I love discovering philosophers who write clearly about topics that matter to me. Amia Srinivasan of Oxford, for example. She is concerned with how we know what we know, or think we know, but she doesn’t dive so deeply into epistemological technicalities that she leaves the real world behind. She also cares about social justice, the plight of the oppressed and lots of other things. On her website you’ll find essays, published in The London Review of Books and elsewhere, on termites, suicide, equality, radical altruism, anger and surfing in waters frequented by sharks, which Srinivasan has done. I first encountered her work in a philosophy salon, in which we read her paper on “genealogical anxiety,” a form of self-doubt that has afflicted me since childhood. The unpublished paper, which I blogged about here, is culled from her upcoming book The Contingent World: Genealogy, Epistemology, Politics. Another book-in-progress is The Right to Sex, previewed in this 2018 essay on “incels,” or involuntary celibates. Below Srinivasan answers a few questions. –John Horgan
Horgan: Do you suffer from genealogical anxiety? Is that why you’re writing a book about it?
Srinivasan: I used to, I suppose because I grew up all over, and so was sensitive from a young age to the way that background contingencies shape our worldviews. I think that's what lies behind the motivation to write this book, yes.
Horgan: Why philosophy? Have you found it consoling?
Srinivasan: On one way of understanding it, philosophy is the discipline that proposes to prescind from the particularities of the human perspective, while at the same time showing why this attempt to prescind is doomed. I do find this consoling; sometimes, the best of way of consoling oneself about a problem is to understand just why it is unsolvable. This doesn't work for everything though. I don't find philosophy much of a consolation against death.
Horgan: Are you as worried as about philosophy’s lack of progress as David Chalmers seems to be?
Srinivasan: I'm not worried about it, because I'm not interested in a philosophy whose aim (like that of the natural sciences) is convergence on certain views.
Horgan: Can you name a problem that philosophers have solved?
Srinivasan: How proper names work, whether justified true belief suffices for knowledge, the relationship between a priority and necessity. But I think a lot of philosophical progress isn't about solving problems but clarifying them: what is at stake in the free will debate, what is lost when we think of ethics in a purely consequentialist mode, what are our options for making good on the intuition that certain things are socially constructed or mind-dependent, and so on.
Horgan: I’ve argued that philosophy’s chief value is sowing doubt and undermining certainty. Your take?
Srinivasan: That's certainly important. So is giving us words and concepts for our pain.
Horgan: Nietzsche said all great philosophy consists of “involuntary and unconscious autobiography.” Do you agree?
Srinivasan: I'm attracted to this thought -- I certainly think it's true of my own work -- but there is a limit to its usefulness. In an important sense, philosophy isn't autobiography, and in general we should resist the total reduction of thought to its material conditions.
Horgan: How much overlap is there between your philosophical work and your personal life?
Srinivasan: It's not so much a question of “overlap” as it is of influence. Most of my philosophical work is just an attempt to clarify questions by which I am personally vexed: the limits on our self-knowledge, how to level up the contingencies of our worldviews, the place of anger in political discourse, the role of theory in practical change.
Horgan: Rebecca Goldstein told me recently that philosophy was quite sexist when she was getting her PhD in the late 1970s. What’s been your experience?
Srinivasan: Better than the 1970s, but not good enough.
Horgan: A few years ago John Gray savagely attacked Steven Pinker’s thesis that humans are progressing morally. With whose position are you more sympathetic?
Srinivasan: There have been gains and losses, and in particular new forms of violence and cruelty to replace older forms. I'm not sure it's interesting or useful to try to make global assessments of whether things are getting better or worse. For whom, where, and along what dimension? What actually worries me is the way that the rhetoric of moral progress is used as a defense of the (Western, capitalist) status quo.
Horgan: Will we ever stop fighting about gender and race?
Srinivasan: I would see no reason to fight about it once both gender and race are abolished as socially meaningful and materially determining categories. Whether we will get there before we destroy ourselves is a different question.
Horgan: Do you think philosophers write too much for each other rather than lay folk?
Srinivasan: No. Scholarly, specialist work is important, and we should defend it fiercely, not just in philosophy, but in all disciplines. And a lot of what goes under the name of “public” philosophy is simplistic and condescending. What we need isn't so much more philosophy that tries to speak to a non-philosophical audience, as more philosophy that comes from a place of engagement with the non-philosophical world.
Horgan: Do you believe in free will? What about God?
Srinivasan: I'm a Kantian about free will, I think. God? In a way, but not in the way I did when I was young. I believe in the sea.
Horgan: What’s your utopia?
Srinivasan: Endless, pointless play.
See also Q&As with Scott Aaronson, David Albert, David Chalmers, Noam Chomsky, David Deutsch, George Ellis, Marcelo Gleiser, Robin Hanson, Nick Herbert, Jim Holt, Sabine Hossenfelder, Sheila Jasanoff, Stuart Kauffman, Christof Koch, Garrett Lisi, Christian List, Tim Maudlin, James McClellan, Priyamvada Natarajan, Naomi Oreskes, Martin Rees, Carlo Rovelli, Rupert Sheldrake, Peter Shor, Lee Smolin, Sheldon Solomon, Paul Steinhardt, Philip Tetlock, Tyler Volk, Steven Weinberg, Edward Witten, Peter Woit, Stephen Wolfram and Eliezer Yudkowsky.