Why Is Philosophy So Hard?

Daniel Kodsi, an undergraduate at Oxford and founding editor of the Oxford Review of Books, writes about his interview of Amia Srinivasan,  philosophy lecturer in the UCL Philosophy Department and fellow of All Souls College, Oxford: “I start the interview with a question I feel strangely silly for having, but which I cannot help but blurt out: why is philosophy so hard?”

He then recounts Srinivasan’s answer:

‘This is not a standard view by any means’, she tells me, ‘but I think philosophy presupposes the ability to do something that’s actually not possible for us to do’. This, she says, is to stand outside the relationship between ourselves and the world, to be able to see both ourselves and the world. We want to be able to understand the world from something like an objective point of view, to think about it with maximal detachment. ‘But unfortunately’, she continues, ‘we are a mind in the world, and not just in the world generally, but a very specific world, a particular world for each person. And so we have this regulative aspiration, but that’s at best a regulative ideal, not one that we can actually achieve, and I think that’s part of the pain: it’s the pain of wanting to transcend and being thrown back on our localness and finitude.’

This kind of worry arises most immediately when doing metaphysics; perhaps it explains the deep suspicion that is often directed towards philosophy which seeks to spell out the fundamental structure of the world. But it also emerges in epistemology. To take Bernard Williams’ famous phrase, if ‘knowledge is of what is there anyway’, how can we have any if we can’t get past our representations? Srinivasan is interested in this, in ‘how we should think about the fact that we represent the world, and that our particular representations of the world are contingent on the particularities of culture and history and language, on the particular concepts we use. The philosophical ambition is to tell us the way the world is independent of our representations, but that calls for us to represent the world, so we have this ambition to represent the world as it is without representation.’ Not that one can say that it is impossible for us to have an absolute conception of the world. In trying, Srinivasan says, one runs ‘into a kind of paradox, because one is representing the world as the sort of world which cannot be represented’. The perspectivalist position—that ‘the world in itself is such that there is no world beyond our representations of it’—exhibits a kind of ineffability. At this point, most analytic philosophers are quick to declare that it is therefore false. But some, like Oxford philosopher Adrian Moore, have said that it falls (somehow) into, as Srinivasan puts it, ‘this category of nonsense that points to the truth’. In some moods, Srinivasan says, she is ‘attracted to that kind of thought. It’s a thought that’s really not popular in contemporary analytical circles.’

The whole interview is here.

M.C. Escher, “Drawing Hands”

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