susan haack

Susan Haack is a Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, Cooper Senior Scholar in Arts and Sciences, Professor of Philosophy, and Professor of Law at the University of Miami.  Her work has ranged from philosophy of logic and language, epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of science, Pragmatism—both philosophical and legal—and the law of evidence, especially scientific evidence, to social philosophy, feminism, and philosophy of literature.  Susan Haack has written numerous books, with her most recent book Evidence Matters: Science, Proof, and Truth in the Law receiving incredibly positive reviews.  On top of her books, Susan Haack has also published more than 200 articles, touching on a wide range of topics, and her work has been translated into many other languages.  Susan Haack has won awards from the American Philosophical Association and from UM, for excellence in teaching; and (also from UM) an award for outstanding graduate mentor, the Provost’s Award for excellence in research, and the Faculty Senate Distinguished Scholar Award; as well as the Forkosch Award for excellence in writing.  Susan Haack was also included in Peter J. King’s One Hundred Philosophers: The Life and Work of the World’s Greatest Thinkers; and in the Sunday Independent’s list, based on a BBC poll, of the ten most important women philosophers of all time.  It’s a real honour to have had a chance to talk books with one of the world’s most respected philosophers.  Please enjoy my interview with the genuinely inspiring Susan Haack…

When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?

Usually, “I teach in a university” or “I’m a professor.”

What are you reading at the moment?

Well, for work-related purposes, a biography of Lord Rayleigh (trying to understand why his discovery of discrepancies in the density of nitrogen were so important); this is hard-going. For relaxation, a detective story by Ngaio Marsh.

When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?

The Little Round House (I don’t recall the author). It’s about a family who live inside a pillar-box (i.e., a British mail-box, which is cylindrical—and bright red). Whenever they need furniture, etc., they simply paint it on the walls inside. One day it gets really cold; so they paint a fire which, however, gets so hot they have to call the real fire-brigade! Even as a child, I loved the play on the imaginary versus the real…

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

For a few weeks after reading what was no doubt a romanticized biography of Florence Nightingale, I wanted to be a nurse. (It’s a good thing that didn’t work out; I’d have been terrible). But I also remember that when I played with my dolls I didn’t pretend to be their mother, but lined them up on the steps in the back garden and pretended to be their teacher…

When did you fall in love with philosophy?

I don’t think I’d ever describe myself as “falling in love with philosophy”; it sounds, honestly, like the way adolescents (and sometimes business-management folk) talk!  I’d say I gradually came to believe that I might be able to make a contribution to the field—and have been gradually extending the scope of my contributions since, so that now they are very broad indeed. Doing philosophy productively is damned hard work, and can be very frustrating at times; but it’s rewarding to know when you’ve figured something out, or at least made a step forward.

What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?

I think my school-aged self would be VERY surprised, both at what I’m doing, and at where I’m dong it; but perhaps the inspiring history teacher who, in high school, encouraged me to apply to Oxford wouldn’t have been so astonished. (A few years ago, when I was in London, I met him for dinner; and was delighted to find that he was as smart and interesting as I remembered—and that he shared my taste for Dorothy Sayers’s detective fiction.)

If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?

I can’t imagine “leaving education.”

Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?

Not exactly; but I usually read in airports, on planes, and regularly for a bit in the late evening at home.

the collected papers of charles sanders peirceWhich book has had the biggest impact on your career so far? How did it impact it?

The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce by Charles Sanders Peirce, which I still remember carting to my office from the university library in the early 70s. I hardly emerged for six weeks, after which I announced to anyone who’d listen, “I just discovered a philosophical goldmine!” Peirce’s thought is rich and deep; and over the years it has helped me think through many hard questions.

What advice would you give a novice, looking for an introduction to philosophy?

I suppose it would depend on the person, their age, how educated they are, and why they are looking for an introduction to philosophy.

Who would you say are the three philosophers that continue to inspire you?

The old Pragmatists: Peirce, William James, John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, and in legal philosophy, Oliver Wendell Holmes. (Yes, I know that’s five!) BUT: many others have been important too: notably Karl Popper and Richard Rorty—not because they’re right, but because I’ve learned so much from figuring out how very badly wrong they both are! And I’ve earned a lot, philosophically, from a whole variety of writers, such as Samuel Butler (on self-deception and the epistemic virtues); Dorothy Sayers (on feminism); and a lot, too, from two valued correspondents, Robert Heilbroner and Jacques Barzun, on how to write.

1984 by george orwellWhat book have you recommended the most to friends and family?

I don’t very often recommend books to friends and family. I did, however, do a lot of “recommending books” last semester, when I was teaching a class on philosophy and literature. For the class, all the students read several epistemological novels: Imaginary Friends by Alison Lurie (on the real versus the imaginary); The Way of all Flesh by Samuel Butler (on intellectual honesty and genuine inquiry versus the sham); 1984 by George Orwell (on truth and history); Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis (on the demands of science); Headlong by Michael Frayn (on misleading evidence); and Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers (on the relation of epistemological and ethical values, and the place of women in the life of the mind).

And as we were moving along, I found myself recommending other novels too: Poppie Nongena by Elsa Joubert (a work of fiction involving a real black women living under the pass laws of the apartheid era in South Africa), on the blurry line between fact and fiction; The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, a fine example of the didactic novel; The Man by Irving Wallace (a work of fiction written in 1964 in which, by a series of accidents, a black man becomes President of the United States), on how novels can contribute to discussion of social issues; and Reversible Errors by Scott Turow (a legal thriller) on what makes evidence misleading.

Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?

For relaxation, fiction.

Do you think reading is important?

Well, some level of literacy is just about essential to survive in modern society. Beyond that, I often think–wondering why so many students write so awkwardly–that what they need is to read (much) more well-written stuff.  But of course, for someone like me, reading is much more than that—a core part of my work, and a major part of my non-work life.

the phantom tollboothWhat’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?

I’ll mention two, neither new, both recommended by friends. First, fiction: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, yes, it’s a children’s book; but it’s marvellous, very funny, verbally brilliant, and wonderfully epistemological. Then non-fiction: Diversity: The Invention of a Concept by Peter Wood, a searching account of how this concept emerged, in its contemporary sense, and how it become so ubiquitous after Justice Powell introduced it in his ruling for the plurality in the 1967 case of Alan Bakke versus the University of California.

Do you prefer real books or digital books?

Real books; but I may have to change my tune if my house finally explodes when I buy one more book!

If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?

I  WOULD call it Out of Step—except that Sidney Hook already used that title!

If you’d like to learn more about Susan Haack, you can find her on her faculty page.