Clare Chambers is a British political philosopher at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. Clare Chambers received her DPhil in philosophy from the University of Oxford, and she subsequently taught at the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics, before moving to the University of Cambridge. Clare Chambers has published on feminism, liberalism, and social construction. In her 2008 book Sex, Culture, and Justice: the Limits of Free Choice, Chambers is concerned about what the state’s response should be to cultural practices which individuals freely choose to partake in as a way of securing certain goods, when those practices impose disproportionate costs on vulnerable members of the community. In her 2017 book Against Marriage: An Egalitarian Defense of the Marriage-Free State she argues that marriage violates both equality and liberty so should not be recognized by the state, nor have any legal status. This built on her earlier paper ‘The marriage-free state’ which makes the case for abolishing state-recognized marriage and replacing it with piecemeal regulation of personal relationships. Please enjoy my interview with the wonderful Clare Chambers.
How do you describe your occupation?
It depends who’s asking! I’m an academic philosopher specialising in contemporary political philosophy, particularly feminist theory, liberal theory, and theories of social construction.
School run, emails, reading, writing, teaching, emails, school run, family time, maybe some marking after my children are in bed. In term time I don’t have time to get research done and it’s mainly teaching and admin. At the moment I’m on sabbatical so it’s all about the research, which is great. I also really enjoy giving talks and attending conferences.
What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?
I’m reading What Happened by Hillary Clinton and Gender Hurts by Sheila Jeffreys. Both are books by enormously determined women, and both are books that some people felt the authors shouldn’t have written, which is a good part of why I wanted to read them.
Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?
Not the very first. Apparently, I was an early reader. I do remember Ladybird books and the Topsy and Tim books, and I read my old copies to my own children.
Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?
Definitely a bookmarker.
When did you fall in love with philosophy?
I’ve always loved reasoning, argument, and logic puzzles. I first encountered academic philosophy when studying Political Theory as part of my Government and Politics A Level, and never looked back.
If you could gift yourself books at age 16 and age 25 – what would they be and why?
At age 16 I was already a feminist but could have done with some really rousing work to read, so anything by Andrea Dworkin or Catharine MacKinnon. At 25 it would have been great to get a greater insight into the clash between work and family so, assuming I’m not constrained by publication date, I’ll send my younger self Unbending Gender by Joan Williams.
If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?
There are so many amazing living authors, but the chance to invite the dead doesn’t come around often so I’d focus on them. I’d invite Susan Moller Okin and Iris Marion Young, two enormously important feminist political theorists who profoundly inspired my own work and who died far too young. I’d invite Enid Blyton because she wrote a vast number of books, most of which I’ve read, and I’d love to get her view on gender politics in her time and ours. John Stuart Mill would, I’m sure, be fascinating company with great insight into philosophy and politics, and it would be good to get Harriet Taylor’s perspective too.
What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?
It was probably books for my children. The last book I bought for myself was When The State Meets The Street by Bernardo Zacka. I bought it because he gave a fascinating talk at a seminar I convene, and I wanted to read more. The book discusses the moral obligations of front-line public servants, who must constantly engage in ethical decision-making as their jobs require a great deal of discretion.
What is your favourite thing about reading?
The peace and focus that comes from immersing oneself in a book.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
Sweet Caress by William Boyd. I love the way his novels give such a complete and involved picture of a whole life, with so many ages, phases, and different experiences.
If you could insert yourself into any book, which would you pick and why?
I suppose I’d like my own work to be influential, so I’d insert discussion of it into other works of political philosophy!
What advice would you give a novice, looking for an introduction to philosophy?
Just to read, to read widely, and to read critically. There are so many different branches of philosophy, with different methodological approaches, that there’s always more to explore. There are some great introductory books and podcasts too, like Philosophy Bites and Philosophy 24/7, both of which I’ve participated in.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
I can still remember how I felt reading The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer as an undergraduate. I was expecting to read it as a book with historical interest: twenty-five years on, I thought that all its insights would be common knowledge. I was so wrong! I found the book unfamiliar, refreshing, and amazing. It challenged many of my views that I had thought were essentially feminist, and I still learn from it today.
Who would you say are the three philosophers that continue to inspire you?
I’ve mentioned a lot already: all the philosophers mentioned above are a continued inspiration. One I’ve not mentioned so far is John Rawls, whose work was so profoundly influential to Anglophone political philosophy. I see a lot to criticise in the Rawlsian project but also a great deal to admire and inspire, and I find the philosophy itself so fascinating to explore. Another is Michel Foucault, who offers an important corrective to the Rawlsian focus on individual freedom and choice.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
There is so much to read so yes, there must be hundreds! How could anyone know when to stop? Maybe the best thing to do here is to plug my own books: Sex, Culture, and Justice: the Limits of Free Choice, Against Marriage: An Egalitarian Defense of the Marriage-Free State, and Teach Yourself Political Philosophy: A Complete Introduction. Each of those works contains its own reading list by way of a bibliography. In fiction, I have a particular soft spot for both Julian Barnes and David Lodge.
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
I’m looking forward to You’ve Changed: Sex Reassignment and Personal Identity edited by Laurie Shrage for a collection of diverse perspectives on trans issues, Butterfly Politics by Catharine MacKinnon which I’ve had for a while and haven’t had a chance to get to yet, and Equal Citizenship and Public Reason: A Feminist Political Liberalism by Lori Watson and Christie Hartley, whose work I really like.