SWIP-Ireland founder, Maria Baghramian, was recently awarded a European Commission Horizon 2020 grant for a three-year project called ‘PEriTiA – Policy, Expertise and Trust in Action,’ a broad inquiry that will bring together scholars from a range of disciplines, asking questions about our trust in experts and the trustworthiness of expert opinion when it comes to policy. Focusing on the case of climate science, philosophers, social and natural scientists, policy experts, media specialists, ethicists, and members of various civic organizations will use theoretical and empirical methods and findings to generate a framework for better assessing the trustworthiness of policy experts. Professor Baghramian works at the intersection of analytic and continental philosophy and is one of the keynote speakers for SWIP-I’s 2020 conference, ‘What is Philosophy?’

Last year, Maria was interviewed by Finnur Dellsén, a postdoctoral investigator on ‘When Experts Disagree’, her earlier Horizon 2020 project and a forerunner to PEriTiA. An Icelandic translation of this interview was published in the Icelandic philosophy journal Hugur, volume 29 (2018), pp. 7-14. Finnur has generously sent us the English version of his interview, the full text of which is included here.

Maria discusses her own background and evolution as a scholar and philosopher, her influences, her collaboration with Luke Drury, and some of the motivations behind her inquiries and the founding of SWIP-Ireland. She encourages students to “pursue questions that they find important and interesting,” her own story offering an inspiring model for where that pursuit might lead.


Interviewed by Finnur Dellsén

Finnur Dellsén: It’s said that Immanuel Kant never travelled outside a 10-mile radius from his home city of Königsberg in Germany. Although few philosophers these days are quite as extreme in this regard as Kant was, I think your professional life represents something of an anomaly among philosophers: You hold a chair as Professor of American philosophy; you live and work in Ireland; you were born in Iran; your heritage is Armenian; and you’ve contributed a lot to philosophy in China. But let’s start at the beginning: Could you begin by telling us about why an Armenian in Iran decided to travel to Ireland to study philosophy?

Maria Baghramian: My travel to Ireland was out of necessity rather than choice. However, my decision to live in Ireland for over three decades has been a matter of choice. I initially studied both in University of Tehran and also for period in Europe but returned to Tehran in 1978 as the uprising against the Shah’s regime was gathering momentum.

Like many Western educated young people, I opposed the authoritarian regime of the Shah and took part in the demonstrations that engulfed the country from the summer of 1978. And like many of my friends and fellow students, I was hoping for greater political freedom and economic equality. Very soon after the revolution, with the beginning of the encroachment of religious rule, my husband, Hormoz Farhat who is a professor of music, and I began to realise that the newly minted Islamic Republic of Iran may not be a hospitable or even a safe place for us.

We began looking for opportunities outside of Iran. Queen’s University Belfast made an immediate offer to my husband. We left Iran in July 1979, with just two suitcases, never to return. We were among the lucky ones. Friends who stayed behind faced imprisonment, torture and worse and their memories haunt me to this day.

At Queen’s, it became obvious that I would not be able to continue my studies in Performing Arts and Drama, the subject I had studied at University of Tehran. At that time Drama was not offered as university subject in the UK and Ireland, so, to continue and complete my studies, I had to begin anew. I had taken some philosophy courses in the past and knew that I liked it. Social Anthropology was new to me but given my background it seemed an interesting option. I tried Politics as well but after the first-hand experiences of mass uprising the classroom discussions of politics, even in Belfast of the day, seemed very tame.

So, I decided on Philosophy and Social Anthropology. QUB had just hired several young lecturers in philosophy, Peter Carruthers and Jack Copeland among them. Their lectures were part of the reason that I decided to continue with philosophy at postgraduate level. In 1982 my husband was appointed to the Chair of Music in Trinity College, so we moved to Dublin. Tim Williamson had just taken up his first job at TCD and I was lucky to become his first PhD student. So, political and personal circumstances shaped my decisions about studying philosophy, but a modicum of good fortune helped to turn them into good decisions.


FD: Your doctorate was in philosophy of logic, and you’ve written extensively on relativism, including an influential book on the topic. I wonder if this research was motivated by the relativism that is often appealed to in religious communities like Iran after the revolution?

MB: I became interested in relativism as an undergraduate student in Social Anthropology. Relativism was the dominant theoretical ethos of anthropology and was seldom, if ever, questioned by my lecturers. The attitude in the Philosophy Department was the extreme opposite. The assumption was that relativism was self-contradictory and incoherent and no further discussion was needed.

I objected to both positions and believed then, and continue to hold, that a number of important and legitimate philosophical and social questions about diversity and difference motivate relativism, and that the problems giving rise to relativism should be taken seriously, even if the relativistic response to these questions is ultimately inadequate. So, in my writing on relativism I have tried to show why relativism is philosophically interesting while, simultaneously, arguing against some of the arguments that have attempted to make it a philosophically, and also socially and politically, appealing point of view.

Relativism, in the 80s and 90s, in social anthropology in particular but also among many others, at least outside of analytic philosophy, was the theoretical framework for tolerance, open-mindedness and multi-culturalism. Against that current, I believed that relativism, when taken seriously, can lead to political inaction and quietism. Later on, when I started to do more in depth research on the topic I also discovered connections between relativism and authoritarian politics –for instance, I had not known that Mussolini was an avowed relativist. Such political connections make the challenge of relativism even more pressing.

My doctorate in philosophy of logic also had its roots in my interest in relativism. Anthropologists, starting with Levy Burhl, had discussed the possibility of alternative logics. I thought that exploring various formal non-classical logical systems, for instance, many-valued logics, relevance logic, fuzzy logic, etc., and their connections with language and thought, would be a good way to reframe the question that interested the social anthropologists. Tim Williamson, as a strong realist, a ‘Rottweiler realist’ as Crispin Wright used to call him, was quite hostile towards non-classical logic and that made for very good, if challenging, debates.


FD: Another focus of your research is American philosophy and pragmatism. You’ve worked on Rorty, Davidson, and Putnam, to name a few examples. Can you elaborate on this work and its connection with your previous work or previous experiences?

MB: My continued interest in the work of these philosophers dates back to my initial encounter with philosophy. My introduction to philosophy in Paris – where I studied for a while – and in Tehran University where I studied Drama, was only through ‘continental’ philosophy. At QUB, our lectures started with ordinary language philosophy, Austin for instance, and we did R. M. Hare for ethics. I found these philosophers parochial and irrelevant to the exciting political and intellectual concerns of people like Foucault, Barth, Lyotard.

In my second year, I read Putnam and that was a complete revelation. He was writing about important issues in science, language, and mind with imagination and daring that were reminiscent of the ‘revolutionary’ philosophers of continental Europe but his arguments were also rigorous and tightly reasoned. Discovering Putnam, or more correctly discovering that analytic philosophy can be daring and exciting, was my ultimate reason for choosing philosophy as a career.

Davidson was a natural progression after Putnam. His Essays on Actions and Events had just been published and we read the book in a seminar with Peter Carruthers. A few years later, I met all three of the figures you mentioned at conferences in the Royal Irish Academy and gave papers related to their work. My meeting with Putnam in 1992, however, was seminal to the development of my work and career. I continued to admire him greatly as a philosopher but also came to genuinely love him as a person. I am not alone in thinking that Putnam was one of the kindest and most generous philosophers of our time. He wore his “genius” lightly (the word, unbeknownst by Putnam, was used by his supervisor Hans Reichenbach in his letters of reference but I think it is apt in his case), he loved to learn and was open to new ideas (hence his frequent changes of mind) and always had an appropriate level of humility towards his subject.

