TWENTY-ONE QUESTIONS WITH DR. JANICE CHIK BREIDENBACH
November 25, 2014
Dr. Janice Chik Breidenbach began teaching at Ave Maria University in Fall 2014. She is Assistant Professor of Philosophy. She agreed to an interview in her office on the second floor of the Academic Building, which she shares with her husband and colleague, Dr. Michael Breidenbach. Behind her desk, a large window flooded with light overlooks Ave Maria’s campus.
1. I was baptized and confirmed in my senior year at Princeton, when I was twenty-two. I chose Anselm as my confirmation name. My parents gave me an English name and a Chinese name at my birth. My English name, “Janice,” is a derivative of Jane, a female version of John, which means “God is gracious.” My Chinese name, “Tzuling,” has two meanings—one has to do with a sense of family and the tradition of ancestry, while the other means excellence, a kind of Aristotelian arête. Chinese names are very aspirational, so my name reflects what my parents wanted for me.
2. I went to Princeton for my undergraduate studies, and afterwards worked there for a year in the Office of the Dean of the College. Then, I went to the University of Texas, Austin, studying in the philosophy Ph.D. program for three years, and leaving with an M.A. I then went to Rome to study at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce under Fr. Stephen Brock. From there, I got a scholarship to the University of St. Andrews, so I moved to Scotland. I met my husband Michael during my first year in the UK, at a conference in Cambridge. I spent two years at St. Andrews, and did my third year of research at Cambridge. I spent a fourth year researching in Princeton, and now I’m here at Ave Maria.
3. I changed my mind about my academic specialty a lot. I started out in Economics, and then switched to Medicine. I always wanted to go deeper; I wanted something more foundational in the order of knowledge. Then my thoughts turned to law school, so I applied to Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. On the side, I did a certificate in music performance and played violin in the Princeton University Orchestra for all four years. But in my senior year, I took a course on the philosophy of criminal law. This class totally captivated me—there’s no other word for it. I was transfixed. I knew I wanted to think about philosophical issues for the rest of my life. I also realized that my interest in law was much more theoretical than practical.
4. I applied to the law and philosophy program at UT-Austin for a Ph.D. During my time there, I came to realize that lawyers have no idea what phrases like mens rea (‘guilty mind’) really mean. The fact that it didn’t bother them motivated me to do further research. I was reading Elizabeth Anscombe for the first time (her monograph Intention), and I was tackling a course on the Metaphysics of Space and Time, and I had a moment where I sprang out of bed in the middle of the night and jotted down what my thesis would be: an area where ethics meets with metaphysics, which is action theory. We can’t understand what makes an act good if we don’t understand what an action is. We can’t understand what an action is unless we understand what an acting subject or agent is—in the case of the good, what the human being is.
5. When I first went into philosophy, I thought that a Ph.D. program would have the very good purpose of sharpening my mind. As time went on, I came to see that the study of philosophy involved something much more serious than just mental exercises to get one’s brain in shape. Truth was at stake, and I needed to read the masters (Aquinas, Aristotle, Plato) to engage in this much more serious endeavor.
6. I’m really indebted to all of my teachers, beginning with Rob Koons at UT-Austin, who guided me patiently through my incipient years as a graduate student in philosophy. I came from a public policy background, and Rob initiated me into a more rigorous study of philosophy. Fr. Stephen Brock at Santa Croce overturned all of my assumptions about how to read and study texts; only later did I realize that he was teaching me the ‘Toronto way.’ He also led me through a much deeper study of Aristotle and Aquinas, and taught me to appreciate these foundational philosophers over the contemporary figures with which I began my philosophical education. These were lifelong lessons, and I owe an immeasurable debt to him. At St. Andrews, I have been incredibly fortunate to have Sarah Broadie as my supervisor for the last four years. I have become a better philosopher through her guidance, learning how to think more systematically, to practice greater precision in writing and in logical construction. Her style is very rigorous, very demanding, but also kind and personable; through our working relationship she has also taught me what is needed to be an effective mentor and a good teacher. Finally, John Haldane was another great influence. He is not only a very dynamic lecturer but also a gifted artist (a painter), and I had the privilege of observing how he used these different skills to engage his students.
