“Why Philosophy?” Kieran Setiya

A series of interviews with philosophers will be a new regular feature at Daily Nous.

Earlier this year, Céline Leboeuf, associate professor of philosophy at Florida International University, launched Why Philosophy?, a Substack site. It features brief interviews she conducts with philosophers about what they think philosophy is, how they were introduced to philosophy, how they do philosophy, how philosophy is important to them, and related topics.

Links to some of these have appeared in the Heap of Links here. But now, thanks to Dr. Leboeuf, the interviews themselves will be appearing here, too. They’ll still be published at her site, but they’ll also be posted here, usually on a weekly basis.

We’re starting this today, with an interview Dr. Leboeuf published earlier this week.

Why Philosophy?
Kieran Setiya
interviewed by Celine Leboeuf

What is philosophy to you? 

This feels like two questions rolled into one. The first asks: what is philosophy? I think the best approach to answering that is historical. In the beginning, philosophy encompasses all systematic inquiry into the world, our relation to the world, and how to live within it. As the centuries march on, philosophy spins off separate disciplines with their own proprietary methods and results. The natural sciences are transformed, becoming more autonomous, in the 17th and 18th centuries; they will leave philosophy behind. The same is true of economics and psychology in the 19th century, linguistics and computer science in the 20th. Philosophy now houses the detritus of inquiry: it’s what we do when we can’t agree on answers to basic questions, or even how they should be answered—beyond platitudes like “think logically” or “use all the evidence you have”—and yet the questions seem urgent, systematic, and deep.

The second issue is more personal: what does philosophy mean to me? Increasingly, it feels like just one form of creative engagement with the problems of being alive in the world as it is. I have less confidence than ever in the arguments and theories of philosophers, and I am less sure of the distinctiveness of philosophical understanding—as opposed to the sort of understanding one gets from, say, activism or the practice of art.

How were you first introduced to philosophy? 

I was a teenage fan of H. P. Lovecraft, the early 20th-century pioneer of sci-fi horror. His fiction has philosophical themes: mechanistic materialism, the indifference of the cosmos, and the limits of human knowledge. And he was an amateur philosophy student, reading Lucretius, Bertrand Russell, and Friedrich Nietzsche, among others. I turned to the philosophers Lovecraft read and began to realize that I was more interested in philosophy than I was in H. P. Lovecraft.

My first real teacher in philosophy was Jeremy Butterfield, a philosopher of science who was the tutor at Jesus College, Cambridge, when I was an undergraduate there. I was exceptionally fortunate. Jeremy was and is the most brilliant, compassionate, generous teacher I know: he gave me the confidence to keep doing philosophy.

How do you practice philosophy today? 

By thinking, writing, and teaching. My focus has shifted somewhat, from defending what I think of as ethical common sense—we should care about other people, not just ourselves, we can know right from wrong—to exploring more tendentious or troubling views. I’ve also shifted towards non-academic writing, where I aim to do philosophy in another medium, not just to write a “popular” version of the real thing. More recently, I’ve started doing stand-up comedy, some of which is more or less continuous with my philosophical work.

What is a philosophical issue that is important to you? 

Honest answer: how to face death with equanimity. I am terrified to die and I was promised—by Socrates and Montaigne, among others—that philosophy would help. It hasn’t, yet, but I still have hope.

What books, podcasts, or other media would you recommend to anyone interested in philosophy? 

If you treat this question with pedantic literalness, it’s very hard! What could anyone read with profit, regardless of their background in philosophy—from novices to PhDs—and regardless of their areas of interest?

If I liked Plato, I’d say The Republic, which is accessible but endlessly rich, and ranges from ethics and politics to mind, metaphysics, and epistemology. But I don’t like Plato much, because I don’t enjoy the instability of the dialogue form in philosophy, or the excuse it gives for offering bad arguments.

Oddly enough, although I don’t love Plato, I love the great Platonist of the late 20th century, Iris Murdoch. Her book The Sovereignty of Good is tricky for beginners (and experts), but it’s brief and beautifully written, and it offers a lifetime of challenges. I’d recommend that to anyone.

Audio is easier: first on my list would be Barry Lam’s wonderful narrative-philosophy podcast, Hi-Phi Nation.

This interview with Kieran Setiya was first published at Why Philosophy?

Kieran Setiya teaches philosophy at MIT, where he works on ethics and related questions about human agency and human knowledge. He is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide and Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way, which was selected as a Best Book of 2022 by The New Yorker and The Economist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, the LA Review of Books, the TLS, the London Review of Books, The Atlantic, Aeon, and The Yale Review. He also writes a Substack newsletter, Under the Net.

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