Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way – A Conversation with Kieran Setiya. Professor of Philosophy at MIT

There is no cure for the human condition: life is hard. But Kieran Setiya believes philosophy can help. Kieran is Professor of Philosophy (Philosophy Section Head) at MIT where he works on ethics, epistemology and the philosophy of the mind.

In his profound and personal book, Life is Hard, Kieran offers us a map for navigating the rough terrain of life from personal trauma to the injustice and absurdity of the world. Drawing on his own life’s experiences of pain, grief, failure and searching for meaning – he provides ancient and modern philosophical guidance for coping with the reality of what life will throw at us.

In this interview, I speak to Kieran Setiya, Professor of Philosophy at MIT on how philosophy can help us cope with the challenges life will throw at us, and how we can find hope, even when life is hard.

Q:  What do we misunderstand about life?

[Kieran Setiya]: I’m tempted to say what don’t we misunderstand about life.  It’s often simple things about how to deal with the world around us that are very hard to take in.  So, in this case I think there’d be 3 things to talk about.  The first one is the one you started with, which is that we often understandably turn away from difficulty because it’s painful, and we want to think about what the best life would be.

It’s not just something online influencers do; it also has deep roots in the history of philosophy where Plato thinks about justice in terms of the ideal city state and Aristotle thinks about how to live in terms of the best possible life.  If we are realistic those ideals are usually out of reach, and in fact thinking about them and dreaming about them is a way to punish ourselves for the fact our lives are never going to match up to those ideals.

Therefore, I think the fact that we have to live in the world as it is, not the world as we wish it would be, is something that we misunderstand.  And that connects with the 2 other kinds of mistakes I think are prevalent.  One is running together happiness or just feeling happy with living a good life, where you could be happy while being detached from reality.  Where living a good life involves responding to the world as it really is, and I think as soon as you start thinking in terms of living well rather than just feeling happy, it’s clear that part of living well is treating not just yourself, but other people, the way you should.

And then the lines between self interest and your own life and other people’s lives, morality and justice start to get blurry. One thing I think we misunderstand is the sense in which our lives are not separate from the lives of other people.

Q: When did we forget the importance of negative experience in life?

[Kieran Setiya]: That’s a cluster of very big questions, and my answer to them would have to be speculative.  I do think there’s a shift between even the way ancient Greek philosophers and Western philosophy think about our lives, in which they don’t really have the idea of an opposition between morality and self-interest.  The topic is always living well.  Sometimes it’s too idealised, as I think it is in Aristotle.  But it’s always inclusive, and the idea that there’s an opposition between my own interests and other peoples, that my life going well is in tension with yours, that is an early modern historical invention.  So, Hobbes is one of the key figures in picturing us as pitted against one another in this fight for individual happiness.  And so, I think there’s a historical story to be told there, but I don’t really know anyone who has told in full detail about how that opposition arises in early modern philosophy.  I think the other part of it is something that Simone Weil says, in a passage I quote in the book – that we flee from suffering (this is a paraphrase), but we flee from affliction the way an animal flees from death.  There’s a sense in which it’s perfectly natural that our response to difficulty in life is aversive.  We want to turn away from it.  So, I think there is something to overcome, an instinct to overcome acknowledging that we’re only going to be able to live well with the difficulties of life if we face up to them, because they’re difficult.  So, we are pushed away from them by our own natural revulsion.

Q: How can philosophy provide us with a way through pain?

