We spoke with Maryellen Stohlman-Vanderveen, from the APA blog

Text translated from its original version in Spanish

We present our first interview, in text, with leading philosophers from the English-speaking world. This time, we chat with Maryellen Stohlman-Vanderveen, editor on the topics of Inquiry and Diversity/Inclusion for the American Philosophical Association Blog. She graduated from Smith College in 2019 as a philosopher, majoring in psychology.

She is currently pursuing an MA in Philosophy and Public Policy at the London School of Economics. Her research interests include conceptual engineering, normative ethics, political philosophy, and philosophy of technology. Maryellen was a 2019-20 Fulbright Scholar in the Czech Republic and a Junior Fellow at Morningside College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where she taught introductory ethics and service learning courses.

What’s your earliest memory?
Where’d you grow up?

I grew up on the South Shore of Massachusetts. My earliest memory is from an Easter holiday where my mother had placed jellybeans on alternating sides of the staircase leading up to the second floor of the house. I remember how tall the staircase seemed and how excited I was to be climbing the stairs and collecting the candies!

How did you get into philosophy?

I got into philosophy by chance. I took an introductory course titled “Thinking about Thinking” my first semester of university. It wasn’t until a year later when I took two philosophy courses, a History of Modern European Philosophy course and a course called “The Meaning of Life”, that I really fell in love with the discipline and decided to major in it.

In “The Meaning of Life”, we got to read many texts from various philosophical traditions. These included, but were not limited to, the Bhagavad Gita, Martin Luther King, the New Testament, and Nietzsche. This course opened my mind to all the different forms that philosophy can take. In contrast, my Modern European Philosophy Course (taught by Professor Jeffry Ramsey) focused on texts that fit the more constricted, traditional definition of philosophy according to a Western perspective and aimed to teach students the conventions of philosophical writing. Both of these courses opened my eyes to the variety of perspectives that could be had on fundamental questions about the nature of our reality and existence. I also loved the precise style of philosophical writing, and was instantly hooked.

What did your parents make
of your decision to pursue philosophy?

I think my mother was originally a little concerned about my choice, but after she learned about the many professional applications of philosophy and was convinced I wouldn’t be jobless after graduation, she felt better about my decision and was very supportive.

How have you evolved philosophically?

I think my greatest development has been an improved ability to understand and make sense of conceptual differences. Through my study of philosophy, I have developed vocabulary and concepts to better define and discuss my own views, as well as an ability to understand and identify the preconceived notions that underly our beliefs and understandings. This has been very important in my work on conceptual engineering and it is something I hope to apply to policy issues in my new program at the London School of Economics.

You are a philosopher, and you have a specialization in psychology,
how are those two areas combined?

I think philosophy and psychology play into many of my research interests. Questions of psychology and the nature of language and the mind arise in conceptual engineering, normative ethics, and the philosophy of technology. I’ve always been fascinated by how the human mind works and how our individual concepts interact to inform our social structures and interactions with one another. I think this comes out in my past work on conceptual engineering and romantic jealousy.

In your text ”Disrupting notions: ameliorating romantic jealousy through compersion” you talk about altering romantic jealousy, making use of concepts such as “compersion”.
What can you tell us about it?
How to achieve it?

The basic premise of my argument borrows from Sally Haslanger’s ameliorative account of race and gender, in which she argues that we may change concepts which do not properly serve us – whether due to a linguistic or empirical deficiencies or for reasons related to justice. I argue that romantic jealousy as a concept has become inextricably tied to our definition of romantic love and that this has negative effects, such as reduced blame for violent acts attributed to jealous motivations, which ought to be moral concerns.

I argue that we ought to challenge a triad of related notions, a so-called conceptual paradigm, about romantic jealousy – namely, that romantic love is or ought to be exclusive, that jealousy is an inherent part of our romantic experiences, and that romantic jealousy positively reinforces romantic love. These notions, popular in western notions of jealousy, reinforce one another and show how the paradigm they create has led to reduced sentences for acts of domestic violence attributed to romantic jealousy. I draw on the emotion concept “compersion”, which can be defined as a feeling of taking pleasure in the pleasure your partner gains from an experience with someone else. While this concept has been popularized by modern polyamorous movements, the shared experience between your partner and someone else does not necessarily have to be a sexual one. Romantic jealousy is often sparked by non-romantic encounters (your partner’s close relationship with a colleague, for instance) and so, a broader practice of compersion can be something which is beneficial for monogamous and polyamorous couples alike.

