Helen Steward is Professor of Philosophy of Mind and Action at the University of Leeds. Her interests include the metaphysics and ontology of mind and agency; the free will problem; the relation between humans and animals; and the philosophy of causation and explanation. Helen Steward joined the University of Leeds in 2007, having previously been a Tutorial Fellow at Balliol College, Oxford for fourteen years. Helen Steward obtained a D.Phil from Oxford University in 1992, a B.Phil in 1988 and a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics in 1986. In February 2015 Helen was awarded a Research Leadership Fellowship by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Helen Steward is also a well-respected author, with her latest book A Metaphysics for Freedom enjoying a particularly positive reception. Please enjoy my interview with the wonderful, Helen Steward…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
It depends on who they are and how long I think I’ve got. Sometimes, I confess, if I don’t feel like explaining just what philosophy is – or justifying it – I lazily let myself get away with saying (more or less truthfully!) that I’m a teacher. If I do feel like it, I just say that I teach philosophy at the University of Leeds (less and less true these days, as I have acquired larger and larger management roles). I tend *not* to say that I’m a philosopher, though. I think that makes it sound as though I might be setting myself up as some sort of sage or advisor, and I’m clear that I’m not either of those things!
A novel called Weathering by Lucy Wood. I’m loving it. I’m not quite sure how I came to have it – it must have been a birthday present, I think, but whoever gave it to me didn’t write in the front, and I now can’t remember who it was. It’s about three generations of women – one who drowns in a river on the incredibly compelling first page of the novel – and her daughter and granddaughter, who arrive to ‘sort things out’ and then somehow end up staying much longer than they’d anticipated. The natural surroundings are brilliantly evoked – as are the hardships of the old, badly-maintained, cold and uncomfortable house which is miles away from the nearest village. Their car is unreliable. The river is constantly roaring in the background and feels wild and dangerous. The daughter is bullied at the local school and bites people. The family’s existence feels marginal, itinerant, poor – and is brilliantly drawn. I’d definitely recommend it.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
Lots of things. My mum read to my sister and I all the time when we were young –usually when we were in the bath! Amongst many favourites were The Land of Green Ginger by Noel Langley, The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett; and a collection of stories by Hans Christian Anderson that I treasured, but always approached with trepidation because so many of the stories in it made me cry. I also have to confess to reading Famous Five books and the St. Clare’s and Malory Towers series, all by Enid Blyton, over and over again, despite what I can now recognise to be their limited literary value and (sometimes) unpleasant social attitudes.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A poet. I wanted to be a poet and live in the Lake District. I now write philosophy and live on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. I’m getting quite close, I think!
When did you fall in love with philosophy?
As soon as I began doing it. Literally – immediately. I knew it was for me right away. I’d never done philosophy at school – nobody really did back then. But I applied to do Philosophy, Politics and Economics at University, mainly because I thought I wanted to do Politics and Economics. I didn’t know what Philosophy was – it just came along with the other two subjects. But as it turned out, it was Philosophy that grabbed me. When I started studying it, I felt as though I had suddenly discovered the place where people were discussing all the things it came to me naturally to wonder about; and where they thought about things in the way I did – in the way I thought one *should* think about things. That is: slowly, rationally, carefully – making distinctions, clarifying points, refusing obfuscation and over-complication – and trying always to find out the truth about big and difficult questions, in so far as it’s possible – and admitting freely when it isn’t possible.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
I think she’d be pretty surprised! I was a very shy child – and I think the idea that I might be someone who talked to large groups of people for a living would have amazed the younger me. I think she might also think I should stop talking and writing so much and start doing a bit more to make the world a better place. I do worry about that. I do worry that although I love my life, it’s a rather self-indulgent one, in many respects – even though I do think that philosophical ideas really matter. Things are very, very urgent in many ways at the moment, and perhaps we can’t afford to do things which aren’t more directly aimed at improving a lot of suffering humanity (and animality). I think I am going to have to make up for that a bit when I retire.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
Well – of course, one should never leave education! But if I was going to give my school-leaver self a present, I think I might give myself the Collins Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. In later life, I’ve developed a passion for birdwatching – and I sometimes wish I’d started when I was younger and had better eyesight and more energy. The Collins guide is a beautifully detailed and marvellously complete compendium of every bird you’re ever likely to see in Europe in different seasonal plumages and with different sexes and ages all meticulously illustrated and described. Maybe if I’d had it at age 18, I’d have made an earlier start.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
I do different kinds of reading. Over breakfast, it’s the Guardian – a paper copy in the old fashioned way. In the daytime, I read for work – books, articles, and so on, that I might need to read in order to write something myself on some topic. Leisurely reading I mostly do in bed, before I go to sleep. I’ve always got a novel (or something else I’m reading for pleasure) by the side of the bed.
My favourite kind of reading, though, is a sort I don’t allow myself very much – daytime novel-reading, where you can really immerse yourself in something for hours and forget everything except the book. I only really do that on holiday. I’m not quite sure why this is ….
