An Interview with Dr. Naomi Fisher
Naomi Fisher is an assistant professor of Philosophy. Her research focuses on Kant and German Idealism and Romanticism, specifically the relationship between nature, freedom, and rationality in Kant’s Critical philosophy and in Friedrich Schelling’s philosophy of nature. She also has interests in the broader history of philosophy, particularly the 19th century, the philosophy of science, and ethics. The following is an interview conducted by Conor Beath, MA student in the Philosophy department.
Conor Beath: First, can you share a bit about what drew you to philosophy in particular? What value do understand philosophy to have in contemporary life, especially at a time when the humanities seem to be in a precarious situation both within the Academy and, more broadly, in society as a whole?
Naomi Fisher: I began my graduate work in physics. I thought that physics would help me to understand the nature of reality, but what I came to realize is that the deliverances of physics and other sciences are largely irrelevant to one’s fundamental orientation toward the world. What I love about philosophy is that it explores fundamental questions about the world with comprehensive visions of meaning and existence. I was drawn to the history of philosophy for this reason. Here you find thinkers who answer questions of why there is a world at all, what our place is in it, and how we should live, and whose answers to these questions are intertwined with each other.
The sciences can help us to understand some slice of the world, and they can even help us to organize the world according to values such as justice. But they do not help us to understand what is valuable, what constitutes justice, or to develop comprehensive understanding or wisdom. This is a lifelong project, and philosophy can guide us in this project, insofar as it exposes us to the ways that great thinkers of the past have approached these questions and helps us to develop the habits of thought and intellectual virtues necessary for this project. Now, more than ever, philosophy is absolutely essential, since our culture does not encourage this type of thought, and at times, through our increasingly polarized political climate, seems to actively discourage the development of intellectual humility or courage necessary for growth. It’s possible to pass through life unthinkingly, and I would say that it’s even more of a danger and possibility now, given the complexity and distractions of modern life. To give up on the humanities is to give up on this mode of reflection, which allows us to thoughtfully craft a life while growing in wisdom and understanding.
CB: Much of your work has focused on Kant and Schelling around questions concerning freedom, rationality, and nature. What is it about these philosophers that interest you and what do you see as the significance of these philosophical questions for contemporary scholarship?
NF: There have been very promising developments in ethics recently. Philosophers are looking to ground ethics in human nature, and the normativity of ethical judgments about human beings—that is, what makes them into demands which are binding on us—in the normativity of natural judgments. So when we say “that’s a bad man” we are making a judgment which is of a kind with “that’s a bad fox”. Both the bad man, who might be a thief or a liar, and the bad fox, which might be weak or sickly, do not exhibit the excellences characteristic to their species. To be a good human being is to be honest, courageous, and wise, among other things.
But this approach in ethics, which I think is the right one, relies on an appeal to human nature, and I would argue that there is a lack of clarity in this appeal and in the concept of human nature which is doing the work here. The approach is caught between relying on a concept of human nature delivered by the sciences—which, as a merely descriptive and empirical concept, cannot do the requisite work—or adopting a more robust, normative conception of human nature, which ends up being circular and having no independent justification for its normative content.
I see myself as working toward an understanding of human nature through my work on Kant and Schelling. Kant has resources for completing the approach I described with a concept of human nature which is grounded in and justified by our rational agency. For Kant, human beings are practical reasoners, whose moral action involves regarding oneself as a member of an ideal community of other such reasoners, what he calls a “kingdom of ends”, and some philosophers have appealed to this feature of Kant in working out a moral theory. I worry, however, that Kant’s picture here is too thin and abstract, and neglects the fact that, even as rational beings, we remain animals. Schelling corrects this tendency in Kant and offers an account of the distinctive features of human beings, how such features emerge within the natural world, in continuity with the capacities of animals, but not reducible to them. My hope is that through developing an account of human nature that draws on both Kant and Schelling, we can understand better what it means to live a good human life.
CB: You have published a paper concerning Kant on “animal minds”. What drew you to investigate Kant’s account of animality? Could you sketch the trajectory of your work here and where it has led you to today?
NF: I wrote the paper to explore the difference that reason makes in human beings. According to Kant, it’s the rational capacities of human beings that differentiate human beings from animals, that makes them the source and locus of value. Kant also views reason as central to experience, such that no experience is possible without certain kinds of concepts. For this reason, I had thought that Kant wouldn’t be able to make sense of animals, since they don’t have the necessary conceptual capacities, but they nevertheless seem to have experiences, and I set out to write a paper with this conclusion. However, I found he had less problems with this than I anticipated. And I’ve discovered, through this and other such episodes, that Kant’s thought is deeper and richer than I had imagined it to be—it’s always wonderful to find out you were wrong in this way. After working on this topic, I started looking at animality in Kant from another angle, that of his work on purposes in biology. While focusing on the mental capacities of animals highlights the differences between animals and human beings, looking at the purposive structures of organisms can be a way to highlight their similarities.
