Sally Scholz, Professor of Philosophy and Editor of Hypatia was kind enough to sit down with us for an in-depth conversation on how she initially became interested in philosophy, how she interprets the value of the humanities, and how Hypatia authors are pushing boundaries.
Listen to her conversation with Victoria White, Assistant Marketing Manager at Wiley, below. Or, scroll down further to read the transcript.
Victoria White: Hello, my name is Victoria White from Wiley’s Global Research team, and I’m joined today with Dr. Sally Scholz, editor of Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy to discuss the impact and the landscape of feminist philosophy as they pertain to our overarching question, “Why do the humanities matter?” Thank you Sally, it’s a pleasure to have you.
Sally Scholz: Oh, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
VW: Rolling into our first question. Your education and career have heavily been invested in the humanities. What inspired you or motivated you to pursue a career in the humanities, and what specifically motivated you to pursue feminist philosophy?
SS: I went to a liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon, and the core requirements of that college required us to take philosophy and English and all the core topics of the humanities. In fact, we had to take four years of philosophy and theology. It was marvelous! It was an invitation to a whole new world that I never would have thought or dreamed about if I hadn’t been forced – or required – to do it. The humanities for me opened up new ways of thinking and seeing the world. I went into college with a fairly clear focus as a driven student. I wanted to be a diplomat. I wanted to study politics and dive right into international affairs. But when I was invited into philosophy by that first course, I was also invited into a world of seeing things from many, many different perspectives, and thinking through problems as they relate to other problems or as they relate to other issues. It was an opportunity to participate in the world, and – for me – participate in politics as well in a new way. And I think the humanities is incredibly valuable for opening up a vision and a perspective that one trained solely in a profession might not get.
In terms of feminist philosophy, I think I came into it in many ways the same way other students have come to it – with some reluctance. And the reluctance comes because feminism, or feminists, are stereotyped. But I was already involved in many social movements, and for me studying philosophy and ultimately studying feminist philosophy allowed me to make some sense of some of these social movements. So, I could use what I was learning in courses with my practical experience on the street raising issues of justice and questioning authority and trying to bring about social change. And of course, that questioning authority comes from Socrates. There is a long tradition of social change and philosophy is adored to that.
Socrates, The Original Authority Questioner Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons
VW: Wow, that’s amazing how required courses or general education could lead to a lifelong passion. The humanities often receive the criticism that they don’t have any practical application, yet some argue that it needn’t be practical and it’s knowledge for knowledge’s sake. What is your view on this argument? How does the research in Hypatia fit into these lines of practicality, if at all?
SS: You know I’ve faced this argument many times, especially as a philosophy professor and trying to talk to students who are considering a major in philosophy. They need some ammunition if you will, to convince parents that this is what they love to do, and that studying philosophy is also practical. In talking to them and in thinking about this myself, I guess I think that there’s no need for the practical and the “knowledge for its own sake” to be in opposition. Philosophy or all of the humanities in fact can be presented in terms of their instrumental value. They all teach critical thinking skills, reading and writing skills. These are skills that you can use in any career. And in fact, many philosophers end up making more by mid-career than their counterparts who have trained in business. It’s because they bring those skills of reading, writing, and thinking to whatever job they occupy. So I think there is clearly an instrumental value to all of the humanities, or a practical application to all of the humanities, but there is also the lifelong love of learning. Studying the humanities allows for a student to develop skills or capacities for curiosities.
I often tell students that when I walk into a library my heart beats faster. And it’s because I’m excited. It’s because a library is a place where you can read ideas. You can actually write ideas and see them on a shelf at the library! Not by vandalism of course, but you too can see yourself as an author of a book or an author of an article, and contribute to knowledge.
I think even “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” is in many ways a misleading phrase. I like to think of it as “knowledge for humanities’ sake”, that we are studying the humanities in part because we want to be better humans, that there is a sense of what it means to be human. And that question “what does it mean to be human?” is a needed question in our times and throughout history, and it’s one that requires constant exploration. It requires constant exploration in part because of our relationship to each other, and to objects in the world changes. So, the humanities allows for students of every generation to reask and to ask again, “what does it mean to be a human being in relation to other human beings?” “What does it mean to have responsibilities to the more than human world, or to understand and act on the dictates of justice?” We don’t get a lot of time in the busy practical world, as your question mentions, to stop and really consider the effects of our actions or the effects of our decisions. But studying the humanities, even taking the time to read a novel, to see how someone else approached a problem that you might face, or that any one of us could face, is an enlightenment. It’s an opportunity to see and think through the problem in a new and different way. So, I guess I see humanities as both practical application and as “knowledge for humanities’ sake”.
