Get to Know a Researcher - Philosophy's Audrey Yap


Associate Dean Research Margaret Cameron talks to Audrey Yap, an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy, about logic, politics and her life-long quest to smash the philosophical canon.

As a member of the Philosophy department, your research covers a wide field. You originally started as a specialist in logic, and now you’re actively teaching and researching in areas of social and political philosophy. Can you say a few words about your path from positivism to politics?

It does seem like a bit of a turn in my research path, but also, I think that if you spend enough time being a woman in logic, you might find yourself turning into a feminist even if that’s not what you had planned.

A lot of the change in focus also had to do with the ways in which I function effectively as a researcher. I tend not to be the kind of person who can work on projects in isolation for very long, and when I started in Victoria, there wasn’t much of a logic community nearby with which to collaborate. So it seemed beneficial to shift towards topics that wouldn’t be so heavily dependent on finding interlocutors with a relatively heavy technical background.

I do like the fact that you used the phrase “from positivism to politics” in your question though—mostly because it highlights a certain presupposed division between disciplines like logic and philosophy of science, and social and political philosophy. But there’s a relatively forgotten (though I think important) history of the logical positivists from the Vienna Circle, especially Carnap and Neurath, who thought it was crucial that their work in philosophy of science have social value. Neurath paired this also with significant involvement in socialist politics in Bavaria. This connection between science and social value is also something you can see in feminist philosophy of science and feminist epistemology, which is arguably the area of social philosophy that I best fit into. So in some ways, the connection between social and scientific philosophy is (and has been) closer than people think.

A lot of your work takes you beyond the classroom into other spheres of philosophical and political activity. How can current research in Philosophy make an impact on the day-to-day life of our students and community members?

The way I do philosophical research these days might make for a relatively straightforward answer here. A lot of the projects I take on are essentially motivated by something in the world, or in my life, that bothers me. And being trained as an analytic philosopher, I try to use that particular skill set to help understand it in some hopefully useful way. For instance, work that I do on gendered violence has implications—or so I argue—for how we talk and think about its perpetrators. So in that sense, the answer is easy. A lot of interesting contemporary research in social philosophy has direct implications for how we should understand the world around us. And a lot of the skills that we learn as philosophers can be applied to social issues just as they can be applied to, say, traditional epistemology or philosophy of mind.

I have also moved more towards work that could be called community-based research, which seems still to be relatively unusual in philosophy. But this kind of move is actually continuous with my training in history and philosophy of science and mathematics. The way I was taught to do the philosophy of science and mathematics was to look at the disciplines as they are and have been practiced. That didn’t mean the only allowable projects were descriptive ones, but it did mean that in order to say something useful about those disciplines, I would have to start with a fair bit of knowledge about them in the first place. So to write my PhD dissertation on the history and philosophy of algebra, it was just assumed, I think, that I would have to take a fair bit of algebra. But I don’t work on mathematics that much now, and I work instead on social issues.

Learning about social issues is trickier than learning mathematics, in part because expertise in those areas is gained as much, if not more, through lived experience than through study for which credentials are awarded. But the lived experience of oppression can make it much more difficult to have been awarded those expert credentials. Those who are deeply familiar with the practice of mathematics tend to have PhDs in it. Those who are deeply familiar with the ways in which social structures fail, and injustices are perpetuated, may not have PhDs in any subject, because they are the people who have been failed by those very structures. So when I think about expanding my work beyond the classroom or beyond more traditional lines of philosophical inquiry, I do actually just think of it as an extension of what I’ve learned as being good philosophical methodology.

Can you tell us about your current research project? (And is it called “Smash the philosophical canon?”)

I think of “smash the philosophical canon” as more of a life project than a research project. The times when my research projects coincide with that goal are just bonus.

I’m working on a lot of things right now, though, and maybe that’s because the world feels like a bit of a mess to me, so there are a lot of problems to talk about. There’s a few unifying themes that I can speak to, though, so I’ll at least mention those.

I think a lot about the extent to which we view others as monstrous these days—this is in some ways the flip side of the kind of dehumanization that leads to atrocities like war crimes and genocide. That kind of dehumanization tends to see others as possessing a kind of degraded humanity or subhuman essence that licenses their extermination. I think that viewing others as monsters, for instance when they have committed a crime, or performed an act that we see as evil, also has its dangers. I think it cuts off possibilities for restorative justice, but also makes it more difficult for us to see the harms done by ordinary individuals.

But it’s hard to engage with people who we think are doing harm, or who have harmful views. So another project (that I see as inspired by the logical positivists—really!) has to do with modeling situations of deep disagreement. When we think of persuading others, across deep ideological divides, of the correctness of our views, I think we tend to underestimate the extent to which our values are embedded and presupposed by the very language that we use. This undermines the possibility of changing minds with logical argumentation alone. Not only is it idealistic—it would be like trying to persuade someone of the non-existence of phlogiston by pointing out that it doesn’t fit in the periodic table. We make arguments from within a theoretical framework. Persuasion seems unlikely to be successful if the only resources we use are those available within the very framework whose appropriateness is in question.

Neither of these projects are essentially canon-smashing. But they do frequently lead me to question who is counted in traditional philosophy as a source of knowledge or as its intended recipient.