A Conversation with Kate Manne
In January 2022, Will Cailes and Jack Hawke interviewed Kate Manne for UPJA’s Conversations from the Region, an ongoing series of discussions with philosophers from, or working in, Australasia. The segment explores how people become philosophers and how philosophers work, giving our audiences a better idea of the work that academic philosophers do.
Jack: What are your philosophical interests?
At the moment I do predominantly moral, social, and feminist philosophy. Specifically, I’ve been really interested for about the last seven years in the question of what misogyny is and how it manifests; so that’s a project in feminist philosophy that I wrote two books on. How misogyny is connected with male entitlement is part of that project. More recently, I’m interested in fat phobia—how it manifests in contemporary life and how it has a particular impact on girls, women, and other gender minorities.
Jack: And what initially drew you to study philosophy?
That’s a good question. In my first year at the University of Melbourne, I really fell in love with philosophy. When I reflect back on that time I think one of the things that really drew me to philosophy was the way it made space for disagreement. Civil and intelligent disagreement between reasonable people seems to be the lifeblood of the discipline; I found that really attractive. As someone who has always had a slightly ambivalent relationship with authority, the idea that you could read a famous and incredibly brilliant philosopher, and you were not just allowed but encouraged to disagree with the views they took, that’s really what got me into philosophy.
Jack: I have a friend who said that studying philosophy makes them feel safe. It’s counterintuitive because philosophers like to argue and that doesn’t seem safe, but the idea is that it gives you an environment where you can respectfully disagree with someone—even someone famous—as long as you can make a logical argument for it, and people won’t hold it against you.
That’s exactly right. There’s something about philosophy that encourages dissent. This can be a very emancipatory practice and is something that keeps me in the discipline. One of the reasons why I teach philosophy is that you can have a classroom space where people feel comfortable disagreeing with putative authority figures. That’s a very good thing for people, especially people from various minority groups, to learn—that they are allowed to do that, including questioning me as their teacher. So, promoting a space that allows for rational, reasonable, civil, and energetic disagreement without violating social norms—I think that is what both attracted me to and keeps me in philosophy.
Will: What was the philosophical culture like for you as a student at the University of Melbourne in the early 2000s; do you have any experiences, classes, or academics you found particularly engaging or exciting?
I remember it being a very encouraging, supportive, and thriving department, and I really felt blessed to have wonderful teachers and mentors, including Greg Restall and Graham Priest. When I moved into logic relatively quickly in my undergrad years they were really supportive and crucial mentors for me. I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to continue in philosophy if it weren’t for them. So their classes were the most memorable, and overall their support made it possible for me to feel like I could perhaps be like them one day—‘a philosopher’—and professionally employed as such. So I really owe them a debt of gratitude.
Will: That’s really good to hear that they were so supportive. I feel like, while many academics are supportive, others can lack the skills to make people feel comfortable and welcome within philosophy. I imagine this could be especially true within logic, due to its more prescriptive characteristics; if one feels uncomfortable or struggles in that area, then they may be more likely to think that the feeling is the result of something flawed in themselves.
I think so. I think too, it shouldn’t go without saying, especially in that era—which was after all, gosh, nearly twenty years ago now—that they were very encouraging to women in the discipline. Which is a great thing, and of course we hear lots of people paying lip service to that idea but not everyone walks the walk, and I feel like they really did.
Will: Obviously people come to philosophy in different ways, some people discover philosophy in high school, some people don’t really discover it until university… What was your perception of the field as an undergraduate?
When I think about this question I think about my own kind of class and institutional and family privileges. My father is a professor of political science (now emeritus) and he really encouraged me. Maybe it was somewhat wishful thinking on his part, but he always thought I had a very philosophical mind, which makes me giggle a bit now, to think of myself as a child being pegged in this way, as ‘philosophical’. One of his best friends, Raimond Gaita, is a very well known philosopher, and my dad always thought that the way that I thought reminded him of Rai. Obviously that was a bit of an aspirational idea of his, and I was just a little girl, but it also was, again, encouragement, and the thought that I could be a philosopher later in life emerged from that.
My perception of philosophy was unusual in that I thought it was something that I could do; I was attracted to how rigorous it seemed, how difficult it seemed, but it didn’t seem off limits. I came to university with a fairly rich set of ideas about what philosophy was. I had read Rai’s books, I’d done Theory of Knowledge when I did the International Baccalaureate in high school, so I had a little bit of background in philosophy. And I also had those conversations around the dinner table about philosophy that I’m very aware other students don’t have. Many people don’t have that kind of background, especially first generation university students.
