The Winner of a $1 Million Philosophy Prize Sees a Silver Lining to Ideas Getting Attacked

Patricia Hill Collins was awarded the 2023 Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture Credit - Janel Lee

For centuries, when nations prepared those destined for leadership, philosophy – the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence – ranked among the subjects in which instruction was not optional. But, in this, the age of information, the standing of philosophy has fallen so far that between 2021 and 2022, 10 different colleges and universities contemplated everything from shrinking to outright eliminating their philosophy programs prompting written pleas from the American Philosophy Association to reverse course. It's against that backdrop that each year since 2016, the Berggruen Institute has awarded its annual Berggruen Philosophy Prize as well as the $1 million purse that comes with it to a thinker shaping political, economic, and social institutions.

This year, the organization has awarded the prize to American sociologist and social theorist Patricia Hill Collins. Collins began working in preschool classrooms at the age of 15 and spent years teaching first very young children, then students working to become educators at Harvard University. She led the Black studies department at the University of Cincinnati for more than two decades before joining the sociology faculty at the University of Maryland. Her writing has identified often overlooked arenas of political action and explored injustice and resistance to it. Beginning with her first book, Black Feminist Thought, in 1990, Collins also helped to establish the concept of intersectionality, what the Berggruen jury described as “a powerful analytical lens through which we can envision the different and intersecting ways in which our material, social, and cultural worlds produce injustice.” While philosophy is often expressed in rarely accessed tomes, Collins has developed a way of thinking, writing, and talking about power that makes philosophical inquiry feel accessible and even urgent. So it’s not surprising that Black Feminist Thought remains in print along with most of Collins’ nine other titles. Her latest, Lethal to Intersections: Race, Gender and Violence, will be published this week.

When I caught up with Collins, 75, last week, she was in her office at the University of Cambridge, preparing to spend the next five weeks teaching at its Centre for Gender Studies. What follows is a transcript of my conversation with Collins edited only for clarity and length.

Let’s start with a big but simple question. How did you get here, to a career in philosophy, the so-called “life of the mind”?

I think you have to invent yourself. That's what I had to do from an early age because the life of the mind was not in the community around me or in the family around me. But seeds were planted there in terms of how to have confidence about what you love and what you think is right. And in my case, it had to do with reading.

I had a mother who could not go to college and was a dreamer. She was an artist, and she helped me understand the power of ideas in books by teaching me to read and by taking me to the Philadelphia public library. She turned it into this magical journey. She was one of these parents who can actually get your imagination going, and I thought we were going up the steps of the Capitol building. That's how big it felt to me when I was 5. I learned to write my name. And Patricia had lots of letters in it, but you could not get a library card unless you could sign your own signature. So what she was telling and teaching me was all about literacy and ideas and the freedom to read and think what you want regardless of what people think. A lot of the time you have to fit in. But a life of the mind and its ability to set you free, I would say started with that moment of reading, becoming a believer in libraries, books, free speech, the power of ideas in public space.

When you think about your own work, what do you think of as the major themes? 

First would be the power of critical thinking and critical literacy. The ability to read – not just reading the book, but reading the situation, reading the discussion, reading the film. The second idea tied to that is creativity, people having the belief in the power of their own creativity and ability to analyze situations as a source of power, particularly for groups that are on the bottom of the social hierarchy.

I think Black women are quite foundational for my own work in terms of race and gender. But if you look at the corpus of my work, it has been traveling through various systems of power, race, gender, class, nation, sexuality, and ability, more recently, disability issues, and age, as I become increasingly interested in youth as a really important period of life and saying that ideas matter, particularly for groups that are struggling with issues of social inequality, disenchantment, disempowerment.

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Very often what happens is groups on the bottom are told, “Well, you're too stupid” or “You can't read,” or “You don't have time,” or “You have no creativity, why would we listen to you?” When it's actually the reverse. When people claim their own narratives, their own discussions, their own music, their own dance, their own philosophy, then that is a rock that cannot be taken away. So my work on Black women lays the foundation for everything I've done since. And in that foundation is the idea of intersectionality – that systems of power intersect in the lives of Black women and in everyone's lives. Not just the life of the individual, but the collective life, the social structures that we are in.

