Why Philosophy?

Urszula Wislanka
The theme for this Fire Inside is domestic and
state violence. All violence hurts. And while
the physical pain may pass with time, women
prisoners have shown us how they deal with the
more insidious results of violence: the attempted
destruction of their sense of self. Most women
prisoners experienced tremendous oppression and
self-doubt. Yet the women who talk to us have
reconstructed themselves, redefined who they are.
One woman, for example, said that when she came
to prison, she felt she was not the person she
wanted to be. There were parts of her that led
her to drugs and behavior she did not want to
condone in herself. While in prison she turned to
the practice of her religion, Native American, to
cleanse herself, to find balance and to become a
new person. It was through the practice of her
religion that she re-created herself as she also
created a community of which she wanted to be a
part: through participating in ceremonies such as
sweats and feasts and through making religious
objects to give to others. She felt she gained so
much that she also wanted other Native American
women in prison to have an opportunity to do
that. She turned into a fighter for the religious
rights of Native American women in prison. She
turned her own inward development towards others.
What she has done is two-fold. 1) She set out to
improve herself. And she found that 2) in the
process of changing herself she became a part of,
she also created, a community that could nurture
the “new” self, a community she contributed to
and wanted to share with other women. She found
her individual “I”, included a sense of “we”, a
collectivity that was not opposed to her sense of
self, but integral to its creation. Her new
definition of herself as an individual included a
creation of a community. Such a transformation on
the part of several women led to the creation of
CCWP, as part of a community outside supporting
the changes inside. The “we” can get expanded to
include the whole society and its prison system.
The definition of who we are as human beings is
the work of philosophy. What comes from the
stories of women prisoners is that philosophy, in
this total sense, isn’t practiced only by
professors sitting in ivory towers spinning ideas
in their heads, unrelated to the “real” world.
All of us as human beings are capable of
practicing philosophy. We are all able to ask the
question “who am I” and provide an answer. If we
do it honestly, we may not like our own answers.
So we may want to change ourselves to become the
person we would want to be. This process of
asking oneself basic questions leads not only to
“finding” oneself, who one wants to be. It leads
to changes in one’s activity, how one relates to
others. It also gives a lie to the standpoint
that we are only isolated individuals, with no
control over what connects us.
Taking back the process of collectively defining
who we are as human beings can help us to finally
transform the way we all live. But in order to
realize that transformation, we-each one for
herself-has to be able to single out aspects of
our concrete experience, i.e., to make
abstractions or categories, to decide for
ourselves what our activity means for us and in
the social context.
This is the practice of philosophy, which is
theoretical. Theory means being able to look at
all the experiences of concrete life and being
able to abstract from them the principles that
define my “I”, who I am, and understand how my
actions create my “I” not just as an isolated
individual, but in a community, a “we” that is no
longer just in opposition to who “I” am but is
clearly my creation.
It is the transformation of the way in which a
society connects the “I” and the “we” that can
lead to a new society, fundamentally different,
one in which we are finally able to fully
consciously practice the creation of our
humanity. Violence that is so much a part of this
society, forces not just prisoners but all of us
to find ways to change the whole as we are
changing ourselves.