Amia Srinivasan Profile
Amia Srinivasan (Connecticut & Corpus Christi 2007) has been an Examination Fellow at All Souls College, University of Oxford since 2009. She holds a BPhil and DPhil in Philosophy from Oxford and a BA in Philosophy from Yale University. She works on issues in epistemology, ethics, metaphilosophy, social and political philosophy and feminism. She has written for the London Review of Books, the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement and TANK magazine. Amia will be joining the Philosophy Department at University College London in autumn 2015.
Rhodes Project: How would you describe your time at Oxford as a graduate student?
Amia Srinivasan: I have spent more time in Oxford—eight years, nearly the entirety of my 20s—than anywhere else. So I feel like I’ve had many lives here, at turns engaged and dissolute, inspired and depressive. I’ve often been overwhelmed by the beauty and richness of Oxford, and have at other times felt intensely claustrophobic.
One thing that is striking about my time in Oxford is how little connected I have felt to the Rhodes community. No doubt I was generalizing from a small sample, but when I first arrived my fellow scholars struck me as politically centrist, careerist and straight-laced. There were a handful of scholars I liked a lot, and one I deeply loved, but for the most part I didn’t fit in, and stayed away. I was lucky to find others who took me in, and gave of themselves generously. Those friendships don’t simply ‘stand out’ for me; they are what has given my life here its form and weight.
The other force that has given my life here its form is philosophy. I came to Oxford with hardly any background in the analytic philosophy tradition that dominates here. The learning curve was steep, which made my first few years of graduate work both exciting and difficult. I slowly learned the language, gradually began to inhabit the worldview. But intellectually I often felt like a stranger in a strange land, and was frustrated by what the new language wouldn’t let me (I felt) say. I feared that my mind was being pruned, rendered into an expert tool for doing one thing (careful, technical argumentation) at the cost of being able to do things I really cared about: talking about literature, art, politics and the experiences of ordinary life. Now I think that fear was misplaced. Rigour, even a bit of pedantry, has proved immensely useful in thinking about the things I care about most.
Rhodes Project: Can you share more about your experience as a Prize Fellow at All Souls College? What prompted you to apply, and how has the experience shaped your career as an academic?
Amia Srinivasan: I applied because the exam sounded like fun, at least the general parts of the exam. (The exam comes in two parts: papers on a chosen subject, for which I chose philosophy, and generalist papers that range over politics, art, culture, sport, etc.) And the exam was fun, though the viva–in front of the entire fellowship–was a bit harrowing. Thankfully it passed quickly, and somehow I found myself elected to the college.
All Souls has had a dramatic impact on my life course. Had I not been elected I would have likely gone back to the U.S. for either philosophy graduate school or law school, as I only had another year’s worth of funding at Oxford. Before being elected I was unsure whether I was good enough at philosophy to make a career out of it. The prize fellowship gave me time to read, go down blind alleys, and figure out what sort of philosopher I might be.
Rhodes Project: You have lived in Taiwan, New York, Singapore and London. How has growing up in so many cities around the world shaped your identity and your work?
Amia Srinivasan: As a child I would call anywhere I was sleeping that night ‘home’, even a hotel. I liked the possibility for re-invention that came with moving every three or four years, but also envied those with a strong sense of home. I still feel that way today, though increasingly I really do feel at home in England, or as at home as I’ll ever feel anywhere.
Part of my philosophical work focuses on the question of genealogical contingency: the way in which our beliefs, values and worldviews are radically contingent on where and when and with whom we find ourselves in the world. What are we to make of this radical contingency? What does it imply for our ability to transcend our particular perspectives and know the world as it is in itself? Is this an ambition even worth harbouring? Is it an ambition to which philosophy itself should aspire? These are questions I care a lot about, and part of the reason I care about them has to do with the contingencies of my own upbringing.
Rhodes Project: What inspired your initial interest in philosophy, and later your DPhil dissertation on the limits of knowledge?
Amia Srinivasan: In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein describes how we acquire pain language. He says the child falls, and the adults rush to him, and comfort and cajole him with words. He thereby acquires language for his pain. For me philosophy was the discipline that best gave words to the anxieties I had about the relationship of mind to world, the individual to society, the call of the aesthetic and the demands of the ethical.