I would also add that part of that “practical” isn’t just for professions – I joke to my kids that I’m a better parent because I do philosophy. I honestly believe it’s true, even though I often get a laugh from my children with it. It’s because as a parent, I understand virtue theory, I understand what it is I’m trying to cultivate in my children. I make mistakes and I don’t always get it right, but I can think through what I did wrong and strive always to correct it. I also think that children are models of curiosity, so if I can continue to model that into my adulthood – that is the lifelong love of learning! To be humbled and to realize that we don’t know everything that we think we know, and to realize that others can enlighten us and can help us to see the world in a new way, and to be curious and to try to understand how others might experience the world, or even my own relationship with them.
VW: That’s really inspiring. I think for any students that might be listening to this at any age, that’s great to hear that there is this fluid idea that practical application and a lifelong love of knowledge don’t have to be in battle with each other. I know that as an English major personally, I had a professor that said being an English major – or even just a humanities major – was majoring in life.
SS: Oh! That’s such a great line!
VW: Yeah! And I love it, and it stuck with me and helped me through all of my college career, and led me to where I am today. So, I definitely feel what you said.
Mentioning what you said earlier – that feminism and its field of study are often scrutinized and stereotyped – what are some of the ways that you and other experts in the field are addressing these thoughts and misconceptions?
SS: That’s a great question, and we face it especially in the college situation where we are trying to recruit students into our upper division courses on feminism, and of course also in today’s political climate. You hear attacks against social justice movements. Feminism I think is a social justice movement. I would say that as a field of study that is scrutinized or stereotyped, that most of the stereotypes – actually all of the stereotypes – are based on a caricature, not on a thoughtful understanding of the field.
The field of feminism and feminist philosophy is vast, varied, and incredibly interesting. I would like to see every student develop an expertise in – or even just a curiosity – in feminism, because it allows us to bring in questions day to day in a concrete way into theoretical discussions. There is a famous line of course, from feminism in the 70s that “the personal is political.” Well, I think that line is still pertinent today, but I would also say that the political is personal, as many feminists have already articulated. To study feminism as a humanities or as a social science is to bring questions that pertain to the lives of real men and women. To the study of deep philosophical questions like the nature of being, or the existence of a god or some transcendent being, or the nature of justice and freedom. So, when I hear the caricatures of feminism or the stereotypes of feminism, I immediately think they don’t understand what it is they’re criticizing. I don’t want to be dismissive of these critiques because I think there are also some vocal or knee-jerk reactions that have been called “feminists”, and they may be. But feminism as a field and as a social movement is vast and rich, and committed to many of the same things that the people who criticize it are. That’s one of the frustrations, I think, that as a professor of feminism I face.
A lot of students will come into my class and will agree that everyone should be treated equally, and that all voices should be heard, and that sexual violence is wrong. And yet, they’ll resist the label of “feminism”. But all of those things are part of our conversation, at least in part because of this movement of feminism. And our vocabularies are different because of some of the successes of some feminism throughout the past. So, the suggestion that feminism is obsolete or not relevant is based on a misunderstanding, and feminism at this point in time is undergoing some very exciting transformations and expansions. New issues are constantly coming to the fore of our political and social reality, and the study of feminism is fascinating because it requires the scholar to look not at just the effects of the action or policy of the idea on the lives of women, but on the lives of all people. We see the intersections of transgender and disability and race and socio-economic status, and on and on. The place that a person occupies in society is affected by so many factors, and feminism provides, and feminist philosophy in particular, provides some of the tools and methods that we can use to seek to understand better some of these realities and the lives of others.
So, before I mentioned that the humanities opens up our relationships and asks us to look at our relationships in new ways. I think feminism is a really great example of how that is done.
And, of course, feminism challenges unjust situations! And that can’t be over looked – it’s one of the central tenants. It is absolutely essential when there remains injustice in the world we committed activists who recognize feminism as at least one of the many motivating elements to their activism.
