Genealogical Anxiety: An Interview with Amia Srinivasan

Amia Srinivasan speaks with a hybrid English-American accent, and has the professor’s habit of punctuating what you have asked or said with ‘good’. This is better, at least, than the classic analytic philosopher’s crutch of ‘There is a distinction to be drawn here…’. But Srinivasan, an epistemologist at All Souls and UCL, is not the usual analytic philosopher. She works with the typical rigour and in the same mode, but with an eye towards questions often thought in the remit of the ‘Continental’ philosophical tradition (an admittedly opaque designator for continental European, especially French and German, work after Kant). She has importantly clarified the debate over whether any mental states are ‘luminous’ – a mental state is luminous just in case, whenever one is in that mental state, one is in a position to know that one is in that state – and has defended epistemological externalism – that a belief’s justification does not depend only on factors internal to the believer. Yet Srinivasan has also written about ideology and the ineffable, and is currently working on a book examining what she calls ‘genealogical anxiety’, a kind of doubt provoked by the historical and cultural contingency of many of our philosophical beliefs.

Fairly intimidated, 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? Luckily, Srinivasan takes it seriously, and has an idiosyncratic take. ‘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. 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.’

This naturally leads us to what Srinivasan calls her ‘complicated relationship’ with the analytic-Continental divide. (Whenever using this classification I am reminded of another remark of Bernard Williams’, that it involves ‘a quite bizarre conflation of the methodological and the topographical, as though one classified cars into front-wheel drive and Japanese’.) Srinivasan says that as an undergraduate at Yale she ‘wrote [her] senior thesis on kitsch and spent a lot of time with Kierkegaard’, while doing ‘barely any analytic philosophy at all’. Coming to Oxford and having tutorials primarily with John Hawthorne and Timothy Williamson, two leading analytic philosophers who also served as her DPhil supervisors, led to ‘something of a conversion’. ‘I just came to feel’, Srinivasan explains, ‘that there was something about the almost coercive clarity and rigour of analytic philosophy that could, I suspected, eventually be useful for thinking about the kinds of deep and profound questions that I thought properly occupied Continental philosophers. I suppose it was the hope of achieving some sort of reconciliation between these two modes of inquiry that motivated me to get over my initial hesitancy about the analytic style.’

But she has not become a card-carrying member of the analytic tradition. And nor, despite adopting much of his epistemology, has she been converted to Tim Williamson’s distinctive metaphilosophical stance – very roughly, that philosophy is continuous with and methodologically similar to the natural sciences. ‘One thing I do like about Tim’s metaphilosophical view’, Srinivasan tells me, ‘is that it’s anti-scientistic in the sense of not thinking that philosophical knowledge is second-class knowledge or that the goal should be simply to be the handmaiden to the sciences’. But Srinivasan thinks there are still important contrasts between the way philosophy should ideally operate and the way the sciences do. ‘Something needs to be said about the way in which philosophy is also a humanistic discipline’, she says. Philosophy bears important connections to its history, to literature, and to questions of how to live that science doesn’t share. ‘I don’t know what description of philosophy would fully get at capturing that’, Srinivasan acknowledges, ‘but I would want an account of philosophy that would’.

One activity Srinivasan thinks philosophy has room for, here departing from someone like Williams, is ‘ameliorative conceptual analysis’, which involves working to develop concepts (like race, gender or disability) in a direction that is socially useful. But are philosophers really better situated for that kind of project than, for instance, social psychologists? ‘I think they’re better situated in the sense that philosophers are very good at designing concepts, introducing concepts’, Srinivasan says. ‘We’re good at thinking about the possibility-space for different conceptions of [the concept] blame or different conceptions of terrorist, or whatever you want.’ But philosophers are not especially well placed, she agrees, to answer the question of which concept, once we have set out all the options, we should adopt. She gestures at a certain political and historical myopia that is pervasive in some parts of the analytic world. There is a tendency, she suggests, ‘to theorise about these things in highly abstracted ways that don’t yield any kind of interesting implications for how we should live. Of course, that’s a gross generalisation and there are some really important exceptions to that.’ She mentions, amongst contemporary political theorists she admires, Catharine MacKinnon, Charles Mills, Nancy Fraser and bell hooks.

