In my sophomore year at Cornell in the Fall of 1996 I took a class with Zoltan Szabo on the philosophy of math. For the final essay in the class I decided to write on Quine's classic paper "On What There Is". As with any normal essay, the topic was straight-forward: explain Quine's view, state what I think, consider an objection to my view and respond. 10-15 pgs. But as I was working on my final paper, I found that I hit a wall. I just couldn't write it. I read Quine's paper over and over again, trying to figure out what I think. I felt I disagreed with Quine, but where in the essay exactly did I disagree? I wasn't able to pin down my objection, and after struggling for a few weeks, and as the deadline to hand in the essay approached, I went to Szabo's office hours to talk to him.
Feeling defeated, I told Szabo that I wasn't able to write the paper, that I won't be handing it in, and that I was willing to take an F for the course. Thinking that my decision to not hand in a paper seemed extreme, Szabo was trying to see what the matter was exactly. And then suddenly, to my own amazement and embarrassment, I started crying. Not just a few tears. But sobbing. Uncontrollably. Whatever it was I was struggling with in writing the paper finally broke through, and I gave vent to my utter exhaustion and, as I sensed it, my failure. In between my crying, I told Szabo that I thought Quine was wrong, but I just didn't know how to show it, and that it was all too hard.
Sensing that my emotional state seemed all out of proportion to writing an essay on ontological commitment, Szabo leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees, and asked me if I was ok. I was a sophomore, after all, new to college, and he seemed to think that maybe I was having problems adjusting to college. He asked me, "Did something happen with any of your friends? Did someone say anything?" A perfectly fine, understandable, sensitive question to ask in that situation. But upon hearing the question, I started crying more, harder. Szabo seemed to think that my crying must have a non-philosophical origin, something outside the realm of talking about Quine. It was that implication which pained me further and which made me cry harder. And which then, suddenly, made me angry. Bringing my tears to a stop, I sat up straight and said, "No, it's nothing like that. That's all fine." Puzzled by my angry response to his considerate question, it seemed to me Szabo didn't know what to do. He waited to see what I would say. Unsure what to do, I didn't say anything either.
After a minute or so, sensing that the emotional space which had suddenly opened had just as suddenly closed, Szabo said that there was no need for me to get an F since I had already done the other work for the course. I looked at him, as if to say please don't make me write this paper, I can't do it. He said that the paper could be mainly an exegesis of Quine with just a page or two of my thoughts at the end. Grateful for this suggestion, and thinking there might not be a better solution, I thanked him and left.
I ended up writing the essay. It was mostly exegetical, with me saying as little as possible of what I thought. When over the holidays I saw a B- for the course on my report card, I was grateful for what I felt to be Szabo's kindness. But deeper within me, the pain of not really writing the paper stayed with me. Why couldn't I write the essay? What happened? I couldn't say.