Larisa Svirsky is one of 21 doctoral students nationwide to receive the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship in 2018. The 12-month fellowship, awarded by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, is the nation’s most prestigious award for doctoral candidates in the humanities and social sciences whose work focuses on questions of ethical and religious values.
Svirsky is both a doctoral student in philosophy at UNC-Chapel Hill and a published poet. There are similarities between the two worlds, she says: “Both require you to tolerate uncertainty and confusion long enough to see a way through it. In philosophy, you try to resolve uncertainty by explaining things. In poetry, you almost always do something else.”
Read more of what she shared with Carolina Graduate School Magazine below:
Tell us about your background and why you chose Carolina for graduate school.
I have an unusual educational background in that I started college very early. I attended a small women’s college in Boston called Simmons, where I was a double major in philosophy and psychology and minored in studio art. I have always loved school and had really broad interests, and when I finished college I wasn’t really sure what direction to go in career-wise. I had thought for a while about being an art therapist, but I really loved philosophy and wanted to give myself a chance to pursue it further, so I did a master’s degree in philosophy at Tufts. At the time, I was most interested in questions concerning the nature of perception, but while I was at Tufts, I also started to do research in ethics. I chose to come to Carolina because the philosophy department here emphasizes being well-versed in the field as a whole, and I was excited by having the opportunity to teach a considerable amount while in graduate school.
What should people know about your research and career goals?
As a student of philosophy, I love theory as much as the next person (and probably more). But recently I have been most interested in work in ethics that begins with concerns drawn from ordinary life. My dissertation research was motivated by thinking about how we hold agents responsible who are impaired or immature. Standard philosophical approaches to responsibility often identify being responsible with having capacities like rationality and self-control, in which many of us are deficient. They also often identify holding someone responsible with seeing them as a fitting object of blame or punishment. These approaches seemed to me to miss out on many of the ways that the concept of responsibility functions in parenting, teaching, and psychotherapy. Ultimately, I argue that thinking about these contexts shows us that responsibility emerges from our relationships with other people, through the expectations they have for us.
Going forward, I plan to research how this view of responsibility intersects with a growing body of literature in the medical humanities concerning the notion of responsibility for health. At the moment, I am applying for academic jobs and fellowships in philosophy and bioethics.
You are also a published poet. Does your work as a doctoral student inform your poetry in any way?
In some ways, doing philosophy informs my poetry and vice versa, but the activities of writing philosophy and writing poetry are very different for me. One thing that philosophy and poetry have in common, though, is that they bring out the importance of our linguistic choices. It matters so much what we call things. Whether we call an instance of speech “fighting words” means a great deal in terms of whether it is protected under the First Amendment. Whether we say someone is a responsible agent or not can shape what they feel empowered to do. Homer’s reference to the “wine-dark sea” evokes something very different than if he had just called it blue.
Another thing that philosophy and poetry share is that you often don’t know where you will end up when you sit down to write. Both require you to tolerate uncertainty and confusion long enough to see a way through it. In philosophy, you try to resolve uncertainty by explaining things. In poetry, you almost always do something else.
You were selected for a Charlotte W. Newcombe Dissertation Completion Fellowship for 2018-19. How is your fellowship supporting your education and research at UNC?
I feel honored to be a recipient of the Newcombe Fellowship, which supports students in a variety of fields writing dissertations that concern ethical or religious values. Having this fellowship will allow me to focus full-time on my dissertation and job search.