Clare Marie Moriarty reflects on philosophy and motherhood in a tribute to Professor Maria Rosa Antognazza.
The concepts “philosopher” and “mother” have never sat close together in the library of my ideas. I don’t want to be misleading - I was raised by intellectual women and have known many nurturing philosophers - but, drawn down to their essential properties, I never felt philosopher and mother had much overlap.
At the beginning of my studies in early modern European philosophy, I recall being struck by the conspicuous shortage of parents around. At least in the celebrity circle at the core of the canon - Locke, Hume, Kant, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hobbes - no kids. Descartes had a daughter, born to his domestic servant, but it wasn’t clear to me that he really regarded her as his daughter or seriously saw himself as a parent. Berkeley was a noteworthy exception - a biological father, but also very much a doting parent. His letters abound with excited references to his children’s musical development and anxious and devastated discussions of their ill health. On reflection, this probably drew me to him.
A little later in my studies, I came to Émilie du Châtelet. What a thrill to a student so interested in the place of philosophy in mathematics and science to find a woman so revered for her thinking in natural philosophy and mathematics. More; she wrote about happiness, even especially about women’s happiness and intellectual life in a way that suggested that she didn’t see these humane discussions as a threat to her reputation for technical excellence. I vividly remember learning of her cause of death - postpartum pulmonary embolism, ”complications from childbirth” - and feeling a dark sense that it was somehow almost reasonable, as though motherhood had not just ended her tenure as philosopher, but closed the whole being out of existence.
These worries were never fully resolved for me. When I miscarried a pregnancy last year, it was in a period of particular philosophical stress - I was really stressed about an application for a bold new philosophical project and when the worst happened, I won’t deny that I felt a sense that this was somehow to be expected - too much philosophy while my body was trying to warm up to the distinct business of mothering again.
I’m sure this seems morbid, but I think it speaks to a deep anxiety in me (and I’m sure not unique to me) that I am badly suited to the business of academic philosophy. I sort of stumbled into pursuing it as a career by not knowing what else to do, and always saw traditional philosophical thinking as so, so much less natural to me than to almost everyone in the philosophical circles in which I was mixing. Coupled with that uncertainty about my intellectual and dispositional suitability were grave worries about the consistency of pursuing a philosophical career with the one thing I’ve always known I wanted in life - to be a mother. At every age, I have found unparalleled joy in babies, toddlers and children, and have always known I would be a mother, whatever the method or the cost. I worried constantly about whether trying to secure the PhD and subsequent postdoctoral stints would mean I’d waited too long to have children and that philosophy might proactively obliterate my own motherhood.
There has been one strong contrasting presence in my life to counterbalance those wrought concerns about the consistency of philosophy and motherhood - Maria Rosa Antognazza. I first met Rosa in 2010 and she played a multitude of roles in my life thereafter. During my PhD, I was a “graduate teaching assistant” on every course she lectured at King’s College London (KCL). I was also her “research assistant”, where what this entailed was her taking pity on how broke I was and paying me a probably too generous hourly rate to prepare her teaching materials and the students’ lecture notes. Katharine O’Reilly, another Antogn-acolyte, recently wrote about how she joined the British Society for the History of Philosophy (BSHP) Management Committee in no small part to continue her proximity to Rosa after she left KCL. So many of us were completely addicted to our small but exciting positions in her magnificent orbit. When my public philosophy job at the Forum for Philosophy dovetailed with the BSHP’s goals for more public-facing history of philosophy, I joined that same committee to enjoy a further few years at Rosa’s side as she served as its Chair.
I have many anecdotes concerning Rosa which can be filed variously on a spectrum I can now admit between “philosopher”, “philosophy-mother” and “mother”.
At the sharper “philosophy” end of affairs there is her simply extraordinary contribution to the scholarship on Leibniz. Before serving as seminar leader/teaching assistant on Rosa’s “Spinoza and Leibniz” course, I admit a certain narrowness in my admiration for Leibniz, reducible to one word - calculus. For those interested in the history of mathematics, Leibniz is a towering figure in a general sense, but it is infinitesimal calculus that cements his status. The use of infinitely small measures made possible a new mathematics of change and motion, and a systematisation of integration and differentiation under a fundamental theorem. I regarded Leibniz as the champion of the tiny, the miniscule - and potentially, the trifling? His views on mathematical identity perplexed me, his musings on the labyrinth of the continuum bringing more confusion than continuity to my understanding. I was also learning about monads… infinitesimal, “windowless” oddities that marked the foundation of the Leibnizian metaphysics. So, for me at least, Leibniz was sort of a master of tiny, weird stuff.
Re-learning Leibniz through Rosa changed this thinking entirely. For Rosa, Leibniz was almost singularly focused on unity, and, in her own words, “the improvement of the human condition”. In Rosa’s presentation, Leibniz wanted to develop and reform all the sciences because he believed that this would make human happiness possible. For me, this was the first instance of someone forcefully connecting the idea of scientific coherence and human flourishing, and making the case that scientific development could be fundamentally ethical and even religious in its nature. Leibniz’s commitment to everything (even the smallest things) was ultimately always in pursuit of something bigger - something beautiful, joyful, and eternal.