So I think it’s important for me to reflect on my own privilege, in terms of having that background which made philosophy a little bit less forbidding for me than it might be for some other people who need more encouragement and support to make it a field that they feel they have access to. In terms of my own teaching now I try to be very aware that not everyone has the sense that philosophy might be for them, even if in fact they’re very attracted to it and talented at philosophical thinking. In terms of struggles I had, I do think that I was very aware that logic was quite male-dominated, and personally that was something that did feel like a barrier to entry, although as I said that was mitigated by valuable mentorship and support from professors.
Will: Drawing from your experiences more generally, do you have any advice from that time in your life that could have helped you, or would help students today?
Yeah, although I think this isn’t terribly original advice! Really get to know your professors, and view them as a resource, as someone to bounce ideas around with, someone who you can look to for advice as to what to read, and what might be interesting to discuss together. Also, practise wide reading and try to get as familiar as you can with many different areas of philosophy. I would also suggest, as much as people can (and again this varies depending on things like institutional privilege), going to lots of philosophy talks and just getting a flavour for what the discipline is like and how philosophers interact with one another. Again that’s not always possible for everyone, but in as much as it is possible I think it’s a really valuable thing—to get a sense of how philosophical discourse works, how ‘back and forth’ works. When you go to a talk I think it’s a good idea to try to think of a question, and then if you’re able to—if you have the bandwidth and the confidence—try to ask that question. Raise your hand. My hope is that increasingly philosophers will welcome this show of interest from younger members of our discipline and be encouraging and welcoming. So that is my somewhat aspirational answer! But those are good practices for undergraduates: read widely, talk to your professors, and go to talks if you can, including those now online, given that we are living in a more Zoom friendly world (for better or for worse).
Will: When you finished at the University of Melbourne, you moved to MIT to do postgraduate studies.. Some Australasian undergraduate students feel the pressure to look abroad for post grad options—did you feel that, and what was the experience of deciding to study abroad like for you?
I don’t think I really felt pressure exactly, perhaps I would have if I were reluctant, but I was really keen to go to the U.S. I had encountered a number of American professors at undergraduate conferences, and I went to an undergraduate workshop at the ANU organised by Al Hájek and Daniel Stoljar, who are terrific mentors [and had worked in the U.S.], so I’d gotten a flavour of how American philosophical discourse worked. I was just really attracted to it, for whatever reason, maybe it was just the novelty, maybe it was the (to me then) cool accents… but I very much wanted to be in America studying. I didn’t apply anywhere in the UK and I only applied in Australia as a back-up plan. Because I didn’t have that ambivalence that other people might understandably and rightly have about that huge move, I don’t recall it being a pressure. I recall it being more being more that I was very much encouraged to study overseas. I was lucky to be awarded a General Sir John Monash Scholarship, which is specifically for Australians who want to go abroad to study, so all roads led to Rome in that sense. I felt very lucky and privileged to get to study in America, at MIT, and specifically with Sally Haslanger, who became my dear friend as well as a mentor. I was really thrilled to have a wonderful mentor in the field that I was writing in.
Jack: It’s common for philosophers nowadays to specialize in very specific areas, but you’ve had a wide ranging career—starting with logic, and then moving into ethics and feminist philosophy. How has this journey been for you? Some philosophers have noticed that there is a gradual disappearance of generalists and a tendency towards hyperspecialization in philosophy. What are your thoughts on this?
I’m someone who actually only has one thing I’m really interested in, which is authority; just about every one of my projects is kind of unified by this. In saying that, it took me a while to pick up on this trend, but I’m really galvanised by questions of authority—logical authority, ethical authority, moral authority and also what I think of as ‘bodily authority’. What I’m thinking about now is kind of the bodily authority of hunger as a morally important force. My interest in authority forced me to move between lots of different subfields in philosophy but the underlying topic for me is the same. I feel like I actually have kind of a one-track mind in a way—even though on paper it looks like I’m doing lots of different things.
