In this interview, Sally Haslanger, Ford Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy and director of Women’s and Gender Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, talks about growing up in Connecticut, moving to Shreveport during Jim Crow, culture shock, reading Sherlock Holmes and Little Women, talking about the metaphysics of Christian Science with her parents, the problem of evil, field hockey, ‘dropping out’ of high school, majoring in anthropology, studio art, dance, and then philosophy and religion, becoming familiar with Continental philosophy, travelling in the Middle East and studying the Bharathanatayam, coming back to the states and studying logic and metaphysics with Reeve and Bealer, hiking Mt. Hood, working with Grice and Searle at UC Berkley, meeting her spouse, facing down UCB lawyers with Catherine McKinnon, the death of her mother during grad school, how yoga helped her cope,  the costs of detachment, how her political interests merged with her interest in metaphysics, fly fishing, the age old hose and heels versus slacks debate, Ivy League and the stereotype threat, the effect her kids have had on her philosophy, the unfairness of philosophy, receiving human excrement in the mail, Hillary and Trump (note: this interview was conducted before the election), and her last meal...

[12/1/16, photo credit: Jon Sachs, MIT SHASS Communications]

So, where did you grow up?

I was born in Connecticut. We lived in Westport, CT in a big house on a dirt road. There was a barn and a pasture and my sister had a horse (not really the Westport, CT that is there now!).

What did your parents do?

My mother was a homemaker. She didn't go to college. My father was a chemical engineer who had moved into management and worked in NYC. I have 3 older siblings. When I was 8 we moved to Shreveport, LA and my dad worked for a natural gas company. It was 1963 and a huge culture shock. In 1969, they moved to Houston, TX and my Dad worked for Pennzoil. Eventually he managed the Vermejo Ranch in Raton, NM for Pennzoil (it seems to be a resort property now – at the time it was a working ranch and also had a guest operation).

What were the differences between Westport and Shreveport that you remember?

There were a million differences. It was 1963, so Jim Crow was still in effect. Connecticut wasn’t a racial paradise or anything, but I went through a whole new socialization by strangers about how to be White. It was incredibly confusing. My mother was from Massachusetts and my father from Wisconsin, so they didn't really understand the local social norms any better than we did. I was really lonely. Shreveport was SO hot and it seemed to me that all the white people were tan and rich and loved the sun - tennis, golf, sports I didn't like at all. No beaches. The food was very different - I had never tasted grits and collard greens. I was homesick for Connecticut for YEARS.

As a kid what were you interested in?

I loved school. We didn't go to the movies and watched very little TV. I remember it was a big deal to watch Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color on Sunday nights, initially on our black and white TV my dad won at a raffle (or maybe he won the color one that replaced it? Not sure.). I think eventually I was allowed 2 hours of TV a week. I read a lot.

What were you reading as a kid?

I liked Sherlock Holmes; historical fiction, e.g., I remember LOVING a book about Johnny Tremain; young adult classics (Little Women, etc).

Art? Sports?

I took piano lessons, but never got very good. I spent a lot of time with my deaf grandmother who was a watercolorist. We painted together. The highlight of the year was 2 months at summer camp (Waukeela) in New Hampshire. My mother, aunt, cousins, sister, had all gone there.  We did a lot of hiking, canoe trips, horseback riding, arts and crafts, swimming; there was also a kind of moral education - we had to write short essays on the virtues and read them aloud at campfire - and encouragement to find a spiritual connection with nature.  I loved it.

That’s really interesting. Were your parents religious?

My mother and grandmother were Christian Scientists and the kids were brought up in the Christian Science church. We (including my mother) went to doctors on the authority of my father. My parents had struck that deal when they married - my mother would manage our religious education and my father our medical treatment because he didn't want us to go without medical care. But there was a big emphasis on "right thinking" and a highly cognitive and pro-active approach to well-being. I spent a lot of time thinking about Christian Science metaphysics.

Here is the Scientific Statement of Being that I memorized as a small child. It is something I was taught to recite whenever in pain or had any problem: "There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter. All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All-in-all. Spirit is immortal Truth; matter is mortal error. Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is the unreal and temporal. Spirit is God, and man is His image and likeness. Therefore man is not material; he is spiritual." There is a lot of metaphysics to ponder in that! Although my mother wasn't highly educated, we talked a lot about Christian Science metaphysics.

Fascinating. Are you still religious?

When I was a teenager I stopped going to the Christian Science church - my parents were of the view that as soon as one could give good reasons for not attending church, one could be released from the obligation.

It's pretty unusual and awesome that your parents let you stop going to church...what reasons did you give for not attending church?