I continued meeting with Hilary on regular basis, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in Dublin and at various conferences in Europe, until his death last year. As I followed his amazing intellectual journey through various philosophical positions, I also came to learn more about American pragmatism and developed a growing fascination with the work of people like James and Dewey.

The high point of my memory of Putnam, however, is the conference I organised in Dublin to celebrate his 80th birthday. To see him in action surrounded by many of his former students and colleagues, Saul Kripke, Ned Block, Michael Devitt, Tyler Burge, Alva Noe, Hartry Field, etc., basking in their love and admiration and also responding to their papers with his usual clarity and acuity, was one of the greatest pleasures of my intellectual life. My edited book, Reading Putnam (Routledge 2012) is the fruit of that conference and remains one of my favourite publications.


FD: The American pragmatists you’ve worked on are all men, but you certainly haven’t focused exclusively on promoting the work of male philosophers. In fact, you founded and chaired the Society for Women in Philosophy (SWIP) in Ireland and have been instrumental to promote the cause of women in philosophy worldwide. I wonder if you could tell us about this work, and its relation to your own experiences as women in the very-much male-dominated field of philosophy?

MB: I came to the issue of women in philosophy quite late in my life, I am ashamed to say. As my comments on the Iranian revolution indicate, I always had a strong interest in politics, and in particular what you may call the politics of ‘the left’. Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s was socially and politically extremely conservative.

The Department of Philosophy at University College Dublin, where I was hired in a tenured position in 1990s, represented the most extreme end of that conservatism. Its earlier incarnation, the Department of Metaphysics was headed by Professor Des Connell, later appointed as the Archbishop of Dublin in 1989. Many of the lecturers were clerics or had strong religious beliefs. There were no women in that particular department. Dermot Moran replaced Des Connell in 1989 and headed the newly established Department of Philosophy which incorporated the Department of metaphysics as well as the philosophy components of the departments of Ethics and Politics and Logic and Psychology.

I was the first hire in the Department of Philosophy, in 1990, the first woman and the first atheist (and a non-Catholic atheist at that). There were many social and political issues facing Ireland at that time. Divorce, gay rights, abortion, even birth control were contested topics and occasions for protests. I also continued to be involved in international political activism through Amnesty International.

Philosophy in the Department of Metaphysics, with a few exceptions, had by and large remained independent of the main stream of philosophy, focusing largely on topics from the Thomist tradition. Dermot Moran and I were hoping to change this. I, personally, thought that once Ireland as well as the Department begins to address the large-scale social and political issues it faced, the narrower problem of under-representation of women in philosophy will also disappear. But I was wrong about this. Ireland and with it the Philosophy in UCD underwent revolutionary changes. I no longer could shock my students in class by espousing liberal causes; in fact, the new generation of the students were often even more radical than I was.

Philosophy in UCD, both in its continental and analytic streams, began to look very much in line with what was happening internationally, but the anticipated improvement in women’s participation in philosophy did not materialise. The great majority of hires in philosophy in UCD and TCD were men; the few female colleagues who joined these departments felt unhappy with their working conditions and sought positions elsewhere. It was only then that I realised that to improve conditions for women in philosophy and to ensure greater participation direct action was needed.

I started the Society for Women in Philosophy-Ireland in 2010. The launch coincided with the 2010 Joint Session that I was organising in UCD. Things were quiet for the first couple of years, but my first period of the headship of the School of Philosophy, starting in 2011, coincided with the success of some younger women philosophers in receiving postdoctoral fellowships from the Irish Research Council. With their help, in particular that of Luna Dolezal, Danielle Petherbridge and Áine Mahon, and several female PhD students, and with some funding from the Irish Research Council, we managed to turn SWIP Ireland into an active organisation and to focus attention on the need to improve female participation in philosophy.

Some of my male colleagues in UCD came out in support of our activities and the result now is an academic environment that is much more supportive of women and the work they do. We have also hired three tenured women lecturers and through them have given the School of Philosophy a completely new look.

Personally, like many other women academics, I have had a great many negative experiences, including experiences of marginalisation as well as actual sexual harassment (the worst was in a very prestigious university in the UK). The most unfortunate thing is that, for decades, I stayed silent about both the specific incidents and the general atmosphere of exclusion and marginalisation that I, like many other women, experienced. I felt I had no one to go to and did not think that my concerns would be taken seriously. Learning of similar experiences by women philosophers elsewhere has been a great help, as I tended to assume that my negative experiences were mainly because of my non-western background or being an “outsider”.

One of the main functions of SWIP-Ireland is to let women with experiences of discrimination or harassment know that they are not alone, that there is a network of support available to them if they need it. Personally, I receive profound satisfaction that, at this stage in my career, I am in a position to give support and encouragement to younger women who may otherwise feel alone and powerless.


FD: You have an academic connection to China that not many analytic philosophers have. As I understand it, this is due in part to your textbook in philosophy of language, which was translated into Chinese early on. Could you tell us more about your visits to China and the situations for analytic philosophy in China?

MB: My contacts with China were completely unexpected and somewhat unusual. My edited book Modern Philosophy of Language was published in 1999. The book has quite a long general introduction as well as accessible introductions to the individual authors whose work I had anthologised.

A few years after its publications I began to receive emails from China asking me about the book and inviting me to go there to talk about philosophy of language. Very few, if any analytic philosophers at that time had contacts with China and we were also weary of spam emails. So, I simply ignored these messages.

After a while, I received an official letter from a senior academic, Professor Qian Guanlian of Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, letting me know that his students and research assistants had attempted to contact me to no avail and that he would like to invite me to visit China to help him set up an Association for Philosophy of Language in China and also to contribute to some summer schools for university teachers. The aim was to help him in his efforts to introduce western philosophy of language to Chinese Universities, particular to the so called Normal Universities, where the teaching is done in languages other than Chinese.

He mentioned that he and the lecturers in his team have been using my book and in particular the introductions that I had written as their core teaching material, hence the invitation. As you know, there are many edited collections in philosophy of language available in English, so I was somewhat surprised that mine had been picked up over better established collections such as Martinich’s The Philosophy of Language (OUP) which has been reprinted many times. But, apparently, the background information about authors such as Putnam and Davidson. and even Frege and Carnap, as well as defining core technical terms in a glossary, had proven very helpful in introducing this new topic to China and hence the popularity of the book.

My first visit to China was in the summer of 2005. I gave two keynote addresses at a two-week summer school in Cheng Du, in Szechwan province, answered questions on a variety of philosophical topics in one-to-one sessions, and also visited the famous panda sanctuary. The experience was unusual to anyone used to Western conferences and summer schools. My large audience, university teachers and PhD students, had very little knowledge of western philosophy and even less information about philosophy of language but they were very eager. They treated me like a celebrity and wanted to take endless photos. I could see how keen they were to connect with the West and to experience new ideas.

I have been to China on several occasions since then and have lectured in many different parts of the country. I was also involved in setting up a journal of philosophy of language published in Chinese and English. The rate of change, both in the infrastructure of the universities and the general academic sophistication of my audiences, has been breath-taking. Western academics are no longer treated as exotic rarities. Many Chinese with PhDs in Philosophy from Western Universities hold academic positions in Chinese universities and are teaching and publishing cutting edge analytic and continental philosophy.

The 2018 World Congress of Philosophy will be hosted by Peking University. My colleague Dermot Moran, who accompanied me to the second of my summer schools in China and gave a course on phenomenology, is the current President of FISP and is centrally responsible for organising this largest philosophical gathering in the history of the subject. Prominent Icelandic philosopher, Professor Sigríður Þorgeirsdóttir is organising lectures and important events on the theme of women in philosophy. I look forward to the World Congress in China as the high point of my unexpected involvement with philosophy in China and in particular I hope to meet some of the student/teachers who came to that very first summer school in 2005.


