Embracing vulnerability is no easy task. But without a shared openness to change, our relationships will lack true intimacy and affection, according to Pamela Sue Anderson, Professor of Modern European Philosophy of Religion at University of Oxford in Great Britain. In her research for the Enhancing Life Project, Anderson’s goal is to offer a new philosophical conceptual scheme that centers on enhancing life as a kind of continual becoming. We must be open to both suffering and joy, she argues, in order to conceive of our lives as a process of creative transformation.
Read a blog post by Pamela Sue Anderson about the transformative power of vulnerability here.
What was the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project?
The spark was really just the word “life.” And that may sound silly, but here’s why. I have spent the past twenty years trying to carve out a field called feminist philosophy of religion, and one of the big themes is that women or feminists face a dichotomy: life is opposed to philosophy, like vulnerability is to invulnerability. The logic is that women are associated with caring for life, so feminist philosophy of religion would be life-giving, whereas the philosophy of religion pursued by men has been abstract and detached from life. So I wanted to explore the idea of life more. I thought that rather than shutting out our feelings and affections in life, philosophy should become transformed as life-giving.
But I was also interested by the idea of “enhancing.” Often human enhancement is equated with biological enhancement, and that’s precisely what I’m not interested in. Recently biomedical enhancing hasn’t seem to be about nature or human life, but rather about the superhuman or trans-human, creating someone who’s invulnerable. And instead I want to explore the idea of vulnerability. That’s a feminist interest because vulnerability as negative is associated with women, but I’d like to turn that into a positive. I think facing vulnerability in mutual affection allows for a richer life.
So what does “enhancing life” mean for you?
I see enhancing life as a process. It’s not static. Change is constantly happening. You might become undone by loss, but you have to keep going. Enhancing life would be creative, and give confidence; it’s about striving. And striving is itself a kind of vulnerability because you’re open and reaching for something that isn’t there yet. You’re letting go of the notion that you can control everything in your life, or that you should. I don’t want to say that this corporeal vulnerability is entirely positive or that it’s good to be ill or bereaved, but you’re not really living your life if you don’t cry and feel emotions like grief. But it also feels great to find new ways to be joyful and sing.
What do you think Enhancing Life studies can offer your discipline, and why?
Traditional philosophy is largely abstract and purely rational. In a sense it’s all about becoming invulnerable. And ironically I think when you attempt this invulnerability, you actually open yourself to being vulnerable in the future because you don’t know how to cope when loss or illness happens. So I would like to open up the discipline to think more about what we can do to embrace the role of feelings in a philosophical context: becoming open to affection would be key.
What’s the most surprising or interesting challenge you’ve encountered so far in your Enhancing Life Project research?
People associate vulnerability with something very, very negative - something to be rid of. In the business world, people talk about how you can overcome vulnerability and gain courage and confidence, and it shocked me that people are using some of the same terms I’m using but arguing for an invulnerable self. The political world, the world of diplomatic relations—they’re all seeking ways to make everybody invulnerable, to protect us against terrorism, for instance. Instead becoming vulnerable would encourage life-giving practices, in order to stop the perpetuation of violence, bombing, and the escalation of armed conflicts. Yet seeking invulnerability is probably even true of certain feminist movements right now.
Today in philosophy I see successful young women needing to be invulnerable, because they’re trying desperately to stay on top. But that isn’t the solution—to build a brick wall around you so that no one can shoot you down. The solution is for men to acknowledge their own vulnerabilities, and stop leaving their female partners to carry that burden. It’s emotional work, but the ideal would be a relationship of much more mutual openness in vulnerability. And I do want to suggest on a positive front that you can't have love, genuine love, without vulnerability. If we want to enhance our lives, there has to be a willingness to be vulnerable, with less fear and self-deception in our relationships.
You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?
I love to travel to Paris. I like the atmosphere, the architecture, the café culture, the brasseries and bookshops. It’s funny because it’s a romantic city for me but this is not because I go there with anyone—it’s because I’ve studied the writings of twentieth-century French philosophers. I suppose the romance is partially sharing the affection discovered in recalling their lives in Paris, too.