Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Eric Schliesser

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the eighty-ninth installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and exclusion, as well as personal and structural gaslighting in philosophy in particular and in academia more generally; resistance to ableism, racism, sexism, and other apparatuses of power; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.

The land on which I sit to conduct these interviews is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldimand Treaty territory. As a settler, I offer these interviews with respect and in solidarity with Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island and other colonized settler states who, for thousand of years, have held sacred the land, water, air, and sky, as well as their inhabitants, and have struggled, for centuries, to protect them from the ravages and degradation of colonization and expropriation.

My guest today is Eric Schliesser. Eric is a professor of political theory at the University of Amsterdam. He took his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 2002. He has written a monograph entitled, Adam Smith: Systematic Philosopher and Public Thinker (Oxford University Press, 2017), and has edited a number of collections on Isaac Newton. Before Eric got long COVID, he loved to hike and attend concerts. Now, he plays a lot of Scrabble.

[Description of photo below: headshot of Eric who is smiling slightly and has black plastic sunglasses propped up on his head. He is wearing a dark t-shirt.]

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Eric! Please describe your background, including your educational history, and how it led you to become a professional philosopher.

I was born and raised in Amsterdam. My mom, who is American, encouraged me to attend college stateside. This prospect appealed to me because in the Dutch system at the time there was really no liberal arts/undergrad option–you pretty much went straight into graduate school. My late dad supported it financially, which was a big deal because, at the time, Dutch universities were pretty much free. He had spent his childhood in a concentration camp and was nudged into family (fashion) business later. He wanted me to have the educational opportunities that he had not received.

I got into philosophy because, as an undergraduate in International Relations at Tufts University, I was rather surprised that my professors had not seen the fall of the Berlin Wall coming and expressed skepticism about the likelihood of German unification as late as October 1989. I ended up taking a year-long course on Newton’s Principia taught by George Smith who had a habit of drawing his students into his research. We did quite a bit of research together. I still work on Newton and early modern philosophy and science. My International Relations Professor, Richard ‘Ike’ Eichenberg asked me to T.A. his intro class after I graduated.

I went into academia because I love teaching, especially teaching undergrads, and I love learning. I was very happy as a historian of philosophy and really lucky to have such a lovely supervisor in Dan Garber. I returned to Europe professionally because I fell in love; we got married. After our son (who is now twelve) was born, I increasingly felt that I should try to do more socially impactful work; and I was recruited into political theory in my hometown of Amsterdam.

I got sick a few months after the start of my grant on normative approaches to financial debt which had a heavy policy orientation. Although I can read and write pretty much as I always could–though sometimes I require more breaks–I still struggle with extended social interactions, especially if there is background noise. So, I have retreated into the library. While I am still engaged in various historical projects, my main current focus is writing a commentary on Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics in order to rethink the liberal art of government.

You have indicated, Eric, that after your son was born, you decided to turn the focus of your philosophical work to topics that you deem to be more political. How would you characterize the differences between the philosophy that you now produce and your earlier writing?

My son was born in 2009, shortly after I had switched from Leiden University to an astonishing position as research professor in Ghent. The birth of my son and my academic move to Ghent entailed considerable hardship for his surgeon-scientist mom because, although I didn’t have to teach much–two courses a year–I was away from Amsterdam a lot. Since I had only recently switched jobs, I didn’t get paternal leave.

I really adore being a historian of philosophy for lots of reasons, one of which is that it allows for a kind of do-no-harm-principle in action because it seems largely inconsequential to society. As the effects of the financial crisis started to play out, however, I noticed among my students a persistent strain of pessimism and also an increasing amount of rather serious psychological challenges. Now, I like to be around college-age students because of their utopian idealism and their optimistic plans to change the world. But I could tell that an increasing sub-set of my students did not fit this picture. So, the lack of social significance of my work started to gnaw on me, despite the fact that I was working with amazing Ph.D. students on exciting scholarship in Ghent. I also wondered what I would say to my kid about what I had done to help ward off financial or environmental crises.

As an aside, in Europe, humanities scholarship is increasingly funded on a U.S. National Science Foundation–i.e., grant-driven–model. I also realized that the grant agencies were expecting narratives about the social impact of one’s work. Since the classification as research professors entailed that I should bring in grants, I started to feel a soft, internalized pressure to recast my work in more socially salient ways. I always had a side interest in the philosophy and methodology of economics. So, while at Ghent, with Koen Schoors–a very creative economist, who is also a public intellectual–and a postdoc, Rogier de Langhe, I got involved with a group to set up a center for complexity studies.

