, and I thought having the IB would make it easier to do that. The nearest school that offered the program was a private all-boys’ school that my former school was a co-ed satellite of. The all-boys’ campus had decided to open their doors to girls who wanted to do the IB, and three of us signed up that first year. I remember my parents were a bit nervous about my being in that environment, but thought it would probably be OK—they reasoned I got on well with boys. So that was how I ended up as one of three girls out of several hundred boys for my last two years of high school. It was pretty awful, all told, and I suspect largely explains my morbid fascination with misogyny.
I wouldn’t say it’s morbid. How was it awful?
Well, I was bullied. I don’t want this interview to have to come with a trigger warning (ha), so I’ll just try to give the flavor of it without getting into too much detail I guess. Misogynistic slurs—bitch, slut, cunt—were scrawled in permanent marker on my locker, which was in turn doused with rancid fish oil. That sort of thing. I understood why some of the boys wanted to throw something nauseating in my direction, but I didn’t get why they’d chosen fish oil in particular. I felt so stupid that I had to be told that it was an olfactory slur: vaginas being supposedly rank, disgusting, nasty.
Jesus. Why’d you stay?
For the first six months or so the school was fine. There was some friction and hostility, but I made friends with plenty of the boys in my year and the year above me. But then I started dating a boy from another school and it changed overnight. Boys I’d thought of as friends stopped speaking to me. I didn’t have any social protection from the nastier elements anymore. But by then it felt too late to up and leave and find a new school to go to.
Did you get along with the other girls?
Not really. Misogyny has a way of getting in the way of female solidarity, regardless of how much we need each other. And we truly did. I remember one time when just the three of us were sitting cross-legged on the grass at recess, hanging out together, unusually. A group of boys formed a circle and advanced on us holding water balloons—or condoms, maybe, I’m not sure—they’d jerked off into beforehand. We were literally smeared. Don’t get me started on that metaphor: it’s too obvious and too painful.
My lord. And the teachers?
They were mostly either oblivious or chose to ignore what was going on. After the incident above, we were discretely ushered across the school yard to the principal’s office, so that our parents could come and collect us in our besmirched uniforms. And I don’t think the boys were disciplined in any way—the “boys will be boys” ethos was very entrenched. Of course, they suffered too: the headmaster of the other campus is currently serving jail time for sexually assaulting male minors. I’ve written some about that aspect of things here.
Thanks for sharing. Love your honesty here! So, where did you go to college? When did you decide to major in philosophy? Did you consider doing anything else?
I never applied to go to college in the States, after all. The boyfriend (who I dated for another two years) was a factor. But, also, my confidence was at an all-time low at that point. So I enrolled in an arts and sciences degree at the University of Melbourne, to keep my options open. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do (I thought vaguely about psychology). But I also had an almost masochistic desire to study whatever I thought of as hardest, and (not unrelatedly) veered towards masculine-coded subjects like computer science and math as well as formal philosophy. I kept studying harder and harder, waiting to fail spectacularly, to fall on my face. To my surprise though, I loved the formal material and was fairly decent at it. I did very little non-formal philosophy, following a few introductory courses.
But what I loved about philosophy, and what got me hooked in that intro course to begin with, was the sense that you could fail well. That you could think and think and think and never be assured of being right: that you could be good at philosophy and careful, indeed obsessive, and still end up being wrong. Hence the allure of these deep disagreements it was fairly clear were never going to be resolved. Somehow, they were the sorts of debates that nobody ought to win, and that ought to be ongoing discussions—between reasonable people with different intellectual temperaments, perhaps. Professional philosophers sometimes bemoan this aspect of the discipline, but it was a large part of what drew me in initially, and is one of the things I love about teaching philosophy to this day. It also enables people, including those who don’t traditionally get to disagree with members of socially dominant classes without stepping on their toes, to say “No, I think you’re wrong, because...” and to argue civilly and well with authority figures, while abiding by social (or at least disciplinary) norms. That represented an incredibly liberating possibility for me, since I was often afraid to challenge or disagree with the boys I went to high school with.
