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Elizabeth Anderson, University of Michigan professor of philosophy and women’s studies, was named a MacArthur Fellow last week. Anderson is one of 26 “Genius Grant” winners whose work displays “extraordinary originality.”
In addition to Anderson, who is known for her work in political philosophy and social epistemology, this year’s MacArthur Fellowship class includes writers, artists and urban planners. The fellowship comes with a $625,000 grant to be distributed over five years. The Foundation was created by insurance businessman John MacArthur in 1970.
The award is commonly known as the “Genius Grant” — against the wishes of the MacArthur Foundation itself — though Anderson said, in an interview with The Daily, she does not consider herself a genius in her field. Anderson pointed to research showing women are less likely to go into fields where one must be considered a “genius” rather than a hard worker. Anderson cited this characterization as her major qualm with the title.
“Notoriously, philosophy and also math and physics are places where you have people believe you have to be a ‘genius’ to succeed in them,” Anderson said. “And those are also disciplines — especially physics and philosophy — where there are very few women, so I’m not keen on calling the MacArthur Awards ‘Genius Awards.’”
In her studies, Anderson mainly examines problems in the circulation of ideas among people. She operates under the pragmatist tradition, which she described as a way of reviewing problematic experiences to diagnose the issue at hand. This line of reasoning, Anderson said, uses normative thinking to find solutions.
When Anderson arrived at the University in 1987, she was the only woman on tenure-track in the Philosophy Department and in 1993, she became the first woman to be awarded tenure from within the department.
Anderson’s experience as the only woman on tenure-track in the department led her to seek out colleagues in women’s studies to help her better understand her experience at the University. This collaboration prompted her to think about feminist philosophy, which she said has gone on to shape her work.
Anderson theorizes under non-ideal theory, which requires philosophers to think about what is appropriate in an imperfect world, rather than operating under the assumption the world is perfect.
“It was a very problematic experience which actually led me to my colleagues in women’s studies, and really led me to start thinking seriously about feminist philosophy, partly just to understand my own experiences of what it’s like to kind of be a gatecrasher in an all-male domain,” Anderson said. “It’s interesting that a large number of feminist philosophers are attracted to the pragmatist tradition, because pragmatism always starts with problems, not with utopia.”
Peter Railton, professor of philosophy, said Anderson’s research on democratic theory and equality in political philosophy is unmatched. He explained her interest in the historical dimension of all political changes and ways to translate understanding into action makes her unique in the philosophy world.
Railton said he is unaware of any living philosopher whose work better understands the value of philosophy in a changing world. He compared her work to that of John Dewey, Anderson’s profesorship’s namesake who was an American philosopher whose work influenced education and social reform.
“She is certainly one of the leading contemporary philosophers working in English and her work is known worldwide … but this fellowship I don’t think is for being well-known, or even being widely read, it’s for being distinctive,” Railton said. “She has really been a pioneer in a half-dozen fields, and she’s done seminal work, so it’s easy to see why she was viewed as a distinctive philosopher.”
Additionally, Railton said her work has enriched diversity and inclusion, and she has both personally and professionally enhanced the University community.
Rackham student Mercy Corredor said Anderson’s reputation for enhancing the University is well known among philosophy students. When Corredor first arrived as a graduate student in philosophy, she said she felt out of place, but taking Anderson’s class first semester made her feel at home in the discipline.
After building a rapport with Anderson through the class, Corredor asked Anderson to chair her dissertation committee. Now in her fifth year of graduate school, Corredor described Anderson as a teacher who is genuinely happy to work with students.
“She just genuinely gets really excited about hearing ideas put in new and interesting ways,” Corredor said. “From the student side of it, nothing feels better than that — the advisor you respect so much genuinely getting excited about the things you think about.”
As for why Anderson’s work is worthy of recognition from the MacArthur Foundation, Corredor described her work in democracy and equality has been “revolutionary.” Corredor also noted the importance of Anderson’s problem-focused, solution-oriented approach to philosophy.
“She has an incredible nose for finding important problems that are affecting people in the world, and she goes there and then theorizes as a way of alleviating those problems,” Corredor said. “A lot of philosophers like to look in the other direction, where they do the theorizing first, and then go out into the world and see if they can apply the theories to the people — and that’s the opposite of what she’s doing. She really cares about people and their problems. That’s part of her pragmatist approach, and so that is what motivates her work first and foremost and this is what makes her a really incredible scholar.”
Currently, Anderson is on leave from the University to work on two books — one on the history and contemporary significance of the Protestant work ethic and the other on the ethics of political communication. Anderson said she is interested in writing for a broad audience so people can understand her work and apply it to the social-political problems present in their everyday lives.
Anderson, who has been as LSA professor for more than three decades, said the University has seen many changes from when she was the only female tenure-track professor in her department in the late 1980s. However, Anderson said she has always been impressed with the University’s commitment to interdisciplinary research.
“University of Michigan is just a fantastic place to be doing research like this because there are so few barriers between departments, schools, units and programs,” Anderson said. “Everybody is really interested in talking to everyone else — interested in each other's research — and it’s not like at other schools where departments are siloed and insulated from each other. So that’s the reason why I’ve chosen to stay here and make my career here, because it’s just an amazing intellectual environment.”