Who is Chair Weiss?

Gail Weiss
November 01, 2010

Chair of the Department of Philosophy Gail Weiss has her hands full. The mother of five is working on two book projects, co-editing a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia, teaching, meeting with department faculty, and keeping pace with administrative duties. This month, we caught up with the self-proclaimed “multi-tasker” and learned all about the relevance of philosophy to our everyday lives and careers.

What advice do you have for students interested in philosophy?

Don’t let relatives, strangers, or your peers talk you out of taking philosophy courses or even majoring in philosophy! Despite its reputation for being way too abstract and impractical, I don’t think there is a better major to prepare one for articulating and addressing the daily challenges of life. Philosophy helps people to become better thinkers, writers, and more engaging interlocutors, and these are skills that benefit everyone no matter what career they ultimately pursue.

What does a degree in philosophy encompass? How does it prepare students for further study and/or careers?

Philosophy is truly at the heart of a liberal arts education. Above all, it provides the analytical tools necessary to develop careful, critical, incisive, and original perspectives on oneself, one’s society, and the world in which we live. One of the wonderful things about a degree in philosophy is that it enables students to deepen their understanding of the centrality of philosophical issues in all other disciplines. Philosophy majors at GW take a variety of classes in a number of different areas. The research they undertake is directly connected with issues they discuss in other courses such as history, sociology, anthropology, religion, mathematics, biology, art history. . .and this is not an exhaustive list!

Law schools and medical schools tend to love philosophy majors because they are trained to be rigorous, systematic thinkers and because they know how to synthesize important information from a case and express the main points as well as the more subtle points clearly, both orally and in writing. Our majors tend to feel quite special not only because we give them a lot of personal attention but also because they have taken the “road less travelled.” They have resisted the temptation to be complacent and simply accept what they are taught. Instead, they are trained to pursue the difficult “why, what, and how” questions that underlie every claim to knowledge and truth.

You have published several books on phenomenology, aging, feminist theory, among other topics. What fascinates you about these subjects and how they relate to contemporary culture and socialization?

A unifying theme in my work has been the centrality of the human body in all aspects of our experience. Phenomenology seeks to describe those familiar aspects of our lives that we tend to take for granted. Most of us certainly take our bodies for granted most of the time except, perhaps, when we are suddenly unable to rely upon them to pursue our ordinary activities, as can happen in cases of illness, disease or disability. Aging is yet another crucial dimension of embodiment that we often take for granted. Even though no two bodies age in precisely the same way, the aging process itself is a universal feature of human existence. Given the disgust that elderly bodies often arouse in younger people and even in many elderly people themselves who may nostalgically recall the beauty, agility, and energy of their more youthful bodies and lament the diminishment of their bodily capacities, it is clear that a lot more work needs to be done to facilitate both individual and cultural acceptance of all types of bodies as equally deserving of dignity and respect.

Describe your current research and its significance within your discipline.

Currently, I am co-editing a special issue of the leading journal in feminist philosophy, Hypatia, on “The Ethics of Embodiment.” This special issue gathers together some of the best contemporary feminist work on the ethical implications of embodiment by both junior and senior scholars and I can’t wait to see it in print!

I am also well underway on two different books. The first, Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty: Philosophers of Ambiguity offers an extended critical analysis of common themes that appear in Simone de Beauvoir’s and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s respective work including embodiment, freedom, oppression, and, of course, ambiguity. My second book project, Normalizing Bodies, maintains that ethical (as well as social and political) norms must be understood, first and foremost, as corporeal practices that change over time. I am especially interested in how changes in accepted understandings of what is normal or natural or normative concretely impact one another, revealing and intensifying the interdependency of these three phenomena. My focus throughout the book is on how specific gender, racial, sexual, ethnic, able-bodied, and class differences have served to mark particular bodies as morally unworthy, aesthetically distasteful, and scientifically suspect.

What is the one thing about you or your work that would most surprise people?

The single fact about me that most surprises people is that I have five children. I’m also a soccer mom and a big D.C. United fan. Our family has had season tickets to the D.C. United games at RFK for many years now, and even though we are very disappointed at how poorly they did this past year, we have already renewed our tickets for the 2011 season and are hoping for the best!