Agreed. I loved the hardness of philosophy (though I’m always falling on my face). Did you... party?
I did party in college, between periods of intense studying. I had friends who were good at taking me out of myself. We went to night clubs regularly and what I guess you could call raves now and again. I wasn’t wild, but I wasn’t a complete nerd, either.
Why did you go to grad school?
Honestly, I was encouraged to. I doubt I would have applied if I hadn’t been. My logic teachers, Graham Priest and Greg Restall, were very supportive and encouraging, for which I’ll always be grateful. Graham hired me as his RA to work through his book on first-order non-classical logics, and to give a guest lecture for him. Greg encouraged me to give a logic seminar to graduate students and faculty, after having been an amazing supervisor for my undergraduate honors thesis on epistemic and temporal logics. Their belief in me made all the difference, in retrospect, given my ongoing confidence issues. Also, with my father being a professor, the idea of trying to become one myself didn’t seem as outlandish as it might have otherwise. The idea of trying to become a philosopher did, but I somehow never thought of it that way. I didn’t even really identify as such until recently. I remember the first time I saw myself referred in an op-ed or something as “the philosopher, Kate Manne.” And for a nanosecond I thought: “Who?” and did a double-take. Then I felt truly ridiculous.
Haha…awesome. Where did you go to grad school? Was it what you expected?
I went to grad school at MIT, which was a great experience. I remember it as sometimes intimidating but, most of the time, just exciting to be in a community of people where you could wander into the lounge with your half-baked idea, try it out, and get some of the sharpest and most lateral philosophical minds around to help you see all the objections to it in, like, three minutes.
The main reason I chose MIT for grad school was that I had seen Sally Haslanger give a talk at Melbourne a few months before it was time to apply, and I was wowed by her brilliance, seriousness, and carefulness. I hadn’t really thought before about the moral importance of theorizing social phenomena, and it felt like a whole new realm of inquiry had been opened up for me in one afternoon. Sally was also so funny and warm and human at the dinner after her talk that I attended. So I was thrilled to get into MIT and get to be Sally’s advisee. I also loved working with Richard Holton (my thesis advisor), Rae Langton, and my now colleague, Julia Markovits, who were the other members of my committee.
What was trending at the time, philosophically, in your program, and in general? Did this influence what you decided to work on? How did your views and interests change?
Formal epistemology was becoming increasingly popular at MIT at the time, and I admired the work but didn’t have much interest in it myself, for whatever reason, even though I had a logic background. After I started at MIT, I began to feel much freer to pursue whatever I wanted to pursue, philosophically. Sally said something to a group of us in the lounge one day that resonated and stuck with me: that she suspects women in philosophy are disproportionately inclined to choose history or logic, because they provide a text or a proof you can point to, respectively. There’s hence a somewhat lower risk of being just plain, flat-out wrong. And, much as I enjoyed logic, I didn’t want to be pursuing it for the wrong reasons, and I began to suspect that I might be. So that gave me pause. That, together with the tools to become more critical of my assumption that masculine-coded philosophy was the hardest and most worthy of pursuit, freed me up to make the transition to moral and feminist philosophy, which became increasingly compelling. I was, and still am, afraid of getting it wrong. In these domains, you risk not doing justice to people’s experiences and the realities of their lives. But I was, and typically remain, buoyed by the thought that part of the task of being a moral philosopher is learning to take on those risks—advisedly and judiciously, to be sure—in the hopes of occasionally providing a clear crystallization of some phenomenon or experience that would otherwise remain elusive. So both the risks and rewards seemed great, and partly moral as well as intellectual in nature.
Another reason I made the switch is that, in my first year of grad school, I read Elizabeth Anscombe‘s dazzling and (to me) thrillingly dismissive paper, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” and fell in love with it as a piece of writing more than anything. Similarly, reading Bernard Williams’ arch, elegant prose inspired in me something like aesthetic love. And, while I didn’t and couldn’t ever hope to emulate these writers, I gradually became attracted to the idea of writing itself—to the task of trying to find a writing voice and a register and tone and rhythm of my own. And I think I have now, such as it is. I don’t always like the sound of my own writing voice. But I recognize it—mostly from when I fail to use it and try to sound like something or someone else.
