Newsletter | The Rational Enquirer Issue #7

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Issue 7 | Winter 2019


Inside this issue

 

Dr. Paul Thagard Discusses His Latest Work

In celebration of an outstanding publication achievement, we caught up recently with Dr. Paul Thagard, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the Department, and long-time former Director of the Cognitive Science Program.

Paul Thagard
Dr. Paul Thagard

Q1]: Congratulations on the publication, with Oxford University Press, of your three-volume Treatise on Mind and Society! It’s a towering achievement, and deals with content ranging from cognitive science and the structure of the brain all the way through morality, politics and beauty. Can you tell us more about it: the inspiration, the ambition, the challenges crafting it?

A: “Thanks, Brian. In 2013, I was trying to decide which of three books to work on: an update of my cognitive science textbook, a general philosophy book from a cognitive science standpoint, or a book connecting the cognitive and social sciences. Then it struck me that they were all the same book! After realizing that no one would ever read or buy a book with more than 30 chapters, I set the goal of writing the 3 books as fully interconnected. I was inspired by Chris Eliasmith’s brilliant semantic pointer theory of how the brain works, which provides the intellectual glue to connect ideas across many fields. I long ago realized that good writing takes at least 5 drafts, so it took a lot of work to produce the more than 1000 published pages, but retirement from teaching provided the time.” [Link: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/mind-society-9780190678722?cc=ca&lang=en&]

Book coversPaul Thagard’s three-volume Treatise on Mind and Society, newly release from OUP.

Q2] As if that wasn’t staggering enough—for someone who’s retired!—congratulations on your “Hot Thought” blog at Psychology Today now surpassing 2 million views. You’ve posted entries with irresistible titles, such as: “When You Love Someone, What Do you Love?” and “Are You The Same Person You Used To Be?”  How have your energetic efforts in Internet communications—blog, videos, your website—affected your approach to your research and how you view it?

A: “What I like about the blog is that when I get a new idea, I can spend a morning writing it up, and then immediately it’s out in the world. I never expected that I would be getting around 80,000 views per month for my blog posts. Some of the blog posts found their way into the Treatise. I also like that the blog provides a way of making important political points, as in several posts on climate change and my critique of Jordan Peterson which has had more than 150,000 views.”  [Link:  https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/hot-thought/201802/jordan-peterson-s-flimsy-philosophy-life]

Q3] Is research in philosophy changing? What advice would you give to up-and-coming philosophical, and related interdisciplinary, researchers and theorists?

A: “Research in philosophy is clearly becoming more interdisciplinary, although there are still backwaters where philosophy is viewed as an inward-looking, stand-alone discipline. My advice to young philosophers is to work on problems, not people, and ensure that their approach to the problems connects the general and normative concerns of philosophy with empirical and theoretical research in the sciences. My new book Natural Philosophy shows how to do this.” [Link:  https://global.oup.com/academic/product/natural-philosophy-9780190678739?lang=en&cc=ca].

Q4] You’re still achieving at such a high level of quality and quantity. Retirement obviously agrees with you! Anything you miss about being a professor, or about the Department at Waterloo? Any favourite memories in particular?

A: “I am glad to be able to write full time, but I do miss teaching seminars with smart and lively students. A favorite memory is a lab meeting with Chris Eliasmith when he first introduced his semantic pointer idea.”

Brain

Q5] Who is your favourite philosopher, or work of philosophy which has had the most impact on you?

A: “As a graduate student, C. S. Peirce was my favourite philosopher, but I can think of 3 works that dramatically changed my intellectual direction. When I was 15, I was shelving books at the Saskatoon Public Library when I ran across Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, which was my introduction to philosophy as an alternative to religion. In 1978, my first year as a professor, I read an article on frames by Marvin Minsky, one of the founders of artificial intelligence, which showed me that computer modeling could be a productive methodology for philosophy and cognitive science. In 1993, I read in a day Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error, which convinced me of the relevance of neuroscience for understanding the mind and related philosophical questions.”

C. S. Peirce Bertrand Russell
Charles S. Pierce (left), and Bertrand Russell (right), two important influences on Dr. Thagard

Q6] And what’s next?

