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Jennifer Hornsby

Jennifer Hornsby is a philosopher based at London’s Birkbeck College, whose interests range from feminism to philosophy of mind. Giancarlo Marchetti talked with her recently at a conference in Italy.

Professor Hornsby, perhaps we could begin by saying something about your intellectual background. How did you come to study philosophy?

I arrived in philosophy by a series of accidents. I was at a boarding school as a child and I did science subjects in my last two school years. That meant I had plenty of time for reading. As I saw it I was either going to do physics or chemistry or something like that at university, or subjects like philosophy and psychology which I had started reading a bit about. And I preferred philosophy and psychology. So I took them for my B.A.. I enjoyed them, and did some more. So there was never a plan. It came upon me, philosophy.

Which philosophers in particular influenced you during your formative years?

I don’t think there were any particular early influences on me. While I was at Oxford as an undergraduate, I studied philosophical logic, philosophy of mind, moral philosophy and history of philosophy. And in each case I had to read some work by maybe forty different philosophers. But it wasn’t as though I then thought that there was such as a thing as a philosophical worldview, and that if I read two pieces by the same author, they fitted together. I took topics one at a time, and read all these people without thinking of them as personalities. In Oxford at that time, in the early 1970’s, one didn’t have to go to lectures; so it wasn’t as though there was a big figure whose lectures I heard week by week. And I had a variety of tutors, Gabriele Taylor at my college St Anne’s, John Mackie and Harry Frankfurt were the three people I had philosophy tutorials with. I’m sure they were all influential in some way; but I didn’t think of them as influential at the time.

What is the role of the imaginary in your philosophical writings? Could you describe for me your writing process?

As far as I know, the imaginary has no role in my writing. It’s for others to say that it has a role. There is no one way in which I get to write. Normally if I’m writing it’s for a particular occasion or for a particular submission. I start from an idea of what I want to say; but it’s not usually well-worked out when I start: a lot of the writing is thinking. No paper I’ve published hasn’t gone through many drafts. Sometimes redrafting is just a matter of getting things right locally; at other times, I rework because I think the main idea of the paper can be better conveyed in a different format. So I make different kinds of revisions in different cases.

Who, among contemporary philosophers, do you admire most?

Donald Davidson, John McDowell, David Lewis, Timothy Williamson, Bernard Williams. Donald Davidson surely influenced my early work more than anyone else did. These at least are the people whose work I admire.

In your estimation which are the basic philosophical texts of this century?

I don’t think I have a view about that because all the philosophy that I teach and write relies on reading contemporary articles. And there are no book length things I would single out for special attention. I think of particular writings by Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein and Quine as of special importance if one’s interest is Anglo-American twentieth century philosophy. But my own interests are better defined by philosophical areas than chronological periods.

I don’t specialize in the history of philosophy, so it would probably be very misleading if I were to answer the question. The philosophers I have spent most time reading would not be contemplated in a course of history of philosophy – or not yet. Obviously there were great pivots in philosophy’s recent history. But I don’t think of the influences on me as being historical except in a very general sense, that the subject has been formed historically so that there is historical influence on us all. I wouldn’t want to pick out a special figure of the recent past as one for whom I had a special admiration, or a particular text as canonical.

Let’s turn to feminist philosophy. How do you see the relationship between men’s thinking and women’s thinking?

There could be many such relationships. If men’s thinking and women’s thinking are characteristically different, that’s going to be because of social and cultural relations. Since those are massively variable, if there are differences, they’ll be as various as the possible differences. And it might be, might in principle be, that there was no difference at all between them. I take it that the more women come to be exposed to the same sorts of educational processes as men are and the more social arrangements cease to place different expectations on men and on women, the more it will be difficult to discern systematic sexual differences of a general kind in thinking.

Many feminist theorists who hold that philosophy in the past has been male dominated call into question the connection between power and knowledge. What is your view on this?

There’s a saying that knowledge is power, and there’s evidently truth in it. The more you know, the more you know how to do; and being able to do things is a way of being powerful. So far as sexual difference and power difference is concerned, I suspect it’s more relevant to say that those who are taken to be knowledgeable are powerful. To have the marks and stamps of knowledgeability is to be in a position to exercise power. For most of human history, evidently, the marks and stamps of knowledgeability have accrued to males.

