For PhD student Sanna Tirkkonen, the line between research and life is a little blurred. “I work in philosophy, and it is quite usual in our field that doing research gets intertwined with the whole way of being,” she explains. “The questions we study are involved with the deep questions concerning life, ethics, society, knowledge, and existence.”
While writing her Master’s thesis in Philosophy at the University of Helsinki, Sanna realized that she still had many more questions she wanted to investigate. Once she got her degree she continued almost immediately to her PhD, also at the University of Helsinki. When she describes her current work, Sanna gets a little, ahem, philosophical: “I don’t actually see my work as a job because what matters is the content and the things it allows me to do. So, first comes the content of my research, which is something self-chosen. The university provides me with the conditions to do what I love.”
Sanna’s dissertation focuses on the works of French philosopher Michel Foucault, who she first started to study about 15 years ago. She was initially drawn to his work on ethics, which eventually became a part of her dissertation. Sanna’s dissertation examines the intersections between ethics and governing. Using Foucault’s original works, lectures, and articles, as well as other philosophical literature on the topic, she explores how ethical behaviours happen as a result of social encounters. Foucault states that acting morally is not about following moral codes, but rather spontaneously reacting a situation or experience. Sanna argues that a person’s experience is what they themselves live through, but that some experiences can also be shared. In this way, she is able to reflect on the social impacts of personal and collective experiences. It is different to experience oneself as someone "mad", sick, healthy or disordered. While these are cultural distinctions, they impact they have on a person’s experience is quite real.
Outside of the lecture hall, Sanna is the former president of the Association for Women and Feminist Philosophers in Finland (she’s still a chartered member and board member). “Philosophy is internationally one of the most gender-biased disciplines in academia,” says Sanna. “The general attitudes in the discipline have changed quite a lot during the past ten years, but the stereotype of a philosopher is still a man with a beard.” The Association for Women and Feminist Philosophers in Finland is working to change that. They raise awareness of the work that women and feminist philosophers do and provide support for female and feminist philosophers to promote equality in the field. Anyone—regardless of gender identity—who agrees with the association’s goals to further the work of women and feminist philosophers can join.
Sanna plans continue her fight for gender equality “by sticking to philosophy and not leaving!” She believes that friendly, safe environments produce the best results and make researchers more supportive and creative. While she acknowledges that academia is not the most secure career, she would love to become a professor and continue her activism for equality. The field still has some gender equality issues to tackle, but Sanna says she will do her best to make a difference.
Philosophy’s deep questions of life, ethics, and existence continue to be relevant—as they have been for the past several thousand years—and philosophers are still finding new angles to examine them from today. Sanna loves that she gets to be creative and choose her own research questions. “Academic freedom (creativity combined with hard work) has, in my case, been the best thing ever.”