„Been in America“: Interviews with German researchers in the USA and Canada

Dr. Clara Carus

Dr. Clara Carus

© Dr. Clara Carus

(11/26/20) From September 2018 to September 2020, Dr. Clara Carus conducted a research project in philosophy as a DFG fellow at Harvard University on the subject of the early modern rationalists, including Émilie du Châtelet. Subsequently she went to Berlin on a DFG return fellowship, before taking up a position as an assistant professor at the Center for the History of Women Philosophers and Scientists at the University of Paderborn for the current winter semester. Dr. Carus spoke to the DFG Office North America about skepticism towards the senses among early modern rationalists and du Châtelet in Paderborn – and also philosophized about wine and time.

Through its research fellowship program, the DFG lays the foundation for academic careers by funding an independent research project abroad and, since 2019, in Germany too. A large proportion of these fellowships are awarded in the USA and to a lesser extent in Canada, reflecting the belief – still prevalent in the natural sciences, and life sciences in particular – that for a career in research you have to have been “once in America.”

But a career path in the humanities and social sciences can include America too, and today we would like to give you an impression of who is behind DFG funding number GO 3107.

DFG: Dr. Carus, many thanks for taking the time to talk to us. In your CV it says that you passed your school-leaving examinations at Kepler Gymnasium secondary school in Freiburg with the grade 1.4. Yet rather than going on to become an astronomer or study medicine, you passed two state examinations in philosophy, politics and German with distinction before adding a master’s degree in philosophy and political science, likewise scoring an excellent grade. But you never actually wanted to be a teacher, did you?

Clara Carus (CC): No, that was not what I had in mind. I only took the teacher training program so I could go on studying three main subjects at the same time after the Bologna Reform. In fact my ambition had always been to become a philosopher. During my time as a graduate student at the University of Oxford in the summer of 2015, I realized that the best option in terms of a career in philosophy was probably to become a professor.

DFG: The project title of your residency at Harvard University from 2018 to 2020 mentions the “root of the epistemological problem among early modern rationalists of linking the rational principle to the external world.” You have two children, one of them almost four years old and the other nearly two. How would you explain to your children in five or six years’ time what you worked on during your research fellowship at Harvard?

CC: There is a skepticism towards the senses among the rationalists of the early modern period that leads to the underlying assumption that the foundation of knowledge lacks any reference to the external world. A second step is then undertaken in an attempt to make up for this omission. I see this disconnection between a rational principle and the outside world as a problem – and this is the subject of the book project I worked on at Harvard.

DFG: You discuss Descartes and Leibniz and you particularly look into the role of Émilie du Châtelet. Do you think the latter is still largely underestimated in intellectual history?

CC: In terms of my research topic she’s actually in an interesting intermediate position: she establishes clear rational principles but doesn’t see these as being in opposition to the outside world in terms of the foundation of knowledge, i.e. she does take sensory perception into account as constituting the substance of knowledge. So she’s not a classic “rationalist” in the same way as Descartes, for example. But it’s certainly true that she’s greatly underestimated – and in particular poorly researched. Her works are at least as interesting as those of Leibniz or Wolff, but if you simply compare the volume of research literature it’s shocking to see how little attention has been paid to her. Even despite her disadvantaged status as a woman at the time, du Châtelet was considerably influential in historical terms: for example, her definitions were included in d’Alembert and Diderot’s Encyclopedie – a key work of reference at the time. The fact that her main work has not even been published in its entirety in German or English to date is scandalous in itself and casts an unflattering light on how the works of women have been treated historically and academically.

DFG: Bearing in mind one particular biographical episode in du Châtelet’s life and Voltaire’s role in it, it’s surprising the story hasn’t been picked up on by Hollywood. Only one French television production exists to date – Divine Émilie by Arnaud Sélignac, a man. As a woman, don’t you feel like writing a script from du Châtelet’s perspective – or perhaps you already have one up your sleeve?

CC: Well, the main thing is that people read and understand her works, of course! But seriously: no, I’m interested in du Châtelet from the perspective of philosophy and in terms of whether she contributed to the epistemology of the early modern period. That script would have to be written by a director interested in biography. But I’d still be interested to see the film!