After five years in Ghent, I realized that the commute wasn’t working out for me–I had a real health scare with a possible Transient Ischemic Attack–and felt that I risked missing the most important moments of our kid’s life. So, when folks in Amsterdam’s Political Science Department reached out to me and asked me to consider a political theory job, the timing was just right. I wanted to move back to Amsterdam and be in a policy-salient environment.

Throughout the rather rapid application process, I didn’t expect to land the position because I really didn’t think of myself as a “political theorist” or a “political philosopher” or someone “doing ethics.” It’s been a steep learning curve since, actually. While I continue to do history of philosophy and historically informed philosophy of science, my work is now much more focused on political philosophy and policy related issues.

Because of long covid, I have had to pull out of some public-facing projects that pertain to policy and scale back my participation in research for my grant. In other words, I have had to adapt to my limitations. However, I increasingly recognize that teaching is, in fact, a fundamental contribution to civilization and socially significant and consequential in ways that one can never quite foresee. So, I think I would be less defensive now about my earlier work in history of philosophy and history of philosophy of science than I was in the past.

Your philosophy blog, Digressions and Impressions, is quite popular. You were also a lead contributor to New APPS in its heyday. What role do you think philosophy blogs can and should serve in the production of “public philosophy”? How, and to what extent, has the content and perception of philosophy blogs changed over the years that you have blogged?

I started professional blogging after the end of the golden age of blogging; so more than a decade ago. At the time, there were quite a few group blogs that serviced important parts of different intellectual communities. I started professional blogging on a philosophy of science blog–It is Only a Theory! In hindsight, other social media were already becoming more important and most group blogs of the age had died off. I greatly lamented the passing of the Feminist Philosophers blog, which I found to be really eye opening.

My blogging wasn’t really about sharing my intellectual work or creating a community of like-minded scholars. Rather, it was mostly fueled by my anger with a lot of self-serving myths that I regularly encountered about the profession. They clearly made up a kind of ideology to justify all kinds of professional hierarchies and prop up what I thought were boring, self-limiting ways of doing philosophy. 

The blogging at New APPS took place during a very intense period. Back then, it was a group blog that became incredibly widely read, with many thousands of daily readers. I suspect that it would be almost impossible for many current Ph.D. students and newer faculty to imagine how big the blog was at the time. Even years later, I would be at conferences, and somebody would–out of the blue and as if everyone in the conversation knew what was going on–switch the topic of conversation to some blog post that I had written on New APPS.

Due to the size of the blog’s readership and the willingness of New APPS bloggers to engage in controversy, there were a lot of internal coordination issues–including on-the-job learning and dealing with incredibly intense and lengthy reader responses–that required day-to-day management. Jon Cogburn, one of the New APPS bloggers at the time, has described the experience as akin to being in a touring band. Most remarkably, many of us in the group had never met before we started the blog; and we had many diverse ideas about the profession and philosophy.

For example, I think that the majority of the regular contributors thought the analytic-continental distinction ought to be overcome in some way. My own view was (and still is) that it’s healthy for philosophy to have two non-overlapping broad schools/intellectual churches but that the mutual unwillingness to read and engage seriously was disastrous for both of them. I think we all felt that it would be healthier for the profession if Leiter Reports wasn’t the only source for professional news and conversation; yet, quite a few of us were/are on good personal terms with Brian. We also felt that it was important that there be a place for philosophical essays that were not journal articles.

Professional philosophy is quite unusual among scholarly fields to have blogs that can provide enormous signal boosts to social and philosophical debates about the profession and within the profession. This signal boosting brings an intensity of focus because so many folks tune in at the same time. Although a lot of debate has shifted to Twitter and Facebook, hosting an ungated blog is a real public service; so, Brian, Justin, and you, Shelley, should be thanked by the profession that you host them.

I completely understand why public philosophy has moved to different, more professional sites–newspapers, zines, substack, etc.–and the burgeoning area of podcasts. And it’s probably good that public philosophy is increasingly recognized by “the system,” in tenure and promotion decision, by grant agencies, and so on, which reinforces publication in the area. So, within a decade, blogs have become a much smaller presence in the intellectual eco-system. And public-facing philosophy is probably best done in outlets that really are oriented toward a wider public and mediated by professional editors and interviewers. Often such public-facing philosophy disseminates fruits of research in a way that tackles a hot topic or puts something on the agenda. I think that it’s important to contribute to public opinion, even public enlightenment, in such a way! Before I got long COVID, I actually started to spend more times listening to podcasts. Unfortunately, that’s much more draining for me now.

