Charlotte E. Witt

Award for Excellence in Research

Professor of Philosophy and the Humanities
College of Liberal Arts


Essential Witt

 


When Charlotte Witt is asked to give a talk she has an unusual response: "Do you want the Aristotle scholar, the feminist theorist, or the historian of philosophy?" According to Liberal Arts Dean Marilyn Hoskin, "Charlotte has established a scholarly prominence in both ancient philosophy and feminist thought, a combination which is truly unusual among scholars in general and philosophers in particular."

When Witt took her first introductory course as an undergraduate, her affinity for philosophy was immediate. Reading Plato, she thought, "I understand this," and her life in philosophy had begun. During her college years, her perspective on philosophy was inuenced by the second wave of feminist thinking. The male orientation of traditional philosophical study was not subtle. Says Witt, "The word 'woman' did not come up in grad school."

The diversity of Witt's scholarship can be seen in the range of her published works and the critical praise they have generated. Her two books on Aristotle, Substance and Essence in Aristotle and Ways of Being: Potentiality and Actuality in Aristotle' s Metaphysics, have received considerable critical praise. Martha Nussbaum, renowned philosopher, feminist, and legal scholar, commenting on Substance and Essence in the New York Review of Books wrote, "[it] is one of the best books recently written on Aristotle's metaphysics." Robert Scharff, chair of the philosophy department, says of Witt's two books, "[She has] accomplished something seldom done, namely, break new ground in a very well-trodden scholarly area and evoke numerous, importantly placed reviews that are filled with high praise."

A Mind of One's Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity, a collection of essays coedited by Witt was published in 1992. Nussbaum, again reviewing for the New York Review of Books, said it "testified to the richness and diversity of philosophical feminism and of female philosophizing." Witt's essay from this book, "Feminist Metaphysics," has been anthologized in Metaphysics: The Big Questions, a volume in Blackwell's prestigious Philosophy: The Big Questions series. Witt is now writing a new book, Essays on Gender and Essence, which continues her work on feminist philosophy.

Recently, Witt undertook her most personal work, concerning the philosophical questions that arise from adoption. This year, Cornell University Press published Adoption Matters: Philosophical and Feminist Essays, which Witt coedited. This new strand of work began when her family adopted a daughter who was born in Vietnam. This experience raised philosophical questions that continue to resonate in Witt's life. For instance: What is a family? This is a question that is answered differently from the perspectives of social expectations, legal designations, and biology. It is these questions that inspire her scholarship. "If you like to puzzle about things, wonder about things, then you love philosophy," says Witt.

In the midst of all this work, Witt is a vital member of the University community, contributing to the Women's Studies Program, the Humanities Program, and cochairing a committee evaluating the Freshman Writing Program. "I know first-hand that Charlotte takes extraordinary care to understand her students and to make sure she is understood by them," says Scharff. "In the classroom her evident respect for them and her meticulous, low-key presentation help create a nonthreatening atmosphere in which even reluctant students are often drawn out and encouraged to participate in discussions of sometimes very difficult philosophical material."

—Toby Ball