These considerations aren’t only relevant to moral and political philosophy; Srinivasan thinks that it is important to notice the moral and political implications of epistemic positions as well. She uses Williamson – a hard-nosed externalist about knowledge and justification – as one example of ‘someone [who is] sensitive to the way that epistemology can hook-up with things in the practical realm’. It is not, Srinivasan clarifies, that moral considerations can be used to advance an epistemic theory – at least not in the pragmatist sense that a theory is true if it is useful for us to believe it – but rather that it is valuable for epistemologists to ‘think about what [their] theory of knowledge would imply in actual practical situations, and how that connects up to action in particular moral cases’. In a similar vein, Srinivasan expresses bafflement about a picture of philosophy that some seem to operate under, ‘that what we should do is get our metaphysics and our epistemology straight and then see what follows from that morally’. This kind of methodological opposition to an ethics-first approach to philosophy, Srinivasan says, ‘is just weird. There seem to me to be self-evident, moral truths which might very well have various kind of metaphysical and epistemological and other implications.’

At this point, aiming to regain control of the conversation, I pivot us to Srinivasan’s current research project, a book on what she has styled genealogical anxiety. This is, as she characterises it, the worry ‘that exposing the contingent origins of a belief – a given belief of ours or a whole belief set, like our moral beliefs or our metaphysical beliefs or our religious beliefs – will cast doubt on them, will epistemically undermine those beliefs’. This kind of phenomenon, of attempted ‘genealogical debunking’, has been pervasive since early modernity (and, although Srinivasan does not say this, seems to me essential to the modern perspective). The most famous case, of course, is Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, his critical reconstruction of the origins of bourgeois Christian morality. But there have also been, Srinivasan adds, genealogical arguments against religion by Hume and Hobbes; against religious belief by Freud, Marx and Feuerbach; and against everything from morality through philosophical intuitions by some evolutionary psychologists. Nor is it hard to find genealogically-motivated doubt in wider culture: it is perhaps centrally reflected in the influence of post-structuralism. In a journal article, Srinivasan writes that ‘the “two cultures” of the modern intellectual world are no longer… the humanities and the sciences, but rather the culture of those on one hand who think that everything must be genealogised, and on the other, those who think that there is nothing to be learned from genealogy’. Her book, comprising three parts, is concerned with the phenomenon of genealogical anxiety in its entirety – its history, its epistemological underpinnings, and its connection with, especially radical, politics.

So genealogical anxiety is widespread – but, as Srinivasan puts it, ‘do these genealogical revelations ever in fact undermine our beliefs?’ Here the philosophical subject matter starts to get slightly intricate. Essentially, Srinivasan says, genealogical debunking arguments face a problem – different from the one earlier – of self-defeat. Suppose that we want to show some particular belief has suspect origins, and that therefore the belief is unjustified. This is a normative, and not merely descriptive, argument. It ends with an epistemic conclusion; along the way, we will have to help ourselves to an epistemological premise. But just the same argument can be run against any epistemological premise we choose! For example, suppose we wanted to say that we shouldn’t believe that God exists since our belief that God exists isn’t (what epistemologists call) ‘safe’ – that is, because we very easily could have not believed that God exists. This relies, roughly, on the premise that a belief is unjustified if it wasn’t reached by a reliable method. But whether one believes that claim is also genealogically contingent. The problem, Srinivasan explains, is that ‘if the argument is sound and the conclusion is true, then it follows that we don’t have any reason to believe the conclusion is true – or rather, the argument doesn’t give us reason to believe the conclusion is true because we shouldn’t trust our belief in the premises’. But the argument might work at another level: it might be that ‘we ourselves are drawn to these premises. If that’s the case, it is our own framework that defeats itself.’

