A challenge for philosophy Penn's Anita Allen is at the top of her field, but she has serious concerns about its lack of openness and diversity. An uneasy job for a black woman

Posted: October 24, 2007

Anita Allen remembers an extraordinary remark made by one of her white, male University of Michigan philosophy professors in the 1970s when she was in graduate school seeking a Ph.D. in philosophy - a field that at the time lacked a single black woman professor.

" 'Anita,' he told me," recalls Allen between the good-natured laughs that punctuate the seriousness of what she says, " 'you will have to pee on the floor of the American Philosophical Association convention to not get a job in philosophy.' "

Was she offended?

"I thought," she continues, "well, maybe they're right" - a notion that helped ease her growing concern that she might be heading up an impossible path.

Chatting on the eve of her keynote speech to the first Collegium of Black Women Philosophers in Nashville, reflecting upon her life in the exquisite University of Pennsylvania office that marks her status as Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy, Allen radiates the confidence you'd expect from someone many peers consider the most prominent black woman philosophy professor in the country, as well as one of the nation's top law professors.

A nationally known thinker on privacy and ethics who earned her Harvard law degree five years after taking her Michigan Ph.D. in 1979, Allen, 54, is the author of several books, including Why Privacy Isn't Everything (2003), The New Ethics (2004), and now her first casebook on her own, Privacy Law and Society (2007). She's also published scores of articles on such pressing legal and philosophical issues as affirmative action and reproductive rights.

On any given week, Allen might be shooting off to some distant city for a lecture or panel. She has held visiting professorships at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other elite institutions. She writes a monthly column, "The Moralist," for the Newark Star-Ledger, and has appeared frequently on TV as a commentator. Her 27-page C.V. teems with fellowships, awards, publications, presentations, and public-service activities.

If anyone in academe has arrived, it's Anita Allen.

Yet she recounts in stinging detail how tough it could be, as a black "Army brat" raised on bases from Georgia to Hawaii, to feel comfortable in philosophy, a discipline that still counts only about 30 black women among thousands of professors. That partly explains why she chose to move to legal academe and express her philosophical interests from there, while maintaining a secondary appointment in philosophy.

"I'm in a livelier, more hands-on world," Allen says, offering a sharp view of the discipline with which she fell in love as an adolescent.

"I have not been able to encourage other people like me to go into philosophy because I don't think it has enough to offer them.

"The salaries aren't that great, the prestige isn't that great, the ability to interact with the world isn't that great, the career options aren't that great, the methodologies are narrow.

"Why would you do that," she asks, "when you could be in an African American studies department, a law school, a history department, and have so many more people to interact with who are more like you, a place where so many more methods are acceptable, so many more topics are going to be written about? Why would you close yourself off in philosophy?

"I feel that philosophy is hoisting itself by its own petard. Its unwillingness to be more inclusive in terms of issues, methods, demographics, means that it's losing out on a lot of vibrancy, a lot of intellectual power."

Despite delight at the birth of the collegium, the existence finally of a "critical mass" of black women philosophers, she admits "philosophy still feels to me like an isolated profession."

"I don't think I would encourage a black woman who has big ideas necessarily to go into philosophy," Allen says. "Why? What's the point? Go out and win the Pulitzer Prize! Don't worry about academic philosophy. On the other hand, I would like to see that world open up to more women and women of color."

If Allen sounds like a person who fell out of love with philosophy as a malformed academic discipline, if not with the subject itself, the field may have itself to blame. She could not have started off more enamored.

Born in Port Townsend, Wash., one of six children of a career Army man and "stay-at-home" mother - both high school dropouts from segregated Atlanta - Allen describes herself as a "very quiet, pensive child." Because libraries on Army bases always contained "great books," she lost herself in them, reading philosophers such as Sartre and Plato as a teen.

Allen credits growing up on bases for a "multicultural" environment that made her believe "there were no racial barriers to my being what I wanted to be."

A teacher at Baker High School, the Columbus, Ga., alma mater she shares with Newt Gingrich, directed her to New College in Sarasota, Fla., an intensely intellectual experimental college.

There she met Paul Castellitto, a "nice Catholic Italian boy from New York" who became her boyfriend sophomore year, an enduring friend, and her husband in 1985 after a short marriage during her Harvard years ended. (Allen and Castellitto, a retired white-collar defense lawyer, live on the Main Line with their two children, Adam, 16, and Ophelia, 11.)

It was at New College that Allen lost her religious faith and dove headfirst into philosophy. Her faculty mentor steered her toward "analytic philosophy," which focuses on problems of logic and language. She wrote her senior thesis on Rudolf Carnap, a key figure in the so-called Vienna Circle that sought to bring positivist scientific rigor to philosophy.

Her mentor also urged her to go to the highly ranked University of Michigan philosophy department, where her struggle with the discipline began. Allen - by her own account "completely apolitical" at the time - says she "knew about Angela Davis" (though she hadn't read the radical black woman philosopher) and thought "other schools might want to have their own Angela Davis."

So, with the help of one of the first Ford Foundation four-year grants that enabled African American students to pursue a Ph.D., she continued in philosophy.

Someday, perhaps, Allen will write a tell-all memoir that includes the bad things that followed, as well as the good. The colleagues who suggested she'd made it into philosophy only because of affirmative action. The dissertation director she had to dump after he "grabbed me and kissed me." The "constantly being hit on" by white male philosophy professors when she applied for a job. The uncertainty about whether people were "trying to talk to me to get into my panties, or trying to talk to me to offer me a job opportunity."

It's a long time ago, but still fresh in mind. As Allen's political consciousness grew, she broke away from her first job teaching philosophy at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, took a position in Washington, turned to law, and rose steadily through legal academe to her current perch.

Now she tries to balance theoretical interests and engaged activities, such as chairing the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children.

"My hope," Allen says of the Nashville gathering, "is that this meeting will be for black women philosophers what the first meeting of black women lawyers was for us in the early '90s. . . . We have now arrived. And I think women in philosophy can also arrive."

Contact staff writer Carlin Romano at 215-854-5615 or cromano@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/carlinromano.

Read Anita Allen's Web page at Penn, with links to her writings, via http://go.philly.com/allen.

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