7. It is just beautiful here at Ave Maria.It is such a pleasant place to live. That cannot be underemphasized, as if it’s an accidental thing. After all, we are embodied beings. Our physical environment really makes a difference to us. I think it’s wonderful to live in a place where one can walk or bike to work, to the grocery store, to Church, and where family, community and personal relationships are at the core of our everyday existence. I’m an amateur naturalist, so I also love observing all the wildlife here. [She turns and gestures out the large window behind her desk.] Just a few moments ago, I saw a swallow-tailed kite, a beautiful bird of prey. Here, the entire lifecycle is on display. It’s wonderful. It’s such an integral part of our human nature that the natural goings on of the earth are accessible to us. It’s no small thing, and it brings me a great deal of joy.
8. Something that helped me in my studies was my musical training. I began violin at 5, and piano at 8, and both of my parents are opera singers (my mother is professionally trained). Music has taught me innumerable lessons. One of them is that there are so many ways to learn how to play something that one cannot learn by simply reading a book. Practical knowledge is involved. The same goes for skills like cooking, dance, or sports. It’s an embodied experience that vividly depicts the nature of practical knowledge. Music taught me at an early age to be accustomed to discipline. One of my teachers, an old Russian violinist, grew up under the adage: “If you don’t practice today, you don’t eat today.” He would practice for at least eight hours a day. I also got used to being told where all of my errors were. I’m not saying all musicians are humble or modest, but as a student (especially under hard-to-please teachers), you become accustomed to being told what’s wrong with you; one comes to expect criticism as part of the learning process. Improvement in anything requiring skill is difficult, but part of desiring improvement is seeking wisdom, and wanting to be told what the malady is.
9. I don’t want to sound sanctimonious, but I do find that prayer and meditation in the morning is really helpful for setting the tone and pace of the day. If I set aside some time for prayer and meditation, I find that I work better: more calmly, with a better sense of purpose. I also keep a Benedictine cross from Rome on my desk. It was blessed by a spiritual director during my year in Rome, and it helps me to stay on task and to focus on my work. It helps me remember the true purpose of my life: what it is I’m doing, what it is I’m after. I’m trying not to seek myself, but rather the higher things, the things of God.
10. We read the Wall Street Journal in the morning, over breakfast. I was recently joking with Michael that the WSJ is saving our marriage, because rather than making grumpy conversation over breakfast, we’re reading (and ignoring each other). But joking aside, there’s a real advantage to the morning paper. I’m not a morning person, so I’m always trying to wake up over coffee. I’m still in this passive state. The WSJ is great for times like these because it draws me into the things going on in the world, and I can also try to pray for those things. (We also like having the paper version of the paper—it’s a much more integrated experience than clicking around on links.) Occasionally we mention interesting articles to each other as we finish breakfast, and, I should add, we do talk to each other at other points in the day!
11. I had this aspiration to write a novel before the age of 12. I always wanted to be a novelist, and I still do. One of the things I hope to write someday is a quasi-history of my family. Both of my parents’ families fled China in 1949 with Chiang Kai-shek: both of their families had worked closely with Chiang before the Communist takeover. My mother’s father made political films for Chiang, who personally sent my grandfather to Hollywood to study cinematography. My mother’s mother was also a film editor for the Nationalists. People around us preserve so many interesting stories; I would love to begin documenting some of them. As a complement to philosophy, I’ve always loved the world of literature, the creative side of the intellectual life—our lives are one big narrative, right? Especially as Christians, we all play a part in one epic story.
12. Italy is a little chaotic. I love Italy, but it really is. The Italians are more hylomorphic than we are. They are so comfortable in their own skins. Their cuisine is also humble—just the God-given food of the earth, which doesn’t have to be dressed up a lot. I also love the British Isles. There’s so much that we, my husband and I, treasure there—Cambridge, St. Andrews, Glasgow, London. We love the culture. We find things to criticize as well, but having been expatriates over there for so long, we recognize aspects that Americans can learn from the British, and vice versa. Also, there’s the sheer beauty of the British Isles. When you take a train from London to St. Andrews, and the serene, flat English meadows transform gradually into the dramatic mountains of Scotland: there are few things as beautiful in the world to me.
13. The last movie I really enjoyed thinking about was In Bruges. The film is a little violent, but really interesting. It’s basically a cinematic portrait of Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Last Judgment.” It’s a very funny movie that’s also quite deep at times. I also admire Chris Nolan’s Batman movies. There’s a lot of interesting political theory going on in those—especially in the Dark Knight. The latter is in many ways a modern Western, with themes similar to those raised in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. These movies both ask the question of where political authority is to be found.
