ODU Professor Receives NEH Fellowship to Study Overlooked Female Philosopher
March 11, 2022
Women's History Month offers a time to highlight the often-overlooked contributions of women throughout history - something Teresa Kouri Kissel is pursuing, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
Kouri Kissel, assistant professor of philosophy and a faculty member in the School of Cybersecurity, received a $60,000 fellowship from NEH to explore the writings of Susan Stebbing, a little-known 20th-century British philosopher and logician.
Kouri Kissel said she set out to write about a woman because they are underrepresented in philosophy. She chose Stebbing because she was a pioneer in teaching and writing logical thought in a way that was accessible outside academia.
"She wrote textbooks and was the first person to use real-world examples in logic books," Kouri Kissel said. "Her work has been forgotten in part because she was a woman writing for the general public, and because she stopped writing a few years before her death."
Stebbing wrote less in the years leading up to her death in 1943 while helping refugees during World War II. Stebbing's work focused on common sense and using a natural approach to how humans view the world called "directional analysis" to understand basic truth.
Philosophers often think you must start at the absolute basic building block of an idea, Kouri Kissel said, but Stebbing jumped straight to examples people could accept, such as humans have hands.
For example, if someone were considering explanations for why it's cold, some philosophers might point to science - particles are moving less, thus producing less heat - then advancing to how that might feel. When looking at a basic truth such as "it's cold," Stebbing would argue people know it's cold because of how they feel, and then explore the science behind the feeling.
"(Her work) relies super heavily on what common sense is," Kouri Kissel said. "Her thing is that people make mistakes all the time and think, 'I might be wrong about this, but it seems true to me.'"
That's relevant today, when confirmation bias is informing how many people consider what's true. Part of the challenge with Stebbing's work is that she never provided her definition of "common sense," so Kouri Kissel plans to review all her work to develop the definition and apply it to Stebbing's writings. Her work will also acknowledge that Stebbing wrote in the 1930s, so current experiences and personal histories can influence how her theories are received.
Stebbing's efforts to provide resources to help citizens of democracies think critically and have information literacy is as applicable today as it was in her time, said Dylan Wittkower, chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies and professor of philosophy.
"I'm really excited that the NEH is supporting Dr. Kouri Kissel's vital work on Stebbing," Wittkower said. "We still have disproportionately few women in philosophy, and new work on women in the history of philosophy helps to show female students that they have a place in our field. Stebbing is a perfect example of why this work needs to be done. During her time, her sharp mind, good sense and strong work was enough to bring her to prominence in the field, but after her death, her work wasn't taught and her research wasn't continued in the same way as that of her male and more theoretically oriented peers."
The fellowship begins in fall 2022 and concludes at the end of the spring 2023 semester, with the book publication expected the year after.