Annette C. Baier

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Article abstract: Baier’s work in traditional philosophical fields demonstrated the worth of women philosophers, and her theory of “appropriate trust” created a middle ground between male and female values.

Early Life

In her preface to Moral Prejudices, Annette C. Baier commented on how fortunate she was to be born to parents who urged their daughters to pursue their interests, whatever they might be. She also expressed gratitude toward the high school English teacher who introduced her class to the Socratic method of inquiry, motivating her to become a philosopher. Although there were very few women in that field, Annette’s family encouraged her as did her philosophy professors at the University of Otago, where she enrolled in 1947.

After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy from the University of Otago, in 1952, Baier left her native country for Oxford University and began graduate work at Somerville, a prestigious college for women. There she came into contact with prominent philosophers Philippa Foot and Elizabeth Anscombe, who were quietly but firmly pressing for a greater presence of women’s voices in philosophical discourse. Foot was a leading opponent of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and of the Kantian tradition, which feminists saw as bolstering the male-dominated power structure. Baier, too, came to reject Kantian ideas and to embrace those of Kant’s contemporary, the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, who seemed to be more supportive of feminism.

At Oxford, Baier’s faith in the possibility of a universal moral system based on reason, of which she had become convinced after reading the classical philosophers, was gradually replaced by a profound skepticism. In 1953, when she read the Philosophische Untersuchungen/Philosophical Investigations (1953, bilingual German and English edition) of the Austrian/British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Baier began to wonder whether she had chosen the right discipline, for she saw that if philosophical analysis was impossible, as Wittgenstein suggested, there could hardly be any future for a philosopher.

It would be years before Baier found the answers she sought, and then, as she explains in the preface to Postures of the Mind: Essays on Mind and Morals, they came through interaction with students and through careful rereading of Wittgenstein and Hume. After receiving a B.Phil. from Oxford in 1954, Baier returned to New Zealand, became a teacher, and began to rethink everything she had been taught. From 1956 to 1958, she held a position as lecturer at the University of Auckland in New Zealand; the following year, she taught at the University of Sydney.

Baier married another philosopher who would also attain prominence, Kurt Erich Maria Baier. Kurt Baier was an Austrian-born Australian, who, after studying law in Vienna, had received a B.A. and an M. A. from the University of Melbourne and a D.Phil. from Oxford. When he left Australia to join the philosophy faculty at the University of Pittsburgh, Annette Baier followed him. As a result, her own academic career suffered, for as a married woman academic who had taken her husband’s name and accompanied him to the United States, she was perceived as being, if not indifferent to advancement in her profession, at least readily available for exploitation.

From 1963 to 1969, Baier taught at Carnegie Mellon University, first as a part-time lecturer, then as a senior lecturer, and finally as associate professor. In 1973, she joined the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh. She was to remain there throughout the rest of her academic career, first as associate professor, then as professor, and finally as Distinguished Service Professor.

Life’s Work

In dedicating Postures of the Mind to her parents, Baier recognized how important...

(This entire section contains 2394 words.)

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their encouragement had been to her. She frequently comments on the support received from her husband and her colleagues, who are often credited in her notes with helping her to refine her ideas. However, Baier merits high praise for her own determination. It took a long time for her to attain the recognition she deserved. By the timePostures of the Mind appeared, the author was in her fifties, and even though almost all of the essays in her book had been published previously, none of them had appeared in print before 1976.

During the years after her arrival in the United States, Baier had not only been seeking an academic home but had also been working on Wittgenstein, Hume, and her own approach to ethics. Meanwhile, she had become increasingly active in her profession, not only teaching but also reading papers at conferences and submitting essays for publication in scholarly journals. To cite some examples, her article “Act and Intent” appeared in a 1970 issue of Journal of Philosophy, “The Search for Basic Actions,” in a 1971 issue of American Philosophical Quarterly, and “Ways and Means,” in 1972 in Canadian Journal of Philosophy. However, these early essays were not included in Postures of the Mind, partly because of space limitations but, more important, according to the author, because when she looked back at these early efforts, she realized that although her conclusions were still the same, there were some radical changes in the way she arrived at them.

By 1976, however, Baier felt comfortable about what she thought and why she thought it. The title of a paper published that year in the Philosophical Quarterly and reprinted in Postures of the Mind exudes a new assurance: It is called simply “Realizing What’s What.” In 1976, one of her essays was selected to appear in an edited work; “Intention, Practical Knowledge, and Representation,” which Baier had read in 1975 at the Winnipeg Conference on Action Theory, was included in From Action Theory, edited by M. Brand and D. Walton. This essay constitutes the third chapter of Postures of the Mind.

In the preface to that volume, Baier admits that her choice of discipline was doubtless influenced by her habit of challenging anything that someone else says is incontrovertibly true. The essays in Postures of the Mind, she explains, were written over a period of some ten years, during which she was “liberating” herself from the ideas she had acquired during her years of study. More specifically, Postures of the Mind was inspired by a discussion of “particles” in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, by the English philosopher John Locke, in which it was suggested that one should not view particles, or atoms, separately, but as they are connected to others. In her essays, Baier rejects not only the belief that atoms can be examined individually, as the British empiricists held, but also the Kantian notion that there are universal laws governing the behavior of atoms.

Postures of the Mind is divided into two sections. In the first, “Varieties of Mental Postures,” Baier considers Wittgenstein’s ideas as to cultural influences on thought and behavior and explores at length such matters as emotion and memory. In the second section, the author points out what she sees as the weaknesses in Kant’s philosophy and the strengths in that of Hume. Baier parts from Wittgenstein when she rejects religion, advocating instead a purely secular faith, based on trust in human beings and in the development of the human community.