14. I always told Michael before we got married that when we moved into a house, the first piece of furniture I wanted was a grand piano. That was before I got married! Then I got to see the household budget…. I’d still really like to own a nice piano. My mother has a piano, and I grew up having it in the house. Every night I would play a Chopin nocturne, or something appropriate for the night. It was really relaxing. I was able to play and reflect on the day, and put myself in mood for bed.
15. You know, one of the gifts I received for our wedding was a Chef’s jacket from a friend, and it says “Head Chef Janice.” My friends know I’m a little pretentious in that I like to think I can attempt to cook fine dining. Cooking as a process is so interesting; it’s like a science. I like to know what’s going on when I do various things. I’m not saying I’m super intellectual about cooking, especially since it is something hylomorphic. Occasionally I fantasize that someday I’ll open a fine dining restaurant.
16. When I say this to people, they think I’m nuts, but I really believe in the Running Water Theory. Like Archimedes’s Eureka! in the shower. As a child, I would spend hours in the swimming pool thinking up ideas and stories. At St. Andrew’s, I lived in a room with a window facing the North Sea, and every morning I’d look out and watch the water pounding on the rocks, the seagulls, sensing the energy and force. The ancients believed in the Muses, but there’s something in the motion and movement of the water that just moves me. I admit it sounds mystical or something, but there it is.
17. Anscombe can be fiendishly difficult to read.It is frequently very difficult to understand what she is saying. Barring the great foundational masters, sheis the greatest intellectual influence in my life. She’s really formed my own aspirations as a philosopher. I have so much admiration for her own personal life, her integrity, the directness and honesty with which she wrote everything. My beat up copy of Intention has gone with me all over the world. [Janice picks up a slim, worn out copy of Anscombe’s “Intention”—which is clearly never far from her reach.] It’s so thin you can just stuff it in your suitcase. This book inspired me more than anything else. Anscombe is one of those philosophers who may have said something that sounds very simple, and then one realizes that one will need to spend all day thinking about what it means.
18. I can’t say that Anscombe is an author I read for her writing style. Her writing is really dense. One my professors at Princeton said: You want to write so clearly that even a five-year old could read it and understand it. That’s what you’re aiming for in writing well. It shouldn’t be more convoluted than that. Another piece of advice another professor once gave me: Go for a walk and just start talking about the subject. Almost everyone gets writer’s block from time to time. I suffer from it. Well, I say go for a walk, start talking aloud to yourself, or go swimming and give a speech on your paper outline. (Maybe that’s why people think philosophers are crazy.)
19. If I could go back in time, I would’ve become Catholic sooner. Well, maybe it isn’t being Catholic so much as having the right friends, and listening to older people who give you advice on what to study. The first 20 years of your life are so formative, the things you learn, the things you try, the areas in which you apply yourself. There’s something easier about being a baptized Christian. I’m not saying I was a wreck, but there is something real about sacramental grace that helps to assist a young person’s formation and development.
20. In writing, the most common mistake is thinking that what you put down on the page is definite. No, you can work on it. In writing my thesis, which I worked on for four years, once I got over that sense of determinacy, it made my writing much better. I would change my mind, and then I’d write that down too: I used to think X and now I think Y. Document your changes, and get in the habit of writing. Don’t think that writing comes along once every two or three weeks. No! Just write it down, get it all out. Accept that some things aren’t permanent, and always try to improve by writing and rewriting. Constantly reading books or essays by people who know how to write well can really help to give you a model. There’ s no other way to do it.
21. These days, I really treasure the practice of getting together with friends and playing chamber music. There is something so intimate and satisfying about it. Samuel Barber wrote a piece called the “Capricorn Concerto,” but it’s written for three different solo instruments (flute, oboe, and trumpet) and strings, and each of these solo instruments is based in character on one of his close friends and himself. It’s literally, in that case, three voices in conversation. And that’s what chamber music is: It teaches you to look at one another, to listen carefully to what your friends are ‘saying’, to try to harmonize in response and achieve a musical unity. A musical instrument is literally an instrument with which you produce a sound that has meaning for others. The meaning and the sound come ultimately from you, but the instrument somehow is integrated with the human being, so that meaningful communication between musicians becomes possible. There is something so wonderful and enjoyable when you do reach a level of musical understanding between people.