FD: Finally, I want to talk to you about your most recent project, When Experts Disagree, which is about expertise, disagreement, and interactions between experts and the public. This topic has become almost frighteningly relevant in recent months and years (witness Brexit, Trump, Erdogan, etc.), but the project actually began before those events. So, can you speak to your reasons for starting this project – did you to some extent foresee these developments or were you initially motivated by more abstract philosophical considerations?

MB: The interdisciplinary project When Experts Disagree (WEXD) looks at the common phenomenon of disagreement among scientists, comparing disagreements in the politically charged area of climate science with those in politically neutral field of astrophysics. Science prides itself in a fallibilist attitude towards its findings and methods, so disagreement among scientists is frequently thought to have a positive impact.

But things are different with climate science where scientific views are treated as markers for opposing political ideologies. Our project looks at philosophical considerations surrounding the notions of expertise and disagreement. We also are using the methodologies of experimental philosophy to compare attitudes toward disagreements in these two contrasting areas of science.

I wish I could take credit for foresight regarding the relevance of the project to the political upheavals we are witnessing, but like almost everything else in my life serendipity and genuine academic interest in a number of core questions, rather than prior planning, are behind this new phase of my research career.

The story of my collaboration with Luke Drury, my astrophysicist co-PI, is rather long and convoluted. Even as an undergraduate student I was very interested in Wittgenstein, the interest persisted through my PhD, and I continued working on Wittgenstein independently of my work on philosophy of logic. In Dublin, I learned that Wittgenstein had spent some time in Ireland and was friends with someone called Con Drury. This was before the biographies by Ray Monk or even Brian McGuiness were published, so very little was known about Wittgenstein’s life. I decided to pursue this line of enquiry in my spare time and visited places where Wittgenstein had stayed, talked to people who still remembered him, and collected as much information as I could.

The results were published in a paper called “Wittgenstein in Ireland”, my very first publication. Tim Williamson and others encouraged me to contact the Drury family, Con Drury’s wife and sons, but I thought that as a mere student I should not impose on them, particularly since my interest in Wittgenstein was not central to my main research, so the opportunity was lost. Years later, I met Luke Drury, the older son of Con Drury and a Professor of Astrophysics in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, and in part because of my prior interest in his father, and also our common interest in music, we became good friends. Luke and I had had on occasion discussed our wish to do a joint project, but the right opportunity had never presented itself.

In the summer of 2015, while I was hospitalised due to a car accident, the Irish Research Council advertised its first ever interdisciplinary stream of funding encouraging collaboration between STEM subjects and subject in Humanities. Earlier that year, Luke and I had been discussing the topic of disagreement, in science and beyond, a topic that is core to my interest in relativism and has also been the subject of much recent discussion in analytic philosophy. So, at last we had the opportunity to work on a project of mutual interest.

My enforced post-surgery immobility and a medical leave from the university gave me the time to focus on the application. The funding we received gave us a chance to hire three talented younger researchers, including you, and working with them has been one of the best outcomes of our funding success.

Meanwhile, the political world started taking an increasingly ominous turn. The debate about Brexit showed the political relevance of research on the question of expertise. Donald Trump’s election made the questions of truth and alternative frameworks of assessment, issues central to my work on relativism, topics of daily political debate. So, a research project that had its origins in the academic interests of two friends gained an unexpected social and political significance.

The project now is moving to the question of trust in experts. The new phase began with a large conference on Trust, Expertise and Policy at the beginning of September 2017. Recently, Luke Drury and I were invited to join a working group of the topic of Trust and Expertise convened by the British Academy and ALLEA (All European Academies). This new phase of the project is more self-consciously political in its motivations. We are now aware that our research question has direct links with the social world. So, in addition to our original focus on climate science and astrophysics we plan to investigate politically sensitive issues such as trust in media and in economics.

Students often ask about the relevance of philosophy to the “real world”. My answer is to encourage them to pursue questions that they find important and interesting. Deep and exciting philosophical questions are inevitably connected to what is significant to us and our lives and the passage of time eventually will manifest these connections. This is what happened with “When Experts Disagree”.


Dr. Mette Lebech has been teaching ‘Reading Women Philosophers’ at NUI Maynooth for several years and studying the history of women philosophers for even longer. SWIP-I’s Alissa MacMillan spoke with Dr. Lebech about the challenges, importance, and benefits of getting women into the history of philosophy curriculum. Hard work is required and, to begin, “You need to start looking at these lists of women philosophers you’ve never heard of.”


What have you found is unique about teaching women philosophers?

It makes you look on the history of philosophy in a completely new light. It’s quite difficult because you’ve got to know your history extremely well of course, and you’ve got to know it doubly well because all of these women are extremely context-dependent. Men are as well, but we’re used to thinking of the men’s context and not the women’s.


What is it about their context that’s so different?

They are dependent on a context we’re not so aware of. So really women thinkers make you do everything again and actually it makes you investigate the context much more thoroughly, and that’s very enjoyable.


What is an example of this kind of context dependence?

A person I find very intriguing is Dhuoda of Septimania, she was a noble woman, a countess in the time of Charles the Bald, so the grandson of Charlemagne, around 820-840. I suppose I knew something about the court of Charlemagne and a little bit about our own Eriugena – she’s actually contemporary with the Irish philosopher Eriugena. But, Dhuoda’s son is hostage at that court and she writes a handbook to him on ethics, how to behave, basically, in order not to be killed. Of course, he is hostage because his father doesn’t behave; his father is accused of sleeping with the empress.


And she wouldn’t be in the standard textbooks.

When you look, you will find lists of women philosophers that are embarrassing in their richness. And if one, oneself, doesn’t take time to know who these people were, you end up thinking there are no women philosophers. I think it’s necessary if you want to get to grips with the tradition of women thinkers, which exists, and the whole idea that it doesn’t exist is so ludicrous because it does. What is also quite amazing about a lot of these women is that they were very famous in their own time and we have just forgotten. It’s not their problem, it’s ours.


I work on Thomas Hobbes and have read, for example, Margaret Cavendish, but I find myself returning to Hobbes, thinking he’s just better.

This is part of what I mean by context dependent. You’ve got to compare like with like. To be Hobbes, it was expected he would write. For example, listen to how you might react yourself to the difference between being a tutor and being a governess. Literally, it is just a sexual difference, but for some reason we think that being a tutor is a very estimable position and being a governess is not enviable at all. What you’ve really got to watch for all the time is your prejudices.


And this added context might change your understanding of history?

That whole period of early modern and late early modern philosophy, I find what is happening historically incredibly complex. One of the things I’m figuring out about that period, is that we’re existing at a transition from a strong aristocratic tradition and aristocratic society, where women of course played an important role as queens, as princesses, to a situation where citizenship takes over, and the professions grow and parliaments are being formed in such a way that women who can’t enter the universities, who can’t enter politics, they actually get more marginalized when aristocracy is abolished, which is peculiar. You see you get to read history again, because this is an angle I hadn’t looked at it from before, I hadn’t seen the advantages of being an aristocratic woman. Whenever there is a serious political upheaval, new classes come out underneath, and with the Revolution, in many ways, women came out underneath.


What do you think would change if women were better integrated into the history of philosophy?

Well, we would know more about what they thought. We wouldn’t attribute Socrates’ understanding of eros to Socrates, we would put it where it belongs, namely with Diotima, because he says he’s learned everything about it from her. As Karen Warren makes clear in her book, you can start by reading the philosophical tradition as originating with a woman, which is then a big sort of shift in your mind.


And is it a different approach to philosophy?

