Department of Philosophy

DEPARTMENT OF

Philosophy

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In the past few years, the Department of Philosophy has added a number of permanent faculty. We're introducing them one by one through short interviews (see this earlier interview with Daryn Lehoux). Today we meet Lisa Guenther.

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How did you become interested in philosophy? And then what happened to make you realize that you were on the path to becoming a philosopher?

I was a moody teenager drawn to Deep Thoughts, which I tried to cultivate by reading poetry in tidy suburban playgrounds, wishing they were overgrown gothic graveyards. I remember taking the bus to school one day with my friend Miri, and she mentioned that her parents had a friend visiting from out of town who was a philosopher. My first thought was, “That’s not even possible! All the philosophers are dead!” But then my second thought was, “What if they aren’t?”

I was the first person in my family to go to university, and I wanted to study everything. But I soon realized that if you didn’t choose a discipline, the institution didn’t really know what to do with you, so I decided on a double major in cccPhilosophy and English. I wrote an honour’s thesis on the ethics of place in Plato’s Phaedrus, inspired by a weekly Plato reading group at Bishop’s University, where we read the dialogues aloud and discussed them line by line. My initial plan was to do graduate work on ancient Greek philosophy and tragic drama, but through a series of twists and turns, I ended up writing about Levinas, feminism, and the ethical significance of birth.

I’m not sure when I started on the path of becoming a philosopher, but I think for me, it’s always been a matter of responding to place, or to a particular situation. A casual conversation with someone on the bus can change everything, making the unthinkable thinkable.

You have a joint appointment at Queen’s University in Philosophy and Cultural Studies, and you do engaged work on prisons and incarceration. What practical advice would you give students who want to combine philosophy with other areas?

This is a bit tricky because the academic norms of our discipline tend to oppose the theoretical to the practical, and to prioritize the former over the latter. So for students who want to stay in academia, the standard advice has been to develop expertise in a particular sub-field and to hold off on any major commitments to activism or community engagement until after tenure. But it’s hard to sustain very abstract theoretical work in philosophy if what moves you to think is an urgent problem or question in the world. And even on a pragmatic level, it’s increasingly difficult to find an academic job in a narrow sub-field unless you can also show that your scholarship has “real world” impact.

So my advice is to work on an issue that you find genuinely important, and to engage with the ideas and texts that you find most fruitful for opening up or sustaining possibilities for thought and action, even if these resources are not currently part of the standard philosophical canon—but also to anchor yourself in at least one philosophical method or tradition that will make you legible to other scholars in the discipline. This is slow and sometimes frustrating work, so it’s important to be patient with yourself, and to resist the impulse to rush and do everything at once.

Did you follow your own advice?

My own practice of community engagement did not emerge until I began my second tenure-track position at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. This delay was not for strategic reasons; it was more a matter of responding to the situation in which I found myself, and trying to figure out what this situation demanded of me. I ended up working on prison issues in response to racial and economic segregation in Nashville. I was lucky enough to encounter the scholarship and activism of Angela Davis, who taught me about the role of the prison industrial complex in perpetuating the logics of slavery and Jim Crow, but it took a while for me to figure out what I could contribute to these conversations.

First, I had to do my homework by reading everything I could find on the relation between slavery, racism, and incarceration. There was a striking gap in the philosophical canon on the issues, so I turned to the work of critical race scholars, geographers, political theorists, and ethnographers, as well as the memoirs and testimonies of people with a lived experience of incarceration. At a certain point, I realized that I could only learn so much from the written word; I needed to be accountable to people in prison, both for ethical reasons and also because my own knowledge was limited to an outsider’s perspective. I ended up facilitating a discussion group with men on Tennessee’s death row called REACH Coalition, and also working with activist organizations like No Exceptions Prison Collective. I have never wanted to turn my community engagement into research material for my own scholarship, but there are so many ways that this work beyond the academy has informed my philosophical analysis of prisons, both in terms of the sort of questions I ask and the range of responses that I find compelling.

Now that I’m in Kingston, I’m beginning this process from scratch again. What makes Kingston the prison capital of Canada? How does settler colonialism shape the Canadian prison system? How does Canada’s own history of slavery impact current practices of state violence? What does it mean to live and work on a former prison farm? What sort of prison activism is already happening here, and what could I contribute to these movements, given my specific capacities and limits?

So I guess this advice is for myself as well as for others: Listen, learn, and be patient. When you feel like you’re losing yourself in abstraction or spreading yourself too thinly in community engagement, return to the questions that move you and the responses that excite you, knowing that even the smallest conversations matter.

Can phenomenology help to make the world a better place? How?

Yes and no. I understand phenomenology as a philosophical practice of reflecting on the structures that make our lived experience of the world possible and meaningful. It’s all about attending to the relationships that constitute “the world” as such. This, in itself, does not necessarily “make the world a better place,” but it does help us to see what kind of place the world is: not just a container or backdrop for human activity, but a dynamic web of relationships that make us who we are as relational, situated Being-in-the-world. This perspective can, in turn, help us to see where the pivot-points are for acting collectively to build or dismantle different sorts of relationships, which really can change the world as we know it.

You once lived in an isolated cabin in the North. Where was it? Would you go back? Do you think that your philosophical work is improved more by having time to yourself or having people to talk with?

When I was writing my PhD dissertation, I lived in a cabin in the Yukon with my partner at the time and our dog. The cabin was quite isolated—no phone, electricity, or running water, and no neighbours for about 3km—but it was only a 30 minute drive from Whitehorse, so I went into town at least once a week. Living in a cabin did give me more time to think and write in a focused way, without the constant distraction of email and administrative meetings. But I learned just as much, if not more, from my conversations with people and from a closer relationship to the land, to light, and to the other living beings I encountered in the woods or on the river. In the Yukon, I had a wonderful community of philosophers in the broad sense of the word—people who were deeply thoughtful and reflective about their own experience—so it wasn’t really a matter of solitude vs community.

If readers of this interview were to pick up one of your articles or books tomorrow, which would you want it to be, and why?

Hmm... I’m not sure. I guess my book on solitary confinement, maybe the final three chapters. I learned a lot by writing this book, and I continue to learn from the way other people read and respond to it.

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