Shannon Hoff

Shannon Hoff is associate professor of philosophy at Memorial University, having previously worked at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto and at Muskingum College in Ohio. She grew up in southern Ontario, went to Calvin College in Michigan for her BA, and earned her PhD at Stony Brook University. She is author of The Laws of the Spirit: A Hegelian Theory of Justice, and has published in the areas of political philosophy, feminism, and the tradition of European philosophy more broadly. She is currently working on a book on feminism but is finding herself distracted by a recently hatched idea of writing a philosophy book on art. She teaches courses in phenomenology, political philosophy, moral philosophy, Hegel, philosophy and literature, and feminism, with special emphasis on the history of philosophy. She has a delightful young son, likes to travel to far-away places like India and Turkey to give talks, and occasionally sings in an avant-garde country music band.

What first sparked your interest in philosophy?

I grew up in a self-enclosed Christian community: we went to the local Christian school and played sports against other Christian schools; we went to church twice on Sundays; we went to catechism class on Wednesday nights, and so on. Even though the environment sometimes discouraged critical reflection, the tradition was actually quite intellectual, and I was encouraged to think for myself. While I didn’t know what philosophy was while in high school, I was actually engaged in philosophical thinking all the time—in the form basically of ethics and theology. I was bothered by the hypocrisy of some of the people around me and trying to work out how, for instance, if God was good and loving, the critical stance and exclusionary attitudes of many of the Christians I knew made any sense, or how it made any sense that women weren’t allowed to take the same positions in the church as men, if what mattered to God was an issue of the state of one’s conscience and if I and many of the girls and women around me were extremely competent. I think the main thing I was working out in those days was the relationship between understanding and compassion: if people and their situations were understood well, we would be more compassionate toward them than we actually are. For some reason I was always centrally motivated by problems of injustice, and thinking philosophically about what people are like and what they need and want was the best way for me to figure out answers to these problems.

I actually went to university intending to be a theatre major, but found the social pressures of that context alienating, and I realized that I liked talking about and interpreting the meaning of the plays I was involved with better than acting. Insofar as it was an interest in creative thinking about human situations, my interest in literature naturally merged into an interest in philosophy.

How has your own experience influenced your academic career?

I’ve always been predisposed toward political philosophy, and that has something to do, I think, with the sense of frustration I experienced as a young person in the face of people who seemed profoundly unjust, who seemed arbitrary in their assumption of authority and their use of power, who could never have provided satisfactory reasons for why they acted the way they did or for why they saw themselves to be superior over others. That’s partly why I like philosophy: it insists that we not be arbitrary, that we have and give good reasons for thinking and acting the way we do, that we not let ourselves “get away with” stuff. In that way it basically requires a moral stance: the demand to be reasonable is a demand to not favour yourself or others for arbitrary reasons. People can of course use philosophy to exercise power, but that’s really not consistent with the spirit of philosophy.

On a related note, I experienced a lot of sexism growing up, and that was definitely formative. It was as though my relationship to my experience couldn’t be immediate, but was always being interrupted by an arbitrary consideration. While as a child or a young person I would throw myself into activities and into the world, other people would put the brakes on that immediate engagement because of the fact that I was a girl. This led me to a critical engagement with the “ways of the world” and a desire to expose their arbitrariness and injustice. Studying philosophy in university was similar: I felt that I was forced to address gender issues while studying philosophy, to recognize that to make an inroad into philosophy I had to reckon with its lack of neutrality in relation to the gender question. While I came to a deep appreciation of the philosophical tradition, I always at the same time found myself needing to reckon with the personal, gender-related obstacles I experienced as in the way of my engagement with it. That has resulted in a career and a research trajectory that have always to some extent been engaged in problems of political and social exclusion and hierarchy, specifically in the area of gender but also more broadly.

Finally, my upbringing was characterized by a focus on critical thinking and creative expression, which contributed deeply to my academic orientation. My parents and the specific church we attended were (in principle at least) committed to the central commitment of the Reformation: the importance of conscience, of coming to terms on one’s own with what is of ultimate significance. That cultivated philosophical habits in me: it wasn’t enough that something was “widely accepted”; rather, it had to be acceptable to me because of good reasons. And my family was always engaged in making music and reading, creative activities from which philosophy seems to extend naturally, insofar as it takes a lot of creativity to think things through philosophically, and insofar as philosophy has to account for the constantly transforming character of reality which is so clearly manifest in artistic practice.

