Philosophy and Intellectual Home

by Lamija Grbic’ 17C
Undergraduate Humanities Honors Fellow

With the month of February coming to a close, I find myself looking ahead with anticipation on my last two months at Emory as well as reflecting on the past three and a half years as an undergraduate. It has been two months since I was invited to join the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry as an undergraduate fellow. This was an invitation I did not anticipate to receive, but I am truly grateful that I did receive it; my experience with the Center has provided me with a sense of intellectual home on campus and a community of support as I have explored the thrills and challenges of composing an extended piece of writing in philosophy.

I came to philosophy with a desire to ask questions about myself and our society—our knowledge, politics and relationships to nature and to each other—in ways which deconstruct these concepts and bring them out of our day-to-day experiences and into a realm of critical engagement. In this realm, we can investigate the functioning of such concepts—freedom, for instance—and trace its intellectual, political and social history. We can temporarily “suspend” (in the tradition of the phenomenologists) our concern about whether such concepts are “correct” or “what we should believe” and instead ask ourselves about what such concepts do for us. What is at stake in believing one thing and not another?

For me, the complementary process in this equation has always been to return to our day-to-day lives with a renewed understanding of the ideas we typically take for granted, or at the very least some excitement and willingness to engage with other aspects of our lives using a critical lens. My love of philosophy stems from my belief that there is always something more than meets the eye about the ways we organize our engagement with the world and that there is always room for mystery and wonder in discovering a previously overlooked aspect of our lives.

If all of this sounds a bit abstract (as philosophers tend to sound), I believe this might have less to do with the ostensible dichotomy between theory and practice and more with how we understand (indeed, theorize) philosophy itself. The notion that philosophy should be grounded in or speak to our day-to-day lives is often forgotten, not because this principle is foreign to philosophy but because we tend to view philosophy as an aim in itself rather than as one (of many) ways to approach life. Philosophy has helped me approach my own experiences in a critical way and has inculcated a sense of patient wonder that I have brought with me to multiple aspects of my life, including my academics, activism and work life.

It was this belief in the power of philosophy as a problem-solving approach that lead me to my thesis topic; in light of heightened Islamophobia in some western countries, I decided to examine representations of Muslim women in the United States and France. I wanted to investigate what types of discourse are being used to talk about Muslim women—specifically hijabi women, or women who wear the hijab. My findings have revealed that othering discourse arises not merely from openly Islamophobic factions motivated by hate, but by liberal-minded individuals and some feminists. Muslim hijabi women are deemed “oppressed” if they wear the hijab; should these women declare that wearing the hijab is their choice, they are deemed internally “oppressed” or contributing to their own gender oppression. The hijab as an object thus becomes infused with highly politicized meanings concerning what freedom is and more specifically what freedom looks like. Throughout the course of my project, I have attempted to grapple with how such characterizations of Muslim hijabi women arise as well as their effects on hijabi women as political subjects. Whose words count as truth if we systematically discount the perspectives of hijabi women as the voices of those who are oppressed by their religion and therefore incapable of making choices in their own lives?

In order to address some of these questions, I have drawn upon several philosophical disciplines, most notably psychoanalysis and phenomenology. Psychoanalysis seeks to map out the workings of the mind—and most importantly, the subconscious—while phenomenology (mentioned above) is concerned with studying how the world presents itself to our limited gazes, understanding that objects arise in our consciousness not in the way that they “are” in the world.  Rather, our perception of objects is mediated by our own positionalities in the world.  Through the course of my project, I have drawn upon feminist psychoanalysts such as Drucilla Cornell and contemporary women working in phenomenology, including Sara Al-Saji and Sara Ahmed. Having gathered these perspectives, I am currently working on developing an iteration of feminist solidarity, given the differences in the experiences of women from different racial, cultural and religious backgrounds as well as the history of western imperialism propagated against Muslim peoples. Overall, I hope to demonstrate the far-reaching nature of these colonial discourses, and to argue against any attempts by western and/or white feminists to define the experiences of Muslim hijabi women.

Researching, writing and thinking about these issues has been difficult, not only because of the challenging nature of writing in philosophy, but because this project has forced me to grapple with questions of power, audience, purpose and the extent of my own personal involvement with these questions. In sum, the experience of writing my thesis has been fraught with questions about what is at stake in this project and perhaps other projects in philosophy that I would like to pursue in the future. The Fox Center has been helpful in grounding (both intellectually and literally) my thoughts by providing me with a space in which I can organize my research materials and discuss issues such as academic responsibility in the current political climate with others. The weekly Fellows’ lunches have been especially rewarding as they have allowed me to learn about the research of graduate fellows in the Center and helped me imagine what it might be like to pursue philosophy at the graduate level.

My most formative experiences over the past three and a half years have occurred in community with others. Whether this has involved being mentored by graduate students or giving back through service and peer tutoring, my Emory experience has been largely defined by the intellectual homes I have found here.  As I undertake the personal and academic challenge of completing an honors thesis in philosophy, I am truly grateful to the Fox Center for serving as another home for me here at Emory.

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