Jennifer Frey has Covid-19. I’ve arranged to interview her via a video link only about a week after classes re-started at the University of South Carolina, where she is a professor of philosophy. I offer to cancel but she’s determined to proceed, so we do a Zoom call from her quarantine sickbed, where she’s self-isolating from her husband and six children.
I have to ask. Are universities handling the pandemic well?
“I think my own experience is typical of my experience in academia generally, which is to say that I find myself disagreeing with almost everyone else,” she says. Frey, while supporting the initial lockdowns, backed reopening universities and schools this autumn.
“My own view is that educators are essential workers. Obviously there are risks. I have Covid right now!” But in her view, any alternative other than re-opening is unfair to students. “I am really concerned by the fact that in so many states kids can go to the beach, they can go to an indoor trampoline park, they can go to the movies … but they can’t go to class.
“So it really seems like somehow we’ve decided that education comes last, or that teachers cannot in any way take on risks. My personal preference is for what my own university has done: they have enabled those who are in a high-risk category to completely teach online. Face to face instruction is strictly voluntary. I volunteered, and I don’t regret my decision. And I have Covid!”
Talking to Frey, it becomes clear that the strength of her views on education come in part from first-hand experience of its ability to transform people. “Philosophy totally changed my life. In some ways I would really say it saved my life”.
Frey grew up in the American Midwest, by her own description “pretty uneducated in a general way” by the end of high school, and miserable. She was a cheerleader with vague aspirations of becoming a fiction writer, with no interest in or knowledge of philosophy and an active hostility to religion. “This was the mid to late 90s, so it was before new atheism was really a thing, but I was basically a new atheist. I was ahead of my time!”
In college, her desire to study English rapidly waned: the classes were mostly concerned with identity politics and weren’t challenging enough: “I thought we were going to be reading Joyce.” A request to try tackling the classics didn’t go down well.
“And at the same time I was taking a philosophy class, which just destroyed me. I worked so hard, and I was getting like a C. I was like, ‘What? This is crazy! Why don’t they see how smart I am?’ But the truth is I had no idea how to write a philosophy paper. I was just reading Kierkegaard and Descartes and thinking, ‘Man, I don’t know what’s going on, but it seems way more important than anything else I’ve ever read!’”
It was reading Augustine’s Confessions, though, that brought about the transformation. “I was terrified, actually, when I finished the Confessions, because …” A pause.
“I mean, I knew that everything in my life was wrong. What are you supposed to do with that when you’re 18? Was I going to talk to people about Augustine? They haven’t read Augustine! Everyone was like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’” Reading Thomas Aquinas soon after “was a window into how shallow my own perspective was.” It set her on a trajectory that ultimately led her to Catholicism.
Frey puts a lot of weight on the fact that she read Augustine and Aquinas’s writings directly, rather than things written about them: that there was a freshness to encountering these people on their own terms that couldn’t be captured in the same way in secondary writing.
I stop her here. The Confessions, sure: but wouldn’t most 18-year-olds just bounce off the Summa Theologiae?
Frey is genuinely shocked. “Maybe I’m the wrong person to ask, because I’m weird, but … I just loved Thomas. I think of Aquinas as, like, one of my best friends.” He had, she says “an honest, clear, rigorous, analytic method for doing philosophy. And he seemed to be saying true things. I find it literally joyful. I think it’s a good time.”
At the same time, she found the challenge of grappling with texts from different eras with different assumptions refreshing. “It’s always both. Joy and terror! To me the real value of great books, the reason why I will fight for them with my dying breath, is that they help you transcend your time and place. They make you see that this thing of being a human, you’re experiencing it in a certain limited way, but it’s so much bigger than you.”
I’m asking Frey more about her conversion and the role philosophy played in it when we are interrupted by her intrepid three-year-old, who has breached the quarantine barrier. An exchange is negotiated: one of Frey’s pairs of shoes for a resumption of self-isolation.
“Sorry, what was the question?”
