“Why Philosophy?” Veronika Z. Nayir

Veronika Z. Nayir is interviewed by Céline Leboeuf.

Why Philosophy?
Veronika Z. Nayir
interviewed by Celine Leboeuf

What is philosophy to you?

There’s that Wilfrid Sellars quote that says philosophy is “to understand how things in the broadest possible sense hang together….” I recently discovered the last part of this sentence:

“Under ‘things in the broadest possible sense’, I include such radically different items as not only ‘cabbages and kings’, but numbers and duties, possibilities and finger snaps, aesthetic experience and death.”

This is such a delightful passage to me, and it’s the last two things enumerated here that define, for me, what philosophy can help us understand. I think aesthetic experience and death are interesting because they test the limits of thought itself. Philosophy to me is the exercise of testing limits, of fixing our attention to things that test us or resist being conceptualized.

How were you first introduced to philosophy?

Through Tumblr, in my teenage years, and through a fascination with female intellectuals—Susan Sontag, Simone Weil, Angela Davis. I would watch video essays, read interviews, and just stare at photos. I read Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter in the middle of high school. I think I identified with these women very superficially and wanted to be a particular sort of girl. I didn’t come from a family interested in philosophy or literature (except for my sisters, who were my first “debating” partners).

I was always interested in writing. But I disappointed English teachers, using a novel to talk about either a broader ethical problem or dwelling with very minute attention to textual detail. And I was too noncommittal for law! I was sort of ushered into philosophy by teachers. I think, in hindsight, I must have also turned to philosophy because I grew up in the Armenian church, and Christianity came with a vocabulary that pointed beyond itself, or, at least to me, seemed to open up the possibility of looking more deeply into the history of thought.

How do you practice philosophy today?

In any way that I can or that is available to me. I’ve been lucky to study under teachers who take pedagogy seriously (Ryan J. Johnson, Benjamin P. Davis), and I wish I could say something I imagine they’d say—about how to practice philosophy today in our world, in these times. Still, I don’t have an answer. I am inspired by my boyfriend (Aman Sakhardande)’s excitement for teaching and conversation. Because of him, I’m moving towards a position where discussion and “thinking out loud” is just as good as writing, which I resisted for a long time.

I’m interested in catastrophes and the event of genocide, and thinking about violent phenomena through traditions like psychoanalytic thought and translation theory. I’m not in a philosophy department but in “Social and Political Thought.” So I’m “practicing philosophy” in another space—still in academia, but in another kind of program, one with stronger political commitments.

What is a philosophical issue that is important to you?

I’m passionate about this issue:

How can those interested in ethics square the demand that instances of catastrophic injustice are “unthinkable” while simultaneously demanding that they ought to be thought? How can philosophy confront, adequately theorize, or, in Derrida’s wording, “responsibly witness” them?

In my M.A. work, I construe this as an aporia. In general, I am interested in the possibilities and impossibilities of representation and in the various levels of displacement that are enacted, accumulated, or repeated when we attempt to witness, textually, the survivor’s experience.

My larger project aims to stage an encounter between Armenian writing and continental thought. I don’t just want to highlight intellectual affinities and borrow theoretical resources between these two traditions because the encounter is being staged in the first place. I believe that continental thought must continue to confront and engage other archives to think fully about the concepts of witnessing and justice.

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

I recommend the “Crisis and Critique” podcast, hosted by Agon Hamza and Frank Ruda, available on YouTube and Spotify. Likewise, I love the many lectures uploaded onto the “European Graduate School Video Lectures” YouTube channel. In my recommendations, I also include Marc Nichanian’s work for anyone interested in the philosophy of history, genocide, and memory. I also like Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work as well as Cathy Caruth’s and Rebecca Comay’s books. Finally, in what is a time of emergency on every level, I suggest that students (and teachers) read Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Life of Students.”

This interview of Veronika Z. Nayir was first published at Why Philosophy?

Veronika Z. Nayir is an M.A. student of Social and Political Thought at York University and will be beginning her Ph.D. in the fall of 2024. She completed her undergraduate degree in philosophy and literature and critical theory at the University of Toronto. Her primary research areas are post-Holocaust continental philosophy, catastrophe and translation, philosophies of history and future, Armenian women’s writing, and Antigone. She has presented her work at the American Comparative Literature Association’s conference in Montreal and will present on Walter Benjamin in April 2024 at the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism (Western University).

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1 month ago

Can someone help me understand why I’ve heard this Sellars quote so many times in spite of how vague it is? It’s often cited as an insightful definition of philosophy but I don’t find it insightful at all. An imprecise phrase like “hang together” could be used to define just about any academic enterprise.

Preston Stovall
Reply to  confused
1 month ago

As I see it, the emphasis is on the two uses of “broadest possible sense” in talking about how “things” “hang together”; and, crucially, where “no intellectual holds are barred”. So the task as one of constructing a comprehensive story allowing us to place cabbages and kings, numbers and duties, fingersnaps and aesthetic experience, etc. into one (or maybe two) view(s) of the world, and where we we have a standing obligation to respond to any justified question about the reasons we have to hold the view we do.

Ted Parent
Reply to  confused
1 month ago

I think Preston Stovall has it right. Even so, I suspect Sellars was not attempting to define ALL of philosophy (esp. in a way that epistemically enables us to distinguish it from other academic disciplines). Rather, he was probably aiming to describe a prominent type of philosophy that he saw as particularly important. (I elaborate further in my 2017 book; see esp. pp. 5-6.)

1 month ago

Very interesting interview. I am curious about the “encounter” she mentions. Thanks for this read