I’m not sure I really do think there is hyperspecialization. I think there are different people in philosophy with very different temperaments, and some people absolutely are hyper-specialised in a way that used to be very rare, because they’re really interested in just one literature or one problem or one set of techniques, for example in metaphysics. But I think there are other people, not necessarily ‘generalists’ exactly… I wouldn’t think of myself as a generalist, just because there’s so many areas of philosophy in which I have no view and no interest really. But I do think there are lots of people like me, who move between different areas trying to illuminate some problem or topic or set of questions, and that requires them to have ‘fingers in many pies’. Obviously, as the literature on any interesting question gets more dense there’s more background reading and more preparation you have to do, and that’s a mixed blessing. You don’t get the kind of clean, clear, citation-free papers of yore that you had in, say, the 1950s, but you also don’t get people ignoring important literatures and contributions that should be acknowledged. I would say that the way the field has changed is a mixed bag, but I do think there’s still room to be interested in a whole bunch of different questions or aspects of one topic like I am.
Jack: Interesting! So as you were moving from logic to ethics, and to feminist philosophy, did you encounter many people with sceptical views about this, like people saying ‘this is a wrong career move’?
I actually didn’t encounter much resistance to moving in a more general direction, and I think I was lucky in that respect. That has a lot to do with the fact that I was, again, someone with a lot of privilege, including institutional privilege—although I’m sure people have, you know, raised eyebrows behind my back. But honestly, I haven’t had a lot of hostility about the choices I’ve made, so I’ll just continue to cross my fingers that I get away with it! Because I think of myself as a philosopher, but also very much also as a writer. A lot of these decisions, in terms of how I present my work, have been about how I can reach the widest possible audience and still write in the way I want to write. So that often involves making choices about trying to write more accessibly, maybe in a more journalistic style, with more examples and real-world cases and so on. It certainly isn’t a methodology that would work for every question or for every person, but I think it’s worked well for me so far. I’ve actually found a lot of open-mindedness in the field, going about things in that way.
Jack: This connects to the next question. You do a lot of public philosophy and are very visible generally in the public sphere, for example, on Twitter or in media outlets like the New York Times. What do you think is the value of public philosophy, and do you think there is enough of it?
I actually don’t make a big distinction between public philosophy and other kinds of philosophy. I think of public philosophy as just philosophy done in a public-facing way, for a wider audience. It’s often the case that I have something to say that feels like it might be of interest to more people than just philosophers. And that’s when I’ll try to shape it into a piece that will work for a more general audience. I actually have no particular views about whether we need more public philosophy or less public philosophy… I certainly have no problem with people who do no public philosophy! I think it’s just people having very different tastes, proclivities, and talents, and we need many different people to be doing many different things. I certainly think it’s a good thing to have some public philosophy—that is, philosophy done for the public—and I think it’s a good thing to have really specialist philosophy that will only be comprehensible to a handful of people in these niche subfields. I’m very much a pluralist about how we should be writing and how we should be presenting our work, depending on what suits it genre-wise and medium-wise.
Jack: I did find when I was reading Down Girl that it is very engaging, and you’re able to present arguments in ways that are very relatable for a general audience while still being very rigorous in your analysis. Often technical philosophy and popular philosophy are treated as two very different genres, but you’ve managed to combine aspects of each.
I so appreciate you saying that! I certainly never think we should compromise on philosophical rigour. To me, what public philosophy requires, what accessible philosophy requires, is to take away the needless scaffolding. So often, in our thinking about a question, we’ve drawn on seventeen different distinctions, or drawn on some arcane series of thoughts from some older literature… but when we actually examine the thought that results, it doesn’t necessarily need all that. We have to separate out the order of justification and the order of discovery, and if you take out a lot of the discovery process and then focus on ‘OK, what is the take home point and what justifies it?’—often that can be quite clean and spare, in a way that lends itself to a wider readership.
I never think of public philosophy as dumbing down a thought, or making a thought accessible to people who otherwise would not understand it; I think of it as ‘how much jargon do you really need to make this point?’ Often it’s surprisingly little. ‘How simply can an idea be presented and still retain its power and its point?’ And yes, sometimes that will be ‘not excessively’ or simply ‘not at all’, but at other times all the minutiae can go, the scaffolding can go. And even the ‘how you got there’ can go, and it can just be left in this stark and more skeletal form, which I think is easier to see the structure of, even from outside the discipline.