What is a female way of knowing? What is feminist epistemology for you personally?

I take it that epistemology is a kind of study. It is the theory of knowledge. Feminist epistemology, then, is that kind of study as done from a feminist perspective. So it isn’t (as you suggest) a way of knowing. And it isn’t an articulation of female subjectivity, although it might have some such articulation as its upshot. My own work has always been in analytic philosophy broadly understood, so I understand feminist philosophy – or more specifically feminist epistemology – as philosophy which is informed by feminism. I’m sure there are people who understand feminist philosophy as a branch of philosophy: there’s epistemology, metaphysics, ethics and now there’s feminist philosophy. But it seems to me quite wrong to think that, in the case of philosophy of the sort I do, the introduction of questions about gender should be the introduction of a separate branch, to which those questions are specifically allocated. There is a radical view according to which there is a subject called ‘feminist philosophy’, which supplants and replaces philosophy as we know it. According to this, philosophy in the past has been male dominated, and we need something better and different – namely feminist philosophy. But again this is not my view, because so much of what I do which I count as philosophy is rooted in the tradition which feminist philosophy overturns according to the radical view. I couldn’t then be doing feminist philosophy is this more radical sense.

What is your view about the distinction between femininity and female identity?

Femininity characterizes women at a given time and place. The way being feminine is conceived arguably corresponds to an ideal, male, abstract characterization of women. The notion of female identity, on the other hand, is much more likely to be a notion used by women-centred women who want to characterize themselves without embracing traditional conceptions of femininity. If this is right, then there clearly is a distinction between femininity and female identity: one connects closely with how men have liked to think of women, the other with how women who reject traditional gender norms like to think of themselves.

If you had to draw a genealogy of philosophy as informed by feminism, which are the most important figures?

It’s too early to say. I recently coedited a book, The Cambridge Companion to Feminism in Philosophy, and I admire all our authors in there: my co-editor Miranda Fricker, Rae Langton, Sally Haslanger, Alison Jaggar who did seminal work in feminist political philosophy, Genevieve Lloyd who did equally important work in feminist history of philosophy, Marilyn Friedman, Naomi Scheman, Susan James, Sabina Lovibond, Diemut Bubeck, Sarah Richmond, Alison Wylie. The project of the book was to see how feminist themes might be located relative to the mainstream. That’s not to say that the mainstream might not be upset by trying to accommodate feminist thinking. I also admire writings of Margaret Whitford, Judith Butler, Evelyn Fox Keller all of whose work would set feminism apart from anything mainstream.

Do you consider yourself an analytic philosopher or a post-analytic philosopher?

The trouble about identifying oneself as an analytic philosopher is that it makes it seem as if one thinks that the specific projects of analytical philosophy are good projects. I don’t think that. And I certainly don’t side with those who are most proud these days to call themselves analytic philosophers. The project of analysis, which presumably got analytical philosophy its name, is more or less useless, I think. And those who are most proud of calling themselves analytical philosophers are probably the philosophers with whom I would most strongly disagree. Nonetheless, if forced to choose, I would say I am an analytical philosopher rather than a postanalytical one. That’s because I belong firmly within the tradition, very broadly speaking, of analytical philosophy, and I think that those who call themselves post-analytical philosophers probably have it on their agenda to subvert the tradition and supersede what’s been known as analytic philosophy. I’m not sure whether the disaffection I’ve expressed for analytical philosophy is enough for me to see it as merely something in the past. Post-analytic philosophy tends to be associated with a post-modernist project for which I don’t have a lot of sympathy.

Where is analytic philosophy going?

I don’t know. Analytic philosophy in recent years has been open to a wider set of influences than it was in the early days, and that can’t but be a good thing. It has also been subject more to professionalization, so that more and more people who do the subject are narrow specialists. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing overall (it’s connected with so much other institutional change), but it makes it hard for someone to be knowledgeable about the whole of the supposed field of philosophy, and it thereby diminishes one role which philosophy might have been supposed to have in culture. I have no idea, really, whether the ultimate effect of analytic philosophy being open to more influences will be that it ceases to be a distinctive subject or not. It certainly seems to be going in different directions in different places in the world, even though it is still recognisably analytic philosophy.