Srinivasan thinks that there is still a great deal for genealogical and other kinds of critique to do, even if it is hard for such critique to be used in showing beliefs to be unjustified. In fact she takes a great deal of ideology critique to be instead ‘about showing us that certain kinds of social and political arrangements that we took to be necessary are in fact contingent’. She suggests that this, rather than showing the claims of bourgeois Christian morality to be false, is Nietzsche’s project in his Genealogy. ‘What he’s really interested in’, Srinivasan claims, ‘is how it is that they become true. I think he’s a kind of anti-realist about morality. He thinks that they’re true, but they’re true in virtue of this highly contingent social and political arrangement that we’ve come to. And what he’s showing us is that it is a contingent one; it’s not necessary.’ Srinivasan’s point, perhaps, is that in revealing the contingent origins of a belief set, conceptual scheme, or social structure, one might thereby be able to unsettle or displace it. In the first place, if a system is justified not by its justness but by its necessity, it loses its legitimacy if shown to be contingent. Beyond that – and this is the consequence that Srinivasan draws attention to – showing that a belief set or political arrangement can be changed might also, as in Nietzsche, serve as an appeal to change it.

Genealogical contingency ties into ideology and practice in another way; it raises the possibility, depending on one’s background epistemology, that people who occupy certain historical or cultural positions might simply be better-positioned to know than others. This way of putting it is abstract – but a related idea implicitly informs a great deal of contemporary leftist politics. It finds its expression most clearly in the notion that those who occupy certain systematically disadvantaged social positions – trans, female, gay, black – have some sort of unique or privileged access to certain kinds of propositions, usually about the experience of belonging to that group. The epistemology which informs this view is sometimes called ‘standpoint epistemology’; and, although rarely under that name, has been the recent target of both vehement criticism and defence. But it is not always made perfectly transparent what is actually being defended or attacked. Seeking some clarity, I ask Srinivasan to explain the truth in the doctrine. ‘Standpoint epistemology,’ Srinivasan says, ‘is a theory that emerges out of Marxism and particularly Lukacs’ reading of Marxism… I think when people talk about standpoint epistemology they often neglect that history; and here it’s really relevant because standpoint epistemology is neither a relativist epistemology’ – it doesn’t hold that truth is relative to an individual or group – ‘nor is it the promise of some kind of first-personal infallibility’. Indeed, in traditional Marxism, Srinivasan explains, ‘the privileged standpoint is always something that has to be achieved… Individuals don’t automatically, just in virtue of inhabiting some social position, have any kind of epistemic privilege.’ Standpoint epistemology is ‘supposed to be a structural epistemology, one that posits an epistemic privilege with regard to certain kinds of propositions for people who inhabit a certain kind of social position, and the social position is supposed to give us a very robust explanation for that epistemic privilege with regard to those particular propositions’.

In Marxism, this explanation famously centred around the workers’ relationship to the means of production – this relationship allowed workers ‘double vision’, access to both capitalistic ideology and to the reality behind the market. But this access was only to be achieved, Srinivasan says, ‘in the old Marxist phrase, by science and revolution’. It was necessary not only to battle against false consciousness, but to engage in actual revolution. This is a ‘high bar for achieving epistemic privilege’, Srinivasan points out. ‘As the notion is bandied about right now, there’s a sense that it means that each person has an individual authority about either the way the world is or their own personal experiences.’ She highlights two problems, in particular, with popular discussion and understanding of standpoint theory. The first of these, she says, is that we seem to have lost sight of the fact that it ‘requires an explanation, a structural explanation of why a particular societal position would make you in a better position to know’. And second, Srinivasan tells me, ‘you have to figure false consciousness into this, which is politically totally out of fashion. I think the fact that false consciousness is no longer something we’re allowed to take seriously in leftist politics, and especially feminist politics, has meant that standpoint epistemology gets distorted – because then it should just follow that it’s incredibly easy for individuals to know’ (not, she adds, that she thinks knowledge is very hard to come by either). But it is clear that these are broadly internal criticisms. ‘I think it just is the case that women are often’, she says, ‘in a better position to come to know about the workings of patriarchy than men are, because I think, as a matter of survival, women have to spend more time trying to negotiate it’. Yet there’s also ‘no reason to think that a woman who has totally internalised misogyny is going to be in a better position to tell you about how patriarchy works than a man who really takes feminism seriously… or a man of colour, or a gay man, or a queer man, the kind of people who understand marginalisation more broadly’.