I should say that I don’t care for public philosophy that kind of takes a philosophical argument or message and tries to render it ‘palatable’ for a general audience. I think that’s often clumsy and clunky. Rather it’s: ‘how can you write this in a way that makes sense for people who don’t necessarily have a ton of background, but that retains its philosophical depth?’ That’s at least the challenge!
Jack: In your academic work you often engage with concrete, real-world examples, like the Isla Vista shootings. Traditionally philosophers take a more conceptual or abstract approach. Why do you favour your approach and what advantages do you think it has?
I think it depends on the subject matter. When it comes to a topic like misogyny I really want the reader to appreciate the stakes, which are sometimes life and death, and illustrating that through real-world rather than ‘toy’ examples makes that much clearer to the reader. That’s not to say that more abstract (or toy) examples or pure thought experiments can’t have value in other areas of philosophy, but it’s really about the subject matter that I’m tackling and the sense that it’s important to be in touch with the real world—which is so permeated by misogyny—in order to make it clear that these are problems that really affect girls and women in real life, in ways that we should be sensitive to.
Will: Obviously Down Girl was written some years ago, and maybe things have changed since then, but you note at the beginning of the book when you’re first exploring the problem of misogyny that there’s a real dearth in the literature of analytic philosophy on the topic. Why do you think this is the case, and do you think this is likely to change going forward?
Interesting question. I think one reason may be that the actual word misogyny was used less until about 10 years ago. So I think partly this is just analytic philosophy playing catch-up with linguistic trends. If you look at the Google Ngram for the word misogyny it’s not that common in news headlines until 2012-ish, and there have been lots of spikes since then. I also think that there is in general a taboo around women speaking out about misogyny. One of the things that I try to argue in my work on this subject is that misogyny is a self-masking phenomenon, because trying to draw attention to the problem of misogyny often attracts more misogyny. We’re incentivized as women and even as feminists to avoid this topic, because the first rule of misogyny is you don’t talk about misogyny.
Will: Do you think that is shifting at all?
For sure, I’m seeing a lot more work on the topic, which is encouraging. I’m also seeing work on related topics, such as the similar kinds of hostility and aggression shown towards nonbinary people and trans people: transphobia, transmisogyny, and so on. I think we’re seeing more attention to these hostility-based phenomena but they still continue to be an important force in our world, along with things like explicit racism, classism, xenophobia, fat phobia, and ableism.
Will: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions that people have about being a philosopher?
I think one of the misconceptions that maybe persists to some extent is that philosophers don’t and shouldn’t ‘live in the world’: that they don’t and shouldn’t consume TV and books and movies and they should be completely consumed with most abstract thoughts. I think that’s both an erroneous stereotype and a harmful one. I think it’s actually very useful for philosophers in general (and particularly for people who work in the vicinity of ethics) to be very engaged with the world, and to know what’s going on in politics and literature and art and, for that matter, reality TV… to have a sense of how culture is operating. Especially for people who are interested in applying these powerful analytic tools to the analysis of culture and the critique of culture which is part of the project of ethics. So that misconception is something I would love to dispel—maybe just to make an excuse for my own love of television! The perception that we’re always reading Kant in the evening is very much neither true nor desirable.
Will: The philosophical discipline is well known to have historically excluded (and to some extent still continues to exclude) marginalised groups such as women, people of colour, trans people, and others. What are your thoughts on this and have you noticed any meaningful change over your time in philosophy?
It’s tricky, because I do think we’re making progress… I do think there’s more awareness, for one example, of the need for trans inclusivity in some circles. However, progress (as I’ve argued in other contexts) is almost inextricably connected in the real world with backlash. So we also see incredible amounts of aggression and hostility towards, again just for example, trans philosophers, because just by way of increasing visibility and increasing inclusivity there are then movements and people within philosophy who want to exclude and to gatekeep. I think we need to be very aware that it’s never a linear, upwards trend, in philosophy specifically or in life in general. It’s not even ‘two steps forward, one step back’, it’s much more what Tressie McMillan Cottom calls a ‘do-si-do dance’ where the very fact we make a step forward means someone else makes a step back, and there’s this kind of connection between the good stuff and the bad stuff, in terms of being more inclusive and more aware of the need to accommodate marginalised people and bodies. So while I think we’ve come a long way, there’s still a lot of work to be done, and there’s still a lot of backlash to contend with.
Will: Absolutely! What do you hope to achieve in your career in academic philosophy (if you want to stay in academic philosophy), and what are your hopes for the future of philosophy?