VW: I think thematically from our conversation so far is this constant ebb and flow of people wanting to box in or silo the humanities or feminism. And really, what’s coming out in the conversation is that it’s vast and it is fluid, and it doesn’t have these boundaries – that it’s all encompassing. I know that a thematic trend we’re seeing in the humanites itself is that advocates and supporters are reinvigorating the discipline by highlighting these intersectionalities between the humanities and other disciplines. What are some intersectionalities of feminist philosophy that you specifically find important? I know you mentioned social justice, are there any others?
SS: This is a really interesting question, and I find it interesting on multiple levels. On the one hand, humanities – the specific disciplines that we now label has humanities disciplines – in many ways, of course…I would somewhat territorially say that they all spring out of philosophy. But all of the humanities are in many ways a foundation for the social sciences, the hard sciences, the professions. In some sense, the question about intersectionality: is it going back? Or circling back? Or reminding ourselves of the interconnections that all the different fields of study that we so neatly categorize into disciplines or departments in the university or institution can in many ways be perceived as one? And it is by recognizing our history in some sense that we are also then pushing ourselves to go beyond the borders of the departments and the disciplines and to see, okay, wait a minute – let’s recover! Let’s recover philosophy’s connection between cosmology and science and bring these two together! Or logic and math. At one time these were all one, and now they’re split in to many. And of course specializing is important and we have gained tremendous insight into the human person and into our world by specializing. But I’d like to see the as you call it – the intersectionality, the reinvigoration of the discipline – as a reminder of our history, of our connection, of the fact that the university is really one unit.
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw introduced and developed intersectional theory. Photo credit: her Twitter account, @sandylocks
The other thing I want to mention about this question that I find so fascinating is that that term that they use, “intersectionality,” has been popularized in fact by feminist philosophy! And it’s feminist philosophy’s focus, especially in the late 80s and early 90s, on recognizing the way race and class intersect with gender and sex in an individual’s experience. One theorist, Kimberlé Crenshaw, is particularly credited with coining this term,” intersectionality”, for the intersections of forms of oppression. And that really transformed how we think about oppression and liberation struggles. I love that intersectionality has transformed feminism, and it is transforming the humanities, and now it has become a part of our everyday vernacular as well. Because we’re seeing connections! And we’re seeing the way that by recognizing the connections, we are forced to recognize a difference in the world.
Now, having said all that, you ask about some intersections of feminist philosophy that I find important. I’m a social and political philosopher, so I’m always turning to social and political and philosophical issues. There is some wonderful work being done now in feminist epistemology and feminist ontology. There is a long history, especially from Crenshaw’s work, of women of color philosophies that in many ways embodies the intersectional approach, and that’s I think very challenging for all of us in the disciplines, that is recognizing intersectionality and the ways in which our individual studies might impact or be shaped by intersections that we might not formally recognize. I think intersectionality is both in the woman of color philosophical tradition and in the way you asked the question with the humanities, it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge to step outside of ourselves, to try to learn and be curious about and scrutinize the relationships of our work and of our being with so many others.
I think it’s probably worth mentioning also that feminist philosophy is… well let me put it this way, it’s also turning inward, inward to philosophy itself. There are many wonderful works coming out that look at philosophy as a discipline and how and whether it is open to diversity, whether it is inclusive, whether its practices, its methodologies, its recognized journals and institutional bodies are adequately accommodating different voices. I think that’s actually a very promising moment in this particular historical time – that we as philosophers are looking at ourselves a little bit more. We’ve always been good at naval gazing, and now it’s time to look at the discipline.
VW: That’s fascinating. I actually didn’t know that Crenshaw had coined “intersectionality”, that it was used in that capacity. It’s certainly eye-opening, and I think it’s amazing that these intersectionalities exist already. But, it’s by explicitly acknowledging them that we stand to learn so much more.
SS: I think of social justice activism, but I think recognizing the intersections of race and class with gender, with sex and sexuality, really does impact the activism that one takes. And Crenshaw’s work is brilliant in this regard. Of course, there have been many, many scholars who have taken up some of the topics she raised and there are really interesting debates within feminism about this. This goes back to your previous question a bit, but one thing I want to note is that among the stereotypes of feminists, is it that we all get along, or is it that we all think exactly the same in this sort of modelistic group, that feminism is a modelist. But that’s just false. Just like philosophers don’t all disagree, feminists don’t all disagree. But we learn from the interactions with each other, and it is approaching those interactions with humility and curiosity that really is one of the greatest contributions that we can give to the humanities.
