An interview with Maria Baghramian: The formation of a philosopher


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”.