DFG: You work with texts in Latin (Descartes), French (Leibniz, du Châtelet) and German (Kant). To what extent do you see languages as instruments of knowledge, and to what extent are they rather imprecise tools of communication as compared to mathematics, for example?

CC: Language is of course the vehicle of academic discourse in philosophy. I believe it is possible for a person to have thoughts without necessarily putting these into academic language or having the capacity to do so. But I’m interested in academic discourse too, and fortunately I don’t think language is a problem for me. The fact that the sources are written in different languages can be bothersome in some respects, but it’s a fact, so you have to learn these languages in order to understand the text correctly. Once again, I consider myself lucky because I find it easy to understand and learn foreign languages.

DFG: You grew up in Baden, in the wine-growing region of the Kaiserstuhl hills, so let’s talk a bit about wine: is there really truth in wine, as the Latinists claim? And if so, are some wines more truthful than others?

CC: It’s certainly not the case that there is truth in wine. However, wine does offer the opportunity of avoiding life’s causative factors – and therefore the emotions and worries that facts tend to involve. In this sense, wine can act as a release and an aid in imperfect times. It can sometimes give you a clearer view of certain things. It also serves to lighten the mood at parties and add a certain light-heartedness to the conversation about life. Personally, I particularly appreciate the white wines from my homeland – though that’s not something that Baden winegrowers like to hear any more. In terms of red wines I tend more to France and Spain – and also Portugal, which I believe is still very much underestimated as a wine-producing country.

DFG: Among other things, you examine the role of the sensory in du Châtelet’s concept of time and contrast this with the ideas of Kant, who seeks to conceive of time as purely a priori. Königsberg is not as well known for viticulture as the Kaiserstuhl hills: might we speculate that Kant would have arrived at a different concept of time had he been from the Kaiserstuhl region?

CC: There are at least two ways of approaching that question. I once helped a neighbor work in the vineyard for a day. This is very common in wine-growing areas and it’s quite exhausting work – precisely because of the directly proportional connection between the experience of time and frostbite! The other approach would be the intellectual one: Königsberg may not be known for its viticulture, but Kant was certainly not averse to wine per se. In his Anthropology, he draws a clear distinction between wine on the one hand as something positive, and brandy or opium on the other – both of which he considers harmful. According to Kant, wine leads to revelry that is merry, noisy, talkative and witty. “Drink loosens the tongue (in vino disertus). But it also opens the heart and is an instrumental vehicle of a moral quality, namely candor.”

DFG: Let’s talk about your immediate future in Paderborn. Like Königsberg, it’s not a place where wine is grown (at least not yet). Being so close to the Teutoburg Forest and a long way from France, isn’t it rather too German for you at the current stage of your career? What do you particularly look forward to when you think of the Center for the History of Women Philosophers and Scientists in Paderborn, and where do you feel there might be room for improvement in terms of being a place in which to pursue your career?

CC: I was in the US for a long time, so I’m familiar with all the advantages of that – and also the disadvantages. I’m quite happy to be in the middle of Germany right now – especially if I can hike in forests without being bound by fences and can afford to put my children in daycare without overdrawing my bank account. And don’t underestimate Paderborn’s international flair – and I’m not just talking about a certain well-known computer manufacturer. The Center for the History of Women Philosophers and Scientists is the only research center of its kind in Germany and is very well known internationally: Harvard, Notre Dame, and other excellent universities around the world are aware of the work being done here. Philosophy is a popular subject in Paderborn, not least due to the excellent work being done here at the Center as well as in the field of the history of philosophy. I believe the department should definitely be expanded with the addition of one or two chairs. I had to put a limit on my seminars right away, for example, because I had over 50 students sign up for my seminar on Rationalists of the Early Modern Period within just one week.

DFG: What are your plans for the near future?

CC: In the next few years I’d like to focus on qualifying for a professorship, which means writing my habilitation thesis, publishing articles in specialist journals, attending conferences and everything that involves. In doing so I hope to gain further fundamental insights into the history of philosophy and contribute these to research – not least on Émilie du Châtelet. My children are still young, but they’re out of the most difficult (baby!) phase – so now I can enjoy watching them grow up, which is something I find increasingly satisfying.

DFG: Thank you very much for the interview and we wish you all the best with your plans. And you never know – perhaps a film will be released about the life and work of Émilie du Châtelet in the next few years.