Mary Louise Gill is the David Benedict Professor of Classics and Philosophy at Brown University. In this interview, Mary Louise Gill talks about reading Gone with The Wind in secret at home, being required to read J Edgar Hoover’s Masters of Deceit in the 6th grade, her father—a Unitarian minister who was fired for being too radical --and his fight with the Ku Klux Klan in St. Louis, fasting to impress her father, how she realized she was never really religious, getting into ancient philosophy, working with G.E.L Owen, feeling scraped off, overcoming stage fright as a teacher and a speaker, projects falling apart and coming back together, being Chair of the Classics Department at University of Pittsburgh, a department the administration was itching to get rid of, finding out about and subverting a secret plan to get rid of Classics, suffering reprisals in the form of rumors, finding peace of mind at Princeton and, eventually Brown, teaching philosophy in China, and what she would do if she was a philosopher-queen…


As a kid, what were you interested in?

 As a child I liked to ski, go camping, and explore. There was no TV in my house, and we didn't subscribe to a newspaper. I was allowed to see very few movies. I was virtually ignorant of modern news and culture until I was an adult. I was encouraged to read books, though I read Gone with the Wind in secret because my father disapproved of it. J. Edgar Hoover's The Masters of Deceit was assigned in my sixth grade class, and my father went to the principal and complained. My older sister was a talented artist, and I wanted to excel in something else, so (emulating my father) I wrote books. My first books were all pictures, then illustrated "How to" books, e.g., "How to ski." My major accomplishment along those lines was an illustrated adventure novel about four children, "The Adventurous Shermans," which I bound in cloth so it looked like a real book. I also played the cello and became passionate about that in my early teens. My mother wanted us to have a family trio—my sister on piano, my mother on violin, and me on cello. I loved waking up in the morning to the sound of my sister practicing Chopin’s Polonaise Militaire.

 Your dad wrote books? What was he working on?

 When I was born, my father, John Glanville Gill, was Unitarian minister in a suburb of St. Louis much like Ferguson, Missouri, except across the Mississippi River in Alton, Illinois. He worked for civil rights in Alton and tried to integrate the public schools before Brown v Board of Education. The Ku Klux Klan was burning crosses in the park, and my father led the ministers association in stopping a race riot. He was too radical for the Unitarians and was fired from his job. He was hired as a Unitarian minister in Tacoma, Washington, after that, but was fired there too (it was the McCarthy era). By the time I was aware, he had no regular job but was writing a book he had researched -- Alton: Tide Without Turning: Elijah P. Lovejoy and Freedom of the Press. In the early 1960s he took up a new profession: philosophy professor (specialty ethics), and his first job was at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

Who were his favorite philosophers?

His favorite philosophers were Plato and Spinoza.

 Your dad sounds like a brave guy. Were you guys ever in danger?

 We moved away from Alton when I was a month old, and my father never spoke of his experience there. What I have learned of his time in Alton I learned in a single day, February 20, 1995, when there was a special service honoring him at the First Unitarian Church in Alton. I attended the event with my mother. During that day, after the beautiful service, we visited Orland Forcade, by then in his 90s, my father’s best friend at the time, who had been President of the PTA in Alton during the year events came to a head. Forcade wanted my mother to answer a question. One night my father came running into his house to warn him of something, and Forcade asked my mother what my father wanted to warn him about. My mother couldn’t give him an answer. From that episode I concluded that my father must have been scared sometimes and that he didn’t share his deepest concerns with my mother.

 What did your mom do?

 My mother had attended art school in her youth, and after working in the war effort in New York City and marrying my father, she led the art group and writing groups at the Unitarian Church in Alton. She wrote poetry and short stories all her life.

 As a teen, what were you up to? Did you start thinking about your future?

 In my early teens I considered a career in music (at that time I had a superb cello teacher), but then we moved twice, my teachers were mediocre, and I didn’t practice much. When I was 15, we moved to a small town in Colorado (where life for teenagers was much like that depicted in the film American Graffiti). I was able to shed my nerdy persona from junior high and be a different person. I skipped school and skied and took long walks into the mountains behind our house, where I sat on a log and wrote in my journal. My father encouraged me to pursue projects I came up with, if he deemed them worthy (he never pressed me in any particular direction). Once I started, though, I was supposed to finish and not quit. That year I got into taking three-day fasts. At the end of three days (usually around midnight on the third day), he’d prepare an elaborate breakfast. That defeated my purpose—to be thin—but I didn’t want to disappoint him or let him know that my purpose was less worthy than his.

