A Break to Think: Philosophy Professor Brunella Antomarini

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Brunella Antomarini, is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Philosophy at John Cabot University. She has a pluri-disciplinary formation in contemporary epistemology, aesthetics and philosophy, semiotics, theory of poetry, and anthropology. She is the author of seven books, the editor and co-editor of thirteen books, and over 50 articles in national and international philosophy journals. She is also a translator from English and the author of the children book Denizens of the Forest (Poligrapha Ediciones, Barcelona 1992).

Philosophy professor Brunella Antomarini

Philosophy Professor Brunella Antomarini

What brought you to Rome and to John Cabot?
I guess it was a mix of chance and small-town syndrome, the dream of getting out of a small town (in the Marche region, in my case) where I studied and had worked in an art gallery, as a hostess at the Ancona harbor, and as an English teacher. When I moved to Rome, I lost all contact with my home universities (I studied in Macerata and Urbino, two of the most ancient universities in Italy) and had two wonderful children. When they were little I used to take them to the Orto Botanico in Rome and every time I passed by the Guarini campus, I thought: this would be my ideal university.

Another reason could be that my father was born in New York City from Italian parents; he was bilingual and was fascinated by both the English language – he wrote a dictionary of American slang – and the United States. He must have transmitted that passion to me.

At the time I was working as an editor for a philosophy journal and as a co-director of a philosophy book-series. One day, a friend of mine who taught at John Cabot (and still does) called me to say that the Dean urgently needed someone to replace the retiring philosopher and to teach her courses. And here I am.

With so many liberal arts colleges in the US, why should one choose JCU?
First: it’s a beautiful place. I think the physical architectural environment around you makes a big difference. In a nice place you feel more respected, you feel like a part of it.  An unpleasant environment makes you feel as if you must shield yourself from it. Second: it is a small environment, which means that feuds over power are kept to a minimum, which is good, because it is something I’m not good at. Third: I have been able to teach what I choose and according to the methods I choose.

What is your teaching method?
I like to involve students as much as I can, for many reasons. I want to make sure the students are following my line of argument. Philosophy is not a science and if I didn’t encourage the students to present their counter-arguments, they might be tempted to think that what I say is the ‘truth.’ Conversation makes the philosopher. I used to be a very shy student and I wish I had had a professor who didn’t ignore me. I wanted to speak; only, I couldn’t. I do my best to ensure that the students don’t feel intimidated.

What is the difference between teaching in Italian and English?
There is an enormous difference. The English language is analytical, precise, and factual. You need to be clear and rely on evidence to ground your arguments. The Italian language, on the other hand, is slow, metaphorical, imaginative. It allows for long sentences within which thinking can deploy itself in every last detail. It is a wonderful language, almost miraculous in its ability to conjure up worlds that are possible, rather than factual. It is not by chance that English has become an international language. Italian, however naturally poetic and beautiful, is headed toward extinction. It will soon be studied as Latin and Greek are (however hard to accept, languages die too). I prefer to teach in English. I feel I keep pace with the times.

Why should one still study Philosophy today?
Look at what’s happening around the world . . . The greater the instability, the more we need to give ourselves a break and think. As Hannah Arendt said: we extract thinking from our bodies. Thinking is a natural force that overpowers even the fragility of (human) bodies. And it may become the ultimate resistance to dictatorships.

A philosophy book that everyone should read and why.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, or any other book by him, because I think future philosophers will write more and more in his style. In a strange way it is closer to the users of  social networks. A quick, intuitive, aphoristic style, that brings philosophy to life.

The teaching methods and approaches to philosophy are quite different in Italy and the US. Which approach do you think is more effective?
During my studies, rigorous research into what philosophers really said (that is: their original texts) had to be understood, before it could be followed by argumentation, refutation, and discussion. I don’t allow my students to say: I feel that Plato…or Plato feels…I encourage them to build arguments for or against Plato. In a physics course, would you be encouraged to ‘assess Einstein’s achievements as a scientist?’ Why then should philosophers be assessed by students, before being able to enter their worlds? Philosophy starts where authority ends, and exactly for this reason, you must be trained to distinguish between what can be argued and what cannot. Freedom of interpretation is a trick of false democracies and in fact it means nothing. Carlo Huber, a German philosopher, scholar in Kantianism, and great Jesuit (!) thinker was the director of my doctorate, and he taught me the difference between easy associations and rigorous distinctions. 

Please tell us about a challenge you encountered in your professional career. How were you able to overcome it?
A constant challenge I encounter in my work is that most philosophers are men and I hardly ever meet a woman philosopher. This causes strange dynamics. Male philosophers are bent on recognizing (or disavowing) one another in a competition that tends to exclude women. The reasons can be many. Women cannot be treated as enemies nor allies in herd dynamics. This is understandable, so far as philosophy requires ‘fights,’ in which men think it is unfair to attack women, nor do they like to be challenged by a woman (according to Arendt, who refused to be called a philosopher). This generates uncertainty in women, who feel they are not authoritative enough, being therefore deprived – or even depriving themselves – of any confrontation, which in turn confirms that philosophy is men’s exclusive territory in a vicious cycle. How do I overcome the problem? I go home and write. My greatest absolute pleasure.

Why then did you choose Philosophy as a field of study in a male-dominated world?
Many women do choose philosophy, as thinking is not ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine.’ And most of my students are women. And when you start you don’t have any idea where you’re headed and in whose company. As a matter of fact, many women write, are published in scientific journals, do research. But, if I must address authoritative ‘philosophers,’ the ones who come to my mind are all men. But, let’s wait one or two generations, and we’ll make it.