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Susan James


It is an honour for me to present Susan James to a Fellowship at Birkbeck. I have had the good fortune of having been able to learn about philosophy and life from Sue - as she is known among her colleagues - for nearly thirty years; for the last decade as a colleague in the Philosophy department here at Birkbeck.

Susan James is a scholar of exceptional distinction; internationally known for her work on the history of seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophy; most particularly the work of Baruch (or Benedictus) de Spinoza. Yet Sue has also made important contributions to the study of feminism in philosophy; and it was in that context that I first came to know her work as a student nearly thirty years ago.

Susa James was born in 1951 and grew up in Highgate in North London with her parents and a younger brother. Sue’s mother was a psychotherapist. Her father was a Professor in biology at UCL. It is probably safe, then, to say that Sue grew up surrounded by ideas.

Sue went to school near Swiss Cottage before going to university at what was then called New Hall, Cambridge; and where she stayed on to study for a PhD. While at Cambridge, she met her husband, Quentin, with whom she moved to the United States, where Sue spent some of her most formative years as a philosopher doing research at Princeton University, and where she had her first academic post for three years at the University of Connecticut. After moving back to the UK, Sue and Quentin started a family and raised two children, both of whom have themselves gone on to have two children; all three generations now living in London after Sue returned to the capital as an Anniversary Reader at Birkbeck in the year 2000, and where she was promoted to Professor in 2002.

During her time in Higher Education, Sue has held an exceptionally large number of positions in various institutions in the UK and abroad. From 1997 to 1999, she was Chair of the Faculty of Philosophy at Cambridge University. At Birkbeck, she was Chair of the Philosophy Department for three years from 2003 to 2006. In 2015, she was made President of the Aristotelian Society; and in 2019 she became a Fellow of the British Academy.

Over the years, Sue has also held an impressive (and to some of us, intimidating) number of visiting appointments: at the Australian National University; The Hebrew University of Jerusalem; the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin; Boston University; Princeton University; the University of Chicago; Johns Hopkins University, and at the University of California, Berkeley.

When Sue started out on her career, there were two things largely missing in Anglophone philosophy which many of us now take for granted. The first was a lack of attention paid to the social aspects of human existence; a topic Sue addressed in her PhD thesis supervised by the historian of science Mary Hesse, and which resulted in her first book, The Content of Social Explanation (1982). The second was a lack of attention paid to the passionate or affective side of human nature, as opposed to the narrowly intellectual, or rational side. Sue’s work on this topic led to the publication (in 1997) of Passion and Action: The Emotions in Early Modern Philosophy, followed by a long string of influential publications, often – although not exclusively - focused on Spinoza. By reading and listening to Sue’s work on Spinoza and the passions, several generations of scholars have discovered in Spinoza a philosopher who, in Sue’s own words, ‘it is good to think with’. 

One excellent example is a recent paper about Spinoza on fortitude, in which Sue explains how for Spinoza, fortitude is the desire to put your knowledge to work in the way that you live; to turn theoretical knowledge to practical use in the real world,  bringing the two together so as to always act on your knowledge. If you want to learn more about Sue’s work on this topic, I recommend her recent interview on, ‘Spinoza and the Importance of Living Together,’ in which she explains Spinoza’s ideas briefly, clearly and without unnecessary jargon, in a way that is so typical of her general approach.

Another crucial part of Sue’s contributions to our academic community is her mentoring and support of several generations of students, many of whom are now themselves mentoring and supporting their own students in universities across the world. When asked what I should say about Sue as a teacher when presenting her for this Fellowship, one student said: Sue is someone who helps you make good choices. She is calm, focused and direct. She is a good listener. Sue is someone who sees you. 

Following her official retirement in 2023, Sue seems as busy as ever. Her current projects include exploring the work of the seventeenth century philosopher Margaret Cavendish, whose work Sue has been one of the main forces in rescuing from historical neglect. She edited a volume of Cavendish’s political works in 2003. Sue is also thinking about a new project about the French painter Poussin as a philosopher. Meanwhile, she continues to be an active member of the London philosophy world as convenor of the London Spinoza Circle.

Birkbeck is extremely fortunate to be able to continue counting Susan James as part of its intellectual community.