In high school, did you start considering what you were going to do in college? 

After the year in Colorado, we moved to a small town in Michigan, and I attended a boarding school in Wisconsin; in my senior year I transferred to Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan for cello. My first term was awful. Because I entered as a senior, I was placed toward the front of the cello section, but many other students were much better cellists than I was and had already played concertos with the Detroit Symphony, etc. Every other week we had an event called “challenges,” when the person behind you in the section could challenge your seat. No matter how much I practiced, my hands shook, and I always lost. I’d call home and say I wanted to drop the orchestra. My father would say: “Don’t give up what you've started.” At the end of the first term I quit the orchestra. Drawing and painting became my passion in the spring of my senior year. By that time I had applied to academic colleges. If applications had been due in the spring, I might have applied to art schools instead.

 At Barnard, what were your favorite classes? Any inspirational teachers? How did you decide on a major?

I attended Barnard at a time when we had finals only two years out of the four (during the Vietnam War). I loved my college years, because I felt like I was at the center of the world, and life was exciting and interesting, though I learned less academically than I might have at some other time. In those years I was interested in religion. In fact, I majored in it. I had taken three uninspiring Philosophy courses (if I’d been allowed to take classes at Columbia in subjects offered at Barnard, I might have come to the discipline sooner). Barnard had some wonderful teachers in Religion—Theodore Gaster in Ancient Near Eastern Religions and Elaine Pagels (before she moved to Princeton) in Early Christianity and Gnosticism. I even went to Columbia to do a Ph.D. in Religion but soon discovered that Religion had been a great undergraduate major but was not for me as a career.

 Why did your interest in religion wane?

 When I was 19, my father split up with my mother, and in retrospect that event precipitated a significant turning point in my life. I decided to go to San Francisco alone that summer (a friend told me recently that she had wanted to come with me, and I said no). My father took me to a trans-Canada railroad station in a small town on the northern shore of Lake Superior, and we camped nearby before I boarded the train. I announced that I was going to take a walk and have a mystical experience, and set off with my father’s blessing. I found a rock and sat on it for several hours waiting, finally got hungry and went back to the campsite. “What happened?” asked my father. “Nothing,” I said, and he replied: “I could have told you that.” My personal interest in religion ended that day—I guess that means I was never really religious. Still, religion was a good undergraduate major because it enabled me to study many subjects that interested me, including comparative religion (eastern and western), history, psychology, folklore, languages, and especially the ancient world. 

 What on earth did you do in San Francisco?

 When I got to San Francisco, I spent two weird weeks walking around the city, meeting unusual people, and this initial stage culminated in a march through Haight-Ashbury and Golden Gate Park with dinner served at the end from large containers that looked like garbage cans. I came back to my room at the YMCA Hotel, miserable, and wrote in my journal. I had to take control of my life. One thing was clear to me: I was never going to end up in a situation like my mother’s: she had given up her own career for my father. I had to do something with my life, though I didn’t know what. As I saw the immediate future, in light of the money I had, there were three options. (1) Get on a plane and join my mother, who was traveling in Europe trying to find her way, but for me to join her then seemed like quitting. (After 12 years or so, my mother established a place for herself in her community, and I admire her for putting her life back together as she wanted it.) (2) Buy a motorcycle and explore (very appealing at the time). My idea to buy a motorcycle was short-lived: one of the unusual people I met during those first two weeks in San Francisco taught me how to drive his Norton 9000; I had the romantic idea of exploring the country on my own motorcycle. (3) Rent an apartment and do something productive. The next day I rented an apartment and signed up for two classes at the San Francisco Art Institute in ceramics and figure drawing. I didn’t like the ceramics class, because it reminded me of cooking, and alas I inherited my mother’s anti-cooking gene. I loved the figure drawing class, and continued to draw figures and portraits in college.

Given your waning interest in religion, how’d you find your way at Columbia?

At the doctoral level Religion held no interest for me at all. I was supposed to treat my subject in a scholarly way, and many of the required classes bored me, e.g., Sociology of Religion. I had moved away from that discipline by the time I worked with Paul Oscar Kristeller (the Renaissance scholar, a professor of Philosophy at Columbia). I had two inspiring teachers at Columbia, Seth Schein in Greek, and Kristeller for my M.A. thesis in Religion on Plato’s use of Myth. Kristeller sent me off over Christmas to read a lot of Plato. I came back with a plan for the thesis based on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Kristeller said: “It’s fine to write on Plato on mythos, but you must use logos not mythos.” He also advised me to write my thesis, then read the relevant secondary literature, and then revise the thesis in light of it. If I came up with an idea shared by others, I could be brief, but if I differed, I’d need to argue against the alternatives and defend my position at more length (wise advice I still think). As it turned out, he accepted my thesis after stage one, and I never got to stage two and the revisions. To this day I don’t know much about the literature on Plato on mythos. By that point I had decided that I needed to start over and become proficient in Greek, so I applied to Cambridge University to do a second B.A. in Classics. Given my writing samples, I was put into Part II Classics, Group “B”: Ancient Philosophy.

