Philosophical Discourses: Marianne Janack and the Liberal Arts

By Bailey DeSimone

The Phi Beta Kappa Society is shining light on advancements and studies in the field of philosophy through the recent awarding of the annual Romanell-Phi Beta Kappa Professorship.

Marianne Janack, the recipient of the 2017-2018 Romanell-Phi Beta Kappa Professorship, currently serves as the John Stewart Kennedy Professor of Philosophy at Hamilton College, where she teaches courses in the philosophy of multiple subjects, including science, the mind, feminist theory, and literature. She is also presently the Director of Hamilton College’s Levitt Center for Public Affairs.

Initially an English major, Janack describes her serendipitous discovery of philosophy as an undergraduate at Colgate University. “At Colgate, there was a first-year seminar program which listed the names of courses but didn’t identify the departments,” she recalls. “I found a course called ‘Genre of the Self’, which interested me mainly because I came into college wanting to pursue an English major. However, it turned out to be a philosophical autobiography course. From there on, I continued to sign up for philosophy courses. I loved them.”


Janack completed bachelor’s degrees in both philosophy and English at Colgate in 1986, but her love for philosophy determined the course of her career. “I must have read Descartes at least once a semester,” she fondly remembers. “He made me into a philosopher; he really made me think. Descartes had a way of analyzing things – making the ordinary appear complex. The ideas of identity and plurality always fascinated me.”

Following a two-year period working in admissions at Colgate, Janack decided to pursue her Ph.D. in philosophy at Syracuse University. She was appointed to the faculty at Hamilton College in 2001, where her work as an academic and an educator has flourished, garnering her numerous awards. “Hamilton is a small, private, liberal arts college,” Janack said. “There is so much freedom to learn and teach, and I can think of no better job.”


As the Romanell-Phi Beta Kappa professor, Janack will deliver a three-part public lecture series open to all at Hamilton and the community at large. In her lecture series, entitled “Metaphilosophical Investigations,” Janack tackles the alleged “uselessness” of the study and application of philosophy and offers a variety of inspirational vantage points in addressing the subject.


When asked about her inspiration for the lecture series, Janack gladly explains: “After hearing, ‘Why are you majoring in a subject that doesn’t directly translate into a job?’ or ‘Why are you studying something without any concrete answers or data?’ for so many years, I wanted to address the question, ‘What counts as useless?’ We don’t really know in advance what will be useful and what won’t be,” she said. “I was also inspired by Bertrand Russell’s ‘In Praise of Useless Knowledge’, which was an early criticism of the claim that philosophy was a ‘pointless’ field of study. But, why does everything have to be useful in advance? We make things useful through our own choices. And it’s important to recognize how much your choices make you and how much you make your choices.”

Janack’s three lectures are divided as follows: The Charges Against Philosophy; Philosophy as Literature/ Literature as Philosophy; Loneliness, Escape, Entertainment, and Writing.

“Follow the thing you love, and life will work itself out,” Janack confidently advises her students and the hundreds of thousands of other liberal arts and sciences scholars. “Liberal arts majors have the capability to learn a variety of translatable skills. Things have a way of working out. They do.”

Bailey DeSimone (ΦBK, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2017) is an Archives Intern with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a Library Assistant with the Council on Foreign Relations. At Chapel Hill, DeSimone majored in history and global studies. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is home to the Alpha of North Carolina Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.