We would see the world with two eyes instead of just one. With two eyes, you judge distance, you do see the depth and you do start realizing the background to a lot of strange things. Part of why I call the course I’m teaching ‘Reading Women Philosophers’ is because it’s an art. You’ve got to figure out what it is you’re looking for and what it is you’re studying, and ultimately it raises the question of what philosophy is. But that’s not a bad question to be landed with in a philosophy class.


How did you get started in this work?

When I was a very young research student I think I at some stage decided I was going to spend half my time reading women and when I said it to a male colleague he went altogether red.


Do you think that teaching women in the history of philosophy is teaching feminism?

It’s nearly half an enemy. Feminists will say, why do you read all these oppressed women who say all sorts of patriarchal things? Only read the feminists, forget all the rest. But I don’t think you can do that. I think it’s going to make you repeat the mistakes, and why is what the women are saying not important? I have a bit of an issue with feminist history, where you deliberately leave out these patriarchal women. Because you are doing that, you don’t own your tradition, you think that it has been so adulterated that you can’t learn something from it.


Why have we read so few women if there are so many to read?

Because we don’t take them seriously, and that is actually the first hurdle to get over when you start reading women philosophers. You catch yourself thinking, well sure, this is nothing compared to Hobbes. And it’s often because we read ten pages of a woman philosopher and say, well actually, this is all crap. But if you read only ten pages of Hobbes you’d probably think, well this is crap, too.


Do have some suggestions for teachers trying to incorporate women into their history of philosophy curriculum?

You’ve got to consecrate a lot of time to this. You’ve got to learn another subject, like physics or chemistry or something. You’ve got to learn your own disciple anew but from a different angle.


How might you incorporate women into standardized courses, like epistemology or metaphysics?

You have to avoid the standard textbooks because they are not going to do that. They’re not going to integrate women philosophers, you’ve got to do it yourself. You’ve got to make an effort, and you’ve really got to know your philosophers. And then you’ve got to find your own feet and figure out what you want to include. As an example, I’ve paired Hannah Arendt and Edith Stein with Jurgen Habermas and Aquinas. Christine de Pisan, for example, could definitely be read alongside Machiavelli.


What about getting support from departments? Is it easier in our current moment?

I think one way ahead could be for people to insist that they want to teach women philosophers. It should be easy enough to do, to say I want to do this, it can be done. But again I want to say, if you do, honour yourself with a bit of patience and don’t underestimate the work that is involved. You can’t just sit down and read ten pages. It really is a serious thing you need to engage with. You need to start looking and looking at these lists of women philosophers you’ve never heard of.


Because they are there to be found, in relearning the history of philosophy?

And with that comes the question again: what is philosophy and how could I possibly have gotten the idea that only men are capable of searching for wisdom? How could I be manipulated into thinking that it’s a man’s business?



Dr. Lebech suggests these texts as good starting points for discovering women philosophers. From there, look at lists (for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_women_philosophers) and read as many works as you can, well beyond the first ten pages.


An Unconventional History of Western Philosophy: Conversations Between Men and Women Philosophers, ed. Karen Warren. Rowman and Littlefield, 2009.


A History of Women Philosophers, Vols 1-3, ed. Mary Ellen Waite. Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989.



Philosophy Ireland was initiated in August 2015 at a public forum entitled “Philosophy and the Irish School”. Recognizing the need for an open discussion on the role of philosophy in educational discourse, Dr Charlotte Blease and Dr Áine Mahon (both members of SWIP Ireland) hosted the forum at Newman House, St Stephen’s Green. The purpose of the event was to focus attention on the role of philosophy in the Irish school curriculum, and to bring together disparate networks of teachers, academics, and interested supporters.

Sharing the common pursuit of how best to promote philosophy beyond the academy, we were interested particularly in promoting dialogue between primary, secondary and third-level education.

Over the past twelve months, we have campaigned to bring philosophy not only to the educational but to the public sphere. We have been interviewed and published by a host of media and educational outlets, among them Newstalk 106, Leadership +, Termtalk, TEDx and Teaching Council Research. One of our members, Dr. Robert Grant, has been commissioned to direct an RTÉ documentary examining Ireland as a “knowledge-based society”; Rob’s film includes several examples of the practice of philosophy in Irish schools. Rob and other members are regularly cited and interviewed in the Irish Times and all of us are supported further by a number of high-profile academic and media ambassadors, among them Professor Claire Katz of Texas A&M University, Joe Humphreys of the Irish Times, and Dr. William Crawley of BBC Radio 4.

In July 2016, we were delighted to announce Mrs Sabina Higgins, a NUIG graduate of Philosophy and English and a passionate advocate for careful and creative thinking, as our official patron. At a meeting of SWIP Ireland in February 2015, Mrs Higgins had spoken passionately about the need for philosophy in Irish schools. She continues to promote our cause at the highest levels and we are thrilled to have her support.

From a curricular perspective, the network’s members (especially Susan Andrews, Marelle Rice, Charlotte Blease and Gerry Dunne) have been centrally involved in the drafting of the new Junior Cycle Short Course in Philosophy. Particularly keen to root the teaching of Junior Cycle Philosophy in P4C (or “Philosophy for Children”) principles, these members have worked particularly closely with such key educational bodies as the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and Junior Cycle for Teachers.

Central to this collaborative work was the development of the curriculum’s foundational and elective strands. The latter included teaching and learning in classic branches of the subject (Moral Philosophy, Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy of Knowledge, Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Art) as well as less typical and more innovative areas (Philosophy of Education, Philosophy of Sport, Philosophy of Science and Technology).

In line with the broader vision of Junior Cycle reform, the pedagogical focus in all of these areas was less on content knowledge and more on the development of key attributes and skills. It is for this reason that the P4C pedagogy has been placed at the very heart of the new curriculum. Through the study of philosophy in this open-ended and dialogic form, it is hoped that Junior Cycle students develop the key educational capacities of logic and critique, of creativity and care, of clearly articulating their perspectives while listening respectfully to the perspectives of others. Matching the democratic vision of P4C founder, Professor Matthew Lipman, Junior Cycle Philosophy develops the ability in students to imagine as well as to reason. It teaches its young people to speak out but not to speak out of turn. Most importantly of all, it teaches its young people how to disagree without being disagreeable.

For Junior Cycle Philosophy, the consultation process has now concluded and the finalized course will be available to schools from September 2017. For teachers and facilitators of this new curriculum, Philosophy Ireland is now developing targeted training and support. We owe our website designer, Sabrina Keenan, a particular debt of gratitude as she continues to manage and update our online resources. On November 3rd and 4th 2016, we hosted our first P4C training days at Maynooth and UCD Schools of Education. With the guidance of Marelle Rice, a P4C expert with over fifteen years of experience, teachers and students from across Ireland came together to discuss the new Junior Cycle Short Course and to share teaching practice and resources. We have plans to deliver similar training events in Cork and Galway in early 2017.

On November 19th 2016, the members of Philosophy Ireland and their guests were invited by President Michael D. Higgins and Mrs. Higgins to celebrate World Philosophy Day at Áras an Uachtaráin.

In a stirring and special address to those in attendance, the President acknowledged the inextricable bond between philosophy and education. “As President of Ireland”, he said, “I fully support Philosophy Ireland’s commitment to developing the practice of philosophy in Irish schools”. He continued: “An exposure to philosophy is vital if we truly want our young people to acquire the capacities they need in preparing for their journey into the world. They will be wiser travellers on that journey if they know to use as their compass the critical abilities, the openness to pluralism and the ethical awareness that an openness to philosophy can bring”.