CB: In your opinion, what is the significance of scholarship regarding the human/animal distinction for how we think about our relationship to the natural world and animal life today? Especially at a time when the climate crisis and mass extinctions threaten our shared world, what resources can philosophy provide us with in order to address these existential threats?
NF: There is a recent trend in scholarship that emphasizes the continuity of human and non-human animal life. This is meant to place the value of human beings on a par with that of other animals and to inculcate in us a humility which would not place our needs or desires above the needs or desires of other animals. I am not at all sympathetic with these trends. Human beings are really special, and it is because of our status as moral, free, rational beings that we have a sacred responsibility to care for each other, for future generations, and for our shared home. To abdicate our elevated status in nature is also to abdicate the responsibility that comes with that status. We are the only beings in nature with the capacity to care for nature in a reflective, informed, and technologically resourceful way, and there is a long tradition in philosophy and in religion of thinking about human beings as caretakers of the earth. We therefore have the intellectual resources to reframe environmentalism in a less polarizing way and reclaim the movement, so that it’s characterized less by the accusatory rhetoric of how awful human beings are for the environment, and more optimistically about how good human beings could be for the environment.
Schelling offers a healthy anthropocentrism which would go against the grain of contemporary environmental studies in this way. For Schelling, reason and freedom are prefigured in nature—we see ourselves in the non-human natural world—but they are also transformed and in their fullest expression in human beings. So it avoids the trap of thinking of ourselves as somehow outside or independent of nature. In some ways, we are the most natural of all natural beings. But it also avoids the trap, more prevalent today than it was in Schelling’s time, of thinking of ourselves as merely natural, as no more special than oak trees or catfish. Human beings are the culmination of the natural world, who can turn back to it and reshape it for our own ends. This can lead to evil and destruction, but can also lead to good.
CB: Your graduate teaching so far has focused largely on Kant. You taught a seminar on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in Spring 2019 and will be teaching another course on Kant’s practical philosophy next semester. Do you have plans or interests beyond these courses that you will be exploring in the future?
NF: I’m open to suggestions! But, assuming student demand aligns with my teaching interests, for graduate courses, I would like to teach a graduate seminar on Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment, which addresses aesthetics and biology. Beyond Kant, I could see myself teaching a graduate seminar on post-Kantian German philosophy. In undergraduate teaching, I might in the next few years return to my roots to develop a lower division course in science and values.
CB: Currently, you are leading a Schelling workshop reading Von der Weltseele in German. How does Schelling enter into your philosophical interests? What do you think explains the comparative lack of scholarly work around Schelling’s philosophy of nature when compared to figures such as Kant or Hegel? What directions do you see your work heading here in the future?
NF: Schelling’s relative obscurity has a lot to do with the immediate scholarly history. He was disavowed by his friend Hegel, and Hegel’s rise in popularity was accompanied by Schelling’s demise. There has been some punctuated interest in Schelling over the past 200 years, but in the past few decades there has been growing academic interest in him as a figure in his own right. Because Schelling has often been misinterpreted as a mere intermediary figure between Kant and Hegel, there are a lot of lingering misconceptions and many aspects of his work that are ignored entirely. I would like my scholarship in this area to contribute to that growing body of literature that promotes a more complete and accurate understanding of Schelling, particularly in drawing out what makes him unique in the history of philosophy. Some aspects which are underappreciated or misunderstood include his own variety of intellectual humility, according to which reason can’t exhaust the nature of reality or experience, and his unique conception of the natural world as exhibiting structures of rationality and freedom which are independent of human experience or subjectivity.
CB: Having been at Loyola for a little over a year now, can you share some reflections on your time here so far? Is there anything about the philosophical community at Loyola, or even in Chicago, that stands out to you as special or different from other programs?
NF: There are many things that stand out to me! One is the wonderful community and generosity of graduate students and young professors. You mentioned the Schelling reading group—I am so grateful to be at a place where professors and students will get together in an informal way, to discuss a really interesting philosopher, who may not be directly relevant to their own research. I think there’s a tendency among academics to be narrowly focused on their own area of research, and so groups like this are a nice corrective to that tendency. I’m looking forward to participating in more groups and events like this.
I also have lots of colleagues whose work I find interesting and stimulating. I’m thinking particularly of Richard Kim and his work on virtue ethics, Aristotle, and classical Chinese philosophy, and several of my colleagues who work on ancient philosophy: Josh Mendelsohn, Jeff Fisher, Freya Mobus. There are a few philosophers—Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant—whose insights are inexhaustible, and constantly returning to such philosophers helps us to continue to learn and grow. I’m happy to be in a department where there is a lot of energy and activity focused on these philosophers in particular.
One other thing that I find nice about teaching at Loyola is that it is a Jesuit university, and I can feel comfortable delving into the connections between religion, Catholicism in particular, and philosophy. It is often the case that understanding a philosopher requires understanding some of the religious context and influences, and it’s great being at a place where students are interested in understanding that context, and open to learning about these things in a philosophy class.