Interview with Sonia Sedivy

Published: January 5, 2013

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Sonia SedivySonia Sedivy is Associate Professor and Chair in UTSC Philosophy. Her primary teaching and research interests lie in the philosophy of mind (particularly philosophy of perception) and in the philosophy of art and the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

How did you get interested in philosophy?

I became interested in philosophy while I was an undergraduate, completing a specialist degree in Psychology along with courses in literature. In my third year I took a couple of courses that dealt with the history of psychology and that considered psychology from the perspective of philosophy of science. This helped me to understand my growing frustration and dissatisfaction. It seemed to me at the time that experimental psychology did not have the means to resolve some of the foundational issues and I was also finding that I was not especially interested in carrying out experiments myself. I had always been interested in the human mind but I couldn’t figure out how to approach trying to understand it. Neither psychology nor literature seemed right for me. I was really quite discouraged. The summer after third year I took two philosophy courses – and the fit for me, both personally and for my emerging sense of the issues, was just amazing. I found what I had been looking for. I decided to finish my specialist in psychology, since I was almost done, and the courses in fourth year were really interesting. After graduation I turned to philosophy.

What are you working on right now?

I am just finishing a book, Beauty and the End of Art, which is perhaps a philosophical love letter to both perception and beauty. I have been working on perception (as well as the nature of mental representation more generally) for quite a few years now, and it turns out that the sort of issues we need to address to understand our experiences of beauty are exactly the sorts of issues that philosophers of perception worry about (or so I argue) and that my approach to perception can help resolve.  So I am working on two fronts simultaneously in this book – theory of perception and of beauty – and I can’t wait to write an article focused just on perception that would incorporate all that I have been learning from studying beauty.

Who is your favorite ‘historical’ philosopher?

This is a terribly hard question to answer! Why need one pick favourites?  If I absolutely must, I would say Ludwig Wittgenstein – if he counts as ‘historical.’  If he doesn’t count, then I would probably have to say Kant.

Of the philosophy teachers you found especially influential, what was something distinctive you learned from one of them?

John McDowell, who supervised my doctoral dissertation, has been most influential. He opened up a whole different way of thinking that is hard to encapsulate in a few words. I had been studying the usual, very cognitive-science oriented approach to mind, when John McDowell arrived at my graduate school from Oxford. He introduced me to a very different, more ‘British’ way of addressing the issues, deriving from Wittgenstein, philosophy of language, right up to more contemporary philosophers that gave me a different perspective on contemporary philosophy of mind and on influential American philosophers such as Dennett and Davidson.

What do you try to bring your undergraduate students in the classroom?

I try to bring a sense that philosophy is alive today — that there are many questions that we need to address philosophically, and that it is exciting to do so.  It seems to me that it is so crucial that we appreciate that not everything can be addressed through an experimental method, and that when we think about difficult or abstract questions, there can be method and constraint that we can use to guide ourselves.