Now on the front end I had no clue this is what I intended. I make decisions that seem to make sense in the here and now and that hopefully will open more doors, not close them. It's standing in one location and looking in multiple directions and saying, wait a minute, there's a race door, there's a class door, there's a gender door, there's a nationality or nationalism door. There are all these various things that are affecting this one location where I am standing now. So what is it that I want to do? Or what is it that we want to do? A lot of my work has really been around collective politics and political activists.

I am not going to say that it is easy to do. It's really labor-intensive to do intellectual work. But you have to be focused about why you're doing it.

So even if not intentional from the outset, why have these things become your focus?

I'm the first person in my family to graduate from college. I’ve always believed that you might be the first but you don't need to be the last. And in my own family I have landed first but I have not been the last. In a lot of ways that is how I looked at my work. The work is giving gifts to people and clearing space for people who come after me. That's what teachers do. They bring something to you that you didn't know or help you develop a skill that you didn't have, particularly that critical-thinking skill. Then they say you have to go out into your world with these tools and these skills and this knowledge and what will you do?

What's really nice for me right now is I've been writing for quite some time and people are finding work for the first time now that I wrote 30 years ago. They weren't even born when some of these ideas were first published. I was writing to them without my knowing.

You mentioned the essential nature of the skill for critical thinking. That made me think about the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation. Have we reached a nadir of critical thought? 

I recognize that the world is in very difficult straits right now. But it always has been, particularly for people on the bottom. The issue is what is the collective wisdom and history that we take with us?

This is all very much tied to the book I just finished. I didn't just look at it as in the life of the mind, I looked at how people manipulated and used ideas in public.

[The Nazis], they were using film. They recognized the power of spectacle. And what they did was they took long-standing ideas that were tropes of racism, sexism, and homophobia, and they recast them with conspiracy theories to explain the problems, in a country that was really fearful about where it was going, to German people who lost World War I. And that they succeeded through democratic means–to me, that is the scary part of it. That party was elected, and once they were elected, they changed the rules to keep them in power.

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Raw power is just guns and you shoot and you do this, that, and the other. But they had a really carefully orchestrated campaign to snuff out dissent. They had a major book burning in front of a major university in Berlin. So when you burn things, you're looking at the pile of ashes and you say those ideas are no good and you get people to celebrate that around the bonfire, especially children and young people. You create the space for your own interpretation of the world.

And we know how that turned out. The situation with all the misinformation and all the fake news going on now, with the conspiracy theories that have risen, they recycle, they don't go away. A lot of this is tied to political opportunism. And we are very much into that period of time again.

But I think the period of time that we're in is also one where lots of people have access to information where they didn't have it before. The question now is do you know how to read the stuff that you have? Do you have the critical literacy around social media? Do you have the critical literacy about understanding political messages? So it is today a major public-education function, recognizing that people don't follow nefarious conspiracy theories if they aren't already afraid, if there aren’t issues not being addressed.

There are people who will always bristle at the work of ideas, at generating philosophy because it is to them esoteric and only concerned with theory and inspiring additional thought. Why were you drawn to it?

I chose theoretical work, because at the heart of Western knowledge is philosophy, philosophy and theology, and these are the idea systems that shaped the rest. So, years later, here I am, saying, I'm so glad I made that decision. Because of that, I could sit down and write this latest book about intersectionality as critical social theory, where I could talk about various philosophical schools. I've juxtaposed and put in the same chapter Simone de Beauvoir, who was the sometimes darling of feminist circles, and the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray.

I’m making the case that both of them are in fact making really compelling arguments about freedom. Now to do that, I had to really do some homework and read quite a bit, but I'm willing to do that kind of work to clear space for other people. And that's what the theory does. Right? That’s what philosophy does. It describes and affects culture.

The main ideas that I work with have come from philosophy, from pragmatist philosophers, who during a period similar to our culture now, were just thinking big thoughts. So it was very nice for me to take an idea from John Dewey. His idea of community offers a whole discussion of community and democracy. And that allowed me to put in that same chapter Black women's community work and how it speaks to questions of democracy. But we can actually put those in dialogue, see what comes out. That's richer.

What do you make of the fact that book bans, and now a threatened book burning, appear to be proliferating? There have been recent reports that Scholastic, a children’s book publisher, has created a sort of easy opt-out for schools that want to remove books about people of color and LGBTQ characters from their book fairs.