On an individual level, I think romantic partners can practice being more aware of moments where they experience romantic jealousy and reflect on what causes these feelings and how it affects their actions towards their partner and others. Being aware of what causes jealous feelings and trying to actively practice compersion when those feelings arise can cultivate a more compersive relationship and challenge the broader paradigm.

You were a philosophy teacher in HK…
What do you find interesting
about Chinese philosophy?

I unfortunately did not have as much opportunity to study Chinese philosophy as I would have liked while in Hong Kong. Pandemic restrictions made it difficult to attend lectures or branch out of my academic bubble. Still, I taught elements of Confucianism as part of our introductory course. Witnessing the influence of Confucian thought on the society and noticing some philosophical and political differences between my students and I, I became very interested in how our philosophical belief systems influence our evaluations of various government policies.

This was actually one of the things that inspired me to pursue my degree in Philosophy and Public Policy at the London School of Economics. Having observed the difference in pandemic responses first-hand between the Czech Republic (where I was living when the pandemic broke out), the United States, and Hong Kong, I became interested in how cultural belief systems affect our ability to respond to societal crises. Chinese culture as a whole is much more collectivist in contrast to the United States’ strong individualism, and this was apparent in their ability to respond to the virus without the sort of frictions the US experienced.

One particularly interesting thing I observed , however, were commonalities surrounding vaccine hesitancy. Both the US and Hong Kong had populations who were vaccine hesitant due to health concerns or doubts about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, but both places also had groups of people who were opposed to the vaccine for seemingly political reasons. While in the US, it was primarily conservatives who were against the vaccine, some Hong Kongers who supported the 2019 protest movement also initially refused to get vaccinated as a rejection of governmental coercion.

Is it difficult to be “Western” in Asia?

I have not spent time in Asia outside of Hong Kong, so I can only speak to that specific context, but I would not say it is difficult at all to be “Western” in Hong Kong. I would even say that being “Western” – particularly white and English-speaking – brings certain privileges professionally there. There are many stores that will be familiar to those from Europe, such as Marks & Spencer or Pret A Manger, as well as many restaurants catering to the Western palette. Hong Kong is a very international city, and it is easy for expats to isolate themselves in the “expat bubble”. I think the onus is on expats to step outside this bubble and their comfort zones to connect with local communities. I also believe that expats should be aware of the privileges they have and actively work to support and uplift those who don’t have that same privilege.

How did you get involved with the APA?

I initially earned a free membership to the American Philosophical Association through a fellowship I completed with the Philosophy in an Inclusive Key Summer Institute. This is one of the summer diversity institutes in philosophy, which aims at increasing inclusion and access in the discipline. They invite undergraduates who may be interested in a career in philosophy to participate in seminars and workshops to help prepare them for graduate school (and decide if it is the right choice for them).

I began working with the APA a few years later as a volunteer editor for the Teaching Beat’s Graduate Reflection Series under Sabrina M. MisirHirsharall. I’ve always loved journalism and writing, and been passionate about public philosophy, so this seemed like a nice way to combine my interests. After working in this role for a few months, my current position as Research and Diversity/Inclusiveness became available. Sabrina encouraged me to apply, and I was fortunate enough to join the editorial board.

What do you do as the
Diversity/Inclusiveness and Research Editor
for the APA Blog?

The APA Blog is divided into four main beats, or sections – Teaching, Public Philosophy, Diversity and Inclusiveness, and Research. As the Diversity/Inclusiveness and Research editor, I solicit and edit articles for these two beats. There are nine regularly running series under these beats, and so I mostly work with the series editors to make sure that posts are edited and published in accordance with APA guidelines. I also respond to pitches that our readers send in and help monitor the blog’s comment section. (We are always accepting pitches and suggestions for posts, so please reach out if you have any ideas for topics we should cover!)

Why is it important to talk about diversity
and inclusiveness in the philosophy world?