While my readership at Digressions and Impressions is much smaller than most such outlets (or the New APPS days), I love the freedom that I can write whatever I want, whenever I want–with relatively minimal regard to prudence–and that nobody else has editorial (or financial) say over the matter. It’s also why I don’t have advertisements on my blog. I don’t want any incentives to shape my writing in one direction or another.

I thoroughly enjoy reading other bloggers, say, Liam Kofi Bright, Helen de Cruz, Eric Schwitzgebel, Richard Pettigrew, who exercise a similar freedom. Each has a distinct authorial persona in their respective blogs and Twitter feeds. I suspect that, as a group, because we have such amazing editorial freedom, we actually shape many discussions and punch quite above our weight in the profession’s imagination. I have an incredibly passionate group of readers that often write me about my posts and that connect me to a wider world. And I often get invites to contribute to more professional outlets because of my blogging. But, yes, it’s more niche now than it was a decade ago.

A number of the recent posts that you have written for Digressions and Impressions have detailed your experiences with COVID-19, including new reflections on your identity as a disabled philosopher. How would you summarize the observations and reflections of these posts?

Well, I suspect that third parties are in a better position than I am to extract a theme or message from these blog posts. Although I can be quite reflective about my Digressions, the COVID Diaries tend to be rather immersive experiences for me while I write them because I use them, in part, to organize my thoughts and feelings. And, I have not read them through from start to finish for some time now.

I began my “COVID Diaries” about five to six weeks after the onset of first symptoms, which were nothing like what, at the time–about a year into public awareness of the pandemic–were thought to be “normal” symptoms for COVID-19 infections. I had no coughing, no loss of smell, no fever, and no obvious lung problems. I also initially tested negative. In fact, when I had first contacted my doctor, she thought that my symptoms (dizziness, strange insomnia, weird bouts of fatigue) sounded like burn-out or stress. But I had just finished six months of teaching leave and her diagnosis made no sense to me. A few days later, I tested positive after a stunningly severe headache that awoke me in the middle of the night.

I was in London, where my family lives down the road from a major hospital, which, in January 2021, had enormous lines of ambulances with people waiting to be seen or admitted. Back then, if you didn’t have a high fever or weren’t very badly out of breath, you were discouraged from trying to see a physician.

So, I started the “COVID Diaries” as a way to record my experiences, which seemed so puzzling relative to what I was reading about COVID. My symptoms also seemed surprisingly unstable; and so, I thought that if I kept track of them I could, you know, maybe discern a pattern and, maybe, supply the next Oliver Sacks with the perfect patient history. Since Digressions already mixed professional and more personal essays, it seemed like the right place to do the “Diaries.” And, of course, it was a signal to my daily readers that, perhaps, I would no longer be able to write a post a day. When I started the “COVID Diaries”, I was supposed to start teaching a giant lecture course; it was dawning upon me that I might not recover in time for any of it.

There have now been more than thirty-five diaries. Almost immediately after I started writing them, I heard from other people who had COVID and had not recovered within a few weeks, as expected. To them, my symptoms sounded familiar! They became a life-line to help me situate and cope with my experiences with my body and, later, with medical professionals. We would communicate through Messenger or WhatsApp. At Digressions and Impressions, I call them my “fellowship.” To this day, they help keep my spirits up, and I try to be that person for them and others, too.

As my Diaries unfolded, I began to be contacted by people who have had chronic medical issues after viral infections and people who, at some point in their lives, have had what, to me, sound like significant medical issues. Sometimes, these people were near total strangers. Sometimes, they were folk that I have known academically for a long time. Since most of my readers are other philosophers, it was really eye-opening to me to learn how many professionals I knew who quietly dealt with chronic challenges or long-lasting pains or obstacles in their lives.

I am unsure when, exactly, I wrote out the possibility in a Digressions and Impressions post that I had to learn to live with long COVID as something chronic. But it was pretty clear to me fairly quickly that COVID-19 prevented me from participating in the profession on terms that were more or less usual for me. I had to withdraw from quite a few commitments; and I couldn’t hold up a conversation–in-person or on Zoom–without risking collapse. Last Fall, each time that I taught my undergraduate seminar, I needed two days to recover from subsequent headaches and miserableness. So, I realized that even if the world would “open up,” it was unlikely that I could participate in workshops or give public lectures anytime soon.

