Living Philosophically: A Conversation with Dr. Lisa Guenther

by Rachel Robinson

Welcome back! I hope everyone had a restful winter break, and are re-energized for this new semester. As we begin to get back to work, it’s helpful to remember that philosophy is a way of being engaged in the world. To that end, young philosophers such as ourselves can look to people who are socially and politically active in their own communities, such as Dr. Lisa Guenther.

In November, one of our speaker series featured prominent philosopher Dr. Lisa Guenther, Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University and author of the books, The Gift of the Other: Levinas And The Politics of Reproduction and Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives. After her presentation on solitary confinement, I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Guenther about her experiences as a socially and politically active philosopher. As you may recall, the first blog piece was about philosophy as a conversation about the world. Dr. Guenther is therefore an exemplary model of someone whose engagement with philosophy extends beyond the so-called Ivory Tower of academia, and is instead highly active in her own community.

The terms “public intellectual” and “social philosopher” are resisted by some and embraced by others. I believe that these phrases evoke an individual who uses their philosophical knowledge and research to contribute to their social and political environments. It is with this view in mind that I do not hesitate to suggest that Dr. Guenther is a social philosopher. As the focus of Dr. Guenther’s current work is on solitary confinement, she has served on ethics committees, contributed to podcasts on the CBC and volunteers at a penitentiary in Nashville, TN.

When I asked Dr. Guenther whether she felt a responsibility to be engaged in her community, the response I received was highly Levinasian and therefore quite compelling. Dr.  Guenther explained, “due to the nature of my research [on solitary confinement], I felt an ethical obligation to be in conversation with people in prison. This led me to volunteer to facilitate a discussion group at a local prison. The unit where the prison chaplain placed me is a death row unit, so this raised the stakes of the conversation.” She states that, “I don’t write about the men in our group! My work on solitary confinement is based on interviews, etc. done by anthropologists, psychologists, etc. The discussion group is something different: a group for conversation, collaboration, and support. I did write one blog post about my experience in the discussion group, but I try to maintain a (semi-permeable) boundary between my writing ABOUT prisons and my collaboration WITH prisoners:  http://www.newappsblog.com/2013/01/reading-plato-on-death-row.html.”

Dr. Guenther is an advocate for finding a balance between the philosophical conversation and concrete action. Rather than abandoning the philosophical conversation, there is an enhanced need for striking a middle ground between thinking and doing. Dr. Guenther’s insight is invaluable for young philosophers. How do we find the balance between reading our philosophy texts, and actually engaging with the world around us?

Furthermore, with whom can we have philosophical conversations? How do we make our research more accessible to those outside the field? Part of Dr. Guenther’s volunteer work at the penitentiary involves a reading group with inmates. I wonder about the conversations that take place during that time, and how interesting it must be to discuss philosophy and literature with people who have vastly different educational and economic backgrounds. Perhaps part of living an examined life means that we need to re-evaluate what it means to do philosophy, and how we can use our interests and skills to play an active part in the world in which we live.

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