Tom Digby is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Springfield College in Massachusetts. He says he was born with a desperate need for philosophy and that as a child growing up in Arkansas, he was steeped in the conservative, fundamentalist values of xenophobia, racism, and misogyny. His first philosophy professor, Murray Hunt, rescued him, with the heroic assistance of David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, and A.J. Ayer. Tom’s career has been devoted mostly to feminist philosophy, with special attention to masculinity, militarism, and love. His book, Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance, was published by Columbia University Press in 2014.
What excites you about philosophy?
I am excited by philosophy’s ability to shed light on the cultural programming that leads to hate. An example would be how the warrior’s ability to manage the capacity to care about the suffering of others, and of oneself, gets culturally programmed into everyone, but especially boys, in militaristic societies like the US. That’s something I describe and explain in Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance (Columbia University Press, 2014). I’m excited about sharing that understanding with others, with the goal of maximizing love and minimizing hate in people’s lives. So what excites me about philosophy more broadly is its capacity to contribute to sociocultural progress and personal flourishing.
What is your favorite thing that you’ve written?
That would be my book, Love and War. I think that any progress or reforms related to gender or militarism require an understanding of their interrelations, which I describe and explain in that book. I like the fact that it has been described as having a conversational tone – that’s because it started out as public multimedia presentations to undergraduates on many campuses. (Those presentations have also been given at conferences).
The second most favorite thing that I’ve written is “No One Is Guilty: Crime, Patriarchy, and Individualism,” published by the Journal of Social Philosophy in 1994. I doubt that anyone else has ever read it, but its use of feminist theory to undermine the very notion of guilt has had a profound and persuasive impact on my own life. I think the insights it offers about individualism are important, too. To apply them to an example from Love and War, focusing on individual cases of misogyny can be a distraction from the misogynistic cultural programming that is integral to masculinity, and that is thereby so ubiquitous and pervasive in militaristic societies.
What are you most proud of in your professional life?
I am not proud of anything. The critique I gave of the individualism underlying guilt in “No One Is Guilty” applies also, mutatis mutandis, to the notion of pride. What has given me the greatest satisfaction in my professional life has been seeing students experience the kind of liberation process that I myself experienced while studying philosophy as an undergraduate. It is thrilling to see the ongoing ramifications of that liberation unfold in their lives over the decades. For example, one of my students who is now a senior staffer for Senator Elizabeth Warren had a background similar to my own before he took his first philosophy course with me.
What are you working on right now?
I’m looking at how the ideas in Love and War and my “Male Trouble” article can help us understand what happened in the recent election, and the aftermath. One of the many ways the election outcome hit me hard was by raising doubt about the tacit optimism of my description in Love and War of a decline in cultural militarism. There was a decline of that sort after the Vietnam War, and I expected that to happen after the Iraq War, as well. It’s too early to tell, but I fear that the US could end up in a catastrophic war at any moment – not just because of the unhinged behavior in the White House, but because of how slowly our cultural programming of masculinity, particularly in boys, is evolving. In any case, I’ve been sketching out how insights in Love and War and my other work can be used to illuminate how and why we have fallen into such dire circumstances. For example, in my “Male Trouble” article, I talk about the shrinking symbolic and ideological content of masculinity, which is interrelated with trends where masculinity is subjected to tacit comic ridicule by men themselves – like the Jackass TV show and the WWE. Similarly, the behavior of the new occupant of the White House conveys a self-ridiculing, illusory image of masculine strength that barely camouflages an underlying profound weakness. He is a parody of masculinity. Alas, that doesn’t mean he can’t make foolish, reckless decisions that could endanger us all.
Another project is about what I call “Post-Militaristic Philosophy.” It started out as an invited talk for a FEAST panel on teaching, and then became a workshop on “Post-Militaristic Pedagogy” for the faculty of Wabash College. Janice Moulton’s early 1980s articles on adversariality in philosophy helped me see how so much of the style of contemporary philosophy fits squarely within the broader pattern of cultural militarism. Her articles also helped me see some of the disadvantages of adversarial philosophy, as did Robert Nozick’s hilarious Introduction to Philosophical Explanations. In Love and War, I strove to use phenomenological description and pragmatic explanation, rather than argument. That doesn’t mean I’m “anti-argument” – obviously, much of the great work in philosophy, and in feminist philosophy specifically, has relied on argument. But I think the effectiveness of the best philosophical arguments lies largely in their ability to help us see and understand, and not so much on defending or attacking positions.
Finally, for several years I’ve been working on another book project, consisting of a phenomenology of racism, rooted in my own experience growing up in (and being culturally programmed by) a white supremacist culture in Arkansas. That project also incorporates some of the ideas about militarism that are discussed in my Love and War book.
Who is your favorite philosopher and why?
That would be Sandra Bartky, who was one of my best friends for over 30 years. I learned from Sandy how to do phenomenology in a way that could impact people’s lives. Recently, I was gratified to be invited to speak on a Central APA panel celebrating her life and work. The title of my talk is “Sandra Bartky’s Secret Work on Masculinity.” It is a joy and an honor to be on the panel, but I am utterly heartbroken by her loss. She is one of the two dedicatees of my Love and War book.
Name a trait, skill, or characteristic that you have that others may not know about.
In my senior year of high school, my debate partner and I won the Arkansas state debate championship. The squad we defeated for the championship was Hot Springs High School, and it included a guy named William Jefferson Clinton.
Also, I’m a pretty decent cook occasionally. I won first place in the 1982 Savory Season Recipe Contest and Cook-off, in Boulder, Colorado.
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