In Motion: Trish Glazebrook’s philosophy
Professor of philosophy and director of the School of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs, Patricia “Trish” Glazebrook joined CAS faculty in May, bringing global experience and perspective to her teaching, leadership, and research. An expert in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, she has published extensively on several additional topics, including ecofeminism, ancient philosophy, philosophy of technology, environmental philosophy, and climate change and climate justice. Her current research addresses climate impacts and adaptations by women subsistence farmers in Ghana.
You were born in Scotland and grew up in England and Canada—how did you become involved in academics and research in Nigeria, Ghana, Germany, and India?
The Nigerian connection began in 2006 when I met a colleague with shared interest in issues of oil development in the Niger Delta. He had been a student activist as an undergrad in Nigeria and was doing a PhD in Toronto, where I had done my PhD a few years earlier, and we’ve been collaborating ever since. We’re now trying to launch a set of journals about environmental, climate, and development issues in Africa.
I also had a long-standing interest in international music; I used to do a radio show, and was apprenticed to a master drummer from Ghana for a couple of years. Through drumming, I visited Ghana, and immediately saw the challenges women farmers—who provide 86 percent of Ghana’s national food basket—must overcome to feed their families and community. They are suffering terribly as global climate change causes catastrophic events, like flooding and drought, and makes the rains variable and unpredictable. The impacts of climate change and the adaptations of women subsistence farmers in northeast Ghana became and remain my main research focus.
Each year, I go to the UN negotiations where I am part of the Gender Constituency through an organization called Gender CC: Women for Climate Justice, based in Berlin. And through my interest in Vandana Shiva, a global leader in environmental policy and activism who originally trained as a quantum physicist, I connected to a group in India. I visit them periodically and serve on their editorial board.
Why is it important for scientists to study philosophy—and vice versa?
Science lets you know things; philosophy lets you ask why you might want to know them. Philosophy helps you dream; science helps you make the dream real.
What exactly is “phenomenological philosophy”—part of the title of your 2015 paper on bioethics and mathematics?
Phenomenology is a way of doing philosophy that began with Hegel in the early nineteenth century. The basic idea is to try to understand things by letting them unfold as what they are, rather than imposing on them a bunch of pre-set assumptions or crushing them into an already established conceptual framework. In the twentieth century, it has also come to mean trying to understand things in terms of everyday lived experience rather than starting with abstract concepts.
For example, trying to figure out what it means to be a woman by looking at women’s experience rather than starting with some universalized conception based on totalizing assumptions about biology. That is, women do not reduce to their biological functions in reproduction; they demonstrate logics of care in their labor to reproduce the material conditions of daily living, like eating, clothing, health, and home.
You’ve written considerably about Heidegger’s philosophies. Is he your favorite philosopher?
Heidegger’s critique of the destructive capacity of modernity toward ecosystems and cultures makes a lot of sense—that in the mid-seventeenth century, science became aimed at manipulating and controlling nature to improve the human condition, but technology plays out that forgotten promise in global assault on nature, including people, as if they are disposable resources. But he was a Nazi and a complete jerk…so hardly a favorite.
I adore Aristotle—first stop, if I ever get that time machine built—but he had awful views about women. Yet his conception of nature could be a basis for science and technology that are not destructive in the ways Heidegger says modernity is.
Aristotle thought nature was not just about its usefulness for people. He thought every natural thing is striving toward its own goal, e.g., puppies to become dogs, acorns to become oak trees—it doesn’t have to be a conscious process. So what if contemporary technologies worked with natural processes rather than trying to master and control nature? Can farming that floods a field every year with chemical fertilizers be sustainable? Yet can agricultural practice that leaves fields fallow grow enough to feed the planet?
WSU is a great place to ask such questions that Aristotle has brought me to. But he wouldn’t have let me in his school. I enjoy the idea that it might upset him that I am an Aristotle scholar.
The first time I read Nietzsche, I couldn’t stop until the book was finished—about 10 o’clock the next morning. I immediately got up from the couch, went directly to the university from which I had dropped out when I was 17, and re-enrolled into philosophy. The second time, I quit my job and went and lived at the top of an extremely remote mountain for a few months. Now when I read Nietzsche, I tie myself to the desk.
My favorite philosopher? I don’t know yet. Probably Zeno, who was tortured to death by a local tyrant. Or Heraclitus, who died covered in pig feces that he thought would cure his fever. Or maybe the student I once had who rejected universal truth because “it’s just not organic, man.”
Why did you choose to study international philosophy?
Well, it kinda’ chose me. People everywhere think. I like to go and meet them to find out what they think about and why. You get to see the gap between your own culturally inherited assumptions and reality (if there is such a thing) when you spend time with people who come at this gloriously messy thing called life from a whole other set.
Which languages do you speak?
If you mean speaking well, probably just English. To read, write, order food, or start a casual conversation on the bus or hold an intense one in a post-paper question period, French and German. To greet, be taught better ways to plant a seed and make fertilizer from animal dung, Fra Fra. Also a bit of Latin and Greek—useful for reading ancient texts, mobilizing etymology, and being pompous. To privately admonish my son in public, Ewe, while smiling. For ordering two beers and later asking where is the bathroom, about 10 others.
What are the next courses you’ll be teaching?
Intro to Philosophy in the Spring, and I’ll pilot a course called “Zombie Apocalypse” in the Honors College next fall.
What do you enjoy about teaching?
Students. I learn so much from the diverse experience they bring to the classroom, and their willingness to put their views out there for others to question and sometimes challenge. A student once wrote on an evaluation, “I used to think in black and white, now I think in color.” Nothing beats that.