Philosophy is one of the least diverse academic disciplines, and a lot of this has to do with how the philosophical community has policed itself and the definition of “real” philosophy. But philosophy really pervades every corner of our lives, and who’s to say that one way of understanding and making sense of the world is inherently more valuable than another’s view? Homogenous philosophy not only harms the world it exists in by arbitrarily privileging certain viewpoints above others, it also harms itself by limiting its engagement to contrasting views.

Can academic philosophy
adapt to the rapidly
evolving media landscape? How?   

I believe academic philosophy can adapt to the evolving media landscape. The more interesting question might be, “how should philosophy adapt?”. There is an increase in easily consumable educational content available through social media channels like Instagram, TikTok, or Twitter. Some philosophers have already taken advantage of this trend and grown relatively large follower bases.

While there is no doubt an advantage to having a large Twitter following as an academic, I am not sure if it should be the goal of academics to grow a large social media following (although some philosophers are genuinely hilarious and/or insightful, and so the followers come naturally). Social media encourages us to distil everything into short, easily digested bites of content, and not all ideas are suited for this format. Some topics warrant deep and serious engagement. So, while academic philosophy can adapt to the evolving media landscape, I think it is more important that they focus on producing ideas and questions that are worth discussing. If they do that, the ideas will naturally become disseminated through media.

Conceptual engineering is one of the trends that I am the most excited about. I think it’s great that more attention is being paid to the power we have to challenge inherited concepts, and ultimately, to determine our own.

However, I find the general wave of cancel culture in academia disconcerting. In philosophy especially, I think it is important that ideas are aired in the court of public opinion so that they can be discussed fully and openly. Only then can they be evaluated on their merits and accepted or rejected accordingly. It is dangerous when societies become so divided that neighbors can no longer come together over common ground. This is ultimately the breeding ground for resentment and extremism. I worry this is the direction academia, and perhaps the United States as a whole, has been heading.

How do you maintain
a work-life balance?

Fitness and time with friends are the main ways I maintain a work-life balance. I like to exercise first thing in the morning because I feel that it helps me center myself for the day. I also believe that doing something hard first thing makes the rest of the day feel a little easier. Making time for loved ones is also very important to me. Even if it is just having a quick phone call with a friend or family member back in the states while I take a walk, connecting with loved ones always makes me feel recharged.

Favorite books?
Movies? TV shows?

I have so many favorites! Ever since I was young, I’ve really enjoyed reading Stephen King. I love the depth that he brings to his characters and scenes. Most of the books take place in New England, the area I grew up, and I am always impressed by his ability to capture elements of small-town life there. So many of his characters, for better and for worse, seem like people I could’ve grown up knowing. I recently finished reading Revival which one of my students gifted me before I left Hong Kong and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys suspense.

I also try to read some philosophy and more educational books. I am currently also working my way through The Dawn of Everything, but I think my favorite nonfiction book that I’ve read this year has been The Atlas of AI by Kate Crawford. She does an excellent job tracing the different spheres of ethical concerns regarding AI development today and explaining why we should care about how and why technologies are being developed.

I don’t watch as many movies as I would like, but I have to recommend Everywhere, Everything, All at Once. From the costumes to the storyline to the subtle philosophy references, I think this movie really had everything and I couldn’t recommend it enough. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed and cried at the same time as much as I did during this movie.

For TV shows, I am super excited for the second season of Severence whenever it comes out. I thought the central question of the plot – what would it be like to sever our consciousness into two identities, one who exists only at work and one who exists only outside? – and the ethical implications of such a choice is fascinating. The story telling and cinematography is also just so compelling.

By Maryellen Stohlman-Vanderveen and Miguel Ángel García Calderón (Filosofía en la Red´s CEO).

*Translate: Mercedes González García

Cite this article (APA): García, M; González, M & Stohlman-Vanderveen, M. (2022, 29 de octubre). We spoke with Maryellen Stohlman-Vanderveen, from the APA blog. Filosofía en la Red. https://filosofiaenlared.com/2022/10/platicamos-con-maryellen-stohlman-vanderveen-del-blog-de-apa/

Images | Courtesy of Maryellen Stohlman-Vanderveen

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