Helga Varden is an associate professor of philosophy and of women and gender studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and has a research focus on legal-political philosophy, Kant, and the philosophy of sex and love. She has held visiting associate positions at Northwestern, St. Andrews, and Chicago, and she’s is currently the co-president of the Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love and the vice-president of the North American Kant Society.
What excites you about philosophy?
There isn’t much I love more than when a conversation with someone takes us to a place where we start thinking together. This tends to happen in conversations with wonderful people (philosophers or otherwise) when we have a conversation about what we care the most about—whether it is philosophy, literature, art, or religion—and we stop simply telling each other about our ideas and instead are able to think together. Having this type of wonderful philosophical conversation is also why I like reading the historical classics in philosophy so much. When things go well, the texts left behind for us by philosophers long gone are the best of friends: as I think through a problem and reread these texts, often I find that they struggled with the same ideas and left behind the best they had for me and others to engage with and develop further. Both types of moments—talking with people still here or with people gone through their texts—are among the most precious moments in my life.
What is your favorite thing that you’ve written?
I don’t think I have a favorite thing that I’ve written. I never write a research article—whether it is on political obligations and legitimacy, on animals, on lying to the murderer at the door, on private property and poverty, on terrorism, on sexuality, or on the history of philosophy—without it being the case that the writing of it is among my favorite things to do at the time. Somewhat surprising, perhaps, is that once I’ve published the article, it doesn’t feel as if it’s something about which the concept “favorite” applies for me. At that point, it feels as if the concept of favorite is for others to have in relation to the work, not for me—and what makes a text someone’s favorite probably says a lot more about what they are able to do with it than it does about what I have done. This is not to deny that it makes me very happy when someone tells me that they’ve really enjoyed reading something I’ve written, or that it makes me happy to see that people are reading it. But it’s still true, I believe, that I don’t have a favorite thing that I’ve written.
What time of day are you most productive and creative?
For the kind of presence of mind I need to do philosophy well, the most productive and creative time of the day is definitely early, early in the morning—without the phone, offline, and with a big cup of delicious coffee and something beautiful around me. These hours are my favorite ones in everyday life.
Who is your favorite philosopher and why?
My favorite philosopher is Anton Myhra because he taught me the joy of doing philosophy. Anton was the best teacher of philosophy I have witnessed: his joy in doing philosophy was infatuating to all who took his classes, and it empowered each and every student to think for themselves. As luck would have it, not only did I meet him early in my academic life, but we enjoyed a tremendous philosophical connection, and we both lived in Tromsø, one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Hence, not only could we spend hundreds of hours talking philosophy, but we could do it while engaging with the stunning nature surrounding us by hiking in mountains or fishing in the midnight sun. Despite being the heathens we are/were, I’m sure Anton was sent to me by the gods and goddesses, and I hope he felt the same.
In your ten years since graduate school, are there any things in particular you are especially grateful for?
I’m grateful for many things, but I’m particularly grateful to have had so many responsible professors in graduate school and around me after I graduated. Of course, being a white person from one of the richest countries in the world (Norway), I am tremendously privileged in very many ways. Yet at the same time, I’m a first-generation academic as well as a woman who is not straight, which means that there are real ways in which I’m not privileged. Hence, to have had continual and reliable access to such professional resources has been extremely important to me. But I believe this point generalizes to those of us who don’t carry more oppressed social identities in the profession: I don’t think it’s possible to over-emphasize the value of having senior colleagues on whom one can rely for responsible, professional advice when the need arises—and the need inevitably arises in academia.
Which super power would you like to have?
Flying, of course.
Find out more about Helga here.
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