I do not like that Anscombe paper...it’s so flip! How would you describe your writing voice?
I can understand that. As to how to describe my writing style, that’s a tough question… but, when I get it right: deadpan. And, maybe, quizzical?
What did you do for fun in grad school?
Well, I met my husband Daniel during the first semester of grad school in 2006. We moved in together six months later, adopted two kittens, and basically hung out together in our Somerville apartment at every opportunity.
Nice! What does he do?
He’s a lawyer by trade, turned legal academic. He made the transition by doing an LL.M. at Harvard, and worked with Diane Rosenfeld on domestic violence and Title IX issues—before there was nearly as much public awareness of the prevalence of the problem of sexual assault on college campuses. Then he spent a few years as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and now lectures at Cornell too. I’m very proud of him.
What did you write your dissertation on? Who did you work with? Challenging experiences?
My dissertation defends a version of Williams’ internalism about reasons, in relation to another view I attribute to him, that reasons are not the be-all, end-all of practical normativity. My thesis was called, “Not by Reasons Alone.” The title is a nod to Hume, of course, and most of my work in metaethics since has had a fairly Humean flavor. But it was also, sotto voce, a hat tip to Sally Haslanger’s well-known paper: “Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone).” Because my hunch was that the emphasis on reasons with a capital-R in moral philosophy was more a product of it being a masculine-coded concept than due to particular attractions or pay-offs of the reasons-first program. This remains a fairly idiosyncratic view, and I haven’t really dared to defend it in print—yet.
Oh, I’m sympathetic to that view. In grad school, did you worry about publishing or getting a job? What was the market like when you finished? Any horror stories? Any advice?
I didn’t try to publish in graduate school; I have the feeling my generation of graduate students was one of the last to be advised to just take our time. I went on the market in my fifth year, in 2010, and was lucky enough to get a junior fellowship (the equivalent of a post-doc) at the Harvard Society of Fellows, and a tenure-track position at Cornell, which they ultimately allowed me to defer for two years to spend at Harvard. I was surprised and grateful that I got a job at all, but I had a lot of survivor’s guilt or so-called impostor syndrome (which, in reality, is less a syndrome and more a recognition of the fact that some people treat you like an impostor). But as far as the job market itself was concerned, I don’t really have any horror stories or astute advice to offer—I wish I did, but I don’t feel like I have much insight into the process even now. For the most part, I enjoyed my fly-outs: they were tiring, but I met good people I liked talking with, some of whom subsequently became friends.
I feel like the APA should do something about impostor syndrome. Extremely common among philosophers. In your two years at Harvard, how did you evolve as a philosopher?
I think I evolved as a humanist and wannabe essayist more than anything, for better or worse. Being surrounded by such brilliant, interesting people made me more aware of the intellectual choices I was making, in terms of what I was working on. I’d like to think I became less worried about what other analytic philosophers would think if I branched out a bit, topic-wise.
Yeah, you engage in quite a bit of public philosophy on controversial topics. What got you into public philosophy?
I love writing for a general audience. I think I started wanting to do that intensely while I was at Harvard. Some of the people I hung out with the most during that period have been e-mailing me to say “I’m glad you did what you always talked about wanting to do...” So I must have bent a lot of ears about not just wanting to write for academic journals in philosophy, much as I respect and value that mode of scholarship too.
Do you find it difficult writing for a general audience?
Not really—I mean, not in particular. Writing is always difficult for me, even though I love doing it. But I try not to dilute my message when I do so-called public philosophy. What distinguishes it is that I take out a lot of the conceptual scaffolding that would otherwise be there and try to talk through, as plainly as possible (and not always plainly enough!), why I think what I think about something of fairly general interest. That’s the other thing that distinguishes my work that’s intended for a wider audience: it’s on questions or assumptions that a fair number of people outside the discipline can either be counted on or persuaded to care about within that same piece of writing, unlike some of the more esoteric questions I’ve worked on in metaethics.
