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Baier, Annette (1929–)


Annette Baier was born in New Zealand in 1929. She received her bachelor of arts and master of arts degrees from the University of Otago, and, in 1954, her bachelor of philosophy degree from Oxford, writing a thesis on precision in poetry under J. L. Austin. After teaching in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia, Baier moved to the United States, teaching first at Carnegie Mellon and then at the University of Pittsburgh from 1973 until her retirement as Distinguished Service Professor in 1997.

Baier's primary commitment is to naturalism: Human beings are evolved animals and we must understand our capacities, both intellectual and moral, in the light of this natural history. Baier finds philosophers guilty of a kind of willful forgetting of the facts of our embodied existence. We are social animals who experience long periods of dependency in infancy and childhood, and even the more or less symmetric dependencies of maturity are liable to become asymmetric with age or, in some cases, illness. Baier's work charts the implications of our interdependency for epistemology, ethics, and action theory.

Epistemology is a social enterprise. In David Hume, Baier finds the resources to develop a feminist epistemology that recognizes the positive contribution of emotions to knowledge, and that recognizes that all inquiry is fallible and situated, beginning, as it must, from the "prejudices" of tradition and custom. Beliefs, attitudes, and practices that withstand reflective scrutiny merit continued allegiance; those that do not must be abandoned. Baier's account of reflection is distinctive for both its anti-intellectualism and anti-individualism. Reflection is carried out by a community of inquirers embracing many differing perspectives and, rather than being the sole province of intellect, reflection uses all the capacities of the human mind, including affective capacities such as sympathy. These capacities are capable of being turned on themselves and on our habits and customs and we can come to achieve "reflective self-acceptance, agreement with ourselves" (1994b, p. 277). Reflection reveals the importance of judgment. Rules are of limited use in guiding either practical or theoretical judgment; hence Baier's anti-theory stance. In ethics, this anti-theory stance takes the form of suspicion about the possibility of capturing morality in a set of rules. Such systemizing drives are to be replaced by careful exploration of the capacities that enable virtuous action.

In keeping with her emphasis on reflection, Baier proposes a reflective test for evaluating moralities: "a decent morality will not depend for its stability on forces to which it gives no moral recognition. Its account books should be open to scrutiny and there should be no unpaid debts, no loans with no prospect of repayment" (1994a, p. 8). Baier argues that liberal morality, with its focus on contractual relations and voluntarily assumed obligations, takes as paradigmatic the interactions between equals or near-equals and so is unable to pass this test. It depends on the unacknowledged moral labor of those producing future moral agents, a labor it cannot itself theorize. Had ethical theory begun from the perspective of those, chiefly women, engaged in such labor, relations between unequals would have come into focus, thus revealing the importance of trust.

Baier's work is largely responsible for the recent upsurge of interest in trust, not just among philosophers, but also among social scientists. She finds trust to bridge the traditional divisions between the cognitive, affective and conative: Trust has a distinctive feel, typically involves a tacit belief in the other's goodwill and competence, and explains the truster's willingness to let others get dangerously near things she cares about. According to Baier, trust, though instrumental to many human goods and a constitutive part of others (for example, friendship), is not a virtue. Nor is untrustworthiness always a vice: Misplaced trust enables exploitation and abuse and sometimes trust is best responded to with judicious betrayals of trust.

Our interdependence also has implications for our understanding of persons and their actions. We are inducted into the "arts of personhood" by others: "Persons essentially are second persons who grow up with other persons" (1985, p. 84). It is through being addressed and addressing other second personsthrough, that is, coming to master the pronoun "you"that we come to have self-consciousness. Baier rejects as reductive moves to identify bodily movements or volitions as "basic actions" (actions that are directly done rather than done by doing anything else) and argues that actions can be identified as intentional only given background assumptions of culturally dependent competences. She finds accounts of personhood that focus on a narrow range of properties such as autonomy, dignity, and the capacity to make evaluative judgments guilty of wilfully forgetting our biological nature. She substitutes in their stead a conception of ourselves as "intelligent, talkative, playful mammals" (1991, p. 13) whose personhood comprises many capacities, both cognitive and affective. All these capacities are to be recruited in doing philosophy, which, following Hume, is to use "all the capacities of the human mind: memory, passion and sentiment as well as a chastened intellect" (1994b, p. 1). Her own writing style, with its rich use of anecdote, association, playfulness, and irony, enacts as well as argues for a philosophy informed by passion and experience.

See also Analytic Feminism; Austin, John Langshaw; Emotion; Feminist Epistemology; Hume, David; Metaethics; Naturalism; Women in the History of Philosophy.


works by annette baier

Postures of the Mind: Essays on Mind and Morals. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

"A Naturalist View of Persons." Presidential Address Delivered before the Eighty-Seventh Annual Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association in Boston, MA. Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 65 (1991): 517.

Moral Prejudices. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994a.

A Progress of Sentiments: Reflections on Hume's Treatise. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994b.

The Commons of the Mind: Carus Lectures 19. Chicago: Open Court, 1997.

works about annette baier

Jenkins, Joyce, Jennifer Whiting, and Christopher Williams, eds. Persons and Passions: Essays in Honor of Annette Baier. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.

Karen Jones (2005)

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