I recently encountered a term for a syndrome that has bugged me since childhood: genealogical anxiety. The phrase was coined by up-and-coming Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan in an unpublished paper, “On Genealogy,” that I read for a philosophy salon. [See Addendum.] The paper stems from her book-in-progress The Contingent World: Genealogy, Epistemology, Politics. By genealogical anxiety, Srinivasan means the doubt that afflicts you—or should afflict you—when you contemplate the genesis of your beliefs, especially moral and political beliefs. Why are you a Muslim progressive, Buddhist libertarian, atheist anarchist, Christian white supremacist?

We like to think our beliefs are true, arrived at through hard-headed, unbiased observation and rational reflection. But if you’re honest with yourself, you realize that you absorbed your beliefs, at least in part, from the influences to which you happen to have been exposed, including your parents, teachers, friends and cultural milieu--maybe even a blog named “Cross-check”! To the extent that your beliefs are dependent on the circumstances of your birth, upbringing and life trajectory, they are contingent, random, arbitrary.

“Am I justified in having the beliefs, values and concepts I do,” Srinivasan asks, “if I have them only because of my particular, contingent history?” Your response might be that most peoples’ beliefs are arbitrary and erroneous, but you were lucky. You happen to have been born and raised under circumstances that fostered true beliefs—in, for example, western-style democracy and free-market capitalism. But Srinivasan notes that to think of oneself as “genealogically lucky, and others as genealogically unlucky, seems to open oneself to just accusations of chauvinism, narcissism and immodesty.”

At first, I thought Srinivasan’s goal was simply to instill doubt in us about our own convictions, by getting us to ponder their roots. I try to cultivate this sort of self-analysis in myself, and I encourage it in my students. I keep asking them, Why do you believe that? The world can always use more doubt. Toward the end of her essay, however, Srinivasan takes an unexpected swerve. Rejecting extreme skepticism, the claim that all beliefs are equally invalid, she suggests that we ask of our beliefs not, Are they true? but What do they do? That is, how do they affect our lives?

This way of thinking can help liberate us from oppressive beliefs and behaviors and choose new ones more likely to help us flourish. Indeed, this sort of genealogical analysis has been a crucial component of “the great liberation movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” Srinivasan points out. These movements include “workers’ struggle to end capitalist exploitation, the struggle of black and brown people against colonial and other racialized forms of oppression, and the feminist struggle to bring an end to patriarchal domination.”

Srinivasan’s essay is riddled with doubt, rendered, paradoxically, with clear-eyed confidence. I loved it, especially the upbeat, progressive ending. The essay also struck a chord in me because it reminded me of a more basic sort of genealogical anxiety to which I am prone. I worry not just about the contingency of my beliefs—antiwar, agnostic, bleeding-heart liberal--but about the contingency of my self. How is it that I exist? And why am I this person and not someone entirely different?

I wrote about this anxiety in a recent column, “The Dawn of Self-Consciousness,” and in the introduction of my book Mind-Body Problems. I describe a childhood experience in which I became suddenly aware of the randomness, the weirdness, of my existence. Other people, including philosopher/novelist Rebecca Goldstein, have had this same experience. And this experience, if you dwell on it, can lead you to ask an even more fundamental question, why anything exists. 

So what should we do with these feelings of genealogical anxiety? Srinivasan and I have reached the same answer. Yes, recognizing the arbitrariness of your existence, and of your ideas about it, can be unsettling. It can trigger existential vertigo. But the flip side of this vertigo can be an exhilarating feeling of freedom. Genealogical anxiety can liberate you, it can give you a sense of vast possibility. You can create, choose, act upon new beliefs, ones more likely to give you a sense of meaning, maybe even a little joy. Srinivasan calls this act of creation “worldmaking.” “At its best,” she says, “worldmaking is a radical endeavor, bringing into existence worlds we scarcely thought possible.”

Here’s my utopian dream. Srinivasan publishes her book, and writes spinoff essays for The GuardianNew York Times and Scientific American. Her skeptical, progressive viewpoint captures the public’s imagination. A wave of genealogical anxiety sweeps across the planet, leaving doubt and uncertainty in its wake. People rich and poor, oppressed and powerful, even those who benefit most from the status quo, undergo dizzying bouts of self-questioning. And out of this turmoil a new world rises, a world without war, injustice and poverty, a world in which we are no longer bound by the circumstances of our birth and upbringing, gender and color. We all have the freedom to transcend our genealogy, to choose who we want to be.

Addendum: Srinivasan recently published a version of this paper, “Genealogy, Epistemology and Worldmaking.”

Further Reading:

Mind-Body Problems (free online book, also available as Kindle e-book and paperback)

Meta-Post: Posts on the Mind-Body Problem

The Dawn of Self Consciousness

The Weirdness of Weirdness

What Is Philosophy's Point? A Call for "Negative Philosophy"

Why Study Humanities? What I Tell Engineering Freshmen

What Should Teachers Say to Religious Students Who Doubt Evolution?

What's Your Utopia?

Visions of a Better World

War Is Our Most Urgent Problem. Let’s Solve It