Thematically, the public philosophy stuff seems different from the more academic stuff you work on. Is it frustrating or limiting writing about this type of thing for a more academic audience?
Basically, all my work is about moral authority in a godless world. I’m especially drawn to trying to debunk pseudo-moral obligations that we falsely think we are bound by, due to social forces like religion, law, patriarchy, white supremacist institutions, and so on. So it’s all the same topic from my point of view, whether it’s metaethics or misogyny. It just takes a very different form.
It’s funny though, I had a philosopher comment to me recently that it must be great to write short pieces and have lots of people read them, having put in only a few hours of work, as opposed to the long and complex journal articles we usually have to toil over for months and months. I was surprised by his assumption. To adapt the Mark Twain line on letter-writing, shorter pieces typically require more work, not less—for me, anyway.
In an interview I did with Sally Haslanger, she said “Eventually I quit doing yoga because I found it left me too cut off from the world, especially from the political engagement that I cared so much about. I didn’t want to be serene. I didn’t want to be centered. Or at least not as much as my involvement in yoga then required. My anger and my intensity are an important part of who I am, and I couldn’t find a way to combine them with the yoga I was doing at the time.” I feel like some of the most compelling philosophy is angry. But it also seems like anger can get in the way of seeing things clearly. When you write, it seems like you work yourself up. Is that right?
Yes! Wow, that quote crystallizes so much of what I feel about mindfulness. Just one more reason why Sally was such a great advisor for me.
And I do semi-deliberately let myself get worked up when I write: but usually it’s with sadness more than anger.
What motivated you to write Down Girl? Who’s the target audience?
I wanted to write something about misogyny after the Isla Vista shootings. I tried to write an op-ed, and searched for a paper in analytic feminist philosophy about misogyny to draw on. I found almost nothing, and so ended up trying to write the philosophy paper that would have helped me write the op-ed I never finished—and which ultimately became the book, which is intended as a “crossover” book, for both philosophers and non-philosophers interested in the topic. I’m really grateful to my editor, Peter Ohlin, for emboldening me to write it, as well as giving me a huge amount of support along the way.
Great title. Inspiration? What’s the thesis? Do you think your experiences give you unique insights into this issue?
I think my experiences are variants on one common misogynistic maneuver among virtually endless “down girl” moves (as I think of them), which function to downrank and degrade girls and women relative to whatever values and/or hierarchies are ready to hand—hence the book’s title. But, as I argue throughout, misogyny must be understood intersectionally, and I explicitly disavow the idea that there is any universal experience of misogyny, as opposed to a common social function of enforcing and policing gendered norms and expectations for girls and women positioned in particular social locations. And that’s the basic thesis of the book—that this is how misogyny should be analyzed, and that this analysis bears fruit in (among other things) understanding phenomena which would otherwise be a philosophically puzzling ragbag of social ills.
You’re fairly active on twitter, and when folks criticize you, you will get right into it with them. Is this enjoyable or annoying or a necessary evil, for you? I like social media, but it strikes me as so toxic and uncharitable sometimes. Lots of heat, too little light!
Agreed. These days, I get into it with trolls and mansplainers and online catcallers (so to speak) when and only when I feel like it. And I do it not for them, to engage or whatever (often, to be honest, they jump at the opportunity to “engage” and are quickly placated by the attention—so talking them down from a position of hostility is no great social feat, and may even be counter-productive). I do it for myself, and for any girls and women who might be watching and feel as afraid and/or guilty as I usually feel when I do manage to talk back—to try to demonstrate that (IMHO) we are often entitled to snark at the truly ridiculous, pathetic, and horrible things said and done under the influence of misogynistic social forces.
You know that line of Margaret Atwood’s about men fearing that women will laugh at them, and women fearing men will kill us—for laughing at them? Paul Bloom quoted it in his recent New Yorker piece in the section about my book, characteristically astutely. Maybe it’ll be the epigraph of my next book, if there is one.
I saw that. By the way, how does it feel to be the subject of so much gosh darn praise?