We are thrilled that the importance of philosophy has been acknowledged so publicly by our visionary and eloquent President. Following this most welcome recognition, Philosophy Ireland aims in the coming months and years to build further on our initial outreach and curricular effort. As we rally teachers, parents and community workers to our common cause, we have much work still to do. Many practical and pedagogical issues are in need of development and finesse. Indeed, no more than Irish Rail – that bastion of thoroughgoing and thoughtful critique – we are not there yet but we are getting there.

For further information about Philosophy Ireland or to get in touch with any of our members, please visit our website at www.philosophyireland.ie.


Dr. Áine Mahon is Lecturer in Philosophy of Education at University College Dublin.

S: What got you interested in philosophy?

R: In high school I thought I was more interested in literature than philosophy. But of all the writers I had been reading, Jorge Luis Borges was the one I was most interested in. He wrote mostly short stories and poems, often discussing matters of philosophical import – he has indeed been quoted by several philosophers, most famously by David Lewis (and Michel Foucault). Because Borges was such a philosophical writer, I realized that my interest was more in philosophy than in literature per se. So you might say that I got into philosophy through Borges. As you probably know, he was Argentinian, and he was very rooted in Argentinian culture.

S: Are you also from Argentina?

R: Yes, I was born in Argentina and that is where I started my career in philosophy, at the University of Buenos Aires. Later on, I moved to New York to do my PhD and work at the City University of New York, Graduate Centre.

S: What was the academic culture like in the Philosophy Department in Argentina, and did it strike you as different when you moved to New York?

R: The main difference was not really in the way philosophy was done, since there are very good philosophers in Argentina. But in New York it is much easier to keep a sort of ongoing conversation with other philosophers, and to know what they are working on right now, as you are continuously being exposed to conferences, workshops, hallway conversations, etc. And there is a lot going on. Philosophically speaking, New York is a very stimulating city.

Another main difference, which I found rather surprising, was in the scarce representation of women in philosophy departments. In Argentina, I had many women professors, and when I started my undergraduate degree in philosophy (which is very different there, basically six years of just philosophy courses) the student population was roughly half women half men – I even think more women actually completed the degree! It was a very fair and balanced environment for me to grow professionally. So when I moved to New York, it certainly came as a surprise that there were very few women doing philosophy. There are more now, but at the time, I think, we were only five or six female graduate students at CUNY, and the situation wasn’t any better at other universities in the area. I had never experienced that before, and I am not sure what it is about Argentina that created this sort of level ground entering into the degree, and also among the faculty. I was recently back there for a conference and someone told me that at the University of Buenos Aires – the most prestigious university in the country – there are currently more women than men in the most senior faculty positions in philosophy. Apparently, that is not the case in other Latin America countries; it seems to be quite unique of Argentina, and it is very striking.

S: What do you think is special about Argentina in this respect?

R: As I said, I don’t know the reasons and I haven’t done any serious thinking about this. I am just talking from my own experience, though I suspect that it has little to do with Argentina being unprejudiced against women. A casual conversation a male classmate and I had with an acquaintance of mine when I was still an undergraduate comes to mind. My acquaintance said it was all right for me to study philosophy, but he couldn’t understand why a man would do so. “Wouldn’t you rather do something useful?”, he said to my classmate. So maybe something like that is what is going on: it is okay for women to waste their time in whatever way they find entertaining, including doing philosophy, but men should do ‘real work’! I call this ‘prejudice interference’, you know, like interfering waves in physics, because prejudices against women and philosophy have an interfering effect on each other.

S: Do you think you would have succeeded in this career as much as you have were you to have studied somewhere else other than Argentina where there was a lower representation of women?

R: It is very hard to say what my path would have been. But one thing I will say is this. I think my background put me in a somewhat privileged position when I moved to New York. It did seem a weird circumstance that there were way more men than women doing philosophy in New York, but I don’t think I read much into it, and it actually took me a while to notice this fact. It was probably because of my background, because I hadn’t been exposed to this problem, and I didn’t feel that my gender would make much of a difference. It was good for me in those forming years not to feel like a rarity, so to speak, or to fear that I wasn’t going to be heard in the same way. So it probably helped me, I would say.

There is still, of course, a lot to be done to create a more equal environment for women in philosophy. But I think the situation has improved in the last few years. At CUNY, for example, many more women are now being admitted to the PhD program. And I have also perceived a change in our own attitude. Both female students and faculty seem now to be more willing to speak up in general, not just bringing up issues related to the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated field, but also asking questions and raising objections at conferences and classes. These two aspects are most likely correlated, and I am hopeful to see much more of this in the coming years.

S: So what is your role at CUNY?

R: I am the Director of the Saul Kripke Centre. The main work we do at the Centre has to do with the preservation of the archive and the publication of Saul Kripke’s work. As many people know, about 70% of Saul’s work is still unpublished, and a lot of it is on old reel to reel or cassette tapes. These tapes go back to the 70’s at least, and we also have manuscripts, letters, notes, and transcriptions of lectures from the late 50’s onwards on very diverse topics. There are literally thousands of pages of manuscripts and thousands of hours of tapes. Because over time all this material – especially the tapes – will obviously deteriorate, we are making a digital archive of everything we have. We also spend time tracking down letters, students’ notes, alternative versions of lectures, etc. that for some reason we don’t have in the archive.

The second main task is bringing this material to publication. Oliver Marshall, the Assistant Director, supervises the work done by the Centre’s Fellows and other students working for the Centre, like the transcription of tapes and the initial editing of the transcripts. I go over the transcripts and select the projects, and then work with Saul on rewriting and editing the material for publication. Needless to say, we also spend a good bit of the time working on papers that, as Saul says, are ‘only in his mind’.

And besides all this – as you very well know because I met you there! – I also teach seminars at the Graduate Centre.

S: What is it like to work with Saul Kripke?

R: I have been working with Saul for a very long time, even before the establishment of the Saul Kripke Centre. It is actually a lot of fun to work with him, he really enjoys doing philosophy and he does it in a way that probably most people don’t, letting himself be genuinely surprised by philosophical problems. When he gets down to it, his enthusiasm can be contagious. He really cares about what he is arguing, and working with him constantly reminds me that the whole point of doing philosophy is really to enjoy the process of thinking about the issues and trying to remain true to, as he would probably say here, ‘your own intuitions’.

I think it is important for Saul to have someone to work with, and probably not at all accidental that most of his work is based on transcripts of lectures. Having feedback from an audience seems to be an important part of the process for him. And I guess that going over the manuscripts with me reproduces a bit of that situation: we spend a lot of time discussing examples, possible objections, and so on, and I think all that helps. I would say he is kind of Socratic in his approach.

S: Can you name some published works that have been created out of the Centre that you worked from out of these manuscripts and tape recordings?

R: The first book I worked on with Saul was Philosophical Troubles, and that took us quite a long time to put out. It is a collection of papers, many of which were not previously published. Another remarkable thing about working with Saul comes from his incredible range. In that volume alone, there are papers on linguistics, modal logic, the theory of truth, epistemology, etc. Working with him took me to very different areas of philosophy that I wouldn’t probably have explored if it hadn’t been for my collaboration with him. This book was quite a challenge because we had to jump from chapter to chapter between completely different topics. The second book we worked on together, Reference and Existence, is based on his John Locke lectures, which are continuation of his ideas from Naming and Necessity but applied to the topic of fiction and other issues involving apparently vacuous reference. We are now working on the next volume of his collected papers series, Logical Troubles, which will focus on his technical work (with the exclusion of his work on modal logic, which will appear in Modal Troubles), and a second edition of Naming and Necessity that will contain the original audio of the lectures. On top of that, we have also been spending time on things like a paper on Collingwood, a paper discussing an aspect of Maimonides’s interpretation of the Mishna, and a paper on a temporal interpretation of Brouwerian free choice sequences. So, you see, extremely diverse topics.