[Kieran Setiya]: I think making sense of them is an essential part of this.  So, I have a chronic pain condition I’ve had since I was 27.  And it’s not as though philosophy is an anaesthetic, like it’s just going to make the pain go away.  But I think there is great solace in really understanding why chronic pain is difficult, why pain is caused, it’s not just that it’s bad in itself, it’s that it brings the body into focus, it occludes what would otherwise be the transparent experience of the world by making your body get in the way, the way in which the temporality of pain, the sense of it casting a shadow over the future, makes life difficult.  I think understanding those things can be consoling in itself, in part because it overcomes the isolation of illness.  And that’s something that applies to a lot of forms of suffering, is that they isolate us.  We feel trapped in our own suffering and connecting with other people, sharing that suffering is already a consolation.  I think it’s also orienting, so taking one example thinking about the way in which the temporal structure of chronic pain makes it so difficult, the way in which one day of pain, you can have a pretty good day while having a serious headache or pelvic pain which is what I have, and if you could experience each day as just one of those days, it wouldn’t be as bad.  It’s the fact that it extends into a future and casts a shadow which is so difficult.  That gives us advice about how to live, and the advice is not revolutionary.  It’s trying to take one day at a time, but I think there’s real value in understanding philosophically how deep the roots of that wisdom are.

Q:  What is it about philosophy which enables it to act as an ‘anaesthetic’ for life?

[Kieran Setiya]:  Yeah, I think there’s part of this I understand somewhat, and part that remains mysterious.  The part I think I understand somewhat has to do with the way in which the unintelligibility of suffering adds insult to injury.  And one way to give it intelligibility is a way I don’t accept, which is ‘it’s always for the best, here’s how it all turns out well’.  I don’t think we can have that kind of reassurance from philosophy, but I think we can understand what’s going on. And I think the craving for understanding for many of us is deep, and the frustration of not understanding what’s happening, feeling the absurdity and unintelligibility of what’s going on in our lives that’s difficult, philosophy can help us overcome that, and I think that’s deep for many of us.  The thing I think I don’t understand very well is something that I experience, which is part of the value of writing about chronic pain is that like many forms of invisible illness, you can raise awareness, connect with other people, but even before I communicate it to anyone else, just the sheer act of writing about it already made a difference to me.  And I don’t quite understand why that is.  The analogy I’m tempted to reach for is when my kid was younger, they would get stuck on something and get really obsessed.  We had this trick, it didn’t exactly work for them, but it sometimes helped, which was to say, write down what you’re obsessed with on a scrap of paper, then crumple up the paper and throw it in the trash as a way of forgetting about it.  And I have something like the feeling of that, that by writing about and articulating what one’s going through, you put it at a distance and then it’s out there and it’s somehow an externalised concrete fact.  I don’t know why that makes a difference, but I do think writing about one’s difficulties is powerful.

Q: Does philosophy makes us less alone?

[Kieran Setiya]:  I think that’s exactly right, there’s two sides of it.  One is that it takes us out of our loneliness and connects us with other people.  To articulate and understand grief connects us with other people, and loneliness and isolation are part of the experience of grief.  I also think philosophy there again contributes to understanding.  Grief is a very complicated, messy thing.  People in grief are often emotionally all over the place, it’s not just sadness.  There’s anger, and guilt when you get over it and guilt when you don’t.  And the philosophical analysis of grief in which one says okay, what are its different aspects, what are we grieving?  Some of us has to do with what we have lost and the difficulties we will face without, say, our partner.  Some of it has to do with the sense of the relationship being transformed, not destroyed but somehow forced to change, and some of it has to do with the objectively just realising that part of the sadness and pain here is not about me and what I’m going through when I’m grieving, it really has to do with the other person.  And acknowledging that is to not acknowledge that, to not grieve in the way some philosophers like the Stoics have encouraged to do, would be a failure to really acknowledge the reality of what we’re going through.  I think grief is a place where this distinction between feeling happy and living well is very vivid, because it’s clear that for most of us if you just felt fine when someone you love died, if you didn’t feel unhappy that wouldn’t be living well, you just would be out of touch with reality.  So, I think grief helps us to understand, in a vivid way, how a certain kind of difficulty is living well.  It’s part of love.

Q: To what extent can philosophy ‘replace’ theological meaning?

