Interview with Academics #1: Maya Krishnan

[ID: a photo of Maya Krishnan]

Maya Krishnan — DPhil in Philosophy (in progress), BPhil in Philosophy, All Souls College

  1. How did you come to philosophy & your particular specialisations and/or interests?

My current interests are in Kant, theology, metaphysics, and epistemology. One of the themes I work on concerns the limits of thought  — this is a Kantian topic that I came to by way of Foucault. A related theme that I also work on is omniscience. Both of these themes stem from a kind of epistemological anxiety about the adequacy of my own thinking — can I know how things really are, and if not, why not? What would it be like to know the world in a perfectly adequate way? Is that a way of knowing that could be available to me? There’s an underlying sense that I don’t know ‘what’s really going on’, in the broadest sense of that phrase, and a suspicion that a genuine understanding of reality is out of my grasp. These thoughts lead both to frustration and to curiosity about whether this condition really does obtain, and if so, why. I’m also interested in whether self-deception might be not only psychologically advantageous, but in some stronger sense necessary (I would like to say “metaphysically necessary”, but remain unclear on what that might mean in this context).

  1. What would you want to share about your experience studying for graduate degrees in a different country than where you studied for your undergraduate?

It’s helpful to experience very different philosophical cultures. Often, what is treated in one department as ‘rational thinking’ or ‘common sense’ or ‘obvious’ is considered absurd in another department, and this phenomenon is more pronounced when you go to a different country. I’m inclined to think that a lot of what we take to be ‘rational’ results from intellectual fashion. As one example: Stanford has several anti-realists, and as an undergraduate I considered myself an ‘anti-realist’ about basically everything one might be an anti-realist about, but then in Oxford I encountered many people who thought that ‘anti-realism’ was so incoherent, they couldn’t even figure out what‘anti-realism’ was. Predictably, I now have a hard time making sense of anti-realisms of various forms. Is this because I learned something, or because I implicitly capitulated to peer pressure? Philosophers are rarely as rational as they suppose themselves to be. One way to guard against the temptations of intellectual fashion is to switch departments at some point.

  1. What motivates you to stay in academia (or at least pursue further degrees)? If you have encountered obstacles, what supports have you found, would you recommend, and how did you manage to persevere?

There are certain vague, semi-formed ideas I have (about e.g. the necessity of self-deception and the reality of death) that feel very important to articulate, and that I don’t yet know how to articulate. With these ideas comes a feeling of obligation to develop them and bring them into the world. I suppose if I didn’t do that, I would feel like I had left my life incomplete. My own motivation to stay in academia comes from the feelings surrounding these nascent ideas. 

I’ve been very fortunate in many ways, so I wouldn’t want to present myself as having overcome extreme obstacles. And there have been some difficulties that I’m not ready to talk about in detail. But there are some difficulties I’ve dealt with that I do feel ready to discuss. In particular, I’ve experienced a lot of extreme doubt — in my abilities, in my training, about whether philosophy is a legitimate form of inquiry (whatever that means), and about whether I’d be able to find a place within analytic philosophy for the sort of thinking I want to do. I used to feel overwhelmed by a sense of constant epistemological or existential crisis.

There was one year I spent as an exchange student in Munich, and I remember going to the library every day and wandering among the rows of books, thinking about of how few of those books I would ever end up reading. Each row of mostly-unread books felt like a distinct failure: another piece of evidence that I didn’t really know anything at all. It’s hard to explain the almost visceral quality of the sense of the absence of my own knowledge — it felt somewhat like nausea. I’m not sure that there’s a ‘cure’ for this sort of experience, but paradoxically (or predictably) enough, the sense of constant crisis stopped troubling me once I stopped trying to ‘fix’ it. Over time, I’ve come to treat epistemological/existential crisis as part of the process of doing philosophy (or at least, part of my process of doing philosophy). 

  1. Have you had any particular role models, mentors, or favourite philosophers who’ve guided you? If so, could you share some information about who, how, and why.

Two major role models in philosophy when I was an undergraduate were Michael Friedman and Alan Code. In particular, attending Michael’s seminar on Kant convinced me to switch my major from history to philosophy — his class provided a first intimation of just how powerful philosophical thought can be. It was like being introduced to intellectual power tools. Both Michael and Alan contributed to my early image of ‘classically good philosophy’: systematic and grand, yet rigorously attentive to detail.

Since starting graduate work in philosophy, I’ve been excited about some of the younger philosophers in Oxford and Cambridge who are trained in (and work on) contemporary analytic philosophy, but who also have strong political investments and work at least in part with an orientation toward what I will call (for lack of a more adequate phrase) broader humanistic problems: Rachel Fraser, Amia Srinivasan, Anil Gomes, and Nikhil Krishnan (no relation). 

It feels like a promising time to be part of analytic philosophy. As far as I can tell, there is an increasing openness to creativity and to pursuing topics that once would have been widely dismissed as too political or too bizarre.