VW: On that note, “our interactions and our connections with each other,” truly resonate and make a difference in the world. And something I love about my job at Wiley, and what I’m sure you must enjoy about your job as well, is that the work we do in research truly impacts the world. I don’t think it’s quite often that people get to say that about their profession. What is the impact you hope Hypatia’s research and your work on the journal can provide for the world?
SS: Well thank you for the question. Hypatia authors are really incredible. There are so many ways that their work impacts on the world. I like to think of them in the term coined I think by some business leaders, that they’re “thought leaders”. Hypatia authors are pushing the boundaries of philosophy, but they’re also pushing the boundaries of our social and relational existence. That is, they are raising questions and addressing them… about issues and topics that a true feminist lens really transform or are transformed and has the potential to really change how we think about aspects of our world.
So, let me give an example here with feminist epistemology. Early in the what some texts call the “second phase feminist movement”, a number of feminists got together and began talking about standpoint theory. Standpoint epistemology is now widely used. It’s also widely criticized by some. But it has changed how we think about knowledge in many ways. Standpoint acknowledges that a person’s social locatedness affects how they see the world, that calls to question things like scientific objectivity, and you can see this particularly at work and in fields of anthropology and journalism, or communication more generally. Once the journalist or the anthropologist or the scientist acknowledges that how they see the world might in fact be impacted by their social, cultural, gender, race, class status, they might in fact come to see what it is that they’re studying differently. They might shape the questions differently. And I think all of that is a tremendous impact of Hypatia.
Think too about things like how the words that we use are transforming or helping to shape our reality. In the early 70s there was no word for sexual harassment. It was coined and now suddenly we’ve got not only a word, but we’ve got a complete, or more or less complete, policy expectation from every profession, that there is some way that every profession and every business will work to keep sexual harassment out of the workplace, to create a site for equal participation of women and all genders.
It’s the work of Hypatia authors to do the sort of conceptual analysis that brings to light problems that may not have previously been recognized and to provide solutions to some of those problems. Solutions that take into account our unique status, whatever that is. But it also allows as thought leaders the Hypatia authors also allow other disciplines to turn to us [the journal] as a way to think through some of their own discipline-related issues.
For instance, we get articles written by philosophers and English professors. And they’re looking at how reading shapes their or watching a particular movie might be changed and impacted if we looked at it through a feminist lens. We get articles coauthored by scientists or people in the medical field and philosophers who are bringing to light an issue in medicine and suggesting that a feminist philosophical approach – whether it be through epistemology, or scientific method, or even just the politics of the relations within medicine, whatever it is – they’re suggesting new ways to think about things. I think that is having a transformative effect on those fields and on the world as a whole.
I would say that all research is valuable in some sense, insofar as it feeds the human soul of the researcher. But I also think that research that is shared is very important, and research that is peer reviewed and presented to the world – even if we disagree with it – it advances some sense of expression, and it raises ideas and raises questions that we are then invited to answer.
VW: I think, on those really inspiring thoughts… these are all the questions I have for you today. I really want to thank you for taking the time out of your day to have this conversation with me. I think it’s a much needed conversation to have not only in terms of feminist philosophy, but also the humanities, and just a good conversation to have in life. And I thank you for that.
SS: Oh, and thank you. It’s not often that one gets to share one’s thoughts on the humanities, and I hope you can tell that I’m excited about it. I actually hope that a lot of people will be quite proactive and will talk to their employers, or their university, boards of trustees, and really establish a firm foundation and not wait until the humanities are under stress, and to say, “but we value the humanities and here are some of the reasons.” Thank you so much for inviting me, and I hope that you have a wonderful afternoon.
VW: You too.
More about Sally Scholz
Sally J. Scholz is Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University. She has written extensively on violence against women, oppression, solidarity, and related issues in ethics and political theory. Her books include On de Beauvoir (2000), On Rousseau (2001), Political Solidarity (2008), and Feminism: A Beginner’s Guide (One World 2010). Scholz is a former Editor of the APA Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy and current Editor of Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, published by Wiley-Blackwell.
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