Interview with Academics #3: Chiara Martini

[ID: a photo of Chiara Martini]

Chiara Martini – DPhil Philosophy (in progress, Pembroke College), BPhil Philosophy (Somerville College), MA Philosophy (Università di Bologna), BA Philosophy (Università di Bologna & Université de Dijon-Bourgogne). Website:

  1. How did you come to philosophy & your particular specialisations and/or interests?

I am currently writing a DPhil thesis on Aristotle’s philosophy of mathematics and physics, focusing in particular on the way in which he conceives of spatial magnitudes and structures. This would have come as a surprise to my younger self: when I finished high school after three years of history of philosophy and five of Greek, I was sure I wanted to study philosophy of physics and never look at a Greek word again. I was deeply fascinated by the human attempt to make sense of a world that seems to escape from all systematization, and in particular by the idea that we could create mathematical models, and use logical tools, to understand and modify the world we live in, in particular with respect to space and time.

After a few back and forth between logic, philosophy of mathematics and science, and history of philosophy, I came to the realization that a historical approach to these issues is very effective to put into light (and into discussion) the relation between mathematics and physics, and in general the way in which formal tools are used to make sense of the world. So I chose to focus on Ancient Greek natural philosophy. On the one hand, this is because both Greek mathematics and physics were very different from ours, and having some distance from the object of study is always useful, and it’s easier to see the background assumptions that we do not share; seeing a different model at work provides us with alternatives and meters of comparison to question our own practices. On the other hand, since the Aristotelian approach was so influent in history, it gives us useful genealogical insights that help us better understand how we came to have some assumptions, or what modern science was reacting against.

  1. What have you learned about philosophy that you might not have initially expected?

The most shocking thing when I first started to do academic philosophy in the UK is that the history of philosophy has such a little part in it.

  1. What would you want to share about your experience studying for graduate degrees in a different country than where you studied for your undergraduate?

Studying in different countries and languages has been fundamental to my academic development, mainly because it helped me put into question and into perspective things that otherwise I might have taken for granted. This might sound obvious, but it’s true and it’s often overlooked: every scientific community has a shared set of assumptions and methodologies that define what is taken as scientific and acceptable within that community. Although useful for a number of reasons, such as enabling communication and verification of results, this limits the things that can be done or put into question in a given setting. Jumping from one framework to the other is an easy and effective way to become aware of these assumptions, and a useful reminder that actually they can be thematized and questioned.

Besides this, I would like to share something that is specific to my personal experience, and to my moving to the UK from Italy after doing both a BA and a MA in Bologna. It has to do with my perception of gender dynamics. When I moved to the UK, I found out that, being a woman in philosophy, I am part of a minority. This might come as a big surprise: surely sexism in Italy is worse than in the UK?! In many ways, it is. But I navigated my BA and MA with a happy and naïve unawareness: I did not perceive sexism as a part of my life, and I did not perceive myself as part of a minority. This was the combined effect of two factors. On the one hand, I was undoubtedly very lucky and privileged: my socio-economic background, as well as the city I was born in, put me in the ideal conditions to avoid problems. Moreover, in Italian academia philosophy is still usually associated more to literature than to mathematics, and as such the student population during my BA and MA was mostly composed by women. Women were very well represented among faculty members, too, and they were in charge also of the most technical subfield: philosophy of science, philosophy of physics and logic were all taught integrally by women. This changed when I got into Oxford: my BPhil cohort only counted 5 women out of 30 students, so that it happened that I was the only woman in the room; and in the most technical areas of philosophy there is an evident lack of women.

On the other hand, it’s only by moving to the UK that I acquired the instruments to decipher some phenomena as sexism, thus starting to perceive them as such. In the UK, there is open and explicit discussion of sexism, and the problem is recognized and tackled upfront. Looking back to my past experiences, I can now see that I did experience microaggressions and sexism – I was just not aware that these episodes could be categorized as sexism. Having these epistemic tools, and the ability to engage in an open and frank discussion of the problems, is great and empowering. However, it comes with a cost: since I clearly identify as part of a minority in philosophy, I feel a sense of responsibility that burdens me. At the very beginning of my BPhil, I was terrorized of speaking during the seminars, for fear of proving that women are not good enough at philosophy. This is something that I had never consciously thought (even if I might have silenced myself through other unconscious mechanisms), and it’s something I find worrying and scary, and that we should all be wary of. It’s good to recognize and nominate the problems, but we should pay attention that these descriptions do not become self-fulfilling prophecies, and that nominating the victims does not make them such.

4. What motivates you to stay in academia? If you have encountered obstacles, what supports have you found, would you recommend, and how did you manage to persevere?

That’s a difficult question for me, because I always suspect that I should have some grand motivation or goal that pushes me into this enterprise, something that keeps me awake at night and which is the first thing I think about in the morning. To be honest, though, I think that the main reason why I decided to get into graduate studies is because I find philosophy fun. I like it. I like studying and thinking about puzzling things until they become clear, and discussing them with others, both peers and students: a huge advantage of the DPhil is that it allows me to teach, and I love it.

So, even if I am far from sure that this is the context in which I want to work for the rest of my life, or if my time would be better spent doing something different, more ‘concretely’ helpful to the world, at the moment I am happily studying towards my PhD. I am painfully aware that this is going to change very quickly: it is sufficient to take a look at the condition of the job market to see that sacrifices will have to be made, if one wants to have a chance to stay in academia. I guess I will find out very soon if my motivations are strong enough. For the moment, the way in which I think about academia is that I’d like to try to stay, so long as it remains fun and rewarding.

