The Struggles of a Female Philosopher
Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. She received her BA from McGill University and her PhD. from Oxford University. She is an internationally recognized leader in the study of children’s learning and development and was the first to argue that children’s minds could help us understand deep philosophical questions. She is a columnist (every other week) for The Wall Street Journal. She is the author of over 100 journal articles and several books including “Words, thoughts and theories” (coauthored with Andrew Meltzoff), MIT Press, 1997, and the bestselling and critically acclaimed popular books The Scientist in the Crib (coauthored with Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl) William Morrow, 1999, and The Philosophical Baby: What children’s minds tell us about love, truth and the meaning of life, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009. She has also written widely about cognitive science and psychology for Science, The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, New Scientist and Slate, among others. And she has frequently appeared on TV and radio including “The Charlie Rose Show” and “The Colbert Report." She has three sons and lives in Berkeley, California with her husband Alvy Ray Smith.
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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