Head of the Department of Philosophy, and Chair of the Research Postgraduate Committee in the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London
Miranda Fricker laughs as she explains that “philosophy is an endlessly critical business.” Recently, she delivered a 25 minute paper to a roomful of philosophers, whom she was invited to address at the prestigious Rutgers Epistemology Conference, New York. Her philosophical argument was, in the ancient tradition of Socratic debate, tested by her listeners with “objection after objection after objection” for nearly three times as long as her paper took to read. “It can be very rough going at times”, she says, ruefully.
By 6:2, Miranda practically had squatters’ rights to the table nearest the globe in the Memorial Library, but an academic career was never the grand plan. A philosophy and French degree from Oxford was followed swiftly by a Women’s Studies MA at the University of Kent. Once in the world of work, however, she missed academia, and so returned to Oxford for a DPhil in feminism and post-modernism in philosophy, where she was lucky enough to be supervised by Sabina Lovabond and Bernard Williams. To her surprise, her commitment to this kind of writing deepened, and she gained several “post-docs”, as they are known in the trade – funding for further academic study.
She arrived at Birkbeck in 2002, where her life is a round of research, teaching and admin. Career progression and promotion is achieved through extra-curricular activities such as conferences, writing books and having papers published in philosophy journals. (Miranda’s first book, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (OUP, 2007), explores how social identity and power affects or undermines individuals’ capacity for knowledge.)
By 6:2, Miranda practically had squatters’ rights to the table nearest the globe in the Memorial Library, but an academic career was never the grand plan...
Like her whole department, Miranda is acutely aware of funding cuts. “Those who retire are either not replaced or replaced with short term contacts. There is huge year on year pressure to up student numbers. We have double the number of five years ago, which inevitably erodes the one-to-one attention we can provide. The cuts also pitch philosophy and other humanities against practical disciplines such as medicine, which makes it harder. It’s very sad for the humanities.” Last year, Miranda set up a conference named Why Humanities?, which was intended to articulate the social value of humanities, as well as their place in greater causes such as freedom and democracy. The conference was covered in THE, Prospectmagazine and the Guardian online.
Miranda’s own college is relatively well placed to survive, however. Founded by Victorian benefactor George Birkbeck to bring higher education to people who work, its commitment to part time and evening courses make it well positioned to cope with a likely trend towards part-time degree courses. Birkbeck has a wide range of evening students – including many older undergraduates in their 30s and 40s. “People bring their life experiences to philosophy and there’s a real sense of explaining philosophy to the public, not just to career academics. I often come out of my evening sessions on a high – teaching is a performance and on the whole people are enlivened by it,” Miranda explains.
The titular atheist in Radio 4’s The Atheist and the Bishop debate with the Bishop of Oxford, Miranda has also been that rarest of things – a female philosopher on Melvyn Bragg’s culture show. She downplays her media profile: “If you do one and you’re okay, you get invited back and become a first port of call. You have to say no to most of them unless you want to become a media pundit instead of an academic.”
Asked why there are so few female philosophers, she offers a variety of reasons. “Mobility is important. In the early years, you take whatever short term job you can get, and can find yourself living in St Andrews, Sussex, Kent and Reading over five years. Such constant upheaval is hard on families and relationships, especially if the main earner is not mobile.” She also suspects a gender element within the content of the discipline itself: “Philosophy is asocial and takes little interest in, or account of, human psychology, which may narrow its appeal to women”, she muses. Factor in the adversarial style of debate and it is perhaps less surprising that this is something of a man’s world: “The collective method of trying to improve philosophy through questioning is the ultimate, constructive aim of practice,” Miranda says. “The immediate aim, however, is too often negative. To cut down, find fault, object. Obviously it suits some people better than others.”
Miranda has managed to combine work with a happy family life in London and will be moving to take up a Chair at the University of Sheffield in Autumn 2012. She has two young children with her partner, whom she met at university. “When you are an atheist and unmarried, you don’t often get to celebrate anniversaries or events. I’ve started to feel that’s a shame. So we recently decided to invite a bunch of friends and family to a big lunch at our favourite restaurant to celebrate 25 years since we met. It seems a good milestone,” she concludes.
Miranda was interviewed by Kate Fairweather, OB, in 2011