At Cambridge, how did you decide on a dissertation topic? Who directed your dissertation?

G.E.L. Owen directed my Ph.D. dissertation. When I started my Ph.D. after two years as an undergraduate in Cambridge, I planned to write my dissertation on Plato, with the tentative title, “Plato on our Knowledge of the External World.” I’d become interested in an issue Owen discussed in class, the return of philosopher-kings (and queens) to the world of shadows. Plato’s Socrates says in Republic VII (520c): “Down you must go, each in turn, to the habitation of the others and accustom yourselves to observing the shadows. For once habituated you will see them 10,000 times better than the people there, and you will know what each of the images is and of what it is an image, because you have seen the truth about things beautiful, just, and good.” Did Plato think we could have knowledge of the shadows, or was knowledge limited to transcendent forms, with our grasp of the physical world at best something less? Owen encouraged me in that project, but it soon became evident to me that I was simply rethinking his thoughts, and I wanted to do something more truly my own. After a year, I chose a topic he was interested in but hadn’t completely thought through, one that expanded my horizons, allowing me to apply for jobs as a specialist in Aristotle as well as Plato. I wrote my thesis on Aristotle’s theory of change in the Physics.

So, how did you find your voice, philosophically? Did any philosophical disagreements with your dad crop up?

 To find my own voice philosophically, I had to distance myself from both my father and Owen. My father met Owen once, and their meeting was congenial, though they spoke not a word about philosophy; instead they recited poetry to each other. My father was deeply suspicious of Owen because, as he saw it, Owen had led me astray to that wrong-headed empiricist Aristotle. My father liked the mystical side of Plato and Spinoza’s demonstrative method. On his deathbed a year and a half later, I gave him a bound copy of my dissertation dedicated to him. My father's last words to me: “You should go back to Plato.” (Eventually I did go back to Plato, though to the late dialogues favored by Owen, which are much more Aristotelian than the middle dialogues, such as the Republic, which my father loved. I like to think that, even so, my father would have approved of the Plato I found, because Plato as philosopher and teacher in the late dialogues is much like him.)

 As a grad student, did you have disagreements with Owen?

Owen was controlling and wanted to decide when and where I’d get a job, and this was a source of conflict. I was ready to go back to the States and wanted to make my own way. In the fall of my last year in Cambridge, I went to Princeton as a visiting student to work with Michael Frede. Over Christmas that year I applied for jobs at both APA conventions (Philosophy and Classics), which happened simultaneously in different cities. I went back to Cambridge in January and landed a job (a visiting position) in the Classics Department at the University of Pittsburgh. It was essential from Pittsburgh’s perspective that I finish my dissertation before I started, and I was determined to do that. Owen was annoyed and said he shouldn’t be expected to read my thesis while he was (supposed to be) writing his Sather lectures for Berkeley.

 That must’ve been stressful. What did you do?

Michael Frede came to my rescue and worked with me over the summer in Princeton. I was glad to have a chance to work with the two men in that order. From Owen I got inspiration and encouragement, and he allowed me to discover for myself that I was sometimes traveling down blind alleys (trial and error is in my view a good way to learn and find one’s own way). Frede told me he’d never have allowed me to work on the topic I’d chosen (too big), but he nonetheless read my work and gave me valuable criticisms. In the long run it was good for me to start with a big project, but Frede was right about the project itself: it was too big for me to treat adequately at that stage. 

First job?

During my first year at the University of Pittsburgh, the Classics Department renewed its search for a specialist in ancient philosophy. I was a candidate, but the Department brought in three stellar candidates for on-campus interviews. To my amazement I got the job. The other three (all men) went on to distinguished careers elsewhere. Only years later did I learn from a senior colleague why I got the job: he and the other senior member of the Classics Department preferred different candidates among the three. Those two colleagues hated each other and could never agree. My colleague told me that the then Chair of Philosophy resolved the conflict by saying that they should hire me. Thus I owe that person a tremendous debt of gratitude for saving my career at the start. 