A: “I have just finished a rough first draft of a book called Bots & Beasts: What Makes Machines, Animals, and People Smart?  This book originated with the class COGSCI 300 that I taught in my last couple of years at UW. It is illuminating for both mind and morals to systematically compare artificial, animal, and human intelligence. I’ve got a good agent for the book and hope to reach a wide audience.”

Digital robot


Life After Graduation: Q & A with Recent Ph.D. Graduate Andria Bianchi

We’ve been able to catch up recently with Andria Bianchi, a very recent doctoral graduate, who’s already blazing a notable career path in biomedical ethics.

Andria BianchiDr. Andria Bianchi

Q1] Congratulations on being a newly-minted PhD, from the Applied Philosophy program in our Department! How did you find the program, looking back? Tell us in some detail what you wrote your PhD thesis on.

Thank you for the congratulatory remarks! I found the program to be incredibly valuable in so many ways. The faculty, staff, and students in the Department of Philosophy were all very supportive throughout my PhD journey. My work and ideas were challenged in constructive ways and I could feel myself growing as a scholar as I engaged in complex debates, attended departmental workshops and talks, and received feedback on my performance from mentors within the department.

I am grateful to have been a part of the Applied Philosophy pilot project. The experience provided me with the opportunity to pursue a placement at a healthcare organization in order to complement one of my research areas. Being able to translate my theoretical learnings to the ‘real world’, so to speak, was enlightening and instructive. This experience also gave me the opportunity to build a network outside of academia, just in case I chose to pursue an alternative career path (which, as you’ll read below, I did).

I wrote my PhD thesis on the topic of sex, consent, and people with dementia. My reason for writing on this topic is that we are headed towards, what has been described potentially as, a demographic timebomb. More than 74.7 million people are expected to be diagnosed with dementia worldwide by 2030, and the topic of sex and dementia is seldom discussed even though it’s an important and complex topic in applied ethics. The primary reason that sex-and-dementia is ethically complex is because sexual consent is both legally and morally significant, yet many people with dementia may be unable to consent to sex in accordance with current legal and ethical contours. My dissertation introduces and evaluates three frameworks that could be used to approach cases of sex and dementia in practical settings. Ultimately, my dissertation shows that cases of sex and dementia ought to be managed on a case-by-case basis; one framework will not work for every context. Overall, I believe that my work contributes to the complex topic of sex and dementia and offers a starting point for further discussion on how to approach these cases.  

Elderly couple holding handsAging, Dementia, and Intimacy

Q2] And what are you doing now, professionally?

I am currently working as a bioethicist at the University Health Network (UHN) in Toronto. Bioethicists help describe how we should (versus can) respond to complex ethical dilemmas and issues arising in healthcare settings. We conduct ethical analyses, and use frameworks or theories to help think about processes and outcomes. Bioethicists help with clinical, research, and organizational decision-making. For example, if a patient is legally incapable of making their own healthcare decisions and their substitute decision-makers (SDMs) disagree about what should be done when it comes to the patient’s care plan -- (e.g., should we pursue aggressive treatment measures? Should we just make the patient comfortable, knowing they’ll probably die?) -- then a bioethicist may get involved to help mediate conversations amongst the clinical team, the patient, and the SDM(s). In this situation, the bioethicist may help to clarify the patient’s values in light of the clinicians’ and/or family members’ preferences as part of the decision-making process. At an organizational level, bioethicists are often asked to contribute to resource allocation decisions, such as the equitable distribution of scarce resources.

Q3] How do you see the future of biomedical ethics unfolding? What are some of the most important issues?

The profession and relevance of biomedical ethics is continuing to grow as time progresses. One of the most important issues is the ethical implications of using artificial intelligence (AI) technologies in healthcare settings. AI advances are extremely beneficial in many ways. For example, AI may allow clinicians to more accurately perform medical procedures, to track patients who are likely to get lost (e.g. dementia patients), to allow patients in remote locations to receive increased access to care, etc. However, these potential clinical benefits need to be weighed and balanced with important ethical principles, such as privacy and confidentiality. Bioethicists are contributing to the analysis of AI technologies in healthcare in order to ensure that these principles are taken into account.

NurseA.I. and Health Care (Ethics)

Q4] How did your PhD prepare you for your current job? Did any aspect of the program fall short in that regard? In other words, anything you’d recommend be revised about the program? How would you best advise those considering the program now and in the future?

