“Catherine Wilson studied logic, philosophy of language and linguistics at Oxford in the 1970s then turned through a series of accidents to the fields that have occupied her since then: philosophy of perception and visual experience; metaphysics and the philosophy of science; empirical approaches to ethics and aesthetics, and issues of equality and social justice. Recently, she has become interested in alternatives to militarism and the somewhat obscure history of nonreligious pacifism in Europe. Here she discusses the link between Epicureanism and modernity, the seventeenth century’s ontological commitments, Leibniz, contractualism and utilitarianism, the politics of the time, Cavendish, morality, moral animals and the idea of morality as ‘advantage reduction’, egalitarianism, art emotions, and women philosophers in the Academy. As Autumn begins, and the nights draw in, here’s something to fill the darkness…
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Catherine Wilson: I was an adolescent dabbler in lots of subjects—languages, art, poetry, etc. At the time I had the idea that there were secret laws of the universe that could explain the baffling human reality around me, and that philosophers maybe had the key to them. Something suggested to me that Hegel’s Phenomenology was just such a masterpiece, so I checked it out of the library, but I did not get far with it at 16 and gave up. Later at university though I specialised in philosophy because I liked the way it gave you a problem to figure out in your own head. There was no need to go to the lab or memorise facts, as opposed to actively trying to see patterns, understand relations between things, and trying to work out arguments and proofs.
Oddly, since by now I’ve written quite a lot on early modern philosophers, I didn’t care for the history of philosophy, which I thought dull and obscure, until I got a minor job writing articles for a children’s encyclopedia in the history of science and began to make connections between science and philosophy. I came across the historian of medicine Walter Pagel’s book about the physician and alchemist Theophrastus Paracelsus. This showed me how you could get into the strange, alien mind of your subject, and appreciate the beauty of their prose, and then I started to fall in love with some of the old texts, starting with Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle, and moving on to Descartes, Leibniz and Kant. About 70% of what I’ve written about is centered on the clashes and conformities between the emerging life and physical sciences and older metaphysical frameworks in the 17th and 18th centuries. The other 30% consists of one-off essays or researches into other intriguing contemporary topics such as visual experience, aesthetics, social justice issues, and the epistemology of moral knowledge.”
Read the remainder of the interview at http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/epicureanism-early-mods-moral-animal/.