S: Given the diversity of topics that you have delved into with Saul, what are your own specific research interests?

R: I have been interested in the epistemology of logic for quite a while now. This is something I started working on when I was in Argentina. At the time, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about intuitionism and Dummett. When I moved to New York I started reading other things and, while working at the Centre, I came across a set of unpublished lectures that Saul gave on the nature of logic and logical revisionism. His main target in these lectures was Putnam’s proposal for the revision of classical logic in favour of quantum logic, but among the arguments he gives against this proposal there is one that I found particularly interesting. It is inspired in Lewis Carroll’s famous note “What the Tortoise said to Achilles”, and I thought that it was not only interesting for the question of revisionism but also for thinking about some central issues in the epistemology of logic more related to the nature of inferring and the question of the justification of logic. I wrote my dissertation on this problem, which I call the ‘adoption problem’, and now I am continuing that work and turning the dissertation into a book.

S: So what is this adoption problem?

R: Well, it is best explained by means of an example. I think of someone – I call him “Harry” – who has never inferred in accordance with a very basic logical principle such as Universal Instantiation. We want to help him out, so we state the principle for him and tell him to ‘adopt’ it. Adopting it would mean that Harry picks up a way of inferring in accordance with this principle on the basis of having accepted the principle we stated for him. So it is a two-phase process: first comes Harry’s acceptance of the principle and then, in virtue of it, he is supposed to develop a practice of inferring in accordance with the principle. But now we want to see if he has indeed adopted UI, whether he has developed an inferential practice that accords with UI on the basis of the acceptance of the principle. So we ask Harry to read the following: ‘all the animals in the movie Madagascar talk’ and ‘Alex the lion is the cutest animal featured in the movie Madagascar’, and then we ask him whether Alex the lion talks. And he says ‘I have no idea, I told you I haven’t seen the movie’. Basically, the idea is that our stating the principle for him and his acceptance of it would not help him; in order to apply the principle to particular cases he already needs to be able to perform universal instantiations, as the principle itself is a universal statement. The situation does not improve if we switch from a logical implication to a rule of inference, and similar problems arise with other logical principles, such as Modus Ponens and Adjunction. It would be impossible when it comes to certain very basic logical principles for someone to develop the corresponding inferential practice merely in virtue of the acceptance of these principles themselves, because the capacity to infer in accordance with them is presupposed in their application. So acceptance is insufficient to put the principles to use. In short, I state the problem by saying that certain basic logical principles cannot be adopted because, if a subject already infers in accordance with them, no adoption is needed, and if the subject does not infer in accordance with them, no adoption is possible.

The problem challenges the idea that basic rules of inference play a fundamental role in a thinker’s basic inferential transitions. We have this amazing capacity for performing inferential transitions that accord with basic logical rules in extremely different contexts and with very diverse contents. And it is natural to suppose that it is because we have somehow accepted (either explicitly or implicitly) the relevant rules of inference that we are able to perform such transitions. How else would we explain this capacity? But, at least in my view, the adoption problem brings exactly that into question.

S: Is that then the main conclusion of the problem – that some basic logical principles cannot be adopted?

R: Yes, but it also has consequences for a range of views on the justification of the logical principles themselves. Saul argues that the Quinean conception of logic presupposes that the adoption of such basic principles ought to be possible. I argue that appeals to rational intuition are either subject to the adoption problem or trivial. And I also think that another popular view, the so-called meaning-constituting or concept based accounts, run into trouble with the adoption problem. And all this suggests another moral to me: that we ought to pay closer attention to the nature of basic inferring itself before trying to solve the problem of justifying the logical principles.

S: How does all this relate to Kripkenstein? Do you think the adoption problem leads us back to a rule-following problem?

R: It is clear that the problems are related. Saul says in his lectures on the nature of logic that they are, but since at the time Wittgenstein: On Rules and Private Language had not been published, his audience was not familiar with it and so he doesn’t say anything about what the relation is supposed to be. I think the adoption problem could be seen as a different way of formulating the rule-following problem. In the Wittgenstein book it is first formulated in terms of the impossibility of determining which rule is being followed. This leaves the person being challenged by the sceptic without any justification for his present application of the rule. But, ultimately, the conclusion is metaphysical: if we ‘looked into our minds’ we would simply realize that there is no rule to be found. So if rule-following is thought that way, as an instruction that each of us accesses in the privacy of our own minds, it would seem that the conclusion has to be that it is not possible. In the case of the adoption problem the issue is not how to determine the rule and account for its application, since there is in fact no application of the rule of inference. The problem is rather how to apply it at all. We have stated the rule Harry is supposed to ‘adopt’, but because the application of the rule to particular cases requires an inferential transition in accordance with Universal Instantiation – something that by hypothesis he doesn’t do – he is unable to put it to use. It looks as if for Harry the rule is unfollowable, it doesn’t give any guidance to someone who doesn’t infer in accordance with it already. And this is very puzzling because that is what rules in general are supposed to do, and we may wonder what the role of a rule that cannot be followed if not observed already could possibly be.

So these are clearly two different ways of bringing up problems related to rule-following, but I think that ultimately they bring up the same main issue: how is rule-following possible? And both emphasize the importance of having a practice already in place for rule-following to be possible.

S: So analogously to the Kripkenstein position which Kripke developed from Wittgenstein’s rule-following problem, do you think you, Romina Padró, have developed a Padripke position on the basis of Kripke and the adoption problem?

R: I think Saul would certainly want to distance himself from the solution to the rule-following problem given in the Wittgenstein book. At some points he expresses some sort of uneasiness with the sceptical solution, and though this is very well kept from the readers, his heart truly is with views related to what he there calls ‘Platonism’ – which is surprising, since he dismisses it very quickly. This is clear in the case of logic: he thinks that some kind of rational intuition is at play when it comes to basic inferences. Unfortunately, as I said, I don’t think that rational intuition views are helpful with the adoption problem. My main concern is that if we accept that rules such as Universal Instatiation don’t have a fundamental or constitutive role to play in a subject’s basic inferential transitions, a Wittgensteinian-like position, where practices and communities are central, becomes hard to avoid. So the worry is that the adoption problem may be leaving us dangerously close to the sceptical solution Saul gives on Wittgenstein’s behalf.  

S: So is this what we can expect to see from you in future work, a way of avoiding a Wittgensteinian position as a response to the adoption problem?

R: Well, it is a very difficult issue. We should still be able to give a meaningful explanation of this capacity that we have of performing inferences that accord with basic rules of inferences. And the question is whether this is possible once the rules are denied a grounding role. And, at least for me, it would be important to salvage as much as possible of the objectivity of logic. As said, most of this material is in my dissertation and I am working to turn it into a book.

S: Can we already access your dissertation somewhere to get a sneaky preview of what to expect in the book?

R: My dissertation is available online under the title ‘What the Tortoise said to Kripke: the Adoption Problem and the Epistemology of Logic’. We are also working on the publication of a group of papers on the adoption problem that will contain Saul’s original lecture and papers by others, including myself.

S: Thank you Romina! That sounds great! It was a pleasure talking.


Romina Padro (PhD, CUNY Graduate Center) is Director of the Saul Kripke Centre and Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Centre at CUNY. Her main research is in epistemology, especially in epistemology of logic, and in philosophy of language.
 Suki Finn is a SWIP Ireland member, an Associate Lecturer in Philosophy (University of York), and a Research Assistant on the ‘When Experts Disagree’ project funded by the Irish Research Council (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies/University College Dublin).


This interview appears in The Reasoner 10(9), September 2016. See www.thereasoner.org

Why did you get into philosophy and how?