My PhD definitely prepared me for my current job. My ability to critically and constructively analyze arguments improved during the program; this skill is very relevant when it comes to performing thorough ethical analyses at my workplace. I was also given many opportunities to present my work at UWaterloo. While I didn’t recognize that this would be beneficial in other settings at the time, it certainly is! I often give presentations to patients, families, and staff, and I present at bioethics conferences. I learned how to effectively present my work and respond to challenging question & answer periods at UWaterloo, and for that I am incredibly grateful.

One thing that I learned to a certain extent at UWaterloo, but which could potentially be focused on even more for students, is how to write in a succinct and accessible manner for a diverse audience, which is very important in settings outside of academia-- I truly can’t stress this enough. In healthcare, we are often instructed to write and present material in a way that will make sense to all patients and families. We are encouraged to translate complex information into language that someone in grade 8 (!) would understand. This is challenging to do, but it’s important given the diverse backgrounds of our patients and families. I’ve heard folks who work in other industries (e.g. the banking industry) say that they also want information to be written in a very accessible way. Participating in the 3-minute thesis competition, doing an applied philosophy placement, and learning about how to write for a public audience from my supervisor (Patricia Marino) was helpful for me, though I wonder whether more exercises could be implemented throughout the program so that everyone is prepared for this possible expectation.

Q5] You finished your doctorate with lightning speed, and have done considerable, and very successful, teaching for the Department during your time. What was your favourite thing to lecture on, and why?

My favourite thing to lecture on was, and continues to be, the topic of advance directives. Advance directives (i.e., advance care plans) are used to document a person’s health care wishes so that a substitute decision-maker(s) can refer to it when making decisions for the person just in case they become incapable. For instance, I could create an advance care plan/advance directive that says that I do not want to be resuscitated if I have a heart attack and if I am in an intensive care unit (ICU) and if I am unlikely to make a full recovery (i.e., a recovery back to my current state of health). So, if I end up in an ICU, unable to make a full recovery, and deemed incapable of making my own healthcare decisions, then my substitute decision-maker could look at my advance directive and inform the medical team to not resuscitate me if I have a cardiac arrest.

The question of whether advance directives should always be followed is philosophically contested, however, and there are two competing schools of thought. Some philosophers (e.g. Ronald Dworkin) say that advance directives should be followed as a way of respecting and prioritizing a person’s prior autonomous wishes since an advance directive was developed when a person was autonomous and capable. Other scholars (e.g. Rebecca Dresser) say that advance directives should not necessarily always be followed and that a person’s present interests should be prioritized in certain circumstances.

Advanced directiveAdvance directives with regard to health care: always to be respected, for autonomy’s sake, or might they be justly ignored, should present circumstances and potential future happiness indicate otherwise?

The reason that I am interested in and enjoy lecturing on advance directives is because philosophers disagree on the above-mentioned question, and I have encountered parallel conflicting perspectives and questions from non-philosophers in my clinical practice. I’ve heard some clinicians say that an advance care plan should always be followed, whereas others say that there may be reason to disregard a person’s advance care plan for various reasons (many of which are similar to those put forward by Rebecca Dresser). The clinicians who I’ve spoken to about this are not philosophers, and they may not be explicitly employing arguments related to autonomy or personal identity, but they are either supporting or rejecting the philosophical perspectives noted above. I thoroughly enjoy that this topic is both philosophically and practically complex.

Q6] Who are your favourite philosophers, and pieces of philosophy, and why?

This is a very tough question given the number of philosophers I like! One of my favourite philosophers is Martha Nussbaum, specifically, her capabilities approach. Nussbaum introduces her capabilities approach in Women and Human Development with the goal of influencing public policy for women in developing nations. She focuses on this population because the social and political circumstances in developing countries provides women with unequal capabilities. Nussbaum mentions that the circumstances of poverty, in combination with gender inequality, results in a failure of human capabilities, where the basic social minimum for women fails to be met. In response, she wants her capabilities approach to be used as a way to enable each person’s capabilities so that every citizen is treated as an end in him- or herself. Although Nussbaum’s approach was initially intended to promote women’s rights, she extends it to address persons with disabilities in Frontiers of Justice. Nussbaum explores some characteristics of persons with disabilities (specifically cognitive impairments) and notes that some persons with disabilities may require particular living arrangements and specific types of care in order to live meaningful lives, and that their capabilities to achieve well-being and meaningful lives ought to be enabled accordingly. Nussbaum provides a list of capabilities that ought to be granted to every individual, and while I do not agree with everything she says, I think that her list of capabilities and her conception of well-being is helpful to consider when it comes to some real-world problems. I often think of Nussbaum’s capabilities approach when contemplating the question of what we owe certain types of people in healthcare, such as persons who are living in the shelter system, who cannot pay for expensive medication, who have no familial support (i.e., persons who may not have certain capabilities due to social constraints), etc. I often think that the capabilities approach sets a reasonable bar for our society to strive to achieve when it comes to thinking about well-being and justice for our citizens.