When I arrived at Oxford I thought that knowledge must be the sort of thing that is in principle available to everyone, regardless of background. I now realize that this was a deeply liberal thought, built on a falsely optimistic view of how people’s backgrounds constrain their access to goods. In reality I think that our capacity to know is limited by the contingencies of background and experience. We aren’t free-floating rational agents, capable of knowing anything in principle just by thinking about it hard enough. We need the cooperation of the world – not just to know, but to be and do good.
Rhodes Project: Anger has been an area of focus in your research. How can anger serve as a positive emotion in personal and political issues?
Amia Srinivasan: I think that history makes clear that anger can be put to effective political use. The history of the American civil rights, feminist, LGBTQ, labour or anti-colonial struggles would all look very different if their instigators had not felt and expressed their righteous anger. Those who think that political progress unfolds only through calm deliberation are either psychologically naïve or are deliberately trying to buttress the status quo. Consider, for example, how the stereotypes of shrill, hysterical women or angry black thugs are used as reasons to dismiss legitimate protest.
That said, I think we should also question this obsession with anger’s ‘usefulness’ or ‘counterproductivity’ in political contexts. In ordinary contexts, we think that someone can be legitimately, justly angry even if that anger is ‘counterproductive’. (Imagine how you’d feel if your cheating lover suggested that you not get angry at her or him because doing so would only make her or him cheat more.) So our question should not only be: is anger here useful for our political ends? Sometimes the right question is simply: is it justified?
Rhodes Project: What challenges do you believe women encounter in the world of public writing? Are women’s voices less audible?
Amia Srinivasan: ‘Less audible’ might be taken to suggest that it’s something about women’s voices – their softness – that stops them being heard; that women should simply speak up. But that’s to obfuscate the structural forces that stop people from listening to women’s voices. In general I have little time for the kind of ‘lean in’ feminism that tells women to be more like men. First, it speaks primarily to the women–rich white women–who already enjoy massive privilege. (There’s no point ‘leaning in’ if you’re not already at the boardroom table.) Second, it doesn’t register the fact that because of the structural nature of patriarchy, a women who acts ‘like a man’ will never be treated as man: she’ll be an ambitious bitch. The goal shouldn’t be to help a few privileged women better navigate the system; it should be to destroy the system.
Back to the question of public writing though. I think it’s impossible to think deeply about why there are relatively few women (or people of colour, or poor people) in that sphere without thinking about why there are relatively few women (or people of colour, or poor people) in most prestigious areas of public life. But we can start by saying this: all of us, men and women, are socialized not to take women’s voices seriously. Those things most valued in public writing–authority, brilliance, argumentative force, wit–are all gendered, and they are gendered male. We tend not to recognize these things in women, and women tend not to recognize these things in themselves.
Rhodes Project: What role has mentorship played in your life, personally and professionally?
Amia Srinivasan: I’m not sure I’ve ever had a ‘mentor’, though I have always had teachers who have shaped how I think about the world and what I might do in it: a PE teacher in New York who taught Hindu ethics through dodgeball; an English teacher in Singapore who kindly suggested I try to ‘rise above the airheads’; a philosophy teacher in London who first gave me Plato and Kant; Karsten Harries, James Kreines, Bo Burt and Shelly Kagan at Yale; my supervisors John Hawthorne and Tim Williamson at Oxford. I suspect I would have resented it if anyone had tried to mentor me, insofar as this means trying to shape someone in one’s own images. All my best teachers let me fashion myself after my own, for good and bad (often bad).
Rhodes Project: What books have been most transformative for you?
Amia Srinivasan: I don’t know about ‘transformative’ (lots of counterfactuals involved), but here are some things that matter to me: James Baldwin’s Another Country and A Fire Next Time, Nabokov’s Ada, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Norman Rush’s Mating, Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet, Vyasa’s Mahabharata, Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, Plato’s Republic, Rousseau’s Emile, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Adrian Moore’s Points of View, Tim Williamson’s Knowledge and its Limits, Karsten Harries’ The Ethical Function of Architecture, the essays of Joan Didion, Bernard Williams, Catharine MacKinnon and Susan Sontag, and the poems of Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman and Dan Chiasson.
Rhodes Project: What do you imagine the next ten years of your life will look like?
Amia Srinivasan: I fervently hope not to be bored and not to bore others.
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