I started to present myself to my students as invisibly disabled. Sometimes I would have to check out from class discussion–I basically organized them in groups with their own assignments during these times–just to rest my head. Since undergraduate teaching is my favorite part of my job, this strategy really slid into my self-understanding. Of course, that’s not all of it, I have other identities as a dad, husband, colleague, and I noticed the problems there, too. Luckily, during the last few months, anti-inflammatories have reduced my suffering. And has also made recovery from many social activities much easier and quicker.

I think a key part of my new identity is that a lot of things that I do are highly and deliberately planned and carefully thought out ahead of time now. Some of it involves also doing more work or prep ahead of time. Of course, I notice how rarely my constraints are accommodated by even well-meaning others. So, for example, I am incredibly noise/sound sensitive and sometimes when I am in a public space music is playing in the background that makes other social activities hard for me. Lots of places are simply unable to turn off the music in one area. So, on a day-to-day basis, I have effectively withdrawn from lots of activities and have become much more socially isolated.

The other major effect of the diaries is that I now can keep track of the changes of my symptoms which shift every few months in expected and sometimes subtle ways. Because I have a record of these, I feel more confident about this claim.

One last thing: After my first four to five months of being bed-ridden, the capacity to read and write returned. When it did, I didn’t doubt that I could still do philosophical work. Yet it is an open question whether I can do a normal teaching load again. So, looking ahead, I don’t rule out that I will, in the future, have to reduce my appointment in order to reduce my teaching load. In the coming academic year, I have a lot of research leave lined up. If I don’t improve, I am very unclear about the possibility of participating in a workshop or conference again; however, teaching and research should be within reach.

What infrastructural and institutional mechanisms of exclusion have you come to recognize given your situation with COVID-19? What forms of exclusion and inaccessibility have you yourself confronted? Has your institutional and social position shielded you from other forms? Do you have recommendations for institutional change in this regard?

Well, I am sure that to regular readers of this blog, my observations will seem fairly unsophisticated. My main insight is that people have many different kinds of access needs, and require different forms of accommodation to be enabled to participate in common activities. For example, for some Zoom is a life-saver and opens up participation into all kinds of conversations on more or less equal grounds. And I understand why for people with mobility issues or lack of funds to make in-person participation possible absence of Zoom feels like a deliberate hurdle for them. For me, by contrast, Zoom and video-chats are all very tough, especially if they are a kind of free-flowing conversation. I literally get a migraine from them. At the moment, Zoom doesn’t solve a single access problem for me.

So, I have grown much more aware of the multiplicity of ways that the organization of professional activities can be simultaneously zones of work, possible intellectual exchange, and joy, while also be structures of exclusion. I knew that intellectually, of course, based on your activism and scholarship, Shelley, and following the many public efforts that Teresa Blankmeyer Burke has made to have an interpreter available to her for events. However, now I have experienced it first-hand because all public spaces have become a cognitive challenge for me.

So, for example, I am often sent video-clips or Zoom invites for events relevant to my health condition or scholarship. Alas, these events rarely involve a transcript, which is the only way that I can really find out what was said, especially if the material requires concentration and is longer than a few minutes.

In my academic network, folks have been incredibly accommodating. Invited events have been re-scheduled (sometimes multiple times); event organizers have signaled flexibility about the manner of my participation; and collaborators have delayed completion of joint work so that I could stay “on board.” Some of the editorial committees on which I’m a member have insisted that I stay part of the group, even though I am not contributing, in order to signal that I am still “one of the gang.” When I looked for support to buy out my Fall teaching, a number of academic friends helped me with relatively small (but incredibly useful) grants so that I could be on research leave. In some cases, securing this funding required me to track down old commitments that I had postponed; in other cases, it involved me basically cold-calling for money!

On the whole, I have had to limit my participation and withdraw and/or postpone all kinds of commitments. So, I am mostly self-excluding from public events because social activities are, at the moment, the most challenging of activities for me. This self-imposed exclusion makes me miss out on a lot informal but highly salient learning and social networking. I am, de facto, becoming even more bookish because I can’t learn just by being present (live or online). 

Before I contacted covid, I was not especially interested in chronic illness or disability; but I was very interested in Serene Khader’s work, which is all about agency in the context of socially constrained choices. And I had read and even blogged about Elizabeth Barnes’s The Minority Body. One passage in Barnes’s book stuck with me: “The simple fact is that, disabled or non-disabled, we are all limited and constrained by our bodies. To have a body that is any particular way is to have a body that is limited and constrained in some respects in comparison to other kinds of bodies.” At the time, it resonated with me intellectually as an important way to think about the human condition and as a source of fundamental equality.