The problem of evil is hard for a religion that claims not only that God is perfect but humans are too. How can so much just be “error,” including belief in the material world, one's own body, pain?

What did you do for fun in high school?

I played sports until I wrecked my knee playing field hockey and then did yoga. I sang in the school choir.

Did you start thinking about what you wanted to do in college?

No, I had no idea. I went to an Episcopal boarding school (St. Stephen’s School) in Texas. My older brother who went to the local high school in Shreveport and then to Cornell urged my parents to let me go away to high school. It was definitely a better option. I went to Reed College after my junior year at St. Stephen’s. I didn't graduate from high school. My father liked to say that I was a "high school dropout." Big joke.

Why didn't you graduate, that is, what led you to Reed College?

In junior year, a friend's mother sent him a catalogue from Reed and he had no interest. I looked at it and saw that they sometimes accepted juniors. It looked so amazing, so I asked my parents if I could apply. They agreed and I got in, so I was outta there. I liked Reed's serious academic emphasis and the radical history. I also liked that it was in the Pacific Northwest.

Favorite classes in college? How did you find philosophy?

I had several majors in college (in sequence): anthropology, studio art (drawing), dance, religious studies and finally a combined philosophy-religionI came to philosophy late and could only graduate on time if I combined philosophy + religion since I had so many religion classes. I took several classes from a religious studies professor who covered a lot of Continental philosophy, including Schleiermacher, Cassirer, Heidegger, Ricoeur. Those classes were my favorites. In 1975-6 I traveled overland to India through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and settled in Chennai (then Madras). I was especially interested in the relationship between aesthetic experience and religious experience, and studied Bharathanatayam there. Bharathanatayam has a religious/spiritual origin and is also an art form. It was a very intense experience. I had to leave after six months because the Indian government wouldn’t renew my visa due to The Emergency.” I returned to Reed and found the religious studies professor I had been working with was denied tenure, so I went searching for classes in the philosophy department. Then my favorites were Logic, offered by David Reeve and Metaphysics, by George Bealer. David supervised my undergraduate thesis: “Spitting Images: How Do Pictures Represent?”


Reed isn't a party school. I had friends who lived off campus. We'd have potlucks and hang out. It was a time when going to a U-Pick and making preserves and baking bread together listening to the Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Laura Nyro, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison... was cool. (It still is cool, of course.) I was involved with a Marxist for awhile. I was into art at the time and we would talk about politics and art, go to concerts.  I loved to go hiking on Mt. Hood.

Could you describe Reeve and Bealer a bit?

Both of them really believed in analytic philosophy and were tremendously enthusiastic. Their classes were totally engaging and they were happy to hang out in the coffee shop or around campus to talk. They also gave me the impression that they believed in me and in my ability to do philosophy; it was so inspiring.

When did you decide to go to grad school for philosophy?

I had no idea what I was going to do after college. David Reeve and George Bealer convinced me I HAD to go to grad school. It never would have occurred to me otherwise, and without their mentoring and help, I would never have done it. If it weren't for them, I would certainly not be in philosophy. They were amazingly supportive and encouraging. Since I didn't have a full philosophy major, I was happy to go wherever I got in. The only place I got in was the University of Virginia. So that's where I went. I worked closely with Glenn Kessler and wrote a thesis on de re/de dicto modality and Quine’s critique of essentialism.

Why didn't you stick with University of Virginia?

I had always wanted to go to UCB to work with George Myro. He was Bealer's mentor and I had heard a lot about him. Bealer earned his Ph.D. at Berkeley and studied metaphysics with Myro, and I wanted to do the same. I also love the West Coast and found Virginia pretty hard to take. That was in the late 1970s. It felt to me like the 1950s at the time. Several people (George and David included) encouraged me to transfer after my MA, so I applied to a few schools and when I got into Berkeley, I decided to go there.

Who did you work with at UC Berkeley?

My advisors were George Myro and Alan Code. My third (outside) advisor was Tony Long in Classics. I also took classes from Bill Craig, Paul Grice, John Searle, Barry Stroud, Janet Broughton, Paul Feyerabend, and others. I wrote on the problem of persistence through change. I LOVED Berkeley. I loved the location, the campus, the philosophy department, the other grad students, the politics. George was an ideal supervisor. He was a brilliant philosopher and really engaged every idea with respect and thoughtfulness. It was such a loss when he died. Alan Code was also tremendously supportive and truly impressive. I had thought about specializing in Ancient Greek philosophy (mainly Aristotle) and worked closely with Alan for awhile. I studied Greek and loved working with Aristotle's Metaphysics. I realized along the way, though, that I didn't have the mind for it (the memorization of linguistic details and textual references isn't my strength) and my passion was for contemporary metaphysics.

