The Struggles of a Female Philosopher

Question: What is the biggest obstacle you've had to overcome in your career?

Alison Gopnik: Yeah. I think that's a good question. I think the most problematic thing for me is that the two great intellectual passions of my life are very hard-nosed analytic philosophy of mind and cognitive science on the one hand, which is what I started out doing. I was a philosopher. And is still in some important sense where my deepest heart is and children and babies on the other hand. And of course that hard-nosed analytic philosophy of mine, philosophy in general is totally dominated by men, has been a field that is even more dominated by men than theoretical physics is.

And of course anything to do with babies is completely associated with women. So it's been a real struggle. Half the time I thought to myself, "Well, come on. You don't want to be a women whose career is devoted to doing all those womany things with kids and babies and all that girl stuff, right?" And another part of me has -- you should really go and become the analytic philosopher and show that this is something that women can do just as well. The other part of me says, "No, no. What you should be doing is showing that all that stuff that everybody treats with that much dignity, babies, children, they're actually telling us this much, if you pay attention to them." There is deep and profound and is important and tell us as much about any of the things that we care about in analytic philosophy as the science and the things that analytic philosophers -- guy philosophers typically pay attention to.

So the whole point of my career has been to try to take babies and young children who have been -- I don't think it's too much of an exaggeration to say I've been sort of intellectually treated with contempt over the years. When I was in graduate school, one of the Oxford Philosophers, when I was talking about how children could explain about philosophy, turned to me and said, "Well you know, one has seen children about hasn't one that -- but one would never actually speak to one, " and that's not totally out of the attitude that people have had towards babies and children. So what I've tried to do is take that world and show just how deep and profound and analytic and rigorous and intellectually serious it is.

That hasn't always been an easy -- that hasn't always been an easy road, but I am glad that I actually tried to do both of those things and put both of those things together instead of just following one or the other.

Recorded on: October 8, 2009

Alison Gopnik faced a unique challenge trying to make a name for herself in the hard-nosed male-dominated realm of philosophy while simultaneously following her heart’s desire to work with children.

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