Living the Life of the Mind

Charlotte Knowles on doing philosophy and looking good

I’m going to say it, are you ready? This is pretty controversial. I like clothes. There I said it. And do you know what else? I’m not ashamed. Clothes have always been a touchy subject for philosophers. Taking any interest in what you look like supposedly indicates that you’re not really Living the Life of the Mind (hey, that’s the name of the column!) because if you were a true philosopher, you wouldn’t be preoccupied with these earthly matters. It’s a common trope from Plato to Mill that intellectual pleasures are higher than bodily ones, and philosophers seem to have interpreted that as a moral and intellectual duty to look like crap.

The philosophical “uniform”, for men at least, is whatever you picked up off your bedroom floor that morning, or so Jonathan Wolff claimed in a 2014 Guardian article. Wolff sees this as a positive thing, as his headline proclaims: “Why do Academics Dress so Badly? Answer: They are too Happy”. But is that really the case? A lot of academics I see seem pretty miserable. But let’s leave aside the issue of work pressure, job security, and the imperative to publish or perish for now, and turn back to the important issue of appearance. A colleague recently fretted that they had to make themselves look presentable for a departmental photo, when they should have been spending that time doing work! One could read this through Wolffian eyes as evidence that they didn’t care about trivial aesthetic matters and wanted to be left alone to get on with their research (and indeed, the same colleague had declared on a previous occasion that they didn’t care about dress, only comfort). But if that were true, why were they fretting over a photo?

One reason that comes quickly to mind is: oppressive ideology! We are trained to care about what we look like, particularly if we are women, and such preoccupations keep us in our place. Indeed, we find this argument in the work of many famous feminist philosophers, including Mary Wollstonecraft who, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, presented women’s concern with beauty as a kind of “prison”. And indeed, it can be. If you become overlyworried about your appearance, if this is the only thing that is important in your life, that can be very limiting. But does that mean that any interest in clothes or appearance is automatically something that has been imposed on us as a result of oppressive socialisation? Are the preferences we have for particular ways of looking or presenting ourselves never an expression of our own authentic preferences and desires? Are they necessarily deformed or adaptive?

Questioning this line of argument does not mean dismissing the prolific and excellent feminist works on the problems of the beauty industry and the issue of oppressive and compulsory aesthetic practices. The rise in unnecessary cosmetic surgery and body dysmorphia is worrying, and both are important feminist issues. Rather, my question is whether any concern with appearance is inherently oppressive, as some analyses and views seem to suggest.

In “Foucault, Femininity and the Modernisation of Patriarchal Power” published in 1988, Sandra Lee Bartky explored some of the disciplinary practices of modern femininity and the way they shape the ideal feminine body, stitching patriarchy (excuse the pun) into the fabric of our comportment, presentation and self-identity. It is an excellent article and one that I think is still highly relevant. But one does get the sense that Bartky shares a suspicion about aesthetic concerns and their oppressive nature. In addition to dieting and the removal of “unnecessary hair”, Bartky comments on “the application of make-up and the selection of clothes”. Here she argues “art and discipline converge, though…there is less art involved than one might suppose”. Bartky focuses on the application of make-up and argues that “making up the face is in fact a highly stylised activity that gives little rein to self-expression”. And indeed, it may be true that if you turn up to work with a butterfly painted on your cheek, (however artfully), or a pirate’s eyepatch stencilled underneath your glasses, you’re probably going to get some funny looks, and perhaps be asked “whether everything is alright at home?” But does this argument so easily generalise to the selection of clothes? While the wearing of make-up may be, at least to some extent optional, the wearing of clothes is not.

If clothes are compulsory, is it even possible to not care what you look like? What would not caring be? Perhaps you could get your partner or colleague to buy all of your clothes for you and come around each morning and dress you. In the case of the latter, you’d probably be hard pressed to find someone to take on this task. In the case of the former, your partner may agree, but isn’t this a rather retrograde step, especially if it’s the woman doing the choosing and the man being chosen for, as it is in the majority of these set ups. At a more “trivial” level, what if you don’t like what they choose? If my partner deemed themselves too cerebral to choose their own clothes, I would deliberately go out of my way to find the most outlandish outfits I could, and then when they complained, smugly retort “but I thought you didn’t care what you wore”.

We project an image of ourselves through the clothes we wear. Contra Bartky, there is a genuine element of self-expression involved here. You say something about yourself with the way you dress, even if the thing you’re trying to say about yourself is that you don’t care. You can use clothes to stand out or to make a point. You can use clothes to make you feel more at ease, or to help you show the outside world how you feel on the inside. Wearing a particular type of attire in a particular situation can be a highly political act. Think of women wearing trousers for the first time; Muslim women choosing to wear, or not wear, the hijab; or a gender non-conforming person presenting in a gender non-conforming way through their choice of dress. We can say important things with our clothes. To dismiss concerns with dress and appearance as purely trivial matters is to completely overlook this point. Moreover, given that concerns with dress and appearance have typically been gendered as feminine, dismissing these concerns may be a way of continuing to uphold male norms in the academy and marginalise women by delineating what a real philosopher should look like, how they should behave, and what they should care about.

The truth is, it’s not that philosophers don’t care what they wear, it’s that they want to affect the appearance of not caring because it buys them intellectual capital. “Not caring” is just a different way of caring. In the world of philosophy “not caring” is the norm, so caring about what you wear and looking good, might actually be the more radical act.


Charlotte Knowles is an assistant professor, with a fabulous sense of style, working in the department of ethics, social and political philosophy at the University of Groningen. You can follow her on twitter @charknowlez.