What was Grice like?

Grice held “salons” at his house every couple of weeks. I was one of the few grad students invited. We would drink wine and talk philosophy. Paul would have a used envelope with notes scribbled on the back of it and would start the conversation. Sometimes visiting philosophers would join us, e.g., Ian Hacking, Judith Baker, I think I met Nancy Cartwright there. It wasn’t a reading group. We didn’t read anything to prepare. We just tried to think through issues. It was incredibly fun. Paul had a great sense of humor, but was also a bit of a patriarch. Deference was expected. But with Myro and Code there, real philosophy got done.

I’ve heard Searle can be philosophically ferocious.

I never experienced Searle as ferocious at all. He had very definite ideas and defended them vigorously. But he wasn’t ever aggressive or mean. Steve Yablo (now my spouse) and I met in one of his graduate seminars in 1981. The project of the seminar was to defend Searle’s view against arguments for direct reference. I vividly remember that one of his favorite criticisms of direct reference was “you can’t get a locomotive in the head!”.

What did you end up writing your dissertation on?

I wrote a thesis on persistence through change that was inspired by my work on Aristotle, and was significantly influenced by Sarah Waterlow’s book Nature, Change, and Agency in Aristotle's Physics. That is an amazing book. I also loved logic and after I took intermediate logic from Bill Craig, he tried to convince me to go on in logic. Being something of a positivist himself, he was horrified when I told him that I was going to specialize in metaphysics. But metaphysics was my true love, and in some sense still is, if you consider social ontology to be metaphysics.

In grad school what did you do outside of class?

For fun I hung out with my friends (we lived in a group house in Oakland for several years); I used to hike in the Sierra's and fly fished (catch and release, barbless hook - I don't fish anymore for ethical reasons) along rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Fly fishing was one of the few things I enjoyed doing with my father. We would go out together at Vermejo. It is really wonderful to stand for hours in a lake or river and attend closely to the natural world, whether or not you catch a fish.

Were you involved in campus politics?

Yes, especially on sexual harassment and gender equity. I was on the Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Title IX in the early 80s and worked with others in getting a sexual harassment policy in place. At one point we (a small group of activists I was working with on the topic) had to meet with campus lawyers and were really intimidated. One of my friends noted that Catharine MacKinnon was on the faculty at Stanford and called her to ask her advice. She came to the meeting! It was one of the most exciting moments of my life - to face down the UCB lawyers with Catharine MacKinnon.

Cool! So, other than that, was the rest of grad school smooth sailing?

Another huge factor in my graduate school experience is that my mother died of brain cancer. She was diagnosed about 14 months before she died (in '83), and it was challenging because, as I mentioned before, she was a Christian Scientist. My father managed her medical care and she had two brain surgeries. After the second, I was with her in the hospital, and she asked me (in private) to please find some way to get her out of the hospital and stop the medical interventions. So I found a way to bring her home (to where she lived with my father) using hospice. That was not straightforward in 1983. I then took care of her at home until she died, with visits from the hospice organization a couple of times a week. My Dad was not happy with this but he realized it wasn't really up to him. To do this I took a leave from grad school. After she died, I wasn't sure I had it in me to do philosophy anymore. I thought it would be better either to become a nurse or an activist. But the fact is that I became very depressed and experienced some effects of trauma for years.

I’m sorry to hear that. I had a similar experience. How did you deal?

I had been doing yoga since high school, and after my mother died, I found yoga was a great help. So I got very involved in an ashram in Berkeley and started teaching yoga classes there and at other places in Oakland. (I was also trying to finish my dissertation.) 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.

Are you still in touch with any of the folks from Berkeley?

I am married to one of my friends from Berkeley, Stephen Yablo. We met in 1981, but didn’t become a couple until 1988. We are still in touch with some of our friends from then, but don't see them as much as I'd like.

I have to ask, what do a couple of married philosophers do in their spare time? Do you talk shop?

Sure, sometimes we talk philosophy, but there is so much else to talk about! We have kids, so a lot of time over the past 22 years we have just done what families do: maintain a household, play with kids, go to soccer games, choir practices, etc. We like to cook together, travel, watch TV crime series (Luther, The Bridge, The Killing, Justified, Spiral). We have never published a joint-paper, but we think about it sometimes.

I love Justified! When did your political interests start informing your research in philosophy?