What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever found yourself in the course of your research?

In a guesthouse on a university campus in the outskirts of Pondicherry, India. We were dropped off at the guesthouse in the early evening when it was already very dark and, when we asked about the possibility of going to the town proper, we were told that it was too dangerous as there were too many snakes on the road. The room was a cement block and the toilet had a frog in it, and we had to sit there with nothing to do for hours. It’s quite funny to think about now, but it meant I never did get to see the town of Pondicherry!

What are you currently working on?

I currently have a 180-page draft of a book manuscript. It’s a book on feminism, and it uses what I think of as the most important ideas of the philosophical tradition—from Hegel, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Marx, and Plato—to think through some of the empirical issues facing women and the theoretical issues facing feminism. The first part is an account of how ordinary adult experience unfolds for us as embodied beings in the world with others. I address the basic issues of personal life that coincide with issues of feminist concern: the significance of appearance, the experience of sexual interaction, and the experience of not being counted or acknowledged because of aging or gender “transgression.” The second part is recuperative, analyzing what has shaped our everyday experience in the past: specifically, formative, interpersonal situations with their gendered expectations regarding behaviour. The third part analyzes the impersonal domains that situate our development even as they stand “behind the scenes”—the operation of nature; basic social and political arrangements; and the need for sustenance that compels economic activity—since in each of these domains sexual difference has been profoundly relevant. The final part addresses our experience beyond these familiar environments; here I grapple with feminism’s relation to other political movements (in the spirit of what’s been called “intersectionality”) and with the gendered character of access to activities defined essentially by freedom—art, orientation to “the absolute,” and contemplation.

I’m also contemplating a book that interprets artworks to talk about the philosophical ideas I think are most powerful and interesting. Each of these books—the one on feminism and the one on art—aims to be readable by more than just scholars of philosophy.

What has been the biggest success to date for you personally?

I’m not sure about that. I hope next year to say that it was getting two SSHRC grants in one year! I wrote a book, though I would do it better this time around. I suppose that recently I’ve written a set of articles that talks about pressing contemporary political issues by using significant ideas in Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida, respectively. That’s the kind of work I like most to do—translate powerful resources in the philosophical tradition for the sake of consideration of where we are in our time and what we struggle with—and I’m quite happy with that work.

What is your philosophy in regards to research?

I believe that close study of the core philosophical texts of the tradition is the most fulfilling and demanding philosophical activity, and that it is most effective when it can be done with other people who are good at communicating with each other about those texts. Research in philosophy, while it ultimately takes the form of a person on her own writing down her own thoughts, can actually be quite a collective activity, but it depends on participants developing good habits of communication and interaction. So my sense is that good research is supported by good communication, and I try to foster that communication both in my students by teaching class well and in my professional colleagues by writing well. I also believe that profound ideas can be clearly communicated, and that they can speak to anyone’s experience, and I aim in my research to do that: to communicate clearly and to speak to people’s experience.

What sort of impact do you hope your research will have?

I hope it will have impact in terms of content but also in terms of form: that is, I think philosophical writing should be clearer than it usually is, and it should speak to issues of substance relevant not only for a small, scholarly audience (even though it’s perfectly legitimate to write for a small set of scholars). I have a few goals with regard to content: I hope to empower people to see, for instance, how powerful and useful Hegel’s ideas are; I hope to contribute a unique perspective to charged political debates around issues like multiculturalism, intercultural communication, the relationship between different kinds of political movements, individual rights, and so on; I hope to help people meaningfully engage with art.

How do you feel your work is helping to boost Memorial’s national and international reputation?