At the mentorship end of things, she was unrivalled. She provided brilliant and necessarily expert guidance to many excellent and assured early career philosophers. I know they are all devastated in the wake of her loss. But she was also there for the sloppier, more psychologically wobbly among us. She combined a gleeful lightness and love of philosophical wit with a completely unparalleled capacity for care and kindness. She often introduced me to undergraduate students as her “empiricist friend”, and we had a running joke that the Principle of Sufficient Reason was like a pair of skinny jeans I just couldn’t pull up over myself, and that brute facts (and empiricism in general) were like a pair of baggy trousers she would drown in if she tried to wear them. Amusing mime actions accompanied these comments. Rosa was incredibly glamorous, so it felt like a huge honour to draw her down into the torrid realm of physical comedy.
I really struggled at the end of my PhD and especially in my viva. I was under-prepared, unassured, and emotionally exhausted, and it showed. After about two hours, when it was obviously noticed that I was tearing up, I was invited to take a break while they did some deliberating. Rosa - not my PhD supervisor in any capacity - was next door in her office, and I can’t think where else I might have gone. I went into her office (which was always immaculate, with pot pourri that momentarily transported you out of the ramshackle warren of the Suffolk Street buildings) and I fell in a heap onto one of her upholstered chairs and wept. For the next five minutes, she petted my hair, offered words of reassurance, and muttered furiously about anyone who would upset me. Then, when she judged it the right time, she pulled me up by the shoulders, looked me in the eye and told me it was time to “go in there and finish it”. And I did.
I don’t know another person on the planet that could have re-composed me in that moment. She summoned a perfect balance of love and tenderness and then repackaged my anxiety and sadness into the small amount of fire I needed to go back in and finish the viva. Her kindness often had this ferocious quality, producing bravery and pluckiness in its lucky recipients. I went back in to see her when it was all finished and she told me exactly what I needed to hear to make me feel like the whole thing was still a triumph and that I should be proud of myself. On reflection, what she really did in that moment was intensely mothering in character. Alex Douglas recently remarked to me that it seems particularly cruel that her gifts in this respect would never have been more soothing and welcome than in this time where we have been deprived of them.
Both in the research and the mentoring/teaching aspects of Rosa’s career, a certain kind of maternal intensity sang through her actions. And her life has shown me that motherhood (broadly understood) can inject a special kind of skin in the game into philosophical understanding. There is a particular concern for the world that emerges from many aspects of motherhood - great hope, anxious care, pragmatic vision - that can add a beauty to even ostensibly barren philosophical analysis. This can be a double-edged sword; the deeper I got into understanding Berkeley’s parenthood and its role in philosophy, the more convinced I became that it had incited a kind of panicked despair in him. The investment inherent in parenting and truly loving his children and family seemed to amplify a nastiness and divisiveness that pervaded Berkeley’s later political and social writings. Rosa exemplified the exact opposite end of that pole. A powerful love, self-sacrifice, and metaphysical celebration infused her life and work and seemed to enhance everything it touched - truly nurturing people and rendering abstruse philosophy simultaneously humane and divine. She has shown me the maternal in the philosophical and the philosophical in the maternal and I believe it has changed the way I think about both things completely.
Rosa also advised me about motherhood and family, and though she believed all capable of a level of industry and work that many of us found frankly terrifying, she always emphasised the priority of family, relationships, and happiness. Her pride and love for her only family was so obvious in everything she did. Thoughts on nurturing and personal growth animated lectures on pre-established harmony - poignant metaphors of love and romance illuminated spiritual philosophy. And she celebrated the growing families around her, appearing truly giddy and overjoyed at seeing those she mentored becoming parents (likewise, becoming supervisors and mentors), and even in busy emails found time to ask about toddlers, teething and other such vital updates. She remains a perfect inspiration to me as a mother.
It has been my great gift to see the concepts of mother and philosopher united under the perfect exemplar of a person whose being shone so brightly with both identities. It has been hugely impactful for me, and I believe for countless others. She is the truest philosopher we will ever know.
Adriatic coast, summer 2002. Rosa is pregnant with one daughter (Francesca) and carrying another (Sophia) while being embraced by her son (John) and his cousin (Emily Lord), who are sad to be parting company at the end of a family seaside vacation. Rosa's transfer to KCL and diagnosis with cancer would take place the following year.
Oxford, January 2018. Taken at a celebration of John's graduation from Cambridge, this is the last photo of Rosa's full family of five: Sophia died two months later, on 7 March 2018.
Clare Marie Moriarty is an Irish Research Council postdoctoral fellow, working at the philosophy department at Trinity College Dublin. She met Rosa in 2011 at King's College London as a MA Student. Subsequently, she worked for her as a graduate teaching assistant and research assistant during her PhD at KCL (2013-2017) and enjoyed her mentorship in the years that followed, both informally and via the BSHP management committee.