It is evident from the many responses to Baier in scholarly journals that she was now considered a Hume scholar who should not be ignored. However, one reason she was so interested in Hume was that she saw in him support for feminism. After pondering the psychologist Carol Gilligan’s book In a Different Voice (1982), Baier had become convinced that any ethical system must take into account essential differences in gender. In her own essay, “Hume, the Women’s Moral Theorist?,” published in Women and Moral Theory (1987), edited by Eva Kittay and Diana T. Meyers and later reprinted as a chapter in Moral Prejudices, Baier stated some of the ideas that she would amplify in her next book, A Progress of Sentiments: Reflections on Hume’s Treatise. As an analytic feminist, Baier refuses to reject either the traditional analytic method as rational and therefore male and to discard all the male philosophers of the past as being hopelessly sexist. Instead, she believes that if a woman looks carefully and analytically at the works of some of these male philosophers, she may discover in them perceptions in accordance with feminine wisdom that have hitherto gone unremarked. Thus when Hume insists that morality must be derived from such human emotions as sympathy and compassion rather than from cold reason, Baier sees him as supporting the validity of a feminist approach to ethics.

A Progress of Sentiments aroused considerable controversy in the academic world. Baier’s new and highly original interpretation of Hume was acknowledged as a real contribution to Hume scholarship, and some scholars agreed with many of the ideas she advanced, for example, that Hume sees the human reason as gradually developing from preoccupation with abstract theory to a more useful interest in morality. However, many expressed reservations about her conclusions, for instance, her insistence that Hume effectively discarded reason in favor of passion as a basis for ethics. Others rejected her analysis, sometimes rather cavalierly dismissing it as a feminist reading.

In her third major work, Moral Prejudices: Essays on Ethics, Baier brought together a number of her lectures and some previously published essays. Although Hume is the subject of two of them, the fact that in the titles of these chapters he is referred to as a candidate for “the Women’s Moral Theorist” and “the Reflective Women’s Epistemologist” indicate that the primary emphasis in this volume was not on the interpretation of Hume but on feminist ethical theory.

In 1998, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences chose Baier as one of four in the philosophy and theology category to be elected a fellow of the academy. Forty-four years had passed since she left Oxford and began to reevaluate all that she had been taught. Finally, however, she had been recognized for her achievements not only as a Hume scholar but also as one of the major women philosophers of the late twentieth century.


When Baier’s mentors at Somerville College called for women’s voices to be heard in philosophy, they could not have had any idea that their student would some day be considered so important. Instead of taking the easier route to fame by discarding tradition and approaching philosophy from a strictly feminine point of view, she mastered the analytical techniques that men had long considered their own property. Baier’s study of Hume, then, not only demonstrated her own scholarly skills but also proved that women were as capable of analysis as men. Along with other analytical feminists, Baier refused to reject the entire philosophical tradition as too sexist to be worth considering and instead worked to redeem it by rereading important works and, where it seemed useful, by reinterpreting them.

Baier’s theory of “appropriate trust” has also influenced the course of ethical thought by seeking a middle ground between the male emphasis on justice, order, and obligation and such feminine values as love, caring, and nurturing. Thus, unlike more radical feminists, Baier sees no point in confrontation between the genders but hopes to find a basis for compromise.

Finally, it will probably never be known how much Baier has influenced her students, her readers, and the young women who may follow in her footsteps. By daring to enter a male-dominated discipline, by courageously working through the difficulties inherent in the role of an academic wife, and by rising to all the intellectual challenges with which she was presented, she has proven herself to be the kind of woman whom everyone can respect and in whom women can take great pride.

Additional Reading

Code, Lorraine. What Can She Know?: Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. Much of the third chapter of this volume is devoted to an interpretation of Baier’s concept of “second personhood” and to a comparison of her view to the ideas advanced by philosophers Caroline Whitbeck and Sara Ruddick. A good summary of Baier’s position on this important issue.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. A landmark study of gender differences from a psychologist’s point of view, suggesting that while men see justice as the foundation of morality, women base their ethical judgments on sympathy, or caring. One of the major influences on Baier and other feminist philosophers.

Gowans, Christopher W. “After Kant: Ventures in Morality Without Respect for Persons.” Social Theory and Practice 22 (Spring, 1996): 105-129. In this critical discussion of works by Baier and Michael Philips, the author defends Immanuel Kant and argues for the concept of autonomy, which Baier rejected. According to the author, in Moral Prejudices, Baier not only fails to do justice to Kant, but her feminist reading of Hume also is open to question. This thoughtful essay is a useful summary of the main points raised by Baier’s critics.

Held, Virginia, ed. Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics. New York: Westview Press, 1995. Eleven essays on feminist issues fill this volume. Baier’s “The Need for More than Justice” gains a new significance when read along with related works, some of which disagree sharply with her point of view. A helpful index directs readers to specific references to Baier in essays by other writers. The editor’s brief but pithy introduction is a good starting point for the study of the ethical theory controversy among women philosophers.

Tong, Rosemarie. Feminine and Feminist Ethics. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1993. A lucid, well-organized volume. After four chapters on the historical and theoretical background to feminist ethics, the author discusses the major writers in the field, explaining each writer’s theories and outlining their opponents’ arguments. In the chapter “Feminist Approaches to Ethics,” the author presents the ideas of Alison Jaggar, Sheila Mullett, and Susan Sherwin before turning to Baier and her concept of appropriate trust. Objections to the theories advanced by these writers are then summarized. Includes index.

Walker, Margaret Urban. Moral Understandings: A Feminist Study in Ethics. New York: Routledge, 1998. Finds traditional, maternal approaches to ethics very different from those of feminists or lesbians. There are many references to Baier, and a passage from Moral Prejudices is used as the epigraph to one chapter. Five of Baier’s books are listed in the bibliography. Perceptive and readable. Has a full index.