Kristen Irwin, PhD
By Corbin Casarez
Dr. Kristen Irwin joined Loyola as Assistant Professor in Philosophy this past fall, and she has already been an active member of the Department. She offered a workshop last semester for graduate students regarding professionalization and organized the History of Philosophy Roundtable (HOPR), a series of workshops in which faculty and students can present their work in progress. Her faculty page is here.
AGSP: Hi, thank you for agreeing to this interview! Though still only in your first year at Loyola, you have been contributing significantly to the climate and activity of the Department. We, the graduate students, are grateful for your active participation, and for this opportunity to get to know you better. Let’s start with your research interests: your faculty page indicates your interest in 17th and 18th century philosophy and your current work on Locke and Bayle. Would you care to elaborate on your interests?
KI: I am especially interested in 17th century philosophy. The vision of philosophy at that time was very big and systematic—attempting to present a unified whole, which is in contrast to the way contemporary philosophy tends to be compartmentalized into its various subdisciplines and topics. I liked that thinkers of that time combined rigor with both a deep and a wide scope of inquiry; they dabbled in every area.
AGSP: So those are the broad strokes, but what are you working on now?
KI: Currently I have five “balls in the air”—projects in progress: Leibniz on religious toleration; Pierre Bayle on moral knowledge (which I will be presenting to the American Society for 18th Century Studies and at HOPR); Locke’s religious epistemology; an Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Bayle; and Locke and Bayle on religious toleration, which I used for my job talk last year and am fine-tuning. These smaller projects are all related to two big projects which are my current long-term goals: a monograph on Bayle which treats him as an interesting philosopher in his own right, and not just as an interlocutor for more well-known figures; and a survey of arguments for religious toleration from the 17th century. (Though Bayle is included in this latter work as well, I am considering both the variety of conceptions of what constitutes religious toleration and the variety of grounds or reasons for advocating for toleration.)
AGSP: I can see how these larger projects run through and unify the others. Interesting issues! How did you come to be interested in philosophy and in 17th century philosophy in particular? Who or what were your influences?
KI: Well, dumb luck plays a large role in my story! I initially wanted to be a lawyer, but at my undergraduate institution there was no pre-law major, so my options were political science and philosophy. I didn’t enjoy political science, so I majored in philosophy. Between my sophomore and junior years, I interned for a law firm, which was really informative. It wasn’t that I didn’t like what they did; it was that I didn’t want to become that kind of person. So I decided to stay with philosophy.
I got into a PhD program with full funding (UC-San Diego), which was known for its strengths in philosophy of mind. I had a French minor already, and Don Rutherford was a well-regarded scholar, so I decided to focus on the history of modern philosophy. Don was tough but kind, and I respected his work ethic and intellect. Initially I was interested in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, but Don taught me to see how interesting the 17th century was and how holistic its concerns were. I am still interested in Kant, and particularly in his notion of epistemic humility, which I think is closely related to skepticism of various kinds. Kant emphasized that there are limits to reason; this is something that I think most philosophers today agree on, though we disagree on what these limits are. This is an especially important issue to me because, in my experience, philosophers are particularly susceptible to epistemic pride!
AGSP: Thanks for that intellectual biography. Perhaps you could share more of your personal biography—how did you come to Loyola?
KI: In fall 2008, I entered the job market. I applied to eighty jobs. It was a trying ordeal, and included some of the types of experiences reported on the blog, “What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy?” (https://beingawomaninphilosophy.wordpress.com/). I didn’t exactly recognize how difficult the experience was at the time—I had just gotten engaged and was fresh from graduate school, so it wasn’t until I had some reflective distance that I realized just how difficult and often inappropriate parts of that process were. I did obtain a tenure-track position at Biola University, where I made very good friends. I had started a quarterly women’s philosophy night in graduate school, and so I continued this focus at Biola by starting up a “Professor Mommy” reading and discussion group. In addition to reading “Professor Mommy,” we brought in guest speakers and discussed strategies for how to flourish amidst the many commitments and dimensions of work and life.
The position at Biola required a 4–4 teaching load, which I enjoyed, but which really squeezed my time for research. In fall 2013, I submitted ten job applications, and it was a very different experience already having a job! I was in a less perilous position and experienced less desperation; it was a much healthier process. I also had a realization that life would be okay even if I didn’t have a job in philosophy. I would still be able to follow other passions, like possibly work for a non-profit fighting human trafficking—something that may pay less but which would both benefit both me and the organization. I did, however, end up getting this position at Loyola.
AGSP: Speaking of the trials of job searches… You have taken an active interest in providing resources for professional development for students. A somewhat common experience among graduate students in philosophy, it seems, is a certain disillusionment when the romantic ideals of the contemplative life, or of philosophy as an engaged way of life, is confronted by the contemporary reality of professional, academic philosophy. Do you think there is anything to the distinction between philosophy as a profession and philosophy as a passion?
KI: Oh yes. Some of the most cynical philosophers I have met were also initially some of the most idealistic. Academia is less romantic than we think, but it is a job. Being a professional is an aspect of life for anyone in white collar positions in the 21st century; higher education is not exempt. But this is not *necessarily* a bad thing. You can think about how to be professional without betraying who you are.
My experience on the job market informed my view of professionalization both positively and negatively. Positively, when I was entering the job market for the first time, UCSD provided a “job market shepherd,” someone who attended the APA (American Philosophical Association, where many job interviews take place) to support us applicants, and who helped us cope with and survive the process. I noticed along the way that there were norms associated with the job market that I was expected to follow, but which had not been made explicit. I guess the idea was to learn them through osmosis, which is not an optimal way to do it! Thus, negatively, I learned that the discipline needs to be better about making the expectations and norms of the process more explicit. People come from very different backgrounds, and just because someone is passionate about philosophy doesn’t mean that they are prepared for or familiar with the professional expectations of the discipline.
AGSP: So do you have any advice for passionate philosophers also aspiring to be professionals?
KI: Well, the big thing is to figure out who you are and how to communicate that to others. You don’t have to change your passions, but you do want to present a more polished version of who you already are. This is a techne, a skill you learn. You have to practice it in order to get better.
AGSP: Let’s switch gears and talk about your non-philosophical interests. What do you like to do when you’re not doing research, teaching classes, or fulfilling professional obligations?
KI: Well, I don’t have as much time for hobbies as I used to! But I have competed in triathlons, and I’m considering entering the Chicago triathlon in August. I enjoy cycling and running, and I do yoga twice a week. I enjoy the outdoors—I miss the beach, and being able to watch the sun set over the water.
I also have an almost-five-year-old son, Adam. On the “introvert/extrovert” spectrum, Adam is an “übervert”! Every day on the train we make a new friend. He’s very cheerful and energetic, and I really enjoy him.