I kept my philosophical work and my politics quite separate. There were no graduate courses in feminism, or race, or women's and gender studies, or anything like that. I was involved in reading groups (I had been since the late 70s), and we did what we could to stay informed. But there didn't seem to be any room in philosophy to combine my politics and my research. That combination didn't happen until Charlotte Witt and Louise Antony asked me to contribute to A Mind of One's Own. Charlotte and I had been in a feminist reading group when she was visiting Berkeley, and she suggested me for the volume. It changed my life. By then I was out of Berkeley and trying to figure out if there was a place for me in philosophy, and writing that paper gave me hope that there was.

When you were done, what was the job market like at the time? Get any weird advice?

The job market was stressful, as it is for everyone. I was advised to have two CVs, one with my feminist activism, teaching interests in feminism, etc. on it, and one without. I also was told that I should go to interviews at the APA in a skirt with "hose and heels." No pants. I disobeyed and did about half of my interviews in "hose and heels" and half in "slacks." I only got flyouts at the ones where I wore "slacks." I took a job at the University of California-Irvine. They had my feminist CV and asked if I wanted to have an affiliation with Women's Studies.

What was that first gig like? Exciting?

I was thrilled, and in my first year out of grad school started teaching feminist theory. I had never even taken a course that covered anything feminist in it! I remember when the director invited me to lunch, one of her first questions was: "Why are you in a philosophy department?" All I could say was, "I have a PhD in philosophy? I love philosophy?" She didn't understand. From her point of view, philosophy was phallogocentric and incompatible with feminism.

Wow! So, you jumped around a bit after grad school, first you were at UC Irvine, then Princeton, then U Penn? Why were you jumping around? Was that stressful?

UCI was a good job and I would have been happy to stay except I was invited to apply for the Princeton job my second year. My advisors thought it would be a good idea. One of them told me, "You'll hate Princeton, but it will be good for you." That was completely true. I have a million horror stories about my time at Princeton, but it has changed and there is no reason to repeat them now. But among other things it meant going back to the East Coast, and to the Ivy League. That was not my world. And the town of Princeton didn't suit me. But most of all, I wasn't able to work well. I now know I was suffering from severe stereotype threat. I often say that it was very like my experience when I went to France in college and started speaking only French. My French language skills were limited, and suddenly I felt like I only had ideas that were possible for a 3rd grader. Princeton was a place where I was hardly capable of having a philosophical thought, and that scared me. Again, I thought very seriously about quitting philosophy. But when Penn invited me to apply to their job I jumped at the chance to live in Philadelphia and get out of Princeton.

Good move? Did you have to deal with the two-body problem?

It was a good move in many ways, but life at Penn was difficult in its own way. Among other things, Steve and I started seeing each other seriously and when I came up for my 3rd year review we went on the job market together (he had been at the University of Michigan since he graduated from Berkeley). He got tenure at Michigan right about the same moment that I was offered an entry-level position there. It was great to have jobs in the same place, but HARD to accept an entry level position after being out of grad school for seven years, and in a department where my husband - who had finished grad school a year after me - was just tenured. But I figured it was worth it. Just a few weeks after I accepted the Michigan job, Cornell offered us two tenured positions. That was AMAZING. Cornell had spoken to me about applying for their job, but it seemed crazy to commute from Ithaca to Ann Arbor. But with offers for both of us, I went to the chair at Michigan and asked to be brought up for tenure. I was told that because Steve was in the department (and because they had just told me that I couldn't even count on being brought up early), it would have to be under "heightened scrutiny." That meant I would have to have twice the usual number of tenure letters. It worked, though, and so we had the option of two tenured positions at Cornell or Michigan. That was a really hard decision. But we chose Michigan. In 1996, MIT offered us the jobs we now have, and we moved in 1998.

Do you have kids?

While in Ann Arbor we adopted our two children, Isaac and Zina. Isaac was born in Ft. Worth, TX and we adopted him at 4 weeks old. Zina was born in Lansing, MI and I was at her birth and we brought her home from the hospital when she was a day old. Both adoptions are open: we know the birth families and have regular contact with them. They are all part of our huge, complicated, loving, family. We moved to Cambridge when Isaac was 4 and Zina 2, and they grew up here. Isaac is about to graduate from Howard University in Washington DC with a BA in sociology. Zina is working on a degree in psychology and works in an Afterschool (& Summer) Program through the Cambridge Public Schools. They are amazing people doing really important work. I admire them so much.

Would you encourage your kids to go into philosophy? Discourage?

We’ve never encouraged them to go in to philosophy. Our kids are very different from us and we love that. We learn so much from the differences and it puts our nerdy philosophical form of life into perspective. Of course if they wanted to do philosophy, that would be different. But we want them to follow their own passions.

