The Queen's Department of Philosophy has been really fortunate to hire several new philosophers over the past few years. Joining the department this year is Professor Meena Krishnamurthy, who has moved to Queen's from the University of Michigan.
Meena is currently writing on Martin Luther King, Jr’s views on the role of the political emotions to motivate action against racial injustice. She is exploring how King used tactics of the civil rights movement (protest, images, letters, and oratory) to engage these emotions. She is also writing on Indian political thinkers such as B.R. Ambedkar, who are concerned with the nature of caste and casteism.
To introduce herself, Meena has answered a few questions about herself and her work.
You describe yourself as doing “public philosophy”. What do you mean by that?
Public philosophy is philosophy that is public facing – that is, philosophy which engages with issues that concern the public and that the public cares about.
You’ve done some of your work as podcasts. Are there ways that the podcast medium works particularly well for the philosophical work you do?
Podcasts are a great way to engage in public philosophy. They are easier to engage with than articles published in professional philosophy journals. At their best, they use everyday language rather than jargon and they are distributed on publicly accessible platforms. You can also listen while you walk, drive, or ride a bike. This something that is hard to do with a journal article!
If readers of this interview were to pick up one of your articles, or listen to one of your podcasts, which would you recommend?
I’d recommend two things: my paper, (White) Tyranny and the Democratic Value of Distrust and the interview I did with Myisha Cherry for the UnMute Podcast.
Can you tell us a little about the path that took you to Martin Luther King's writing and speeches?
I was working on the political philosophy of John Rawls for a number of years, and I wanted to connect with a broader range of democratic theorists. The political philosophy of India, especially after Independence, is particularly rich tradition to engage with. Like me, Gandhi and Ambedkar were all thinking about the nature and value of democracy. While I was and continue to be interested in Ambedkar’s work, I didn’t quite connect with Gandhi’s. So, I turned to King as a modern interpreter of Gandhi and I related to his writing and ideas immediately. And, I just got stuck there for a number of years – trying to figure out what King had to say about the barriers to democracy – especially the moral psychological barriers – and how to overcome them.
Tell us a little about the place emotion should occupy in political philosophy.
For the most part, political philosophers have not been interested in the question of how we ought to realize a just society or what the barriers to this realization might be. This is largely because, under the influence of John Rawls, philosophers have been concerned with, what is considered to be, the prior question of what constitutes a just society. In contrast, Gandhi and King, who were not only political theorists but were also activists, had a different focus. They knew what a just society required such as democracy (or equal political liberty). They were primarily concerned with the question of how to realize a just society and its principles. They both knew that civic emotions had an important role to play in the realization of democracy. Much of my current work on King is an attempt to explain how we can and ought to appeal to the emotions of citizens to encourage them to engage in the kind of democratic social movements that are needed to realize a more just and robust form of democracy. I am not the only one who is interested in these questions. Martha Nussbaum’s recent work on the political emotions is in a similar vein. My hope is that, especially in the current political moment – where we too are wondering how to bring about justice – others will become more interested in these questions.
What are you looking forward to as a member of the Queen’s Philosophy Department?
I am especially excited about bringing the philosophy of race to the department and thinking more about what a distinctly Canadian philosophy of race looks like.
And finally, the speed round. Who is your favourite fictional character?
It’s a toss up between Lorelai and Emily Gilmore. Both characters are sharp witted independent women with a sense of humour.
That's fun! Are you a dog person or a cat person or neither?
100% dog person.
What talent would you most like to have?
Let's hope that you gain that soon. Thanks very much for sharing these responses.