Your book Simple Mindedness is subtitled ‘a defence of naïve naturalism in the philosophy of mind’. Would you explain what you mean by this idea?

The term ‘naïve naturalism’ for a certain position comes in in order to make it clear that there is a third way: we don’t have to choose between dualism and what is normally defended as naturalism. A lot of philosophers set up problems in the philosophy of mind as if the choices were to side with Descartes or to take a naturalist view. If one sides with Descartes, one believes that within the world of nature there are, as well as human bodies and other physical stuff, minds. If one takes an orthodox naturalist view, one assimilates the world of nature to that which can be studied scientifically and which has no place for a different sort of substance, mind. There seems to me a false opposition here, because I think we can have a conception of the world of nature to which persons aren’t alien even though we don’t conceive of the person, as Descartes did, as composed of an immaterial substance. In order to make it clear that my position is naturalist, at least in a broad sense, I use the term naturalism in its name. But simply to call it naturalism might lead to its being classified along with the usual naturalist positions defended nowadays. These assume that the mental is reducible to the physical, or that, even if it isn’t, our mental concepts attach to things in the same domain as physical scientists describe. My own species of naturalism is not reductive, and it doesn’t share the usual assumption of non-reductive physicalism, that at the level of ontology the mental is the same as the physical. I call it naive because I think it corresponds to an innocent, ordinary person’s conception of how things are. The name echoes that of naive realism. That’s fine. I wish to defend my position as one that nowadays most of us pre-philosophically take more or less for granted.

In Simple Mindedness you discuss “the mind’s place in nature”. Could you tell me briefly what is your view on this?

Descartes was wrong from a naïve naturalist’s point of view. The mind’s place in nature is not the place of a distinctive sort of substance called soul. A lot of physicalists, in opposition to Descartes, agree with him that there are such things as minds. Perhaps they think that each mind is some brain, so that in their view, the mind has a place in nature by being identifiable with a physical thing which evidently has a place in nature because it is causally connected with other physical things which are manifestly in nature. My own view is that mind’s having a place in nature is really a matter of nature’s containing beings having psychological properties, possession of which makes them at home in the world. We don’t then have to carve out a distinctive place for mind to occupy: Descartes carved out a distinctive place by locating an area where the soul could work on the body and thus the world. And many modern physicalists think of the brain as the place where mind is located. On my picture of things, there isn’t any literal question to be answered about what place the mind has.

Which issues of philosophy do you think are basically obsolete?

Philosophy’s agendas are set by particular philosophers having something to say which sparks interest and generates other work. Sometimes that opens up new questions, and issues become obsolescent when the new questions supplant the old. I don’t think I’d want to identify any issues as basically obsolete, though there might be, say, forms of argument that it would be widely agreed we’re better off not using, and avenues of thought which seem to arrive at dead ends.

What is the future of philosophy? And how would you wish it to be?

I really don’t know what its future is. There is something inherently extraordinarily conservative about philosophy as it is mainly taught in Britain. The conservatism stems from the need to produce syllabuses for students and these being hard to change, so that the same things are taught and thought about from one year to the next. So, it is actually hard, given those institutional facts, to envisage radical changes in the next few years. On the other hand, technological developments mean that communication of ideas is much more rapid that it used to be. It may be that philosophy will branch out in ways that one wouldn’t predict if one just looked at the institutional picture within universities.

What I think is desirable is that analytic philosophy should get past its reductivist inclinations. I would also hope that work that people do in political and social philosophy should, where it is correct, have the right kind of influence.

What does it mean to do philosophy?

To read and think and write. And talk. At least these are the aspects of my job which I reckon as doing philosophy and which I enjoy.

Just a job?

Philosophy competes for my time so much with other aspects of my job which are very clearly just a job, and philosophy so often loses out against those other aspects, that it’s very hard to think of my doing it as itself other than as part of a job. Many British academics spend their time despairing of getting their own work done. I’m one such. Perhaps I’d not have conveyed that it was just a job ten years ago. Perhaps in ten years’ time I’ll again be in that happy state of not calling it a ‘job’.