I empathize with those who have become frontline actors in this struggle, I don't necessarily think that people of Scholastic are getting any more or less progressive or whatever. They are afraid and are protecting themselves from the ugliness that can come down the road. But as I go back to the moment that we're in now, I actually get a little bit of a boost because when an idea becomes effective, that's what it gets attacked.

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When our everything was print media, and it was restricted, and maybe you didn't know unless you went to your book fair in your teeny tiny town, that’s not the case anymore. These kids are on the internet. The more we digitize stuff, they can get to the general public much more easily. And because the ideas are speaking to bona fide issues that young people have, that is not going to go away no matter how much you try and censor the author. We are not in the era of the book burning in front of the university.

Some people are actually quite courageous in getting out in front with their ideas. I don't have that kind of courage. Some authors are taking principled positions in public and just speaking out and just showing up. They are not just going to be quiet in a closet or just go away just because you yelled louder or tried to scare us.

And people will fight for their children. So you have a child who is queer. People will leave their churches. They will move out of the state of Florida if they can't get health care. They will speak out. This is really a source of deep political commitment on the part of many, many people that often goes unrecognized because it's often done by women.

So I'm saying we just need to diagnose this moment. And we need to think strategically, get all the emotions out of it, because after a while shock value no longer has the same resonance. Maybe five years from now, people will say, “What was that word again? Intersection, intersectionality?” The same is true for critical race theory. How many of these people up in arms now are really going to hang in there when most of them can’t even define it now?

You write the stuff that needs to be written, what is going to stand the test of time. I don’t care if it’s popular. I’m not interested in a thumbs-up, share, like thing. That doesn’t mean that you get every idea right, but you are giving a gift to people that they need for their lives.

You mentioned there is a type of political action that gets undervalued because it's often performed by women. What are you referring to? 

It is a kind of personal sacrifice. It's the politics you do on a community level. We start with what needs to be done to survive. The era we're in is far more narcissistic, transactional. But individual sacrifice, doing something for the greater good, is fundamentally the heart of democracy.

The book I just finished is about this. I'm looking at violence that really occurs at an intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc., people who are vulnerable to death or dying because they live in those intersections. But the issue is, what do they do when they are encountering that kind of violence? An example exists in a place that’s grim: mothers of murdered children. But this is really common, right? People who are the survivors who are left behind and how they respond to that immediately.

It's a deep wound and it’s a wound to a community to have that happen over and over again. A lot of people have strategies that are not really helpful – addiction, they become violent themselves. But what a lot of mothers of murdered children tend to do is they organize. They organize in Brazil. They organize in this country, again and again, and they organize in Mexico where their children have disappeared. You can take a big movement like that or a tiny movement on your block. We know this exists. They organized in New Zealand, where there was an incident of domestic violence of a young child, to make this amazing film. Or, in some cases, it's an intergenerational memory, the refusal to forget. It's often women at the center of efforts to reclaim the histories and whereabouts of Native children, indigenous children who've been taken from their families, in this country, Canada, New Zealand, everywhere, right? Memory is an important thing in terms of resisting violence.

What I am saying is building resistance to violence is political. The dominant narrative is nothing was happening until Black Lives Matter. No. No. No. There is no possibility of Black Lives Matter without all these other things. So talking about various spheres of politics and political action is important. One is community, community organizers; another is social protests. The other is all the people who find ways to enter into organizations and corporations and they say we're going to work the system from the inside.

You’ve spoken about giving people the opportunity for teachable moments and told me they “might be something that hits the soul.” Have you seen this happen? 

Oh, yes. Years ago, I was teaching a class on urban Black community development, primarily Black students in the class. And I was teaching about the police. And this one young white woman said very little – she was definitely in there but wasn't like the progressive young white women who want to say a whole lot in your class.

But the day I said, “To those of you who are young Black men, how many of you have had an encounter with the police?” Literally every hand went up. One talked about being spread-eagled over the hood of a police car, being forced to lie face down on the pavement, of fearing that this was the moment they would die. And because of that you can make sense of the cumulative, collective damage, the pain of that experience. And this young woman bravely started talking about the police.

She said, “I think you should know that I'm a third-generation member of a police family. My grandfather was a police officer. My father was a police officer. My brother was in the military.” And she said to the class, “I really had never thought about it this way before.” She thanked them for sharing. She wasn't defensive. She was open to that moment. But these are the kinds of things that can happen. And this is the way I want to write: critical, informed but where there is space for you to enter.

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