With the interview drawing to a close, I ask Srinivasan what is next for her after she’s done with the project on genealogical anxiety. First, she tells me, she is ‘interested in doing more stuff on political epistemology, in particular about the limits of standard liberal post-Rawlsian ways of thinking about the nature of public discourse and political argument’. Wielding my analytic chops, I input that political disagreement is very deeply entrenched. ‘Yeah’, Srinivasan says, ‘and here’s one thing I think about that: reason is not going to help us. People just don’t respond to arguments. It’s the work of a lifetime to make yourself into the kind of person who does… So it seems to me that the holy grail of social psychology is, how do you change people’s views on things?’ That’s not a question philosophers will be able to help with. But epistemologists might, Srinivasan thinks, have something valuable to say about what we should do given the fact of deep political disagreement. She worries that the contemporary liberal tradition in political philosophy – that is, the tradition which takes as its founding text John Rawls’ 1971 A Theory of Justice – offers the wrong perspective for addressing the problem. ‘Political theorists envision the public sphere as a place of the free exchange of reasons’, she says, ‘as if that free exchange of reasons is supposed to be conducive to general knowledge, political and moral knowledge. That just seems wrong to me, if you and I don’t even acknowledge the same considerations as reasons.’

The project, then, is to work towards a better model, most centrally one which would stop people from losing knowledge in the face of bedrock disagreement. The model that emerges, it is already clear, will be in conflict with another liberal program, J S Mill’s. ‘Mill believed in the living truth’, Srinivasan explains. ‘He thought that even when you know something, you’re better off defending your argument against sceptics because that will heighten the justification for your belief. I actually think the opposite can happen. It can particularly happen in cases… where there’s deep practical disagreement coupled with power differentials.’ As an example, she gives the case of a black person in a society like the US, who has knowledge that the cops in his town are racist in virtue of his repeated interactions with them but, when pushed by a sceptic, is unable to counter every argument with which he is presented. Srinivasan thinks that such a person is ‘at risk of losing his knowledge’, not because his evidence is defeated or he loses his justification, but because he might feel psychologically that he needs to give up his view.

Srinivasan also plans to embark on a second project, of using philosophical tools to do some work on historical methodology and historiography. ‘Historical investigation throws up all these fascinating epistemological and metaphysical questions’, she says, which historians are not ‘on the whole great at reflecting on’. For instance, she tells me, ‘the general thought amongst historians is that something doesn’t exist if the concept for it doesn’t exist. Now obviously they don’t think this is true, I think, with trees and atoms, but they do think it’s true for any social kind.’ But should we really say that we need the concept owning the means of production for there to exist people who don’t own the means of production? ‘You have to think a little bit more about what it is for a concept to be socially constructed, and different notions of social construction, in order to think carefully about anachronism’, Srinivasan says. ‘So I’m interested in writing something that would go through some of the philosophical issues associated with these historical moves that historians often make, using examples from actual historians.’ It is one thing for a philosopher to insist on the importance of history to philosophy; it is another, and rarer, thing for a philosopher to engage so fully with history. But it is no surprise, here either, that Srinivasan does not cleave to the mainstream.