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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Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
3 years ago

I really like her answer, but isn’t the claim, “we can’t stand outside our relationship with the world” one that, if true, is objectively true and itself not part of our relationship with the world?

I’m not trying to be cheeky; like I said, I like her answer, and I think something like it is true myself. And yet I can’t help but to notice that when I say it’s true, I’ve defeated the view that I’m saying is true.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Robert Gressis
3 years ago

Yes, you definitely like her answer.

“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. “Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
Reply to  Derek Bowman
3 years ago

Yeah, it seemed to me that I was just saying what she was saying in the interview, but I wasn’t sure.
I see now why I wasn’t sure: I read her as writing, “NOTE that one can say…” instead of “NOT that one can say…”.

But it’s weird to me to conclude from this that we can utter sensible nonsense; shouldn’t we just conclude that the view that she and I find amenable is false?Report

a
a
3 years ago

That esoteric and exoteric are representations inviting analysis…
…then attitudes gained from considering-comparing these representations as possible to experience together at the same time…
…could benefit a no nonsense approach toward representations of dualism as not only possible but probably dependent on a third state like self …Report

Kevin McCallister
Kevin McCallister
3 years ago

Interesting answer. My knee jerk response when I encounter that question has to do with the difficulty of most people (philosophers included) to think clearly, without cognitive bias or unconscious motives. I am acutely aware as I study this discipline that there are all sorts of explanations for why I form my beliefs that make me uncertain whether Incan trust that I’ve arrived at the reliably.Report

Kevin McCallister
Kevin McCallister
Reply to  Kevin McCallister
3 years ago

I can. Cursed autocorrect.Report

JTD
JTD
3 years ago

“…as Srinivasan puts it, ‘this category of nonsense that points to the truth’.”

This is a suggestive phrase but what does it actually mean? Let’s back up. Someone says something along the lines of: “The fundamental truth is that there are no fundamental truths”. They then admit that this statement is self-contradictory but respond that, although that means that it is incoherent, it is an incoherent statement that points at the truth. At this point I need something to grasp onto. Is an ‘incoherent statement pointing at the truth’ supposed to be analogous to an incomplete statement pointing at the truth because it suggests to us a completed statement that states a truth? Likewise, might it be analogous to an ungrammatical statement pointing at the truth by suggesting to us a related grammatical statement that states a truth? Neither analogy seems apt, but then what is the phrase getting at? I worry that the use of this phrase in this context only sounds meaningful because there are other contexts (like the two I describe above) where it can be used to say something coherent and true.Report

Michael Barkasi
Michael Barkasi
3 years ago

“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”

Is there any reason to think that we can’t, through representations, represent the world as it is independent of our representations? I get the temptation to say you can’t — especially because this sounds like a rather profound claim — but it’s far from obviously true.

For example, there’s a desk in front of me. If the standard sort of direct reference theory is correct, my words “a desk” refer to that desk itself. Since those words don’t do anything else but pick out that object (e.g., don’t predicate any properties to it), they manage to represent it without any subjective distortion. Of course, I might also call it a *desk*, and thereby predicate a property to it. In some sense that’s distorting, since desks are a complex pragmatic sort of kind and since calling any attention to any one property takes attention away from other properties, but still, isn’t it true? It’s not obviously distorting in a pernicious way that prevents me from telling [the way the world is independent of our representations”. My particular grasp of the desk’s properties (that it’s a desk, that it’s wood, that it’s brown, etc) is mediated by mental representations (call them concepts?) which perhaps are distorted in just those same ways (via practical mediation and attention to only certain properties of the properties), but again that distortion doesn’t seem to be pernicious in the way the worry suggests. We could also mention our perceptual representations: when I see the desk I have a perceptual experience of it with some certain content. But again here the same considerations apply: on any direct theory of perception what I see is the desk itself (not, e.g., sense-data). I see various of its properties. Sure, I don’t see all its properties and the way I see its properties (e.g., color) might be conditioned in some way by my practical interests, but it’s not clear that these are pernicious distortions. Just because color (for example) might be a relational property between the seen object and me doesn’t make it any less an objective feature of the world.Report

Michael Barkasi
Michael Barkasi
3 years ago

I’m kind of fond of a related suggestion: philosophy is hard because many of its questions ask us to think about our own representations and conceptually distinguish them from the objective reality they aim at representing, and *that* is hard. Obvious examples: the appearance/reality distinction, epistemic debates about justification, theories of truth, much work in metaphysics, all of phil language. For some reason many people have a hard time making that conceptual distinction. It’s certainly not one that’s inculcated through our vernacular or traditional primary and secondary education.Report

Hard???
Hard???
3 years ago

I think having to deal with statements like Amia Srinivasan’s is what makes philosophy hard. Of course, this isn’t intrinsic to the discipline but due entirely to the types of people that seem to be attracted to it.Report

Pre-Philosophical Peon
Pre-Philosophical Peon
Reply to  Hard???
3 years ago

Do such statements make philosophy hard in the same way you’re making it hard for me to understand what you mean?Report