  1. How have your expectations about what you want to and are able to study in academia changed over time?

My expectations about what is possible have fluctuated wildly. At first, as an undergraduate, I was absolutely determined to bring my interests in Foucault and theology into contact with analytic philosophy. My professors were very supportive of my enthusiasm for trying to think of different ways in which it all might fit together. They also let me figure out for myself what worked and what didn’t. I remember one professor gently encouraging me, after I gave him a very idiosyncratic paper of mine on Foucault, to have a look at the sort of work that contemporary philosophers are doing nowadays — I was pretty far away from the sorts of conversations that contemporary philosophers were having. Still, it really wasn’t until graduate school that I internalised how difficult it might be to keep going in such an idiosyncratic way. In retrospect, I’m very grateful to all my undergraduate professors for both their support and their willingness to occasionally tell me that what I was doing wasn’t quite working.

After such a bucolic undergraduate experience, graduate school was initially a shock. I was no longer an enthusiastic undergraduate to be endlessly encouraged, so much as a putative philosophical professional who needed to be schooled in the ways of The Discipline. Graduate school gave me a more fine-grained understanding of how analytic philosophy is done (i.e. what people talk about in seminars, what people write about in journal articles, what people work on for their dissertations), and as I learned more about what analytic philosophy is like, I began to feel uneasy. It seemed like I had to consign myself to working on topics I didn’t really care about, or else strike out completely on my own and risk producing work that was illegible to others.

Eventually, I decided to temporarily put ‘interesting’ ideas on hold while doing the BPhil in philosophy, and focused on becoming well-trained according to the standards of contemporary analytic philosophy. At the time, analytic philosophy seemed like something overwhelming that might completely subsume me and prevent me from working on what I care about. And there were also a lot of early supervision papers I handed in that I found pretty dull. Standing out in memory is one paper about whether someone would count as irrational in virtue of mis-perceiving a grey banana as being slightly yellow. 

The situation didn’t change all at once, but eventually I found debates that interested me, and ways of bringing my older interests into contact with the vocabulary of analytic philosophy. It was also helpful to encounter the work of analytic philosophers slightly older than me (see above) who were using analytic philosophy to address humanistically and politically interesting problems. I now feel less limited about what I might work on than I did at the start of graduate school. I’ve also been fortunate to find several professors at Oxford who have been supportive of my more idiosyncratic interests. Temporarily putting aside my more offbeat way of proceeding in order to receive a “standard” analytic philosophy education ended up being a good choice for me. Still, I do want to stress that nobody should feel like analytic philosophy is the only way to learn how to be a rigorous thinker.

  1. How does your experience of studying relate to what you are studying? (How, as a philosopher, do you relate your philosophizing activity to the life you are living as an academic here and the dimensions of your life beyond this?)

I find doing philosophy not only intellectually challenging but also personally challenging — there can be this sense, when doing philosophy, of being entirely exposed. You can’t hide the workings of your own mind, especially when doing non-historical work. Sometimes this is exhilarating, and sometimes it is stressful. There have been supervisions that have consisted entirely in hearing all the problems with the work I’ve handed in. This wasn’t done disrespectfully, but it was still unpleasant to adjust to hearing much more criticism than praise. I remember one session in which my supervisor and I discussed, for two hours, all the problems he found with my paper. Then, when I walked out the door, certain that the paper had been an embarrassing failure, he said, “I liked your paper — I’m very happy with it”. For many philosophers, liking a paper is compatible with delivering mostly criticism. But this wasn’t something that I had encountered until I started graduate school. In general, graduate school has involved a process of learning how to withstand the pressure that comes with doing independent intellectual work — and also learning how to put my ego to the side.

But while learning how to take criticism has been an important part of my philosophical education, there is also a danger here for minority students in particular, since we sometimes can’t be sure that criticism is coming from a respectful place. I’ve been lucky that my supervisors have not given me grounds for suspecting that their criticisms of my ideas had anything to do with racism and sexism (although last year there was a seminar leader whose class I walked out on due to how disrespectfully he spoke to me in front of the other students). Still, when I go to conferences or attend talks, it frequently happens that philosophers who don’t know me just hear a question from a young-looking woman of colour with a high-pitched voice, and then they respond to the most uncharitable interpretation of my question (if they respond at all). It’s infuriating and draining when this happens, and this makes me especially angry for minority students who deal with versions of this from their own supervisors. 

Being receptive to criticism is an important part of becoming a better philosopher, but if your philosophical environment is made up of people who are inclined to behave disrespectfully, putting your ego to the side can be dangerous. So not only do you have to learn how to take criticism, you also have to learn who are the people from whom you can safely take criticism. This means that minority students have to do a lot of extra work just to figure out how to navigate within their philosophical environments.