I think more inclusivity of people who are differently socially situated, but also differently embodied. Recently I’ve been thinking about the need for more inclusivity of fat bodies in the discipline, and the way that we’re implicitly (at least) fatphobic. Also, as I mentioned in the answer to the last question, trans inclusivity is super important. I would also say in terms of the work we do in the discipline, I’ve been very encouraged in the last ten years or so to see more socially and politically inflected philosophy in a range of different subfields. I would love to see more of that, I would love to see that trend continuing. Not just because it’s often conducive to inclusivity (although it is) but also because it’s very interesting! It’s just very interesting, cool, good work. As someone who sees myself as partially an analytic philosopher of culture it just seems to me that there’s so much work to be done that has been not fully explored in philosophy, work that draws on socially and politically rich ideas in order to shed light on questions in epistemology and metaphysics and ethics and a range of other sub-disciplines. So I hope that continues.
Will: Can you tell us about a book or a paper that had a particularly profound effect on your intellectual development?
Absolutely. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy by Bernard Williams had a really profound effect on me for two reasons. One is that he is an incredibly elegant essayist and just a really superb writer, so he demonstrated to me that you could be both a philosopher and a writer in ways that weren’t at odds with one another. That book in particular highlights this idea that I have long been attracted to, that there are ‘pseudo-obligations’ that we should be very sensitive to. So as well as being interested, as moral philosophers in establishing obligations that have perhaps been overlooked, we should be interested in making it known that there are obligations that have been posited that are implausible, pernicious, oppressive, and so on. That book really brought out for me the ways in which moral philosophers could focus not just on questions about ‘what it is one ought to do’, but ‘what it is not the case that one ought to do’, or ‘must do’, as an ethical agent. That book profoundly affected me, even though ostensibly it doesn’t have much to do with what I research concretely. But in both style and substance, it very much influenced me.
Jack: And finally: what is the most controversial source of course stance you hold?
I feel sometimes as philosophers we’re not in the best position to identify what is the most controversial view we hold—because ultimately, it’s for other people to object to our idea and prove that it is super controversial. But my guess is maybe one of the most controversial ideas I hold at the moment is that perhaps we’re not just entitled to—but maybe even have what Joseph Raz calls a liberating duty to—satisfy our hunger. There’s a very prevalent idea within diet culture (particularly for girls and women but not exclusively so—its also for nonbinary people, and this is also affecting boys and men) that hunger is something that we shouldn’t indulge, and that we should be as abstemious as possible in our eating habits, and that hunger is largely a sort of ‘irrelevancy’ when it comes to how we should treat our bodies. Yes, we should get enough nutrition, but the sheer fact of hunger or the sensation of hunger isn’t ethically important, if it’s to do with one’s own self and how you treat yourself. Which is funny because hunger has rightly been taken terribly seriously when it happens to other people, in terms of famine relief and so on. So my own view, that I think may be controversial, is that we do in fact have something like a moral duty to ourselves to satisfy our hunger, rather than trying to either ignore it or silence it. And that there is something inherently valuable in being tied to our bodies, and each other, via this thrice-or-so daily practice of satisfying our hunger. This is a kind of anti-diet culture stance, that draws on ideas I have about certain states of bodily need being what I call ‘morally imperative’—a bodily imperative being a moral imperative to act upon. So we’ll see how that plays out, but that’s work I’m developing at the moment, and I think that may turn out to be controversial.
I’m very sensitive when I’m making arguments about hunger that people are under enormous constraints as to how they eat and what they eat, including constraints of health. There are people that have all sorts of constraints, sometimes quite rigid constraints on what they can eat to remain healthy. And there are also financial considerations that are paramount for very many people. Many people can’t afford to even satisfy their hunger, and certainly not by eating the foods that they would ideally wish to. And of course there are also ethical considerations about how people satisfy their hunger. But the primary argument I’m making is that we shouldn’t deprive ourselves (in order to be ‘thinner’, as such) given that it’s not clearly going to have health benefits (as current research is increasingly showing there’s a very complex relationship between health and weight and diet) but also because that’s just not a good way to live, for most of us.
Thank you, Professor Kate Manne!
You can see more of Kate Manne’s work here, and check out her books Down Girl and Entitled.
This interview was edited and abridged by Jack Hawke, Jessica Sophia Ralph, James Cafferky, and Anna Day and published in March 2022.