What was it like, being a person who studies ancient philosophy in a classics department?

The two senior colleagues in the Classics Department regarded me as not really a classicist. The Chair tried to turn me into a proper classicist by assigning me Latin classes to teach every year, plus Homer, Sophocles, and Euripides, as well as Plato in Greek, and beginning Greek and Latin. I often taught Greek Civilization in translation, and all that background in Classics has served me well over the years. I taught courses in ancient philosophy too, but in the early years not in my specialty. I taught a graduate seminar on the Presocratics in my first year, then Ancient Medicine in my second year, then Plato’s Timaeus in my third year, and Aristotle’s De Anima in my fourth.  When I came up for my third-year review, I had to write a Statement about my research plans. I announced that in my field the article, rather than the book, was the preferred format. I’d write a book eventually, but in the next few years I planned to write a series of articles. The Chair gave me a copy of the responses to my proposal from my colleagues. Most of them were fine with it, but not the other senior colleague, who said, and I recall (nearly) his exact words: “If a younger colleague would like to be measured by the standards of another department or discipline, he or she should not be encouraged to go more deeply into Classics.”

Experience any discrimination at this point?

As a woman, I experienced what felt like a subtle form of discrimination (though maybe some men experience it too). Every talk I gave seemed like an occasion to be “scraped off” (as I called it). If I did a good job, I passed that round, but the next talk was the same. At a conference 12 years or so into my career, I noticed that the two women (among many men) gave the best talks, and concluded that some other women probably felt the same way. In my case the situation was compounded, because ever since my experience with “challenges” in cello at Interlochen years earlier, I suffered from severe stage fright. I could get through my talk, which I carefully prepared, but then there was the Q and A, and I couldn’t even hear the questions, and so of course couldn’t answer them without first asking the person to repeat the question. I discussed my plight with a senior friend in my field, and he gave me advice that helped me overcome my fear: “Turn the question into a conversation. E.g., say ‘What an interesting question. How would you answer it?’” Thinking about the Q and A that way, I gradually got better (and finally improved substantially by thinking of possible questions and writing up my responses in advance, a technique that put me at my ease on the occasion, even when the questions were unexpected), but I didn’t try out the specific suggestion until years later, when I returned for the first time after many years to the site of two scary early episodes. On the recent occasion I felt at ease, because no one could “scrape me off” anymore. During the Q and A, a smart young professor asked me a good question I didn’t know how to answer. I said: “What a great question. How would you answer it?” He said: “You’re the one who’s supposed to answer the questions!” We all laughed. Glad I didn’t try that specific strategy in the early days!

Given your stage fright, how did you adjust to teaching in the beginning?  

I was totally unprepared for a career in teaching, because I got no teaching experience as a graduate student in Cambridge. A lot of trial and (mostly) error at the start—e.g., I learned the first time I taught Plato that I shouldn’t follow Owen’s example and discuss key passages out of context. Students need to read whole texts, and excerpts of others when they bear on the main text. My stage fright was also a problem. That first year I taught a course on Aristotle once a week in the evening for two and a half hours. A student complained to his undergraduate advisor in Philosophy that I’d come in with 19 pages of notes and get through them all. I over-prepared to compensate for my fear and only improved once I became more relaxed in the classroom. My teaching has undergone dramatic improvement since I came to Brown, because teaching is taken extremely seriously here, and the students expect a lot from their teachers. I keep working to become a better teacher.

When did you get tenure? Were you elated, relieved, or both? That is, was there any doubt in your mind you'd get it?  I think many are surprised they aren't happier once they have tenure.

I got tenure in 1988, after taking two years of leave to write my book, Aristotle on Substance: the Paradox of Unity (this was not a revision of my dissertation but started where my dissertation left off), in time to send the MS to a publisher before my tenure decision. I was hugely relieved to get tenure, and it was by no means evident I’d get it. There was no time to rest after that, because I decided that the book, though it had been accepted for publication, needed to be totally revised over the summer, to present my argument top-down, rather than bottom-up.

Is this unusual, for you?

Not at all unusual. I’ve discovered two main things about my writing over the years. First, my project always falls apart at least once (usually many times: but one time is key). The first time this happened, when I was at the Stanford Humanities Center in 1985-86, I was horrified and kept giving myself deadlines to figure out how to put the project together again or find a different project. Now I see this collapse as a necessary stage, and that I haven’t gotten fully into my project until it falls apart and I figure out how to reorient my approach. Second, I’m what my husband calls “a reader.” I like hard, obscure texts written by authors I’m confident will reward the effort it takes to understand them. My manner of writing and figuring things out does not work as a mode of presentation, and I have to rewrite and restructure my project completely once I’ve finally discovered what I want to say, as though I saw it all at once at the outset.