Now, before my long COVID, most of the time, even in middle age with nagging (say) knee injury or lower back problems, I really didn’t experience my body as a constraint. To put it in soft Kantian terms, my body was experienced as a condition of possibility of, or a limitation on, any activity only in very rare moments. I mostly didn’t think of my body. But I have often thought of these lines from Barnes during the past eighteen months. Because I had to adjust to new hard constraints and because my symptoms rather frequently shift (even over the course of a day), I am very aware of how my body limits me: sometimes I have to slow pace or just lie down because my head is all clogged up. I am so noise sensitive that I often have to leave a room. The British Library reading rooms are my best friends! Unfortunately, in recent weeks, I find writing also more exhausting; so, I need more breaks. Luckily, reading books is not a problem!

To answer your question directly: I have been very lucky, and I am very grateful to earlier generations, that there are pretty powerful protections at my job to give me considerable time to recover: in Holland up to two years with relatively modest salary cuts. I have had time to adjust to my new circumstances. Due to a university-wide disability insurance policy, there is also a floor on the possible fall in my financial circumstances in the future. Not to have to worry about money removes considerable stress. I have not had to dip into reserves or family cash. While I do have long-term questions about whether there is a career for me down the road, I really have been able to put off existential decisions. So, yes, I have been very shielded! My department has tried hard to help me continue to do my job by, for example, cutting class size one semester. Yet everyone is so overworked and we’re so understaffed/financed that, at times, the assistance was badly organized and so I ended doing more work than necessary. I am not complaining: many of my immediate colleagues stepped up amazingly in very difficult, pandemic circumstances!

My experiences with long COVID have made me reflect, in a more critical way, about the kind of existential (casuistry-generating) choice model of mainstream bioethics that implicitly takes the perspective of the public administrator. Katrina Forrester’s In the Shadow of Justice makes clear that this model was woven into the field from the start. Organizing education and research in the field on the model of decisions that impact others with fixed constraints is really a means to let the powerful and the system off the hook. While I understand the utility of, say, the trolley problem as a modeling exercise, we need a lot more bioethics that plans to prevent or soften existential choice and also creates more supportive systems for those agents and patients in the aftermath of all kinds of existential decisions, and fate. I hope that bioethics will be transformed not just by patient activism and contributions from disabled people, but also by its partial integration into projects that study the unfolding climate crisis and the application of AI into all kinds of fields.

Eric, how would you like to end this interview? Would you like to say anything more about something that we’ve discussed? Is there anything that you would like to talk about that we haven’t touched upon? Do you want to recommend any articles or other materials related to something you’ve mentioned in this interview?

It’s pretty clear that only a narrow group of bodies are really made to feel very welcome in the academy. A lot of that has to do with gendered norms that really connect up to (what I am inclined to call) “aspirational class.” Kate Manne has recently written important substacks worth reading on this theme. Because of feminism and gender/disability activists, there has been some good discussion about this exclusion, and considerable push back against all kinds of norms and practices–for example, invited talks after 5pm that extend the working day, etc.–that simultaneously exclude.

At times, I feel that although debates in some areas really rage, we lose sight of a bigger picture: the education systems in OECD countries really make it difficult for non-standard paths through them and then more difficult to obtain academic employment. So, there is massive selection against what we might call physical, emotional, and neuro diversity in academic life. Even in the most financially open systems of higher education, a good chunk of the population is excluded from higher education altogether. This shapes social stratification in all kinds of ways and enables the academy to become an ideology generator in various ways. I also think that it’s a disaster for educators that usually we encounter a very narrow range of human phenotypes! This response is a highfalutin way to thank you, Shelley, for the space that you provide to make disability something that is not wholly neglected in our profession.

Eric, thank you for this informative interview. I was especially interested to learn more about your experiences of blogging at New APPS and your perceptions of the impact of philosophy blogging in general. Thanks for these insights and observations.

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Eric Schliesser’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.

The entire Dialogues on Disability series is archived on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY here.

From April 2015 to May 2021, I coordinated, edited, and produced the Dialogues on Disability series without any institutional or other financial support. A Patreon account now supports the series, enabling me to continue to create it. You can add your support for these vital interviews with disabled philosophers at the Dialogues on Disability Patreon account page here.

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Please join me here again on Wednesday, September 21st for the ninetieth installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at s.tremain@yahoo.ca. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.

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