Christa Hodapp

Christa Hodapp

PhD Student

By Leah Bayens
Photos by Mark Cornelison

Philosophy doctoral candidate Christa Hodapp is sorting out an issue most people superficially acknowledge before returning to business as usual: humans are animals.

“The traditional, neo-Lockean claim is that you’re fundamentally a person, which is a rational, thinking being, and you happen to be related to an animal in some way,” Hodapp explained. Thus, many people imagine that personhood separates us from the likes of dogs, horses, and ants. In the process, they also tend to place humans on a higher rung than our nonhuman counterparts.

Hodapp, however, refuses to split nature and mind in this way. Instead, her dissertation, Personal Identity and the Biological View of Human Persistence, foregrounds the notion that human beings are not simply related to animals; they are, in fact, “not separate from the animal in any way. They are identical to that animal,” she has argued. As such, our chief classification is human animal.

This biological viewpoint is difficult for some people to swallow. “Even to place human beings on the spectrum in a very obvious way [with animals] tends to be disturbing to people.” She notes that some critics find the human animal identification “degrading because they claim that this places humans on the same ontological level as a cockroach.” Far from claiming humans and roaches are of exactly the same ilk, Hodapp nonetheless underscores the importance of understanding ourselves as animals first. To do otherwise is to miss an opportunity to take full account of the properties with which we can talk about human beings.

Given the thorny nature of her project, it is clear Hodapp does not shy away from controversy easily. Her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Gender and Women’s Studies prepared her for just this sort of prickly conversation. In fact, the identity issues she wrangled with while researching performative and social aspects of gender at Denison University as an undergraduate and at Florida Atlantic University as a graduate student led her to the deeper, ontological status problems she currently theorizes.

First developing an expertise in the nature and reality of gender, Hodapp ultimately began to see these qualities as “a concern with a philosophy of human nature.” She became interested in “dealing, in a very rigorous way, with the fundamental, ontological status of human beings.” Now, after having earned a second master’s degree before embarking on her doctorate in philosophy at UK, she strives to get at the root of how we theorize being human animals.

In the process, Hodapp has determined an especially controversial application of her theory, one that deals with knotty bioethical issues like the status of fetuses and of people in persistent vegetative states.

She compellingly moves from the animal concept to stage of life issues. First, she posits that person is a phase in the life of the human animal, just as athlete, infant, or student are terms we use to describe ourselves at certain stages. A human animal doesn’t need to be identified as a person at all times because we do not always have the capacity for cognition and rational thought throughout our lives.

In this way, person “denotes some kind of ability of a human animal that it has at a specific time” rather than the defining ontological category. By the same token, we can classify ourselves as being in multiple phases simultaneously, such as person, student, athlete, a status strand Hodapp currently claims by virtue of her roles as philosophy scholar and rugby player.

In phases that do not involve the qualities we associate with personhood (i.e., cognition), we have the freedom to talk about the human being in more exact ways. Thus, Hodapp’s work holds important implications for “the ways we talk about issues in biomedical ethics and applied ethics, particularly in terms of the fetus problem and persistent vegetative state issues.” Though she is not establishing a system of ethics with Personal Identity and the Biological View, Hodapp is beginning to provide a language with which biomedical ethicists can name “the entity we’re dealing with in a metaphysically clear way.” 

These kinds of heady concepts constitute the bulk of Hodapp’s research as well as teaching: “In ethics classes, I tell students, ‘You should be worried about [these issues] because not everyone has the same religious, cultural or social backgrounds as you, so we need to find reasons why people should be moral - above and beyond social factions.’”

In an effort to pique students’ interest in philosophical conundrums, she encourages them to figure out how concepts apply to a range of issues. Classes often start from pop culture references and proceed to parallel instances involving deeper race, class, gender, and spiritual matters. In lower division courses, Hodapp aims to show students that “philosophical issues are the issues they really do care about; they just haven’t conceptualized them in that way.” When they “start assessing their everyday experiences from a different viewpoint,” Hodapp feels she’s doing her best work in the classroom.

Some of her best scholarly work is the result of relationships she developed with peers and professors in graduate courses. “When I first got here, I didn’t have a philosophy background, and there have been some really key older graduate students who took very good care of me,” she said. Likewise, philosophy professors proved available, helpful and interested in her work, particularly her dissertation advisor, Brandon Look.

“I can send him work whenever I have it, and he never is opposed to reading it, meeting with me, giving me notes, and being really constructively critical.” Hodapp recognizes Look and committee member Anita Superson as having been instrumental in strengthening her capacity as a job candidate and philosopher, making sure that she does more than just finish a dissertation and graduate.

Like her mentors, Hodapp wants to change the terms of how we conduct “business as usual.”  She’s starting by encouraging each of us to embrace our membership in the Kingdom Animalia.  In so doing, we begin “reordering the bias we have toward identifying ourselves as animals,” and ultimately, we “clarify the status of beings.” The implications of Hodapp’s proposal are far reaching. From biomedical ethics to gender roles to our essential identities, her project expands the ways we talk and think about being human.