How did you meet your husband? When did you get married? What does he do?

I met my future husband at Princeton where he was a graduate student in Philosophy and I was a visiting student. We were hired at the University of Pittsburgh the same year. We got married years later in 1995. He is a philosopher.

Do you talk about philosophy a lot? Any fundamental philosophical disagreements? What do a couple of philosophers do for fun? Argue?

Yes, we talk about philosophy, but also about politics, current events, and the state of the world. No fundamental philosophical disagreements, though we argue and that's fun (except when the argument is about practical matters). We have the most fun together when we travel and explore new places.

What has been the most difficult period of your career?

The 1990s were a difficult time for me at the University of Pittsburgh for various reasons. Most devastating for me, I learned toward the end of the decade that someone had been spreading false tales about me for years. In retrospect that accounts for many of my frustrations during the 1990s. But much else was happening as well. In the early 1990s I switched from Aristotle’s metaphysics to Plato’s Parmenides (I co-translated the dialogue and wrote a monograph length Introduction, Hackett, 1996). After that my time was consumed by being Chair of Classics at the University Pittsburgh from 1994-1997. That job was both dreadful and exhilarating. It was dreadful because the administration couldn’t imagine entering the 21st century with a Classics Department. The department was constantly being reviewed to find reasons to cut it (I eventually learned—though certainly not from the administration—that the Classics Department made more money per capita for the University than any other department in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences). The year things reached a crisis (1996-97), I was also Chair of the Humanities Council, and was fortunate that a Classics graduate student had been elected to the Dean’s Planning and Budget Committee. The Committee was handed a top-secret document (the December 4th memo), according to which the graduate programs in half the Humanities departments (and some others) were to be terminated before January 1st, and all the modern language and literature departments (except Hispanic) plus Classics were to be turned into one big department under the umbrella of Linguistics.

Wow! How did you hear about the document?

The student, having asked his conscience whether he should break the promise of silence, bravely called me up, and we went out for a drink to discuss the matter. In the next weeks, with the help of the Chairs of the Natural Sciences and Social Sciences Councils, and working closely throughout the fall and winter with the Chairs of Slavic and French & Italian, we were able to prevent the implementation of changes by the administration. The exhilarating part was working with those colleagues and with the graduate students in Classics, who were absolutely amazing. The Department of History & Philosophy of Science, as well as individual members, also came to our defense. There was a cost to the success of our effort, and to the graduate student and me in particular, because he was regarded as the source and I as the ringleader of the insurrection. I learned at that time that there is much an administration can do to make life miserable for a tenured faculty member. The Administration caused much damage even though they could not implement the proposed changes: virtually the whole of the excellent Department of Linguistics moved to other jobs. I wanted to leave Pittsburgh, and after taking a sabbatical in the spring of 1998, I had a visiting position at Harvard in 1998-99, and then spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, 1999-2000.

Sounds like a brutal decade. What would you say has been the high point of your career so far?

My year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (1999-2000) was the most idyllic year of my life. My project (on Plato’s later metaphysics in response to the objections raised in the Parmenides) promptly fell apart, as usual, but this time, instead of panicking, I happily explored other topics that might help me put the pieces together again in a different way. I was open to all sorts of ideas, and loved the Institute lunches, when one might talk to an art historian about the concept non finito (e.g., Michelangelo intentionally left his “Slaves” unfinished). The idea derives from Plato (especially the Timaeus), that no work of art can perfectly resemble its divine counterpart because anything created is made of recalcitrant matter. The artist, by leaving his sculpture unfinished, aimed to stimulate the viewer toward the divine. This idea in the history of art gave me an idea about Plato’s writing, that he leaves works intentionally unfinished to provoke his audience to work out the answer for themselves using the methods and clues he provides. Although I never mention non finito in my book on Plato (published 13 years later), it was a major source of inspiration for Philosophos: Plato’s Missing Dialogue.

My final year in Pittsburgh was wonderful (great graduate students in both Classics and Philosophy). As it happened, I was offered two jobs in 2001, to be Chair of the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Michigan (a large department with 40 faculty members), and a joint position in Philosophy and Classics at Brown. Brown was my dream job. It was an easy decision.

You seem especially interested in the metaphysics of Plato and you think Plato and Aristotle can cast light on contemporary philosophical disputes?

