On Free-Wheeling Careers
In this interview with Barbara Herrnstein Smith, known for her important contributions to literary theory and for an unusual interdisciplinary career, interviewer Janell Watson gives a brief account of Smith’s early interests in philosophy and science, her career as a teacher of comparative literature at Bennington College, the University of Pennsylvania, and Duke University, and her accomplishments as a scholar and theorist. The interview draws out Smith’s views on a wide range of issues relating to contemporary critical thought and changes in university life over the past fifty or sixty years. Smith describes her foray into feminist activism in the 1960s; her love of English poetry but disaffection with the intellectual provincialism of English departments in the 1970s; her increased occupation during the 1980s and 1990s with problems of aesthetics, linguistics, and value theory; and her most recent work on epistemology and twentieth-century science studies. Exchanges during the interview also touch on Smith’s dismay at the increasing prominence of marketability as a concern of the academy; her response to anxieties over relativism occasioned by her book Contingencies of Value; her advocacy, versus mainstream cognitive science, of an “ecological” or “dynamic” view of human cognition; and her efforts to challenge or complicate familiar but dubious conceptual dualisms, including, most recently, oversimplified views of the relations between science and religion.
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