That’s really very, very hard to say. One book that had a big impact on me – and in a sense emboldened me to think that I could legitimately try to say something in my own work about animal agency, was a book by a sociologist called Eileen Crist – called Images of Animals: Anthropomorphism and Animal Minds. It helped me see that the then current consensus in psychology that one must attempt to describe animal behaviour in ‘neutral’ terminology was simply a nonsense – that there is no such neutral terminology – and that psychologists’ and ethologists’ attempts to stick to vocabulary that did not make mentalistic attributions to animals just ended up indulging in the alternative vice of what Crist calls ‘mechanomorphism’ – the portrayal of an animal as an ‘empty vessel’, without any subjectivity. I think that was part of what made me think that it would be important to think more about animals in my work on the free will debate. And it has very much been that aspect of my work that has attracted the most attention – the idea that animals might have an (admittedly relatively low-grade) variety of freedom.
What advice would you give a novice, looking for an introduction to philosophy?
I think What does it all Mean? by Thomas Nagel is still very hard to beat. Think by Simon Blackburn is another cracker. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder – also often recommended as an introductory book – is fine until about halfway through – don’t read any further than that if you don’t want to end up throwing it across the room in exasperation!
Who would you say are the three philosophers that continue to inspire you?
Aristotle, Wittgenstein and the late, brilliant, Brian O’Shaughnessy.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
I have the complete set of Guides to the Lakeland Fells, which I was given as presents, one by one, over the course of my teenage years, when I was obsessed with climbing all the mountains of the Lake District over 2000 feet. And I associate those with my dad, who introduced me to mountains from an early age – my love of the outdoors, and especially of uplands, stems from his early influence.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
That’s a difficult one. My friends and family all have very different tastes in reading from one another – so there’s not much I’ve recommended to more than one of them. It’s probably Veg Every Day by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, which is an absolutely fantastic vegetarian cook book, full of recipes that actually work and most aren’t too fussy and reliant on ingredients you can only find online. I know I’ve recommended that to quite a few people!
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
For pleasure, I nearly always read fiction. But I’m not sure that means I prefer it! I like both – but fiction is just a way of switching off from the sort of reading I do during the working day. If I had to read fiction for work, I’d probably read non-fiction for pleasure.
Do you think reading is important?
Yes. Incredibly so. It’s a route to so many things – knowledge, ideas, understanding, pleasure, relaxation, creativity, comfort. I know not everyone uses reading in all these ways – but most people use it in at least some of them. And literacy also matters a great deal to the success of our attempts to live together – it helps us explain ourselves to one another, and helps us to imagine the predicaments and heartaches of others, and even to feel our own. Some of these things one can get from other sources, of course – films, plays, music, photography – but I like the privacy of reading and the ease with which you can fit it into a domestic context. There need be no negotiation about reading. There’s just you and the book and all you need is a corner to curl up in and a bit of spare time.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
I recently read (or perhaps re-read? – I have a terrible memory) The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy for my book group. I think we chose it because her second novel has just come out – but ‘God of Small Things’ came out in 1997. It’s an astounding novel – brilliantly written, cleverly structured, utterly gripping and terrifying. Another brilliant recent read was The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota. The two connect, in that both tell stories which are partly about the lives of ‘untouchables’ – the first, in Kerala, the second in the UK – and there are frightening parallels.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
Oh real, real – every time. I’m a total dinosaur. The only time I’ve ever resorted to my Kindle was to read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy which was too heavy to hold up comfortably in bed! As I just said, I’ve got a bad memory and I often have to flick back through books to remind myself of things that happened earlier. This is very hard to do on a Kindle or an iPad.
I recently read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It makes the I guess not-very-surprising claim that extraordinarily successful people (think Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, etc.) often get where they do because of factors that have to do not so much with their own dedication, energy and genius, as with lucky breaks, societal factors, what month they’re born in, and so on. In a sense, we know this already, of course. But Gladwell supplies the examples, the narratives, the arresting facts and figures to make the case truly compelling in a way that sociological studies mostly don’t do. It’s a gripping and memorable read which supplies a lot of food for thought.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
It was probably Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein. I don’t think I’m especially Wittgensteinian in my approach to philosophy any longer – but I first read Wittgenstein in the third year of my PPE degree, and it was what made me think I really wanted to go on and do some more philosophy. It was weird and gnomic and exciting – I didn’t understand it – but I was convinced it was deep and important. It lent an enchantment to my third year studies that doubtless encouraged me to apply to do a Master’s in Philosophy – which of course led to everything else.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
Some important books for my philosophical development (in addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned) have been Sameness and Substance by David Wiggins; a much too little-known book called Dynamics in Action by Alicia Juarrero, Natural Agency by John Bishop; and The Dappled World by Nancy Cartwright – all of which made a big impact on me. Each tries to set forth a general way of thinking about the natural world and our place within it which presents certain challenges to philosophical orthodoxy – and all of them have helped me develop my own unorthodox metaphysical views. They have also, of course, helped to give me the confidence to think that unorthodox positions can be well worth working out.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I don’t really plan my reading. I see what falls into my lap – what my book group is reading, what I’m seeing cited all the time, what I read a good review of … so I don’t really have a plan, as such.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
Birds and Words? – my two passions!