Debra Nails is Professor of Philosophy emerita, Michigan State University. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Journal of the History of Philosophy, on the AAUP Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and on the APA’s Data Task Force. In 2016, she was elected to foreign membership in Societas Scientiarum Fennica, and elected representative for North America to the International Plato Society. She formerly chaired the APA Committee for the Defense of Professional Rights of Philosophers and the AAUP Professional Ethics Committee. She wrote The People of Plato (2002).
What excites you about philosophy?
Questions at the interface of mathematics, physics, and philosophy are powerful enough to distract me from bodily pains and pleasures. The questions themselves—being, causality, time, method—are formulated differently in this century, but they’re the same puzzles that excited the presocratics. When students studying ancient philosophy have Aha! experiences about those questions, life is worth living.
What would your childhood self say if someone told you that you would grow up to be a philosopher?
At age eight, when my cat was named ‘Socrates’ and my carpenter-father had already told me that philosophers are paid to think and don’t have bosses, I would have said, wide-eyed with delight, “Of course!” But I was growing up in segregated northern Louisiana: violent, racist (KKK, White Citizens’ Council, black-face minstrel shows), misogynist (annual Womanless Wedding), Protestant, and poor. Nevertheless, there were books, a library, a museum, and parents so committed to “going where the argument leads” that I could bring in neighbors as jurists when I thought I had been grounded unfairly. Many of the better arguments, I admit, were heard for the first time when I reached university at seventeen (was I still a child?) and learned how benighted my education had been.
Who’s your favorite philosopher and why?
Parmenides, Plato, Spinoza—because they leave me so little to say.
What cause or charity do you care about most?
In the footsteps of John Dewey, A. O. Lovejoy, Max Black, and Judith Jarvis Thomson, I spend a lot of time volunteering for the AAUP, arguing about principles of academic justice and their application; composing statements on issues in the profession; as well as investigating complaints of violations of academic freedom and, helping faculty and administrators to amend unjust policies. For many of us godless academics, higher education is sacred. It is also threatened, and I regard the work of the AAUP as our last, best hope, though its staff is sorely stretched. The AAUP is member-funded, rather like NPR, by the tiny percentage of those who benefit from its work every day of their lives. Cynics think, “Why join when I get AAUP help and information for free?” But I am not cynical, and I know how much more protection the association could offer higher education if more academics would join “for the common good.” I give regular financial support to the ACLU, NPR, Common Cause, and Planned Parenthood—but I don’t worry that they will cease operations before we destroy the planet.
What are you working on right now?
SOCRATES! His Life and Execution—a graphic novel with illustrator Ben Nadler, under contract with Princeton University Press.
What’s your favorite quotation?
To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.
—Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963
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