There’s been a large debate about the role of intellectuals over the last years. What is, or what should be the role of intellectuals in creating a community of citizens of the world and critical thinkers?

In Britain, there seems to me less and less of a role for intellectuals. The effect of the expansion of higher education into a mass system is to ensure more differentiation than there used to be between vocational study and what Alan Ryan has called “Olympic Games for intellectuals”. Those who participate in the Olympic Games are meant to push back the frontiers of knowledge and be on the cutting edge of research. Their role is narrowly defined relative to the culture of which they are a part. And the sheer increase in human knowledge means that anyone who is academically successful is likely to be a specialist in a small area. So I think the days have gone by in which the world’s intellectuals play the wide social role you’re envisaging. But obviously there’s plenty of scope still for liberal education, which at its best succeeds in making large tracts of human culture accessible to people. And intellectuals have a role in providing such education.

In which way can we overcome the view that actions and thoughts are real only if they are subject to scientific explanation?

It’s a prejudice that something is real to the extent that it’s capable of scientific explanation. I don’t know how to get past the prejudice except to argue that it’s unfounded. Reading some of the great philosophers of the past might be a way. Another way is to criticize some of the metaphysical views that sustain the prejudice. There’s the view that things’ working causally is always a matter of the operation of laws. There’s the view that things are nothing more than the material stuff that composes them. If one can argue successfully against these views, one starts to undermine the supposed support that being reality and being susceptible to scientific explanation go hand in hand. Then one makes room for the view, which strikes me as rather obviously true, that actions and thoughts are both real and not susceptible to scientific explanation.

In your conference paper ‘Free Speech and Hate Speech: Language and Rights’ you distinguish egalitarianism from libertarianism about free speech. Can you explain why?

I take the terms ‘egalitarianism’ and ‘libertarianism’ from political philosophy. There the distinction is roughly that between left-wing and right-wing brands of liberalism. The distinction I make between egalitarianism and libertarianism about free speech is then a distinction between two kinds of defence of a principle of free speech, one which would be given by someone whose instincts are egalitarian, the other by someone whose instincts are libertarian (where the senses of the two terms derive from the distinction made in political philosophy). So I don’t think the distinction applies to the use of language as such, or makes a difference to the use of language. I wanted to show that there’s an old-fashioned liberal position on free speech which one doesn’t need to be libertarian to endorse – which, indeed, libertarians will quarrel with. Libertarians place great emphasis on rights. And since a principle of free speech is thought to be defensible insofar as we have a right to free speech, it might seem natural to suppose that a libertarian will be particularly well-placed to recognize the value of free speech. But I doubt that’s true. And I think we shall think rather differently about various free speech issues if we see that egalitarianism needn’t be at odds with the motivation for a principle of free speech.

Why has language become such a central issue in current feminist debates?

Language is the fabric of our lives. I think it’s bound to loom large in almost any theoretical project which is supposed to assist us to understand ourselves. I suppose questions about language impinge also upon particular questions that feminists raise. In the old days there were issues about the sexism inherent in language, and whether the use of male pronouns purporting to be generic perpetuates masculist ways of thinking.

In which way can social and legal equality be reconciled with difference?

I don’t see a general problem about espousing egalitarianism in matters social and legal, and acknowledging difference. But of course there may be difficulties about reconciling particular demands for equality with particular claims of difference. There’s a strand in Italian feminist thought, I think (but you’ll know better about this than me), according to which a traditional conception of female difference is a male conception, which purports to be a gender neutral one. Evidently women must not acquiesce in this conception. Perhaps in order to fight it, they have to make claims of difference which are on the face of it in tension with some egalitarian tenets. So there may be real conflicts in certain actual cases. But when I think of victories on the side of social and legal equality – of measures which prevent discrimination against gay men and lesbians, say – I don’t see any destruction of difference. On the contrary. The idea of an equal right to be different is only superficially paradoxical!

Thanks for the interview!

[Giancarlo Marchetti is a researcher in philosophy at the Department of Philosophical Sciences of the University of Perugia, in Italy.]

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