Alison Simmons

A woman in a blue shirt smiling.

Alison Simmons  |  Photograph by Jim Harrison

During nighttime childhood car rides, Alison Simmons would take off her glasses and watch the traffic lights turn from discrete shapes into blurry streaks, like stars shooting across the highway. The difference in her perception “made me aware that we’re not being given access to the world through clear windowpanes,” says the Wolcott professor of philosophy. “Our bodies are affecting the way the world is presented to us.” Simmons, the first in her family to go to college, didn’t see herself studying these ideas at a place like Harvard: during high school, when she visited campus with friends, “I couldn’t walk through Johnston Gate. I felt like I didn’t belong here.” But her teachers encouraged her to take academics seriously—and she eventually wound up in graduate school. There, she focused mostly on Descartes and “big questions about what it means to be a minded thing.” More recently, she’s looked outside the canon to explore those questions, to philosophers like Margaret Cavendish, who rejected Descartes’s conception of the mind and body as separate—and argued that “everything, including this table, the stuff the table is made of, is sentient.” Simmons also considers how philosophical ideas relate to other fields: how understandings of mind, for example, shape how medical professionals distinguish between life and death. To encourage such interdisciplinary thinking, she helped develop Embedded EthiCS, which incorporates ethical training into computer science classes. Though her intellectual toolbox has expanded, the car remains an important space for reflection. Once, as a graduate student, she began to think while driving about the visual cues that enable us to experience the world in three dimensions—“and suddenly, the world in front of me just collapsed into two dimensions,” she says. She pulled over and thought: “‘Okay, I need to stop thinking about this.’”

Read more articles by Nina Pasquini

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