[Kieran Setiya]:  Right, I think there are limits to how much meaning we can find if we don’t have the kind of assurances that religion might give us that for instance there’s another life or there’s another world behind this world in which these apparently meaningless forms of suffering are rectified.  And I think to some extent the consolations that secular philosophy gives are not going to be the same as, or match up to those that religion gives.  On the other hand I think that ideas like the meaning of life, the idea that we could find meaning life are ones that while they can have a religious backing, don’t need to.  The question of the meaning of life I think is something like how should I feel about human history and my place in it, and the place of human history in the cosmos as a whole.  And you can ask that question even if you don’t have god to provide an answer, but the question is just look at human history, what kinds of ways of emotionally reacting to that actually make sense?  And the answer is well it depends on how human history goes.  So we can ask questions of exactly that kind even without the theological backing.

Q: Could we see philosophy as being a language perhaps, for life?

[Kieran Setiya]:  That’s a great question, I do think one way to tell the history of philosophy is in the way you just did, where in the beginning as it were, all of human inquiry counts as philosophical, and then as individual disciplines acquire their own distinctive methods and established results they become their own thing.  So this happens to physics very early, it happens to biology and psychology and sociology in the 19th/20th century, it happens to computer science and linguistics later in the 20th century.  And then the questions that get left behind, the deep forms of inquiry we don’t really know how to engage in, remain philosophical.  And there’s a real risk I think, as the disciplines that carved off from philosophy take up so much of our intellectual space that philosophy itself, the questions that remain behind, questions about the meaning of life or how these disciplines fit together are ones we’re at risk of neglecting.  And I think they’re especially urgent questions when religious answers to them are no longer things we can take for granted.  So I think philosophy plays a role there that is easy to miss in, not that there’s anything wrong with scientific inquiry but the more you think of science as occupying the whole of intellectual space, the more you’re going to miss the philosophical origins of all science, and therefore miss these wider, bigger questions.

Q: Can philosophy help us make sense of injustice?

[Kieran Setiya]: I think so, and I think that one of the hardest things is to bridge the gap between the individual and big questions in political philosophy. So philosophers will write about questions like just war, when is a war just, what can we do, what should we think about civilian casualties in conditions of war, or what would a just state look like?  Our personal question is usually one in which we’re surrounded by a society in which there’s a lot of injustice, and our individual power to make a difference feels very limited.  So actually having a philosopher say here’s what a just society would look like can feel a bit like Aristotle saying ‘here’s what an ideal life would be’, great – what am I going to do right now?  One way in which I think we can make sense of this comes through the work of a political theorist and philosopher Iris Marion Young, who developed the idea of structural injustice, the idea that injustice sometimes originates without the need for individual people to act unjustly or have unjust attitudes, but through the interaction of systems in perfectly well meaning people can generate systemic forms of injustice.  And then they’re complicit in it, and the question is okay, what I need to do is think about the ways in which my life is complicit in forms of systemic or structural injustice, and then think about how to change them.  But changing them is never going to be something I as an individual can just do, it’s always about finding collectives that I can join and participate in.  And often those collectives, if you look at the biggest collectives, my influence on them is minimal.  If it’s the government say, or the UN.  But if I look at more local collectives, I can make a difference. So for me, climate change is one of the really oppressive images of injustice and fear about the future, and it was incredibly empowering to be involved with the fossil free MIT student group, because it was a small scale thing.  It was a case where a few hundred students could really make a difference by acting collectively at an institution.  And I think that kind of action, where we find things closer to us that we can participate in, is a way to engage with injustice that feels empowering and makes some difference even if it doesn’t change the world.  It helps us to overcome some of the sense of just being crushed by the kind of scenarios of injustice and war that you were pointing to.

Q: How can philosophy help us understand otherwise unfathomably large concepts?

