Elizabeth Hannon is a unique type of philosopher. A philosopher of biology, she is the Director of The Forum for Philosophy, the Deputy Editor for the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, and Research Associate of the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science as well as a Visiting Fellow of the LSE.
At The Forum, she plays an interesting role that introduces "what makes philosophy great" to an engaged public. We talked to her about her multiple hats and what it is like to be a public philosopher without being a public figure.
The following interview was conducted by Lynn Chiu and originally published in The Philosopher's Cocoon.
You are an academic yet you occupy a very interesting non-traditional position adjacent to what we think of as the traditional academic path. What are the roles you play?
I am Deputy Editor for the British Journal of Philosophy of Science (BJPS), and also the director of the Forum for Philosophy. This latter role is ostensibly to provide academic oversight of the programme of events the Forum organises, but in fact it involves every aspect of running a small non-profit organisation. In lots of ways, I think I’m incredibly lucky to have ended up where I am. I suspect making a living the way I do is almost unheard of in philosophy, and probably rarer than landing a TT academic job. So in that sense, I’m not in a position to give advice on a ‘career path’. On the other hand, I sort of made both of these jobs for myself: In both cases, I got the job in order to take care of administrative tasks. And then I just started doing other, more interesting things too, and so far no one has stopped me! (Mostly, academics are too busy—and prone to talking a good deal more than doing!—so that they’re happy for someone else to take over and get on with it… assuming they even notice!)
Would you consider yourself a public philosopher, due to your role designing events for the Forum?
“I sometimes characterise my work as a midwife for philosophy—I don’t do the philosophy, but I help bring it into the world!”
I’m really interested in public philosophy, far less in being a ‘public philosopher’. I sometimes characterise my work as a midwife for philosophy—I don’t do the philosophy, but I help bring it into the world! So I don’t call myself a philosopher, but I say that I work in philosophy: I couldn’t possibly do the work I do without my philosophy training, and I call on that training daily. And I really enjoy the challenge of switching between two distinct registers: an academic one for the BJPS and more accessible one for the Forum.
Wow, a midwife for philosophy! Tell me more about what that means and why it’s rewarding.
Here’s the aspect of my work that I think might be of most interest to you: when people from different disciplines talk to one another, they often end up talking past one another. What I’ve found is that by putting academics in front of a general audience and encouraging them to chat casually to one another (rather than present papers, etc.), they tend to unconsciously adjust how they discuss their work. As a result, not only does the audience gain an insight into the research, the speakers end up with a better understanding of each other’s research, motivations, frameworks, etc., and interdisciplinary research collaborations have resulted from the public events we’ve hosted. We have a host of techniques to bring the best out of our speakers for the sake of our audience, but it was a very pleasant surprise how this had the secondary benefit of facilitating interdisciplinary work.
What got you into philosophy in the first place? Did you see yourself as a publiciser of philosophy early on?
I became of philosophy grad student having not studied philosophy before (I studied mathematical physics as an undergrad). I got really lucky by being thrown in with a group of brilliant MA students, who tolerated me hanging around as they had these intense (slightly mad!) philosophy arguments across the pubs and bars of Durham. I loved it, of course. But there was a ton of technical terms I hadn’t come across and texts that I’d still to read, so that first year was very much in at the deep end. (At one house party, I became convinced that an argument happening around me, about the correspondence theory of truth, was an elaborate prank by my friends.)
“… academic culture, and especially philosophy culture, tends to value people purely in relation to the nature of their job, and the host of people who work with academics but are not themselves academics—librarians, professional service staff, publishers, and so on—are not perceived as colleagues.”
In accordance with cliche, being an outsider gave me certain perspectives on things taken for granted by the philosophy community. The analytic–continental divide seemed a bit bonkers, for instance (insofar as if you start from mathematical physics, the two Big Philosophical Traditions look like they share far more than divides them). Given the work I currently do with the Forum for Philosophy, the most salient thing this experience gave me was some grasp of what is and isn't easy to understand, given a limited or non-existent background in the philosophy. More so than with academics from other disciplines that I’ve worked with, philosophers (as a group!) have bad instincts about what non-specialists are likely to know or at least be familiar with (and this includes poor instincts about what is or isn’t familiar to colleagues from other sub-disciplines of philosophy and colleagues from cognate disciplines). At the same time, philosophers (again, as a tendency of the group!) are also more likely to underestimate non-specialists along other dimensions. (One example: public philosophy needn’t only be political philosophy and applied ethics, say—philosophers don’t have a monopoly on nerdiness! Nerdiness for the masses!)
I can’t say that I always planned or even hoped to do philcomm work—not least because it still barely exists as a job to aspire to do!—but I think when the opportunity landed in my lap, this curious-but-clueness background was really helpful!
What is the day-to-day like at the Forum? Those interested in following your career path might be interested in knowing the tradeoffs or downsides of the jobs you have.
It’s difficult to summarise the nitty gritty of my work, because any one aspect constitutes a maximum of 5% of the various things I do, from form filling and fundraising to editing academic papers and ‘marketing’ philosophy to people who know next to nothing about it (and often imagine they care even less).
The downside of this fragmentation is that I have absolutely no time for research. Another downside is that lots of philosophers don’t see any value in public philosophy, and take this as license to treat those of us who work in this area as having no value. (This is by no means unique to public philosophy, of course; academic culture, and especially philosophy culture, tends to value people purely in relation to the nature of their job, and the host of people who work with academics but are not themselves academics—librarians, professional service staff, publishers, and so on—are not perceived as colleagues.) I’m also often in a position where I often need to tell people they can’t have the thing they want (rejection emails from the BJPS and so on) or trying to get people to do things they don’t want to do (submit your referee reports, you cowards!). There’s aconstant backlash, as you might expect. Any single instance isn’t so bad, of course, but the drip-drip of angry emails is very tiring. This last point—the anger—can be quite gendered, or certainly exacerbated by sexism, as will probably come as no surprise either. For instance, when I give an academic an answer they don’t like, their response is almost always to reply copying in someone else (sometimes a man who works for me!) to complain. The response I get when it’s assumed a man has done the work or made the decision differs significantly to when the work or decision is recognized as my own. It’s exhausting!
On a much more positive note, the variety of the work suits me very well. And I’ve got to meet some amazing people as a result of our events: philosophers I’ve long admired, of course, but also people from all walks of life who have made important contributions to the sum of human knowledge, often in very difficult situations and at great risk to themselves. I’m also a massive fan of our audience. Their willingness to make space for philosophically informed discussion in their busy lives—how much this sort of thing clearly matters to them—is the main thing that keeps me going!
Thank you so much, Elizabeth, for indulging us. It is brilliant and uplifting to see philosophers go out and create their own impact in the world! You have been an inspiration to me and the birth of the Philosophy of Science Communication Network. We hope to highlight more jobs and research ideas that showcase the wide diversity of philosophy communication.