Ack, overwhelming. Nice, but completely unexpected. In writing a book about misogyny, I was hoping to reach some girls and women similarly trying to understand what it was all about, if only to provoke fruitful disagreement. In terms of the general public reception, I was just aiming not to get killed.
Hillary was treated harshly by lots of liberals because she wasn’t liberal enough, when it seemed she was about as liberal as Obama. Does misogyny explain that double standard, you think?
I absolutely think misogyny explains the double standard you refer to. Chapter 8 of my book is on this.
What was your election night like? I thought Trump would win the Republican nomination, but I didn’t think he’d beat Hillary. How are you coping with the result?
Well, as I mention in my book (in a footnote at the end of the final chapter), I had an enduring hunch going in (whether justified or not) that Hillary would lose to Trump due to low voter turn-out, on the basis of gender dynamics. So I was gutted on election night, but not as shocked as many people I knew. I will admit that I cried in bed pretty much the whole day afterward.
Do you think the work of philosophers who were despicable people should be ignored, or should we compartmentalize?
When they’re contemporary figures, I think we should typically look to the neglected and hitherto ignored philosophers whose work deserves a wider readership, and redirect our attention there—for any number of reasons. So I see powerful philosophers’ misdeeds as an excellent opportunity to diversify and decolonize the current so-called canon. Call it a silver lining, I suppose.
Compared to other fields, philosophy has an especially bad diversity problem. Why?
Among other factors, I think because our discipline more or less requires directly disagreeing with established philosophers, who are typically white male authority figures, in order to prove your philosophical chops. But that’s a verboten social move as a historically subordinate group member. This is also why, incidentally, I think it’s so important to have diversity in philosophy. In philosophy, you get to say ‘no’ to authority figures—which makes it a forbidding but also potentially highly liberating discipline for those who are socially marginalized relative to the hyper-privileged men (in being white, het, cis, wealthy or middle-class, non-disabled, etc.) who continue to dominate in our field.
So, do you enjoy teaching? What’s your teaching philosophy?
I love teaching. I try to regularly teach on topics I’m actively thinking through with my students, inasmuch as that’s pedagogically sound and compatible with teaching (more or less well-recognized) classics too. I also attempt to run a morally democratic classroom where students feel free to push back against claims made by me, each other, and anyone who we read. So there’s also less reason for me to try to hide my own views when it’s useful to show them how I came to some conclusion, and to explain why the conclusion is nonetheless controversial.
Any interesting projects on the horizon?
I have some irons in the fire, but I’m trying to give them time to warm up slowly (so to speak)—lest I inadvertently write the same book twice.
Best philosopher you disagree with most?
Nowadays, what do you do to unwind? What are you listening to? Watching on TV? Favorite movies?
I like to walk our corgi, Panko, to this nice little park near where we live and watch the sunset. People in the neighborhood gather there because of the lovely views, and it always cheers me up. I like browsing vintage furniture stores, looking for MCM pieces (my obsession is Danish teak from that era). I also love watching TV with Daniel. Some recent favorite shows include Bojack Horseman, Glow, Orange is the New Black, Big Little Lies, and Black Mirror. For pure relaxation I like Jane the Virgin and (funnily enough, the very feminist show) Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I used to watch a lot of cooking-related television (Master Chef, Iron Chef, Top Chef...), but I wasn’t cooking much while writing the book, so it became frustrating. Hopefully both of those things will change now.
I love Black Mirror. My favorite episode is probably San Junipero. Yours?
That’s a great episode. Mine is USS Callister, hands down.
Queen of the world, first move?
*narrows eyes* Kill all men. I’m kidding! *narrows eyes again ominously*
hahaha…so, last meal?
Hmm, tough question. I think it would have to be a parmesan/mushroom/black truffle butter exploding raviolo I once had at the Chicago restaurant Alinea. It literally explodes in your mouth, leaving the most intense umami taste sensation I’ve ever experienced. After that, I felt I could die, if not happy, then at least high on (mu)shrooms.
Sounds good. Thanks for your time, Kate!
[interviewer: Cliff Sosis]