I was a child of the sixties, and everybody was reading philosophy – of some sort. You read philosophy on the bus, you read existentialist novels, so there was a cultural “in” so to speak, and it was very easy to move from that into philosophy. The other things I wanted to do: I wanted to do medicine quite strongly at that stage, but I already had a child and I was advised that there was no way I could do medicine and look after a child so, reluctantly, I didn’t do it. Philosophy was the other thing, and I haven’t regretted it. It’s been a wonderful ride.


Why political philosophy?

I initially did a degree in philosophy, pure philosophy, and then I did a Ph.D. in philosophy of science and logic, and the job came up in moral and political philosophy, so I converted, and that was fine. It took some time and I tended to get boxed into “well, you did philosophy of science, so you can do philosophy of social science,” which I did for a while, but the empirical social scientists were only then breaking free from philosophy in Ireland, so I couldn’t make any headway in that area. I had to start over in normative work. Of course I had undergraduate experience of moral and political philosophy, and in the beginning it was moral and political philosophy. Gradually, it shifted more to political philosophy for institutional reasons. The original department of ethics and politics in UCD was split with ethics migrating to what became the department of philosophy.


What kind of a place was UCD then to do philosophy in?

It was actually quite good. It was mixed. All of the professors and many of the staff were priests. The philosophy course had been designed, really, as the undergraduate course for students from Clonliffe who were going to be trained as priests, so it was not particularly scholarly and it was very authoritarian. There was a very public UCD student revolt in 1968/69 and one chapter focussed on the department of metaphysics. That was the writing on the wall for the old order, though it took almost another 20 years for philosophy to find its feet. Ethics and Politics was an early mover towards modernisation. Logic and Psychology had the sanity of logic and was generally quite good for students. So when I was a student I was able to do contemporary philosophy under the guise of philosophy of logic and the philosophy of science. That’s where I came across Quine and Ruth Barcan Marcus and all sorts of people like that.


When I came to work in UCD in 1977, I suggested some courses, initially agreed courses, but I was never told what to teach or how to teach it. I had complete academic freedom and respect. I was never told how to mark students, or to mark them down or to mark them up, ever, so it was an idyllic time. I was never told, but of course, nobody was ever told “you have to publish.” Teaching was the primary thing and you fitted your research around it at that time. There was a huge commitment to teaching students who would be leaders of the country – they would go into the civil service, they would go into RTÉ, they would become politicians, become business men. That was part of the old UCD goal.


What was the gender ratio for students and staff?

I think it was very small numbers of women. I seem to remember hundreds of young men dressed in black clericals and a handful of women, some of us sporting long legs under our very short Mary Quant minis. When I joined the staff there were two women in philosophy- Josephine Newman was the other. I was really quite a radical hire because I wasn’t religious. I wasn’t interested in Thomism. I was interested in contemporary philosophy. It was actually two priests who hired me, Connor Martin and Fergal O’Connor.


And they would have taught you as well?

They taught me as well, yes. They always taught ethics and politics. And they taught from primary texts Plato and Aristotle, Hobbes and Rousseau, Kant ... In metaphysics some of the professors told us that we could read when we graduated, but what matters for students was the key we were being given in the lectures!


Can we talk about your research a bit? I already asked you why philosophy, why political philosophy…why liberalism?

I think that the task of the 20th century, particularly after the Holocaust, was to do deal with the end of what Hannah Arendt called the idea that humans were sacred. It was a continuation of the problem that Dostoyevsky set: if God is dead, then everything is permitted. So I think that the 20th century task after that was to reconceive the terms in which we think about the world – quite radically, across all areas of philosophy, so if it’s philosophy of science, epistemology, metaphysics, and political philosophy. By that I mean, in the simplest terms, the idea that the meaning and value in the world isn’t just there. We have to make it, it’s human-originated and we have to take responsibility for it. And that’s quite a radical idea if you’re coming from religious cultures. It is an idea that people find arrogant, perhaps. In political philosophy, John Rawls undertook that task. Of course, it was undertaken in a particular context, and political philosophy, perhaps all philosophy, is best done when it addresses the problems of its time. The practical problem of his time for Rawls, particularly in the United States, but more generally too, was how to reconcile liberty and equality, and later he reframed that as how to reconcile liberty and equality in a context of pluralism. I was very taken with that. There were many different strands feeding into my particular battles. For me, it was how to develop a secular constitutional state, but I found Rawls inspiring. The thing that really was very important for me as a philosopher was his Kantian constructivism in moral theory. That is the shift to seeing ourselves as agents of the law, as agents of the moral law, as well. It’s a Kantian idea that’s been around for several centuries, but it hadn’t been systematically worked through. He used that to generate a methodology, and to generate his resolution to that conflict that is still driving oppositions in American society.


Liberty, for me, is a matter of liberal equality – it’s fundamental. Whereas, if you start with equality as fundamental – you can have equality in an authoritarian regime – so, if you like, my problem would be how to develop autonomy against authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is very strong in many societies. It’s very difficult to eradicate. I always liked the Rousseau/Kant idea that basically humans should live under no law but one they’ve made themselves. The underlying thought is that there is no moral value to doing the right thing because some authority, even a divine being told you so. What makes it worthwhile is that you initiate the right action yourself. So, the making of the law oneself has been very central to me and to my way of understanding the construction of rights. My understanding of liberalism is that we’re on our own, and even if we are not, we have to construct a decent society together with others and for Hobbesian and not prior moral reasons.


Hobbes was a philosopher of practical reason. He says “if people don’t have security, they’re going to kill each other.” Now, what are you going to do about that? He has a solution, which most people would reject, which is the absolute power of the sovereign. But the element of the solution that matters is its social contract basis. The social contract matters because it’s an agreement between people. It is the agreement that people make the law together in some fashion. That is the central point that I take from something like the French Revolution. The talk about rights is the talk about putting together a state. Now, putting together a state is very dangerous because of its coercive power. So, against Hobbes, rights are about restricting the power of the state. Historically they have been thought of as pre-political, natural, and perhaps God-given. I think of rights as founded in agreements. That, for me, centrally involves the notion that every time you claim a right you must remember that you’re saying somebody else has a burden, they have a duty. What’s important is that the burden-sharer has to be able to agree. In a Hobbesian world the burden-sharer agrees because the alternative would be irrational – you know, I’d fight you or kill you, or get killed or whatever. That’s why I think we must remember the Hobbesian world. It’s not always nice to feel that you’re dependent on another person through the duty that is the counter-part of your right, but you are. Our problem is: how do we get acknowledgement of those dependencies. We should be talking much more about duties – not in a moralistic sense but remembering that there are burdens attached to rights and that other people have to shoulder those burdens. The key here is: do you get agreement on the burdens, as well as on the rights. The big shift from the great declarations, and the big shift from a religious view of natural law have been evident in, for example, the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It’s agreed – it’s not that it’s implemented or implementable in full, but it’s agreed. That agreement is important. Agreements can be standards for human conduct.


But isn’t part of the critique of that agreement that some of it takes place under coercion? That it is a Western imposition and, really, lots of other countries are only signing up not out of some sense of agreement but because of other factors that have to do with power and so forth?