Disabled childrenSome disabled children in Uganda: what capabilities do such children, especially girl children, require enabled as a matter of justice?


Philosophy Alum Lindsay Weir Opens This Year's Philosophy Awards Ceremony

Lindsay Weir, a distinguished alum of our Department, was invited to give some opening remarks at our recent annual awards ceremony. Her comments were insightful and well-received, and she’s given us permission to share them with other alums below:

Lindsay WeirSoftware Analyst, and Department Alum, Lindsay Weir spoke at our April Awards Ceremony

“Since graduating, I’ve worked as an office manager and in Human Resources before landing in the world of tech. I am currently a Software QA Analyst for a company that makes smart city software. I like to call my job the “early warning system” of the software world. It’s my role to find issues before they get out to the client. In my career so far, my education in philosophy has been of value in a number of ways.

First, I’m glad that I studied what I did because it was interesting, enjoyable, and what I wanted to do. I meet so many people who tell me that they wished they had studied philosophy in university but felt they had to do something else to get a job or live up to expectations placed on them. I’m happy to have taken the time to learn what I wanted to learn rather than being focused on a career path.

I also feel like reading complex philosophical texts has prepared me for the fact that the world we live in is full of complex information and decision-making. When we decide who to vote for, or evaluate a health claim on the Internet (for example), we are often confronted with a lot of complex information. I feel like interacting with texts that have been translated or were written long ago has given me the ability to manage this complexity and make informed choices.

Additionally, I feel like studying philosophy prepared me for situations where people disagree.  There are many very smart people who are not able to handle someone disagreeing with them or are unable to charitably disagree with someone else. In both cases, this is pretty unhelpful and does not lead to good interactions. I feel like philosophy helped me practice responding graciously to being disagreed with by others and also helped me develop the skills to charitably encapsulate someone’s argument and disagree with them in a way that is reasoned and effective.

Although philosophy as a discipline is much more than a collection of technical or transferrable skills, there are a few skills it teaches that I’ve found particularly helpful. The first is the ability to think critically and spot bias in yourself or others. Being able to do this allows you to make more reasoned decisions and be more responsible in your own thinking. On a technical level, the courses I took in formal logic have also been very helpful as I am learning to code, since the structure and operators found in code are very similar to those used in formal logic.

In closing, I feel like my studies at Waterloo in the philosophy department have given me a very strong foundation for the rest of my career. I use many of the skills I learned on a daily basis and I also enjoy knowing that I had the time to learn about a subject that is interesting and engaging. I hope that this foundation can be every bit as useful to current and future students in their lives after graduation as it has been to me.”


Q & A with Faculty Member Katy Fulfer

We had an outstanding interview with Dr. Katy Fulfer, and are happy indeed to present this longer, intriguing “think-piece”, with which to send everyone off on an enjoyable, philosophical summer!

Katy FulferDr. Katy Fulfer

Q1: You occupy multiple roles in the PHIL Dept, being an active researcher and teacher (at both the graduate- and undergraduate levels) as well as being the undergraduate advisor for the Women’s Studies program. Sounds stimulating! How have you found all these different roles?

A: I feel truly privileged to be able to do philosophy in interdisciplinary contexts. I primarily teach in the Applied Philosophy program at the graduate level, and Women's Studies/Gender & Social Justice at the undergraduate level. In both these domains, philosophical thinking is done in conversation with other disciplines and with attention to people's lived experiences.

