Second year philosophy student Heather spoke to Chris Jay about philosophy at York.
Why is it interesting to study philosophy at the moment?
I think it’s interesting to study philosophy at any time! But there are certainly issues which we are all needing to think hard about now – from how to respond to climate change, to the ethics of big data and artificial intelligence – which are completely to do with philosophical issues (in ethics and political philosophy most obviously, but also in fields such as philosophy of mind).
Lots of people, whether they are philosophers or not, are concerned about issues of gender and race identity, and questions of justice connected with those issues, and economic inequality, political power etc. Philosophers – including philosophers in our department – are working on all those things. So philosophy can – and, I believe, should – inform the conversation about pretty much all of the most controversial and important issues we are debating in society today.
Aside from the topics we consider, there is something else about the ‘applicability’ of philosophy, too. At a personal level, a training in philosophy – or, I prefer to say, being experienced in doing philosophy – is a great way to develop habits of thought and skills which help you beyond philosophical thinking.
Which undergraduate modules do you teach?
I mostly teach modules about moral philosophy and loosely related topics. This year I am teaching on Ethical Theory, thinking about different theoretical approaches to ethics. We start by considering different versions of ‘consequentialism’, which is the view that what we ought to do depends upon what has the best consequences (utilitarianism is the most famous version of this kind of view), and then we think about alternatives to consequentialism.
I am also teaching on Nietzsche, which is a very different kind of module. We spend lots of time trying to work out what he means in some very difficult texts, rather than talking so much about abstract arguments.
I share responsibility for Engaging Philosophy, and help groups of students to work together producing a podcast on an issue which is currently important in society and has philosophical aspects (artificial intelligence and moral responsibility, freedom of speech, how to respond to the Covid crisis etc).
Recently I’ve also taught modules on Philosophy of Law, thinking through some really interesting questions about the relation between law and ethics, and what gives a legal system authority, and Feminist Philosophy, exploring topics like the nature of objectification, the way pornography might silence women, and whether feminism is compatible with liberalism.
Why do you think philosophy is important?
I firmly believe that philosophy can serve a real moral purpose – especially at the moment when polarisation is a threat.
Part of philosophy is understanding how things look from other perspectives: if you are going to engage properly with an argument that gets an opponent to a conclusion which you disagree with, then you need to properly understand that argument. That doesn’t mean that you need to end up agreeing. But doing philosophy well is about getting good at seeing things from other perspectives and engaging with other points of view charitably, and not dismissively. That attitude of being prepared to consider why someone reaches a conclusion which you disagree with, and appreciating that they might have reasons for reaching that conclusion, and that they are not just stupid or evil, even if they end up believing something you deeply object to, is a very important attitude to have, I think, when it comes to understanding each other, generally in life and society and not just in the philosophy seminar room.
Also, of course, some of the questions philosophers deal with are to do with who we are and our place in the world, and how we should live – and those are surely important things to think about!
What is York’s Department of Philosophy like?
I think it is friendly and collaborative. We like to talk to each other, whether that is staff talking to students, students talking to each other, or staff bouncing ideas off each other. Good philosophy involves testing your ideas and arguments, and that is done by having an atmosphere where ideas can be exchanged – and challenged – in a relaxed way.
We also like to talk to our students (and each other) about our programme. We want lots of feedback on what we are offering, and think very carefully about how to teach and set things up so that students come out of their degree not only knowing about philosophy, but equipped with all sorts of skills and ways of thinking which will help them whatever they go on to do.
The other nice aspect of the Department is that our philosophical interests are broad. We are not a department which specialises in just one or two things, and we have lots of staff (and students) whose philosophical interests span philosophical traditions and incorporate various different approaches to philosophy.
We have world-leading experts in the philosophy of art, specialists in philosophy of psychiatry, people who work on ethics and political philosophy, historians of philosophy and all sorts of other experts – and we all learn a lot from each other and take an interest in what’s going on beyond our own area, which is an attitude I think we try to help our students to have too.
Which philosophers have inspired you the most?
In terms of being inspired as a philosopher, rather than who I agree with most, it is philosophers like Hilary Putnam and Immanuel Kant, and others who worked on a wide variety of topics in philosophy.
I think it is good to be a philosopher who engages with all sorts of questions, and those are philosophers who made extraordinary contributions across the board – and contributions which are important and thought-provoking.
What would you say is your favourite area of philosophy?
Such a tough question! I suppose I have to say moral philosophy: it’s what I spend most time thinking about, and it’s the field I think I have most to say about. But I love more or less all areas of philosophy.
In my previous teaching job I taught more history of philosophy (Plato, and 16th and 17th Century philosophy), and more ‘theoretical’ philosophy (metaphysics – the study of what exists and what it is like; and epistemology – the study of knowledge, justification for belief, evidence etc), and I miss having the excuse to think about that so much.
I also have some interest in philosophy of religion (I’ve written a bit about the nature of faith). And I’m thinking more and more about political philosophy. There are areas of philosophy I don’t know as much about as I’d like to (especially formal logic and some aspects of the history of philosophy), but I can’t say there’s much I’m not interested in.
Do you have any book recommendations for offer holders?
There are some good suggestions on our website. Some philosophy is really tricky to read (and some is tricky to understand however long you’ve been doing philosophy!), so if you pick up a philosophy book and struggle with it, don’t worry: that’s perfectly normal. But there are some good introductory books, such as Simon Blackburn’s Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy (OUP, 1999).
Finally, what do you love about teaching philosophy?
I get to spend loads of time talking about fascinating ideas with clever, interesting young people who give me loads to think about. I have the best job in the world!
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