My interest in Aristotle’s hylomorphism stems from a personal shortcoming that fascinates me: I tend to fall away from the good (nothing dramatic, for the most part just the usual failings: sometimes I mistake the good, sometimes I do the right thing but for the wrong reasons, I’m akratic, and sometimes I become so engrossed in one thing that I lose sight of everything else). How can I compensate for that tendency? This interest will take me to ethics eventually, but in the meantime I’ve been exploring the role of matter in the development and degeneration of living organisms. Both Plato and Aristotle can cast light on contemporary disputes in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics by suggesting approaches we should reexamine, such as knowledge as skill/expertise. Aristotle has been a stimulus for virtue ethics, and his hylomorphism contributes to some recent approaches in the philosophy of mind. Philosophers keep returning to Aristotle’s essentialism for inspiration. For those interested in ontology, Plato and Aristotle have much to teach us!

Are you now, or have you been, interested in ethics at all? What do you think the goal of philosophy is or should be? Do you think it makes us better people? Does it bring us closer to the good?

Only recently have I come to an academic interest in ethics. I think Aristotle is right that one should study natural philosophy before undertaking metaphysics, and Spinoza is right that one should study metaphysics and epistemology before undertaking ethics. I’m making my way toward ethics. Aristotle tells us at the start of the Metaphysics that all human beings by nature desire to know. One of the things I want to know is captured in an inscription on Apollo’s Temple in Delphi: “Know yourself.” By understanding ourselves and recognizing how much we don’t know, we’re prepared to learn and to compensate for our shortcomings. Though Plato and Aristotle differed about the good, they agreed that the good is objective, something we all aim for, even if we are wrong about what the good is. 

Could you elaborate a bit on the aim of the Aristotle project?

My Aristotle project started with a paper called “Laying the Ghost of Prime Matter.” I sent it to a journal and it was rejected. After the rejection, I decided that to show that Aristotle was not committed to prime matter (a something I know not what, which underlies substantial changes), I needed to clarify his concept of matter more generally. I arrived at the Stanford Humanities Center (1985-86) and the project fell apart. I remember precisely when I finally got past the initial impasse. It was in late November, while I was teaching a seminar on Aristotle’s Metaphysics at Stanford. We had reached Metaphysics H.5, and suddenly I saw my way forward. I had to examine matter in relation to form and the composite they composed. Thus the project became more complex and more interesting. In the Metaphysics project I aimed to show how material substances, especially living organisms like you and me, can be unified and maintain our unity, despite our composition from matter, the source of degeneration. My conclusion: we must remain highly active to develop our potential and maintain our good condition, because idleness allows matter to drag us down (of course, we always lose in the end because we are perishable).

What are you up to right now?

I’m currently spending five weeks in Beijing teaching an intensive seminar at Peking University on Aristotle’s Metaphysics. China is wonderful! I'm learning at least as much from the Chinese scholars and students as they are learning from me. The students are fascinated by Aristotle's metaphysics--my host told me he'd heard that some of them stayed in the classroom last Wednesday night arguing about prime matter until 12:30 a.m. (my class ends at 9:30 p.m.). Western philosophy uses arguments to reach conclusions, whereas Chinese philosophy reaches conclusions in a different way, and the students love the arguments and take to them quickly. Teaching them is exhilarating. We are seeing some of China too: this past weekend a former student of mine took us to visit the Great Wall. 

How does Chinese philosophy reach conclusions? 

From what I understand so far, Chinese philosophy is much more practical than western philosophy. It all sounds a lot like Aristotle's view in the Nicomachean Ethics (we learn to be virtuous by habituation, much like learning to play the flute), together with what he says about arriving at first principles in Posterior Analytics II.19. Lots of exercises and practice, reliance on perception and experience, and then suddenly one sees by intuition. 

Twitter user @RyLo2382 asks: if you were a philosopher queen, what would be your first move?

My first move: establish universal single payer health care. Then, if allowed more moves, I’d get more stringent gun laws, curb Wall Street excesses, refinance student loans, repair our roads and bridges, build fast trains, and improve our public transportation.

Favorite movie?

My favorite movie is Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist.”

Favorite song?

I love many songs, but here I list only one by someone we lost this spring: Percy Sledge - “When a Man Loves a Woman.” 

 Favorite curse word?

 We weren’t supposed to curse in my family, but I occasionally curse. Main one rhymes with “luck.”

 Last meal?

 My husband’s minestrone soup, recipe Marcella Hazan