I always learn so much from students. There's a part of philosophy that I think has to be done alone—you have to think through problems for yourself—but there's another part that has to be done in community. Our academic publications model this in a "slow" way, as we are contributing small pieces to a larger conversation happening between scholars. But the classroom is about doing philosophy together as a regular practice in a more immediate way! The classroom provides space to think through problems with others who have a diverse set of experiences and expertise.

Being undergraduate adviser has been a helpful introduction to the structure of the Arts Faculty and the University. It's also a good way to get to know a program as a whole. I now think more intentionally about how the courses I teach relate to other courses in the curriculum, both in terms of content and skills development.

Q2] And Women’s Studies is slated to be transformed into a brand-new program, in Gender and Social Justice, as of this coming Fall 2019. Tell us about this transformation: why it’s happening, and what the new program will look like and aim at.

A: I'm excited to see this change come into effect! The curriculum redesign to Gender & Social Justice (GSJ) began before I arrived at U Waterloo, following the most recent program review. I can't speak to all the history, but I can speak to the GSJ learning goals and why I think this change is significant.

One of the program learning goals is to "develop and communicate strategies to build inclusive, just, sustainable communities locally and globally." To me, this captures a core feature of the GSJ program: GSJ attends to both theory and practice: how can we leverage theoretical insights to make changes in the world? How do real-world problems affect our best conceptual frameworks for thinking about gender, justice, and feminist politics?

Another important feature of GSJ is its emphasis on an inclusive approach to social justice. Consider this example: Education scholar and Indigenous feminist Stephanie Waterman (who is Onondagan) explains how Indigenous feminists often foreground Indigeneity in their work, not gender. By focusing on Indigenous traditions and challenging settler colonialism, Waterman argues, Indigenous women's lives are improved and Indigenous communities are strengthened. I think Waterman's point is helpful for understanding the importance of the transition from "Women's Studies" to "Gender & Social Justice." If the goal is to build more just communities, then feminists have to pay attention to how gender interacts with other identity markers. This is what feminists call "intersectional feminism." Indeed, as Waterman emphasizes, traditionally understood "gender issues" may not be the most pressing concern for some feminists. As a White, settler feminist theorist, I have to address settler colonialism and work in solidarity with Indigenous feminists. In other words, settler colonialism and racism are feminist issues. The new curriculum, in the courses it includes and the progression through the program, is attentive to how complicated—and necessary—such intersectional approaches are.

Feminist mug

The language of "gender" rather than "women" has been controversial across feminist studies over the past few decades. Critics worry that "women" will once again disappear in an emphasis on "gender." I take this concern seriously, but also think "gender" is helpful language. Gender norms negatively impact everyone, no matter what their gender. Women, men, and non-binary individuals are subject to gender norms, albeit in different ways. A focus on gender specifically allows us to have an expansive, inclusive conversation about masculinity and femininity.

Q3] Your new SSHRC grant—congratulations!—deals with intriguing and topical issues. Its title is “From Rootlessness to Belonging: An Arendtian Critique of The Family as a Structure of Refugee Assimilation.” Can you discuss it, please, especially the three big elements of: refugees and their precarious position; government policies favouring families as vehicles for “optimal assimilation”, or what have you; and then what Hannah Arendt contributes.

A: For those of you unfamiliar with Hannah Arendt, she is a twentieth century political philosopher. She was a German Jew who escaped from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. She went to France, then immigrated to the United States in 1941.

Hannah ArendtHannah Arendt, an influence on Dr. Fulfer

In her 1951 book Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt's critique of human rights diagnoses the problem of rightlessness faced by refugees. Nation-states have been the primary agents responsible for guaranteeing human rights; so, when a person loses their citizenship, they are effectively rendered rightless. She provocatively reformulates human rights as "the right to have rights." There are two dimensions to this phrase. The latter mention of "rights" refers to legal and civil protections we are perhaps most familiar with. The first part of the phrase, "the right to," is often interpreted as a moral claim to belong to a political community, and this claim to membership in a political community is what especially interests me.

Many philosophers working on Arendt and refugee issues have looked at ways that refugee camps, human rights legislation, and deportation policies fail refugees. We might assume that resettlement in a new country resolves some of the rightlessness that refugees experience, as it provides a legally recognized standing. However, the moral claim to political belonging might still be ignored by those of us who are members of the receiving country. Assimilation, for Arendt, means conforming to a dominant, homogenous ideal of what a political community is. This is a superficial kind of belonging. In addition, for Arendt, social acceptance is not the same as political belonging.