[Kieran Setiya]:  I mean, I think it is to do with the fact that it’s not constrained by disciplinary boundaries.  So the weakness of philosophy in a way, that it doesn’t have a bunch of proprietary methods that are going to straight forwardly answer its questions in a limited timeframe is also its strength, which is to say philosophers are used to asking big questions for which we don’t really quite know the answers, and you have to draw on the whole of human inquiry without feeling channeled to use the particular methods for your discipline.  And that’s what problems like climate change confront us with, how to put together the science with the politics with the human trauma with the existential threat, the sense that the future of humanity is at stake.  That’s a scale and perspective that philosophy is accustomed to, and we are really confronted now with… we’re being forced by actual political social changes to think about questions like what is the future of humankind?

Q: Or indeed, what is humankind?

[Kieran Setiya]:  Right, what are we?  How should we feel about human nature, confronted with the kind of difficulties that climate change confronts us with?  Like, who are we?  Are we the kind of beings who can get through this with a modicum of grace, or are we going to destroy ourselves?  Our sense of our own being is at stake.

Q:  Why do we tend to turn to philosophy only in the darkest times?

[Kieran Setiya]:  It’s true that I think the questions philosophers ask are the ones that we might, in our daily life, ignore and just think I’ll get on with my life and not worry about how to deal with suffering, or what does it all mean or what’s the meaning of life in the face of mortality.  I think once you are forced to confront mortality and suffering, those questions become unavoidable.  The other part of this I don’t quite know how to make sense of is I think there’s some connection between philosophy as a discipline, being philosophical in the more informal sense, the sort of detached wry response and a certain kind of humour even, the fact that often in these very dark moments people are able to joke or find comedy is an astonishing feature of our human capacities.  And it has something to do, I think, or has an affinity with the fact that even in the most difficult times we can be curious about what’s happening, that the curiosity philosophy thrives on, it doesn’t extinguish.  Even by the worst things, we’re interested in the worst things.  And I think that’s one reason why I think there’s a source of hope for, we were talking about despair at human nature – but one source of hope about human nature is that people can retain that sense of curiosity, humour and compassion in the face of difficulty.

Q: How do we apply philosophy in our lives?

[Kieran Setiya]:  Both great questions.  I think I myself have a degree of ambivalence about hope, because I think sometimes hoping can be wishful thinking or it can make you passive, you just hope things will get better and don’t do anything, and it can be daunting too, that sometimes when you hope that’s what makes you vulnerable to disappointment and it can be painful.  So I think there are downsides to hope, on the other hand I think unless we have hope action is impossible.  And I think the way in which philosophy can help us deal with that ambivalence is by reframing our relationship to hope.  For me, what matters is the shift from thinking the question is should I hope or despair? Say about climate change.  Is hope good or bad, should I hope?  And thinking that’s not really the question.

The  question is always what should I hope for?  What can I realistically hope for? Where can hope attach itself?  And when you think about climate change, you think well it’s not hope or despair, it’s can we hope for 1.5 degrees?  Maybe not, okay let’s hope for 1.6.  If we can’t hope for that, 1.7.  I think always to ask what to hope for, then always to remember that hoping alone is not the end point.  The hope is what makes room for action, but the next step is to do something.  And that reframing of hope is something I got from the medieval philosopher Aquinas.  And it’s one of these amazing moments where you retrack into the deep history of philosophy and find something that’s practically valuable now.  Okay and then there was your second question.  I do think philosophy has always had its technical side.  Aristotle is not easy to read.  Kant is not easy to read.  And so I don’t think the technicality of contemporary philosophy which a lot of philosophy has is necessarily something new.  I do think philosophy has and philosophers have an obligation to communicate that they’ve sometimes neglected, and one thing that’s happening now in philosophy that I’m really enthusiastic about is that there’s more supply to meet demand, that is to say people do want to think about philosophical questions, they’re asking questions about how to live and how to face up to injustice and hardship that are philosophical.  And so in a way they want philosophy.  And philosophers now are increasingly trying to write, as I’m trying to write, for a wider audience, and recognising that that is as it were part of the job and value of philosophy that is lost if we don’t communicate in those ways.  So I hope that, as the next decade goes on, more and more philosophers will write books that anyone can read, that are about these kinds of questions.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.