Well, having fallen in love with both Catholicism and philosophy, what does Frey see as her mission? Is there a particular task or set of tasks that she feels called to accomplish? Frey’s eyebrows go up. “Right now my mission is just keep everyone in my house alive!” It’s said in good humour, and she reflects before answering again. “Well, I’ve got a lot of things going on. I’m a person torn in many different directions.”
Part of that is being involved in both Catholic philosophy and contemporary Anglo-American analytic philosophy – worlds that not only rarely interact, but are often actively hostile to one another.
“Rather than pick sides, which I have no interest in doing, I really just try to have the best of both worlds. So part of what I’ve tried to do in my career is to get those two camps to talk more to one another.” Frey is following in the footsteps of one of her philosophical heroes (and one of mine): Elizabeth Anscombe, a committed Catholic and an analytic philosopher who translated Ludwig Wittgenstein into English, did pioneering work on the nature of mental intentions, and launched a revival of Aristotelian virtue ethics.
Frey’s own academic work deals with some of Anscombe’s preoccupations: neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, intentions, and the nature of happiness. With the University of Chicago’s Candace Vogler, she led an interdisciplinary group comprising neuroscientists, economists and psychologists as well as philosophers and theologians researching links between happiness and “self-transcendence”. Their argument, linking back to ideas of Aquinas’s, is that there’s a certain kind of happiness that’s only possible to achieve if you’re not aiming at your own self-interest but at a different good.
Frey also does a lot of work introducing philosophy to a wider audience: she hosts a podcast, Sacred and Profane Love, about philosophy and literature, writes for non-academic publications, and runs the Virtue Blog.
“I’m always looking for ways to reach people. The podcast is really about trying to bring people in, trying to get them to read great books, and think about them in a disciplined way, in a way that makes it especially clear how it relates to their own life and their own self-conception. People have these human needs that really aren’t being met.”
She thinks academic philosophy could stand to pay more attention to literature too: a lot of analytic philosophers in particular lack a sense of mystery, a sense that used to be supplied by a hand-in-glove relationship with theology. “When people hear ‘mystery’ they think either Sherlock Holmes or just ‘something I haven’t solved yet.’”
So what does she mean by it?
“The idea that there are some concepts like ‘the good’ that can’t be fully captured, we can only inadequately approach them.”
A proper appreciation for literature, Frey thinks, can help with this. “That’s why I’m so fascinated by Iris Murdoch. This is a woman who’s an atheist, but really grasps the concept of a mystery, and takes it seriously as a philosopher. “
Frey’s not sure that it all adds up to a single mission, whether there’s a thread that can be pulled through the different work that she does. “Maybe you can make one out of that,” she jokes.
I wonder after our chat if the thread could be happiness. But it could just be “following the truth where it leads”. When I ask Frey about the challenges facing philosophy and philosophers today, she lists many: chief among them being the temptation for philosophers to prioritise something other than the truth.
“One thing that is a constant temptation … is to let your ambitions get to be more important than the truth. And tying your pursuit of the truth to your ambitions and your political ends, so that what you are willing to think about and write about is determined by your ambitions within the academy.
“That’s something that I’ve had to fight my entire life. If I wanted to have a fancy job I wouldn’t be writing about the things I care about. So you have to ask yourself ‘Why am I even doing this?’”
For Frey it’s not just academic ambition that’s a problem: it’s any practical goal when put above truth. Putting a desire to appease a social media following, or to sell books, or to realise “sometimes laudable political goals”, above pursuit of the truth: “That really could be the death of the intellectual life in its most exalted sense.”
What’s an example of this? Frey flags the US response to the coronavirus, where what a person thought about the necessity of masks or the wisdom of lockdowns was often a function of their partisan affiliation. “What I see is a lot of lack of nuance and flexibility on both sides. And philosophers like to pretend that we know how to transcend all of that. No, it’s become politicised for them as well.
“I guess one of my most basic commitments,” she says, “is that, you know, the human is always trying to escape reality. I mean, me too, right? And really the goal of the moral life is to stay in contact with it as best as you can, and to be faithful to it. This is what Plato thought, this is what Aristotle thought, this is what Thomas thought, this is what Iris Murdoch thought.
“I self-consciously place myself in that tradition and just desperately want to carry it forwards.”
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