First of all, I think agreement is important. I think free agreement is important. What we do as philosophers is try to work out the arguments that underpin what would be a free agreement. Is it Western? I think that if you’re locating the basis of rights in natural law, which traces back to divine law, it is a particular religious tradition, and I think the South-East Asian challenge was quite right in that context. But if you’re looking at it in much more brutal Hobbesian terms, what do you need, as a matter of practical reason, in order to stop us slaughtering each other? I think that it’s not Western. I think that people don’t particularly want to be killed, frankly, and one must say that now as there’s an awful lot of killing going on. In my own approach to rights, to human rights, it’s only those rights that we are willing and able to defend right now that are universal. The whole panoply of 30 articles in the UNDHR is aspirational. There’s only about four of them that we are prepared to defend under international law - life, liberty, property, and natural justice). The rest are aspirations. Of course, many of us think that we have a whole panoply of moral rights. NGOs depend on this, and do amazingly good work. Most of that panoply of rights is not agreed by other cultures at this time. They might never be agreed, by the way. We can’t just declare rights that aren’t real for people. You always have to ask “what is the cash-value of this right”? If it has no cash value in that there’s nobody there to enforce it, and you can’t enforce it yourself, it’s not a lot of use to you. You should be saying “these are rights that there should be, but aren’t.”


I’d like to come back to the point you raised about duties and your framing of interdependence in terms of “every right you bear means a duty on somebody else.” Often we think of the state as the duty bearer, and I’m thinking in the particular example of reproductive rights, which I know you’ve written on as well in the Irish context, it seems to be the state, as the duty bearer, who determines whether or not we have access to those rights, and at the moment we don’t and we never have in this country. So how does that fit in with something else that you said, which was about people making the moral law themselves?

I think that people have to realise that modern states are run by a democratic process, for good and for bad, so, actually, people have to talk to each other and argue with each other. It’s not just the state all on its own. The government of the day will do what it thinks will…re-elect it, probably, so, you actually have to work for a majority. The state cannot, except within its constitutional framework impose illiberal legislation just like that – that would be just as authoritarian. It actually won’t get away with it. The contestation that is part of life in a liberal democracy has weak points as well as strong points. The state isn’t actually the duty-bearer, we all are. The state merely channels them. Yes, sometimes it corrupts things. I’m not defending the State as a hypostatized entity. We have to have much stronger civil societies where we talk to each other seriously about these matters. It’s changing a bit through social media now. I remember going through all these miserable debates about divorce, and it was people telling each other their stories. It was the inconsistencies in the system: you could go abroad and get a divorce. It was all the problems with legitimacy, which we solved in an Irish way. The important thing was that people were telling their stories, and arguing with each other. I think that the media were great at that time. Eventually, the divorce referendum passed, on a basis that I didn’t like, which was the appeal of compassion. There was a good civil liberties argument, but it wasn’t being pressed as the reason for a yes vote.


You’ve also written on the relationship between women and rights, particularly in the context of communitarianism, and I suppose that would be the major critique of Rawls: his individualism, and that when we talk about autonomy we’re neglecting the fact that we are interdependent beings who are relying on each other in the world and impact on each other, and so forth. What is your stance on that?

I think we’re deeply interdependent, in that we have to sustain together the institutions that make human life possible. But that interdependence isn’t an excuse for subordinating anyone, including women. In the case of women and community, I have to ask always, empirically, what has community done for women? And again and again, I look at communities and the defences of communitarianism and say, well, what’s the role of women there? You know, the strongest communitarian groups are Christian or other religious groups. Some of these were deeply involved in the scandalous treatment of single women and their babies in Ireland. Our communitarian nation-state didn’t provide equality for women. More broadly, we still have a situation where women can’t train for priesthood, never mind apply for the highest job in Christianity. That is symbolically very important. The message is that women aren’t actually equal. Until we get beyond that, those kinds of symbolic messages will go out in the name of tradition, they’ll go out in the name of community, they’ll go out in the name of family values. Communities have to be communities of choice, particularly when they’re civil communities that have force attached to them. Women as citizens are part of a civil community, and the civil community should not enforce the subjection of women – the continuing subjection of women despite all the advances. The subjection is more evident now in, for example, the difficulties that women have in maintaining a family and work. Why don’t men have difficulty in maintaining family and work?  


Wasn’t the marriage equality referendum the same? It was about the family, rather than about rights?

You see that’s my problem. People should be able to assert such rights. But, you know, it has to fudged through families and feeling sorry for people. And I should tell you, there’s quite a little literature building up in rights about the importance of emotions, and I wouldn’t neglect that. If emotion does it, it does it, but you don’t have a steady civil system unless you have a reasoned order. I’m not being rationalistic, but in the end you have to have reason because it is a bit more objective than emotion. I’d rather not depend on emotion. When affections fail you need reason-based rights.


You were talking about the need for people to talk to each other in civil society. There has been a lot of talk, though, especially since the Savita Halappanavar death and subsequent tragedies, there’s been a lot of advocacy work, and constant coverage in the media. We know from the opinion polls that the majority of people are in favour of change, but there seems to be this disconnect with our government.

I think the word ‘disconnect’ is the crucial one here. I think in moral philosophy, and in other areas, a failure to connect is actually quite central to there being various kinds of moral problems. It’s one of the tasks of the philosopher to express the connections – it’s one of the difficult tasks. I think there is a failure to connect on this issue as far as I can see. Some of it is what you get when you have very traditionalist governments. What is at issue here is the 8th Amendment and if it looks like a majority of citizens would now vote for repeal then it should be put to referendum. Nobody is thereby forced to have abortions against their personal religious views. And the argument is not one of religion versus secularism. It is about women’s lives, health and wellbeing.


In your estimation, since you started working in political philosophy and connecting all these social issues and political problems that we’ve had in Ireland owing to our having been so closely aligned with one particular belief system, do you think we’ve come a long way?

Yes, we have actually. It was just after the period when women in the public service had to give up their jobs when they got married, so we’ve come a long way from that. We’ve come a long way from when marriage break-up was treated, at best, as a matter of “well, if you’re well off you can get an annulment.” But you still couldn’t remarry of course in the state. Some of the important things that symbolically, maybe even more than that, are things like Article 41.2, making home and family the alpha and omega of women’s purpose in life. Note that the Constitution doesn’t give women any right to anything. There is no cash value to work in the home. It is a dependent existence, which is a pretty bad situation for women to be in. Of course most women cannot luxuriate in their homes. They have to work, family or no family. So the disconnect is between the Constitution and reality and nobody in power is seriously looking at the structure of work.


Earlier you noted that philosophy is best done when it addresses the problems of our time. And yet, the perception from outside is that the people in the ivory tower of academia are, again, disconnected from the real world. How does the connection happen between philosophy that is done mainly in the university and political practice outside of the university?

But the work of a university is central to public reason and decision-making. For example, years of academic research and publication have gone into normative issues of redistribution, migration, climate justice, human rights, democracy, and citizenship, and much else of importance to public life. The first beneficiaries are the students who are the citizens that bring this connection to the so-called ‘real world’ and make it a lifeworld. They shape the public and the political.   Politicians are normally only too glad to learn new ideas on vital issues on which they must legislate. A fair number of politicians seek advice, clarification, information, from political philosophers and political scientists. Philosophy generally is appreciated as developing the ‘how to think’ powers of young people. There are technical and more abstract aspects of philosophy just as there are in other disciplines in the university, and when we deal with those, as we must, we may indeed inhabit our ivory towers. What we do in those towers is mainly the work of imagination. Our imagined futures are of course disconnected from the present. They may be tomorrow’s present.  


Attracta Ingram is Professor Emeritus of UCD Politics and International Relations. She has published extensively in political and social theory, particularly on the philosophy of rights, social justice, pluralism, state and nation, constitutional patriotism, and cosmopolitanism. She has held a Jean Monnet Research fellowship at the European University Institute, as well as visiting fellowships at St Andrews, Harvard, Columbia, and Berkeley. Dr Clara Fischer is a Newton International Fellow at the London School of Economics and communications officer of Society for Women In Philosophy. This interview was conduced in September 2015.

An excerpt of the interview was published by Dublin Review of Books in November 2015, see http://www.drb.ie/essays/philosophy-in-ucd

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