Over the past few weeks, I have been pondering shifting my primary focus in philosophy from ethics to metaphysics and epistemology, particularly for my work in graduate school. (Since metaphysics and epistemology are so closely intertwined, I’m mostly just going to talk about epistemology here, with the understanding that I’m referring to many issues in metaphysics too.) My reasons are many and varied, so let me just indicate a few of them here.
First and most importantly, I have always considered epistemology to be my first love in philosophy. My first two philosophy classes at WashU concerned epistemology, as did a great many of my later classes. It was Ayn Rand’s theory of concepts that spurred me to take a more serious interest in her philosophy. And, as I’ve mentioned before, my autobiography will simply have to be titled How I Was Seduced By Epistemology. So I would not be developing an interest in epistemology, but rather returning to it. I might be a bit rusty after all these years, but the necessary gears are still there.
Second, I have slowly come to realize that refocusing my attention on issues in metaphysics and epistemology need not require me to sacrifice my interest in the practical, real life impact of philosophical ideas. Towards the end of my time at WashU, I turned my attention away from epistemology and towards ethics, largely because I was tired of heated debates over esoteric subjects like the status of future tense propositions. When I started lecturing at the Summer Seminars of The Objectivist Center, I wanted those lectures to be interesting and relevant to the regular folks, so ethics seemed like a natural choice. But listening to Barbara Branden’s excellent tape course Principles of Efficient Thinking, working on issues related to self-deception for my paper “Excuses Excuses,” developing the lecture on metaphysics and epistemology for “Objectivism 101,” and hearing Mike Huemer’s excellent lecture “Why Political Beliefs Are Irrational” drove home the point that the abstract and technical issues in metaphysics and epistemology often have significant and interesting real-life consequences. Many of these philosophical issues have the added benefit of intersecting with psychological issues, which (sometimes) adds good empirical data into the mix. So the challenge for me will be in finding and highlighting those real-life consequences of these very abstract ideas for my more popular writings and lectures on philosophy.
Third, I worry about finding a hospitable climate in which to do ethics at Boulder. Boulder has a strong applied ethics section, but it may well be too leftist for me to do well there. If I want to do ethics, my best bet would be through the also-noteworthy ancient philosophy section, but I doubt that my interest in the ancients would be strong enough to sustain a Ph.D. (I’m just in the MA program at the moment, but pursuing a Ph.D is definitely not out of the question.) On the other hand, Boulder is also well known for metaphysics and epistemology. And those are also Mike Huemer’s primary areas of focus. (Mike isn’t an Objectivist, but he’s Objecti-familiar and Objecti-friendly — perfect for graduate school.)
Fourth, good work in metaphysics and epistemology requires a depth of understanding that will simply be easier to achieve during graduate school than at any other time. I have generally found the literature in ethics to be fairly straightforward and easy to master while working solo. But the debates in metaphysics and epistemology are simply much more twisted and slippery, so help is far more critical. So better to work on those more difficult subjects when the resources of graduate school are at my disposal!
Fifth, focusing on metaphysics and epistemology will allow me to stretch myself and stand out in a way that I simply would not as just another woman in ethics. Given my interests and capacities, I have no desire whatsoever to be permanently associated with “softer” subjects like ethics. To be so associated would mean not being taken as seriously, since it is generally so much harder to do good work in metaphysics and epistemology than in ethics. So metaphysics and epistemology offer me a genuine challenge with the potential for greater rewards.
Of course, I won’t be forever departing the field of ethics! I plan on continuing to work in that area, particularly on the virtues. But my scholarly focus is shifting. And my popular work will be broadening into metaphysics and epistemology as a result.
So now I just need to figure out what sort of course changes for the fall I might want to make!
Update: Due to serious philosophic and moral objections, I am no longer associated with The Objectivist Center in any way, shape, or form. My reasons why can be found on my web page on The Many False Friends of Objectivism.