Syrian refugees getting off boatRefugees fleeing the civil war in Syria, landing on the shores of Europe, seeking protection and new membership

Arendt's critique of assimilation mirrors her critique of the family as a model for political organizations. When she discusses the family, she usually refers to the Ancient Greek and Roman household as a model, but what she says applies to our modern ideal of the nuclear family too. There's nuance and richness to her critique that I'm glossing over, but for this project what's important are the values that Arendt associates with family structures: sameness (rather than diversity), inequality (rather than equality), and efficiency (rather than freedom). If you find yourself defensive about families, as many feminists are, just stay with me for a bit and focus on those values as the core ideas!

The basic idea I take from Arendt is that when we use the family as a model to organize political life, we risk promoting a view of belonging that assumes a homogenous cultural identity to which refugees or other newcomers must conform. They become Canadian, at the expense of aspects of their identity that connect them to their past lives and histories. Thus, we (members of receiving countries) should think more critically when we make claims that, e.g., refugees are now part of the "Canadian family." For Arendt, when newcomers enter our political communities, our political communities change as well. What it means to be Canadian should change as a result of refugees being part of our shared political life. Canadians, in my experience, tend to be quite proud of Canada's commitment to multiculturalism. Part of what I am doing is seeing how this commitment might be undermined by forces of assimilation and rhetoric that assumes our body politic is family-like.

While I use Arendt to think through Canadian policies, such as the Private Sponsorship for Refugees Program, I also think Arendt misses ways in which social acceptance can facilitate political belonging. While the Private Sponsorship Program may aim at ensuring refugee families can "get by" rather than be genuinely accepted as members of our political community, social acceptance might serve as a necessary area where political acceptance is fostered. And families—actual families, not "the family" as an ideal—might be central to this work.

Arendt also tends to depict assimilation as a totalizing experience. One assimilates, or one resists it. Refugee narratives suggest that navigating life in a new homeland is much more complicated than that, so part of my project is to add nuance to how Arendt (or perhaps Arendtians) think about assimilation.

Refugees then and nowRefugees then and now

In September I'll be launching a research blog associated with this project. If people are interested they can pay attention to my website for updates, or look at blog posts I've already written on my "regular" blog Philosophy in the World about Arendt and refugees.

Q4] I’d gather that Arendt would be one of your favourite philosophers. Tell us about what she means to you, and her manifold (yet often under-appreciated) relevance to today’s political philosophy. What’s her greatest work, and why?

A: Arendt claimed she wasn't a philosopher because philosophy was concerned with the Human. She identified as a political theorist or as a journalist because she was interested in humans in the plural. What's interesting about this claim to me is Arendt's insistence that philosophical thinking needs to come back to the world. Arendt values philosophy in part because it helps make sense of perplexing and pressing political experience.

As readers can guess from what I've said previously, Arendt strikes many as a strange ally for feminist philosophers. Indeed, she wasn't friendly to feminist movements in her time. Yet I am drawn to both her critique of modern society, especially with the rise of consumer capitalism, and her conception of freedom.

In The Human Condition, her seminal work of political philosophy, Arendt traces how private interests are becoming more important than the public good. Politics has come to privilege efficiency and usefulness more than freedom. Of course, when we're talking about using limited resources efficiency is something to consider. But Arendt's concern is that the value of efficiency replaces freedom. Thus, we may become insensitive to the suffering of others when our well-being or comfort is threatened. Given the sorts of problems facing our world today, from climate change to growing income inequality, Arendt's critique seems particularly relevant.

At the same time, Arendt's conception of freedom emphasizes the collective power of diverse people working together to resist these forces. For her, freedom isn't something we have but something we enact, in solidarity with others. That freedom emerges when diverse people work together in concert informs the way I think about feminist politics and resistance to oppression.

