Inspired by the interviews in the Paris Review and Bomb magazine, “The Questions” in Sports Illustrated, and the regular interviews on the blogs of Tom Peters and Guy Kawasaki, Comment has asked a diverse group of mentors for their stories.
Comment: How would you explain what you do to an interested nine-year-old child?
Jennifer Hart Weed: Being a philosopher is sort of like being a detective. We start with a puzzle or a problem and then we work on finding a solution to that problem. Once we find a solution, then we begin taking a closer look at that solution to see if a better solution can be found. Philosophers ask the tough questions: Who am I? Why is there something rather than nothing? Does God exist? What is goodness? And then, we try to find the answers to those questions.
Comment: What first drew you to this work?
JHW: I was drawn to philosophy through reading. First, the biblical book of Job provoked me to think about goodness and evil. Second, T. S. Eliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral, provoked me to think about the relationship between Church and State. Third, C.S. Lewis’ book, Miracles, prompted me to think about Christianity and God’s action in history. By the time I was reading Lewis in university, I decided to devote my studies to philosophy.
Comment: As a novice, what were your most valuable learning experiences?
JHW: Philosophy is a communal sport. It is very difficult to make progress on a problem without conversation partners. My most valuable learning experiences were within the context of conversations with other people about issues and problems about which we all cared very deeply. Reading groups, Bible studies, coffeehouse discussions, and graduate school all provided valuable learning experiences.
Comment: What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
JHW: “Be Good.” The Chair of the philosophy department at Saint Louis University, where I completed my Ph.D., used to say this to me. He was (unknowingly) echoing what my parents and grandparents had been telling me all along. If you aim for material things, you might end up self-centered and materialistic. But if you aim for goodness, you will make ethical progress and that in itself contributes to happiness.
Comment: From what sources do you draw inspiration for your work?
JHW: Truth, beauty, and goodness inspire me in both their abstract natures and their concrete manifestations. A true argument in philosophy inspires me, along with the beauty of Botticelli’s paintings and the goodness of God.
Comment: What rituals and habits structure your workday?
JHW: Prayer, morning coffee, the daily weather report, international news, conversations with my colleagues, and dinner with my husband.
Comment: What are your favorite tools?
JHW: Books: very low-tech, but high-impact. I love libraries, Latin, French, and German dictionaries, internet search engines like WorldCat and Philosopher’s Index, scanners, laptops, my iPod and digital cameras. Sometimes I use PowerPoint.
Comment: Tell us about a project that delighted you.
JHW: Gideon Strauss invited me to write a short article about “Philosophers in Love” for Comment magazine. This project was so enjoyable. It was an opportunity to talk about Philosophy and Love, (two topics dear to my heart), for a wider audience. What a delightful gift. Some mornings I wake up and I have trouble believing that I draw a salary to do what I love to do.
Comment: How do you plan your work?
JHW: I structure my work in terms of projects and deadlines, with a long-term view of my development as a scholar in medieval philosophy. I think of ways in which I can learn something new that is related to my field, and then structure a project around that investigation. Having articles published in journals or monographs is the icing on the cake—the real reward is in finding solutions to interesting problems and in honing my craft as a philosopher.
Comment: How does your work connect to other aspects of your life?
JHW: I view my work as a vocation; my work is God’s calling for my life. In being a philosopher, I can serve God and the church, as well as contributing to the academy.