From the ancients to now, Sukaina Hirji asks the big questions

Philosophy professor Sukaina Hirji has expanded her work from Aristotle and the history of philosophy to contemporary issues of love and sex, oppression, and anger.

Sukaina Hirji poses outside Cohen Hall.
Philosophy professor Sukaina Hirji.

It may seem like Aristotle and modern feminist philosophy are distinct areas of research, that there is not much overlap between two courses Sukaina Hirji is teaching this fall, Ancient Greek Philosophy and Philosophical Issues Around Love and Sex. But to Hirji they are related, and focus on two questions she is interested in: What does it mean to be a good person? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? 

She argues that Aristotle thinks the ability to be a good person depends on factors outside oneself, such as access to resources, which comes into play when she thinks about modern-day oppression. In the other direction, her work in contemporary moral philosophy has helped her look at issues of race and white supremacy in the discipline of ancient Greek philosophy. She is working on a paper about the state of the field. 

Hirji brings into these questions her own identity as a South Asian child of immigrants who was raised in Canada and considered medical and restaurant industry careers before landing on philosophy. She came to Penn as an assistant professor of philosophy in 2019, after teaching at Virginia Tech. Hirji says she feels lucky to be at Penn because the Philosophy Department has given her the space to expand her research over time and teach a wide range of courses. 

She says of the Philosophical Issues Around Love and Sex course, “I really wanted to do a course that wasn’t specific to any particular subdiscipline, so it’s not just feminist philosophy, just moral philosophy, just epistemology. It’s a course that’s anchored around a set of questions that any undergraduate is thinking about in some way.” 

Students read and think about the meaning of love, marriage and monogamy, interracial relationships, ethical sex, pornography, and more, says Hirji, who also previously taught the Ethics of Social Media course she developed and hopes to teach again. Last year, she received the Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching by an Assistant Professor, with faculty and students describing her as someone who strives to break down barriers for women and students of color. 

“I think there are a lot of things that are really valuable about philosophy for anyone,” Hirji says. “When you really understand what a good argument looks like and what a bad argument looks like, you’re much less vulnerable to manipulation or abuse. You can advocate for yourself, but you also know when somebody is not being fully forthcoming or honest with you.” 

Outside of work, one might find her running along the Schuylkill Trail with her dog, Radish, or rewatching the TV show “Insecure,” which she thinks captures a lot about relationships and friendships. 

Thinking about the big questions 

Hirji grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, after her parents fled East Africa when the dictator Idi Amin was in power. She identified neither with the Muslim tradition in which she was raised nor the Western tradition. She says she thinks her parents, coming from a place of instability, did not have the luxury to reflect on things without immediate practical relevance, which she considers a loss. 

“I think the world of ideas, the world of art, is just part of what it is to be human, to be able to engage with that stuff even when it doesn’t have a practical payoff,” she says.  

Hirji says her parents wanted her to become a doctor, and she was close to going to medical school but changed her mind. She had been taking humanities courses and says she “realized there was a kind of intellectual life I wanted that I wasn’t going to get if I went down the med school route.” 

Hirji ended up getting a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Alberta before getting her master’s in philosophy at Queen’s University. She wrote her master’s thesis on Aristotle, an interest that stemmed from a feeling that her dearth of undergraduate philosophy coursework meant she was playing catch-up.  

“I was drawn to the ancients because I felt like I could get access to all the big questions at once, as kind of a shortcut,” Hirji says. In hindsight, she also thinks her sense was that mastering this area of philosophy would make her feel like she belonged or that she was allowed in certain spaces. 

According to a 2020 report from the American Philosophical Association, as of 2017, 26% of philosophy faculty are women, ranging from 21% of full professors to 34% of assistant professors.

Hirji can see why history of philosophy in particular suffers from a lack of diversity. “You study a world where race, in the way that we now understand it and the racial divisions that we have now, just didn’t exist at the time,” she says. “I think for a long time, I felt like I had to leave my race at the door when I entered a space where we were talking about these texts, and I think it’s a very painful experience over time.” 

She says she no longer feels this way and wants students to feel “that they have ownership over these texts, without feeling like they have to assimilate to a white environment.” And Hirji says Penn has led the charge in deeply thinking about diversity in philosophy. 

But before she landed here, she spent about 10 years working in restaurants in Canada—and one summer in France—before and after graduate school, mostly in fine-dining establishments. 

“I was so in love with the world of food as art and building community, and I loved the job of serving. You’re multitasking; you’re reading people’s needs and trying to be responsive to them,” she says. Working in the industry was interesting from a class perspective, Hirji says, because she was not otherwise in a financial position to afford fine dining yet had access to expensive food and wine. She considered going to wine school but then got Ph.D. acceptances. 

“When I went to Princeton for grad school, it was a very jarring experience in a lot of ways because I was, all of a sudden, around all this wealth all the time, and I was in a bunch of spaces where I didn’t feel comfortable,” Hirji says. “But one sort of superpower I had was I knew my way around a restaurant; I knew my way around a wine list.” 

Philosophy of oppression 

Hirji stepped up to the podium two years ago for Penn’s 60-Second Lectures series and talked about students of color and female students coming to her for mentorship. She finds this work valuable, but it takes time away from her research. 

“I can do this sort of mentoring work and help change the status quo by diversifying the field, but if I do that I compromise my own research and I reinforce a system where disproportionate burdens are placed on faculty of color and women,” Hirji said in her talk. Focusing on her own success could help her get tenure, but it would also reinforce a status quo that is bad for many. 

This is an example of what she calls an oppressive double bind, a situation in which no matter what one does—whether one resists or cooperates with an oppressive system—they end up reinforcing their own oppression. Hirji, who published a paper on this topic in the journal Ethics in 2021, thinks people are quick to criticize but should be careful about placing responsibility at the individual level. 

Her work on oppression has inspired professors who joined the Philosophy Department more recently, such as Jennifer Morton and Daniele Lorenzini, who both credit Hirji as a factor in deciding to come to Penn. 

Lorenzini says he finds Hirji’s work on oppressive double binds “pioneering” in its account of how oppressive power works. He and Hirji formed a working group on oppression, and they are running a reading group over Zoom this academic year and a workshop in the spring. Lorenzini also says Hirji’s work is unique in showing both the present-day relevance of the history of philosophy and the need to rethink the history of philosophy itself. 

“It’s extremely difficult to find, in academic philosophy, thinkers whose work is both deeply engaged with timely social, political, and ethical issues and significantly informed by historical figures and the history of philosophy more broadly,” Lorenzini says. “Sukaina is one of the very few exceptions to the rule.” 

Describing herself as someone who also has “a pretty eclectic bunch of interests for a philosopher,” Morton said an attractive part of joining the department was it “seemed to foster and encourage and appreciate people whose research interests didn’t fit neatly into a mold,” as embodied by Hirji. 

Morton says readers can connect with Hirji’s work on oppression and anger, that “she puts her finger on experiences that happen that are undertheorized or are underappreciated within moral discourse in philosophy.”