Although my tendency to self-doubt whispers to me that this careless attitude is a sign that I lack the motivation and the driving force of a true and passionate philosopher, ultimately I believe that it has helped me to keep a healthy approach to my work.

  1. Have you had any particular role models, mentors, or favourite philosophers who’ve guided you?

On a theoretical level, studying Kant’s first critique was the most eye-opening experience of my career, and it deeply influenced the way in which I approach the study of scientific and mathematical enterprises.

On a human level, it’s quite funny because the idea of a role model is something that I learnt when I moved to the UK, so I didn’t think of them in this way at the time. But I guess that retrospectively I can say that the amazing group of women philosophers at the University of Bologna, especially Rossella Lupacchini, Annarita Angelini and Giovanna Corsi, really were role models to me.

  1. How have your expectations about what you want to and are able to study in academia changed over time?

My choice of switching from philosophy of mathematics and logic to history of philosophy has been motivated by a number of reasons, one of which is that I came to realize that it’s incredibly easier to tackle foundational issues from a historical perspective, rather than from the inside of the discipline.

  1. How does your experience of studying relate to what you are studying?

Philosophy and academia have very different requirements with respect to time management: philosophy has long ‘dead times’ where you don’t really know what you’re doing, while being in academia requires having strict schedules, deadlines and, most of all, an ability to schedule and foresee the times of your work. This leads to problems and sense of incapacity that, I think, should be resisted: the time spent trying out ideas, wandering around and proceeding blindly are fundamental to research.

Something that I have learnt from my studies, and that I hope to be able to import in my everyday life, is to value errors and mistakes. Studying the history of philosophy, I learnt that the ideas that we now think mistaken, the gaps, the slips, the hidden assumptions, are as important and as informative as the theses that we believe correct. This is an exercise in listening that I believe can be very helpful to learn how to deal with others, being respectful of their different opinions, even when we think they are wrong.

  1. What has your experience teaching Feminism & Philosophy been like at Oxford? What would you want undergraduates to know about the topic and paper? Is there anything you would want to modify about the paper?

Teaching Feminism and Philosophy has been a great experience, and I am incredibly happy to be able to teach it again in Michaelmas. Everything in that paper is great: the lectures are wonderful and the syllabus is incredibly interesting, wide and challenging, able to present a plurality of points of views and traditions in a cohesive and exciting way. One of the most amazing things, however, was the students’ response: seeing so many students fill up the Examination Schools to learn about Feminism, witnessing the way in which they engaged with the material and the way in which they responded to the interruption of the lectures due to the strike by organizing teach-outs was absolutely hearth-warming. It’s great that the introduction of a paper on Feminism and Philosophy raised such an exciting response, and I am very proud and grateful I have the opportunity to play a small part in it.

  1. What advice would you give to undergraduate students who are either/both minorities hoping to pursue philosophy further or/and interested to study philosophical topics less commonly recognised as philosophy by the establishment we encounter not only at Oxford but at many philosophy departments in the Euro-American universities and beyond?

I will distinguish these two questions, because I do not want to accidentally perpetuate the stereotype that non-standard philosophical topics are for minorities, and conversely that people from a minority background can only hope to have a place in academia if they dedicate themselves to these subfields.

As for the first question, I don’t think I have any particular piece of advice to give to students who are minorities. As I said, my own experience was very peculiar in this respect, both because I was very lucky and privileged, and because the experience of doing a BA in Italy and in the UK are very different from this point of view. I don’t think I can fully understand what it means to be an undergraduate student belonging to an under-represented group in Oxford. Something that I can say is that if you want to keep doing philosophy, you should not let the current lack of diversity in academia discourage you: it’s really time for a change! And there are groups, networks and societies ready to help and support (e.g. in Oxford: MAP, Philiminality, PWIPS, and others).

As for the second question, I think that the best way to widen the horizon beyond the mainstream topics is by organizing reading groups with other students, possibly bringing together people from different faculties and/or cohorts. Having an organized reading group or seminar will also help putting pressure on the Faculties when asking them to widen their offer: it shows that there is a demand for a certain kind of philosophy.

  1. Could you tell us more about some of your favourite developments or moments in your current studies? 

At the moment the most exciting thing I am working on is not so much my thesis, but rather the mini lecture series on Continuity vs Atomism in Ancient Physics that I will give in Michaelmas term: I am very much looking forward to it!

  1. What would you like to do after your PhD?

After my PhD, I think that I will want to try and stay a little bit longer in academia. If the material conditions of the job market make this impossible, or so difficult that it loses its appeal, or if I simply stop having fun doing philosophy, I think that I will try to go back to Italy and become a high school teacher. For sure, I will want to teach, at one level or the other!

  1.  How would you recommend students navigate balancing passing their degree and finding the time and resources to learn beyond their curriculum about liminal or totally silenced topics?

I don’t really have any useful piece of practical advice, unfortunately. What I can say is simply that it’s very important not to let the academic research swallow up your whole life: I deeply believe in the ideal of the well-rounded intellectual, someone who looks at the world with curiosity and is interested in cinema, literature, politics, etc as well as in their specific research. One of the main dangers of doing a PhD in Oxford is to start thinking that whatever is not linked to one’s academic research is not worth paying attention to, nor putting time into. This is the same kind of thinking that leads to dismiss liminal topics, or unconventional fields of philosophy, and it should be actively opposed.

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