Meet Peg O’Connor, Professor of Philosophy and Gender

Good afternoon everyone!

Today’s interview is going to be different. I decided to change things up a little; instead of psychology, let’s do some philosophy instead. What makes the two different? The difference between psychology and philosophy is that Psychology is the study of the human mind and its functions, while Philosophy studies the nature of knowledge and reality.

Let me tell you a little about our guest today. Peg O’Connor got her Bachelor’s Degree from Wesleyan University back in the 1980’s and is currently Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College. She is a recovered alcoholic and an author of 5 famous books. She has spent many years studying the ideas of philosophy, with a focus on gender studies and disparity between the social status of the sexes, especially in the academic sphere.

1. Philosophy studies the nature of reality and existence, whereas psychology is the study of human mind and behavior. What made you decide to be a philosophy professor instead of a psychologist?

I love the questions and concerns of philosophy. What makes a good life? How do we distinguish between appearance and reality? Is there truth? Are there moral facts? How do we know things? Psychology is a new discipline that has its roots in philosophy. Go far enough in psychology and you will encounter philosophical questions such as “Are humans purely physical beings?” and “what’s the relationship between the mind and the body?”

2. There are still, unfortunately, sexist people in the world. How do you feel when male philosophers argue “men have better thinking power than women”?

I feel irate when I witness that old song and dance. Then I tend to launch into all sorts of arguments about how women have historically been afforded far fewer educational opportunities, rights, civil liberties. I like to invoke the deeply moral concepts of autonomy and dignity. I may also direct male philosophers to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792).

3. This is a bold question, but what is it like being a woman in philosophy?

It is to face overt and covert sexism. The overt is more easily identifiable bad behavior including men claiming they are more rational/do better philosophy/are responsible for progress in philosophy. There’s too much sexual harassment and sexual intimidation. Then there are all the covert and more difficult to identify easily. A history of Great Philosophers course may not have one woman. Ditto for major anthologies on just about any topic in philosophy. A feminist philosopher may have a very difficult time getting a feminist piece published in one of the major journals even with anonymous review. The very subject matter may get an articlerejected. A great book to read on the subject is Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change edited by Katrina Hutchinson and Fiona Jenkins.

4. What motivated you to become a philosophy professor? What are the most important lessons you’ve taught your students?

I fell in love with philosophy as an undergraduate. I knew that I wanted to be a professor. I had a disastrous three-day stint at a divinity school for my first venture into graduate school. I knew I wanted to study ethics, but I soon realized divinity school was not the right forum for me. I also fell in love with the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and knew I had to study him. He’s been my intellectual companion ever since.

I think my students would be better positioned to answer the question about the most important thing I have taught. But if I had to guess, I’d say it is that each person needs to attend to the development of their moral character. You become who you are by what you do repeatedly. You don’t accidentally become a kind of person; you make yourself into a kind of person. You best know what kind of person you want to be.

5. What was your dream career before becoming a philosopher?

I had several dream careers. I wanted to be a tennis professional but I wasn’t good enough and I was a poorly behaved tyrant on the court. In high school, I was already a serious drinker and that gets in the way of any pursuit. I also imagined being an attorney. I would have been a litigator like my father. It’s all about the arguments!

6. I understand you recovered from an alcohol addiction. How did the addition start and how did you find a way out of it?

My addiction to alcohol started as a teenager and I drank in very dangerous ways. I can look at the criteria for what we now call a Substance Use Disorder and see that I met eight or nine of the eleven criteria. I drank hard and once I got going, I could not stop. I made all sorts of promises to myself to stop, but I broke every one of them. That gave me even more reason to drink. My stopping was not intentional. I had a terrible car accident and suffered a severe concussion. Knowing what I know now about the effects of a concussion, I think it causes such depression in me that I was too depressed to even drink. I was emotionally flatlined. I just didn’t care about anything; I didn’t really feel anything. Who knew that could happen. About three weeks after the accident, I realized that I hadn’t had a drink. I decided to experiment to see how long I could go. Well, the accident was August 1, 1987 and I am still going.

7. How does someone become addicted to a particular thing? Do you believe it’s all in the mind?

Different drugs and behaviors have different effects. Often, people will be looking for a certain effect (energized—cocaine, disinhibited—alcohol, laid back—marijuana, etc) and then stick with those drugs. Or they may experiment and like certain effects more than others. Addiction depends on opportunity to get and use a drug or to engage in a behavior.

Addiction is a full bodied condition of a person. It isn’t just all in the brain; it isn’t all about neurotransmitters. The gut plays a huge role in addiction. Think about the worst hangover you ever had. Sure, there’s a headache but your stomach may be roiling like crazy.

8. Some people don’t notice they are addicted. Sometimes they just believe a certain thing becomes a routine. How can you spot the difference between an addiction and a daily routine?

This is the crux of the matter. Imagine a group of friends who love together to drink and party on weekends. If everyone is doing it and you are too, it is hard to notice there’s a problem. Each of us will also suffer from confirmation bias. A person who might be worried about their use will assemble evidence or have count as evidence things that point to not being addicted. There are some good resources to explore if you are worried about this question. The entry of Substance Use Disorder in the DSM-5 is a good place to start. The criteria involves patterns of behaviors over a twelve month period. There’s also a good book published by Hazelden called Almost Alcoholic. Each person can ask themselves, “What role is _____ playing in my life? Has it started to take center stage and moved other things I care about off stage?”

9. I can have pretty bad anxiety from time to time, and the worse thing is that I often can’t prepare for it. Philosophically, how does anxiety work? Is it a trigger in the mind that makes you feel a certain way?

The philosopher Kierkegaard describes anxiety as anticipating the consequences like one feels in one’s bones that a storm is approaching. Anxiety is part of human nature and is present wherever there is possibility. We get anxious, according to Kierkegaard, when we experience having to make a choice. Anxiety is where possibility and actuality touch. Our actions move something from possibility to actuality. This can be very scary.

10. I’m going to end this interview on a fun note! What’s your favorite season and why?

I like summer best. I’m a morning person so I love when the sun is up in the early morning and the day is full of potential. Some of my favorite activities are best done in the summer: bicycling, playing tennis, kayaking, and taking long walks with my fabulous dog, Clooney.

Peg O’Connor is such a sweet lady and super organized too. I started reading one of her books called “Life on the Rocks: Finding Meaning in Addiction and Recover.” Check out her collection and share this post to someone who is suffering an addiction. 

Edited by Ariel S.

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