I'd surmise that Origins of Totalitarianism or Eichmann in Jerusalem, her 1963 book based on her reporting for The New Yorker of the trial of Nazi middle-man Adolph Eichmann, are her most popular books. Indeed, Amazon.com ran out of copies of Origins for a short time in December 2016! I've already mentioned The Human Condition, where Arendt provides her analysis of political life. The Life of the Mind, the book she was working on when she died, is her work on philosophy and other aspects of the contemplative life. I work the most with The Human Condition, but The Life of the Mind, at least the volume on thinking, is one of my favourite works of philosophy. There, as with Eichmann in Jerusalem, she links philosophical thinking to conscience. Thinking, she argues, is connected to conscience. It helps us identify and challenge evil-doing. At the same time, thinking has a path of its own. Philosophical reflection takes its own path, and it may not lead us where we want to go—it is not in the service of particular instrumental ends. I find these descriptions of philosophy powerful and exhilarating, both as a philosopher and as a teacher of philosophy.

If anyone wants an overview of Arendt's thought—and also a picture of her as an individual—I recommend watching her 1964 interview with Günter Gaus, which you can find with English subtitles on youtube. It's an hour long and touches on many themes present throughout her work. You'll also hear bizarre remarks she makes about gender equality!

Q5] You’ve also done a lot of work on women’s rights, and surrogacy, as well as international justice. Describe it, and tell us what feminism and women’s rights mean to you, and what you think are the most important issues—nationally and internationally—right now?

A: When I teach, I use a broad definition of feminism adapted from bell hooks' slim but fierce book Feminism is for Everybody. I say that feminism aims at equality for all sexes and all genders. I also tend to use the phrase "feminist politics" and "feminisms" rather than "feminism" to indicate the diversity of feminist perspectives. For example, what it meant by "equality" will be defined differently from various feminist theoretical perspectives. When bell hooks [a.k.a., Gloria Jean Watkins - ed.] describes feminist politics, she talks about the need for feminists to challenge white supremacy and capitalism as well. So, we come back to the idea of intersectional feminism: gender and sex need to be analyzed in relation to other aspects of experience, such as disability, nationality, race, socio-economic status, and sexuality.

Bell Hooksbell hooks, author of Feminism is for Everybody

I tend to prefer the term "liberation" to an emphasis on "rights." Rights are vital and necessary—but people must be able to access the protections guaranteed by those rights. Much of my work has been in reproductive ethics. The reproductive justice movement began in the 1990s to draw attention to the way in which reproductive rights often focused narrowly on abortion. Another way reproductive justice advocates put this point was that reproductive rights discourse was more relevant to White, middle-class women and didn't address the needs of women of colour, poor women, or immigrant women. Reproductive justice advocates expanded the conversation to say that reproduction has to be considered in relation to broader social, political, and economic inequalities. I think the move from (narrower) reproductive rights to (more comprehensive) reproductive justice is instructive for many conversations in feminist theory and activism, both within Canada and transnationally.

I'm hesitant to label any issue as the most important, but there are two issues I'll highlight here that are important to me. The first is sexual violence and harassment, whether we're talking about the way the justice system handles sexual assaults, the epidemic of sexual assaults on university and college campuses, missing and murdered Indigenous women, or #MeToo and workplace harassment. In Ontario I'm especially concerned about how going back to the 1998 sex ed curriculum (from the 2015 curriculum) will mean that young people will not learn evidence-based information about healthy sexuality, consent, and bullying.

Second is climate change, which is probably the defining political issue of the twenty-first century (alongside immigration). Women are disproportionately impacted by climate change. In Canada and the United States, we see this with respect to Indigenous women's activism around water and growing attention to environmental racism. Across the globe, where women are primarily responsible for food and other household tasks, climate events (such as severe droughts) impact them in different, and more severe, ways than men. Climate change may also interact with other ways in which women are vulnerable vis-a-vis men. In addition, my work on reproductive ethics and my broader feminist commitments have led me to adopt veganism as part of my feminist politics. For me, problematic aspects of animal agriculture—controlling animals' reproduction, the ecological toll of animal agriculture, the conditions of factory farming, the negative impact on human workers' mental health in industrial animal agriculture—are issues central to a feminist politics of climate change.

Woman sitting in waterWomen in the developing world are being affected disproportionately by climate change.

I haven't said much here about my work on surrogacy, but my blog is also a good source for keeping up with my work on that front! I also sometimes use my blog to reflect philosophically about my personal interests, such as science fiction, fashion, and the ethics of keeping pets. Stay in touch, or better yet, let's have a conversation!

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