I am currently organizing a conference that will take place at Memorial from May 9 to 11 of this year—the annual meeting of philoSOPHIA, a society dedicated to the study of feminism in the European philosophical tradition. Feminist scholars from all over North America will be descending on St. John’s for that event and will be able to witness what we are doing here. This year’s meeting is dedicated primarily to discussion of decolonization and feminism, and I am applying for a SSHRC Connection Grant for the meeting that will also support a follow-up event one year later and provide enough momentum to make the event an annual one, in the interest of inspiring people to think of Memorial as a kind of hub for feminist and decolonial issues. I have also taken on significant service roles outside of the university that I hope bring visibility to the department and the university: I was recently the President of the Canadian Society for Continental Philosophy; I serve on the Executive Committee of philoSOPHIA; I am Assistant Director of the Toronto Summer Seminar, an annual research seminar supporting ongoing study of the most important texts in the history of philosophy. I also give a lot of talks in other departments and at conferences, giving exposure to Memorial thereby.

How is this research helping address the needs and opportunities for our province?

I believe that philosophical research of the sort I engage in is absolutely essential to our contemporary world, but not for what we typically think of as our needs. The humanities, including philosophy, focus on the thing that is unfolding at every moment of our lives: our experience. The arts, for instance, present visions of experience to us and give us enriching experiences; philosophy thinks about what that experience is basically like and helps us figure out how we should live it. If we think about that experience and study the experiences that are displayed to us, we also become more empowered to make good judgements about our own lives. While the popular tendency is to think that philosophy is impractical, in fact it addresses the most practical questions we have: what is the nature of our existence and how should we live it? To be able to be involved with something like philosophy is to be empowered to answer to what is most essentially human: our ability to engage with meaning, to cultivate lives that give us access to meaning, to have the freedom to pursue questions above and beyond our material survival, to juggle wisely our many desires and priorities. To insist on the practice of philosophy is to insist that we have the freedom to be human and engage with specifically human issues. To teach others how to practice philosophy is to help preserve a specifically human reality that is freed to engage with issues of meaning.

Further, to engage in philosophy is to engage in thinking, in writing, and in communicating with other people. Specific skills are often easy enough to learn over the span of a few days or months or years, but these more basic and more general skills require a lot of time, and they are not just useful in specific domains; they are required in everything we do. Insofar as they educate people into these basic skills, disciplines like philosophy have the capacity to perform a great service for human beings.

How are you supporting the next generation of researchers and HQP (highly qualified personnel)?

I am ongoingly engaged in applying for grants so as to support graduate students. For the past three years I’ve funded graduate student research through the start-up grant I received from Memorial. I also recently received a SSHRC-VP Research Grant to support two more students. I’ve just applied for a SSHRC Insight Grant, which would support one PhD student for five years and two MA students for two years each. I’m currently in the process of applying for a SSHRC Connection Grant with an MA student as collaborator, and that grant will support one further MA student and one PhD student. Further (and sometimes students don’t realize this), simply by being busy engaging in ongoing research and trying to make myself a visible part of a larger academic community I am supporting them: by developing my powers to give them guidance and increasing my capacity to act on their behalf in the larger academic community. I also hold independent workshops and seminars if they seem required by the situation: for instance, I’ve held two workshops for undergraduate and graduate students about how to approach graduate school, and a workshop on Plato’s Meno prior to a guest-lecture on that topic. Most importantly, though, I try to teach students a lot (in supervision and in classes) and to teach them well.

What is the one thing you would like the general public to know about your research?

Mostly I write generally about what it’s like to be a human being, and one of the themes that I write about regularly is the fact that we’re not just individuals: who you are is not really separable from the environment you inhabit and the people around you. You become who you are by being initiated into the practices of that environment and of those people, so who you are is really a function of them. Everyone lives on this basis without really seeing it in its specificity.

Because we don’t see this specificity, we tend to be underdeveloped in our appreciation of our own specificity and the specificities of others who live on the basis of other environments and practices. We are the products of familiarity with a certain environment and certain people, but we think of ourselves as “just being human” in the way everyone is supposed to be human. That attitude pretty easily results in prejudices against human beings who are different and an incapacity to identify imaginatively with them and the fact that it often makes sense for them to be the way they are: they are also products of familiarity with practices and people and environments that have taken the shape they have because people are trying to make sense of the world and their place in it. This leads me to think that it is especially important for us to learn to appreciate the ways of life of other people and other groups with whom we do not immediately identify, and to try to build avenues of communication with them that will allow us to better understand their specificity and therefore our own as well.