  1. Could you explain how you navigate and respond to different receptions at Oxford of Kant as a philosopher?

Oxford has a very interesting history with Kant reception. One of the most distinctive styles of Anglophone Kant interpretation was developed in the 1960s in separate works by Peter Strawson and Jonathan Bennett, both of whom have Oxford connections (Strawson taught at Oxford for many years, and Bennett got his BPhil at Oxford). Their approach was characterized by a determination to treat Kant as if he were their contemporary, and to criticize his arguments as if they had been published in a recent philosophy journal. Nowadays, many Kant scholars are inclined to treat such an approach with skepticism — it seems to encourage too much ahistoricism. Still, even those who find the relentless pugnacity of this sort of scholarship off-putting (Kant’s Analytic by Bennett basically consists in hundreds of pages of complaints against Kant) tend to respect Strawson and Bennett for encouraging more critical engagement with Kant’s ideas. Contemporary Kant scholarship has benefitted from their example, even though it largely moves away from the model of arguing with Kant as though we were in a seminar with him.

The Kant scholars currently in Oxford — Robert Watt, Anil Gomes, Adrian Moore, and Ralph Walker — each have very distinctive approaches to working on Kant. I find this quite refreshing. Still, something of the Strawson-Bennett model persists today; when I talk to other graduate students about Kant’s ideas, the common first impulse is to argue back against Kant. While this once bothered me (how can we argue against Kant’s ideas if we don’t yet understand what they were?), I’ve come to believe that this kind of argument can foster understanding. Taking up the position of either attacking or defending Kant is one way of coming to learn about the structure of his views — doing so actively rather than passively, so to speak. In that sense, I suppose the Strawson-Bennett tradition has (somewhat) won me over. 

  1. What advice would you give to undergraduate students who are either/both minorities hoping to pursue philosophy further or/and interested to study philosophical topics less commonly recognised as philosophy by the establishment we encounter not only at Oxford but at many philosophy departments in the Euro-American universities and beyond?

It’s important that students let the university (or, at Oxford, their colleges and the faculty) know when they want to study less-recognised subjects, and to ask in particular for a change in hiring patterns. One common response that universities and colleges give to student requests for more diverse curricula is to say that they don’t have anyone who can teach the relevant subjects. But the distribution of expertise among department members results from the hiring decisions that institutions make, so that’s not a good response.

The time lag between student activism and the introduction of new course options means that those who advocate for change are rarely direct beneficiaries. This is upsetting. I want minority students to feel like they can spend their undergraduate years wandering through libraries and pondering ideas and focusing on writing essays — and I want all minority students to feel that way right now, rather than, say, five or ten or twenty years from now. I also find it frustrating that minority students often do the (unpaid) work of bringing about changes that should have happened a long time ago, effectively compromising their own interests for the good of students who come after.

I’m not sure that there’s one overarching piece of advice I can give — I think it’s a valid choice for a minority student to spend a significant amount of time bringing about institutional change, and also a valid choice for a minority student to decide to spend lots of time in the library (although eventually, all of us who benefit from Oxford’s privileges incur an obligation to push for change).

  1. Could you tell us more about some of your favourite developments or moments in your current studies? 

Earlier this year, I realized that certain questions regarding the limits of thought and the putative necessity of self-deception are potentially isomorphic to problems that arise within modal metaphysics. This got me very excited about the possibility of using modal logic and modal metaphysics as resources for getting clear about some of the philosophical questions that I am interested in. But it all remains quite provisional at this point. 

  1. What would you like to do after your PhD?

Get a job as a university professor and keep doing philosophy, by the grace of whatever deity might be out there.

  1.  How would you recommend students navigate balancing passing their degree and finding the time and resources to learn beyond their curriculum about liminal or totally silenced topics?

It’s unjust that subjects such as feminist philosophy, critical race theory, and non-Western philosophies are frequently not taught as part of standard course offerings, which in turn means that undergraduates who want to learn these about subjects often have to do lots of extra work in addition to their degree program. Things do get marginally better in graduate school, where there is more intellectual freedom, and (depending on the program) relatively more time is spent on independent work, and relatively less time on very particular pre-determined modules. While silencing is still a problem at the graduate level (after all, graduate students need supervisors with appropriate expertise, as well as class-givers who can teach relevant seminars), there is more opportunity to direct curricular work to encompass liminal or silenced subjects. 

This is why I would recommend that undergraduates who want to learn about these subjects, and who think there’s a chance they might go on to do graduate work, ensure that they don’t neglect their undergraduate degree program — good marks are a prerequisite for getting into graduate school. Hopefully students five or ten years from now won’t have to think about these tradeoffs, since their degree programs will encompass the subjects that they actually want to study. 

  1.  What advice would you like to pass on to all and especially minority undergraduates studying philosophy at Oxford?

It’s hard to make a helpful blanket statement when trying to provide encouragement to students facing systemic injustice. I’m happy to try to make time for any minority undergraduate studying philosophy at Oxford who thinks it might be helpful to talk — you can contact me via my university email address.

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