How has your personal life shaped your philosophical views, and vice versa?

My personal life has definitely shaped my philosophical interests and my views. One paper of mine that demonstrates that clearly is "You Mixed?". It is about the complicated identity that I developed in raising Black kids. Issues of race, gender, class, identity have been complicated in my life, and reflections on my life have made a big difference to the sort of work I do.

Do you still miss the West Coast?

It took me a long time to get over my homesickness for the West Coast. But now I am definitely happy on the East Coast. Cambridge is a fantastic city. I love living there. I am SO lucky. But whenever I visit the West Coast, I feel the tug.

High point of your career? Low point? General advice?

There have been many highs and lows in my career. And a lot of the time has been very mixed. I have considered leaving the field over and over. But somehow I was offered a path that made it worth staying. I know there are many people who deserve more than they get in philosophy, and I've been lucky in so many ways. I believe that recognizing the luck in it all is extremely important, and doing what I can to open paths for others is the least I can do. Philosophy is not a meritocracy. Life is not a meritocracy. Yet some are treated much worse than others by life, by chance, by individuals, by structures. I hate that unfairness; I just hate it.

Interesting upcoming projects?

I’m really excited about the work I’m doing on culture. I think culture has been very neglected in philosophy, but it is absolutely crucial to thinking about social justice. Philosophy’s individualism leads people to focus on cognitive science and economics for input in thinking about the mind and action. We really need to draw more substantially on the social sciences: history, sociology, anthropology, and also other humanities. Human thinking and acting is a social enterprise, and it is striking to me how little philosophers know about the social or think about culture.

How do you see the future of philosophy? Do you find any trends disconcerting? Exciting?

I don't know what the future will bring and I'm all for there being many trends that get tangled with each other. I never imagined that it would be so hard to be a feminist, both inside and outside the academy, after this many decades. Of course I knew we were in for a long haul, but it shocks me how slow progress has been. I find it hard to believe how many anti-feminist and anti-feminist-philosophy philosophers there still are.

Could you give an example, here?

How about the shitstorm?

haha…yeah, right, so, recently, it was reported that you and a few other philosophers received packages of…ordure. In an interview with the New York Times, you say, "For me, it just shows the profession is totally unwilling to be corrected." If you had to guess, who do you think did it? Do you think this is representative of the profession as a whole?

I don’t know who sent the package and I don’t really care.  It was a juvenile thing to do, and although it did affect me, it is behind me now.  I don’t think anything is representative of the profession as a whole.  We are a bunch of very different people.  I do think it represents a small number of people in the profession who need to grow up and put on their big boy pants and stop shitting on others.  The act was a perfect exemplification of why we shouldn’t take them seriously.

Odd question, I know, but are there any circumstances in which you would resort to such behavior?

No, I would never resort to sending shit to someone. 

Any other problematic aspects of our discipline?

To be honest, I think most philosophers are pretty limited in their intelligences. They may be amazing along a certain dimension of intelligence, but in many cases the other dimensions are atrophied. And moreover, they don't even recognize the multiplicity of intelligences and think the kind they have is either the only one or the most important. That, to my mind, is a serious limitation that negatively affects our discipline. 

Another problem is that most philosophers are clueless about the social factors that influence cognition and perception.  They introspect and think that they have discovered the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  This is a serious liability for a discipline that aims to engage in critical thinking!  I am shocked at how often philosophers disparage other disciplines for their lack of argument, etc., when those other disciplines are much more sophisticated in their approach to evidence, methods for self-reflective critique, and attention to social/historical context.

Greatest philosophers of all time?

I think the greatest philosophers of all time may be those we don't even know of yet, either because they have been forgotten, silenced, or haven't yet lived. I think we'd do well not to further glorify those who've already gotten all the attention and open ourselves to other possibilities.

Favorite songs?

I like a lot of songs. One that has been my favorite for awhile is Bleecker Street, sung by Jonatha Brooke.

Did you maintain the appreciation for nature your parents tried to instill in you?

Definitely. I loved living in California in graduate school because of the incredible natural beauty. I used to backpack in the Sierras and winter camped in the Olympia Peninsula in Washington. Now I garden. And we spend time in the summer in Maine.

Thoughts on Hillary and Trump [editor’s note: this question was asked before the election]?

You can find something I wrote on gender bias in the election process here.

Favorite curse word?

I tend to go with the usual: f-word and s-word, sometimes using them together.

Last meal?

A Bosc pear with slices of gruyere. I aim to eat 2/3 of my meals vegan (I’ve been a vegetarian since 1969), but I do love cheese and would save up my dairy allotment for my final meal.