YL
YL
3 years ago

“We want to be able to understand the world from something like an objective point of view, to think about it with maximal detachment ” —— isn’t science doing that (too)?Report

Eagle I think
Eagle I think
Reply to  YL
3 years ago

I had the same thought – this seems to be true of most ‘truth-seeking’ disciplines, so I’m curious if Srinivasan would conclude that there is in fact nothing *distinctively* hard about philosophy!Report

nicholesuomi
Reply to  YL
3 years ago

Where the boundaries of science are drawn could change this, but (natural and social, at least) science seems to stay within the confines of the phenomenal. Experience some stuff, experience more stuff, notice patterns, see if more experiences confirm patterns, etc. Even a solipsist would have no problems with this.Report

Cam
Cam
3 years ago

Philosophy can be hard because the writing of many philosophers in the history of philosophy can be downright awful.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

Philosophy is hard because once a question is resolved, it moves out of philosophy into some other discipline.Report

Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Philosophy may be hard — I don’t think it is, particularly, at least in comparison to other subjects — but not for the reason indicated in the OP. Indeed, I would have thought we’ve had the answer to *that* problem ever since Wilfrid Sellars (and before that, Wittgenstein).Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Your comment raises two questions:
1. Which other subjects do you think philosophy is not hard in comparison to?
2. Why do you think philosophy is as hard as it is (you mentioned Sellars, but not having read Sellars, I don’t know what you’re alluding to; as for your reference to Wittgenstein, this suggests to me that philosophy is hard only because we are fooled by language)

And I have a third question:
3. Why do think there is so much disagreement in philosophy?Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Robert Gressis
3 years ago

It’s worth observing that what is hard for one person may be easy for another, so I can only answer your first question in terms of my own personal experience. Theoretical physics strikes me as harder than philosophy as does very high level mathematics. I would also find harder disciplines which require a vast amount of memorization.

Regarding the second question, I am speaking specifically of Sellars’ paper, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” where he makes the distinction between the “manifest” and “scientific” images of the world and suggests that the only possible “complete” world view would consist of a “stereoscopic” one that includes both, as neither is reducible to the other, and neither is eliminable.

With respect to the later Wittgenstein, the point isn’t regarding the tricks language plays on us, but more the realization that different areas of inquiry employ different “grammars” (scare-quoted, because by ‘grammar’ he doesn’t just mean what the term means in linguistics) and are thus only “locally” apt.

Regarding the third question, I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that a lot of philosophers have come to think that there actually are conclusive answers to the sorts of questions we ask, when there are not.Report

Cam
Cam
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Kaufman: “Theoretical physics strikes me as harder than philosophy as does very high level mathematics.”

I’m reminded of a blog post I read years ago by Alex Pruss: “Serious” Intellectual Work: http://alexanderpruss.blogspot.com/2009/12/intellectual-work.html

I’m also reminded of a conversation my friends and I had once back in grad school. One of us had just finished a PhD in physics and was now pursuing the PhD in philosophy. He was asked which is more difficult for him, philosophy or physics. In his case, it was philosophy. (I recall his reason touching on the methodological differences.)Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

I suppose one reason for thinking that theoretical physics and mathematics are harder than philosophy is that the IQ of the average physicist or mathematician is higher than that of the average philosopher. If that’s true, and if IQ measures something like abstract reasoning ability, then that suggests that the average level of reasoning you’ll have to deal with in physics and mathematics will be higher than you’ll find in philosophy. But if by “harder” you mean “the problems are harder to solve”, then I think you’d have to say philosophy might be the hardest of all disciplines–how many philosophical problems have we as a discipline solved?

If you’re right that there aren’t conclusive answers to philosophical questions (or at least, many of them), then do you think that philosophers shouldn’t think of their philosophical conclusions as true, but should instead hold some other attitude to them? (Note: I have a trap here; the trap is that I’m going to ask you what your attitude to Sellars’s manifest/scientific division is.)Report

Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Robert: I’m happy to have this very interesting conversation. It *does* constitute somewhat of a thread hijack, though, so if people mind it, I’ll cease and desist.

Re: your first question, no, I don’t think philosophers should think of philosophical accounts — I prefer not to call them “theories”, when I can remember not to — as true, but rather as apt. Indeed, I think apt is about all a philosophical account can be.

As for your second question, I very much agree with Sellars’ “stereoscopic vision.” That is, given that the world includes persons, points of view, reasons, actions, and therefore, normativity, and given that none are reducible to are eliminable in favor of anything in the Scientific Image, a complete picture of the world requires both, on superimposed on another, like two film transparencies, which together form a complete image.

Massimo Pigliucci and I did an entire dialogue on Sellars on my philosophy program that runs on BloggingHeads.TV.

http://meaningoflife.tv/videos/38394Report

Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Sorry, my last comment should have read: “…given that none are reducible to or eliminable in favor of…”Report