Paying Attention, Place, and Female Philosophers

An Interview with Dr. Amber Bowen

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Amber Bowen, one of Redeemer’s newest professors. Seeing as she’s a philosophy professor, I naturally had to ask: “What brings you into philosophy?”


“My students will know this, because I always say philosophy is the practice of putting question marks where you usually put periods. You go through life with a lot of statements: ‘This is the way things are.’ ‘This is just normal.’ They become invisible in a sense; it’s just the way life is. When you start putting question marks on those things and interrogating them, it means you look at them differently, pay attention to them, and ask, ‘Why is it this way?’


“I think philosophy is tapping into a deep curiosity in the same way that you learn to love a European city by going around and looking at its particulars and paying attention. Paying attention is a form of love, actually. By cultivating attention to the world, [philosophy] is not meant to be argumentative or combative; ultimately, it’s means to cultivate a love for the world. And, I think, a love for God and a love for others.”


Dr. Bowen grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and went to a small liberal arts college there. She studied in a program called “History of Ideas.” (Think HUM-110 but amplified to be a full degree program.) 


“After I graduated college, I decided I wanted to do a two-year missionary term to have some experience overseas and figure out what was next for me. The missions agency, because of all my studies in philosophy, decided to send me to Western Europe, so I moved to Italy. I really immersed myself in the culture and the language. I didn’t speak Italian when I got there! I remember the day that I learned the word for bread—that’s how new I was. 


“I really loved it! I felt at home and loved my life there. It’s not what you see in the movies, but it was a good life, right? When my term ended, I just didn’t feel like it was time to go home. I prayed about it and asked God to open a door. It turns out that there was this private school right down the road from me that was for the upper-class—soccer players’ and politicians’ kids. They had a co-teaching position open for a mother-tongue, English speaker who had a background in philosophy. This person also had to speak fluent Italian, because the school was in Italian. It was this very niche thing that I happened to fit. I was hired there and stayed for another two-and-a-half years. It was amazing but challenging, and I found my hunger for philosophy was growing even more while I was there. 


“I had an old professor who said, ‘I feel like you’re trying to get your itch teaching high school philosophy, but I think you really want to go into the academy. Maybe consider moving back to the States and doing a Master’s that will likely set you up to do a Ph.D.’ He basically said, ‘Maybe I can actually resurrect that old dream for you.’ 


“I think that’s what professors should do: see something in their students and help call it forth. A lot of times we don’t do that for ourselves, and it takes someone else to say, ‘Hey, I see this in you. Consider it!’ So I moved back to the States and did a Master’s in philosophy of religion.


“Then, I got into the Ph.D. program at Aberdeen university in Scotland. I spent the second semester of my Ph.D. in Italy as a research fellow at the Gregorian in Rome. I was there for a very short time when I got a research fellowship in Northfield, Minnesota. That was quite a transition, from Rome to Minnesota.”


“I was in Minnesota for two years, and then COVID hit. I didn’t go back to Scotland. Instead, I went back to North Carolina and finished my dissertation in lockdown. I defended my dissertation in April of 2021, not too long ago. Then, I got the position at Redeemer and found myself moving up to Canada.”


Moving your life from one place to another is never easy. As someone with quite a bit of practice with it, Dr. Bowen has some experience with settling in and becoming familiar with a new place to call home.

“I would say that I know what to do to fall in love with a place quickly—what to look for, ways to see the beauty of the place and enjoy being in that space, even if I’m there temporarily. When I was a student, having a variety of experiences with travel and exploring like this was so formative for me. But by the time I finished my dissertation, I was really excited to just settle and grow roots in a place. When you’re all over the place, it’s great—you get to meet lots of people and have lots of experiences. But you don’t have deep roots, and that’s what Canada’s been for me.”


Dr. Bowen has already started doing this sort of paying attention in Hamilton—“planting roots.”


“I’ve enjoyed going down to different places and seeing what makes Hamilton a special place, paying attention to those things, and cultivating a kind of gratitude as a result of paying attention. Simone Vey, a female philosopher from around the World War II era, talks about how attention and love are very close together. Your attention sees the glory of a place, but it also confers dignity onto a place. ‘You’re worth my attention.’ It gives it value.”


She has a few strategies for making yourself familiar with a place. 


“My number one is actually food. If you’re from North America, don’t go find the nearest hamburger joint, wherever you are. Don’t go looking for replicas of the food that you have at home. Go and find what they do so well and what they’re proud of and what really is there. Cultures are often conveyed by food. My friends would try to bring stuff back from the U.S. to enjoy there and I’d just think, Let it go and just love what’s here.” 


Sometimes, you don’t even need to do anything in particular. 


“I think there’s something to be said for just going out and walking around, physically being in a place and looking around at the architecture, just being in awe of the particularities of the place. That cultivates an appreciation for it.”


In a male-driven discipline, Dr. Bowen is somewhat of an outlier. I asked her how being a woman affects her role in the philosophy world. 

“I tell this story pretty frequently, but when I was in my Master’s program, I was the only woman. All of my peers were men, and I was the only woman who had ever even been in that particular program. I remember walking in one day and the reading for that class was an article by a woman named Eleanore Stump—she’s a pretty famous concurrent philosopher. I walked in, and the guys asked, ‘Did you read the article? It was so good!’ One of them said, ‘Yeah, if I didn’t know better, I never would have guessed that it was written by a woman.’ This is sort of based on the idea that femininity equals fluff. Rigor is associated with males. For a woman to be able to do rigorous things, she has to lose her femininity, because it’s a contaminant to rigor. She has to try to sound male, and in some ways overcome that ‘handicap’. As a young student, it made me ask myself, ‘How do I think about myself as a woman?’ My theology was telling me that my femininity is a good thing. How does that work itself out?


“In my last year of my Master’s, I met an older female philosopher when she was speaking at an event. It was the first time I had ever seen a Christian, woman philosopher in person. She was delivering a lecture, and it blew the whole room away. It wasn’t just good and rigorous, it was insanely creative and insightful. I kept thinking, ‘Only a woman would have noticed and seen that.’ We have different embodied existences; I move around the world differently from the way that my brothers do. It means we have different vantage points and sensibilities, and it actually benefits the philosophical conversation when we bring that to the table. I know that a lot of what I contribute comes from the fact that I have a female experience.”


Having Dr. Bowen’s eye for beauty in philosophy in her students, and in the places she finds herself, is sure to be a gift for the Redeemer community throughout her time here.