October 29, 2014

What is Being?

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.


A few days after I handed in the essay for Szabo's class, I was waiting in Collegetown for a bus to go home for the holidays. From a distance I saw Szabo and his wife Tamar Gendler walking in my direction. They were walking home at the end of the day. I had taken a class with Gendler in my freshman year, a writing seminar on the nature of explanations. Upon seeing them I felt nervous, still smarting from what I felt to be my faux pas of opening up emotionally in Szabo's office hours.

As they approached me, Gendler asked Szabo to go into a nearby store for a few minutes while she could talk to me. Then she asked me, "Zoltan told me you are having some difficult. Is everything ok?" I was overwhelmed by her generosity. These professors were going out of their way to make sure I was ok. I wanted to tell her everything was ok, that it was just a momentary hiccup, that I too was ready to join in the pursuit for philosophical truth. But was I ready? What if my failure to write comes up again, unbidden, unwanted? Gendler was trying to give me a space to express what I felt, and I wanted to take the opportunity to do that. Still, I said, "I don't know. I am feeling better." She said, "Did something happen?" I said, "I don't really understand it. It's too hard. It's like I can't put the objective and the subjective together, and I just freeze up." It was a strange locution, can't put the objective and the subjective together. Even as I was saying it I wondered, where is this coming from? I must have picked up the phrase somewhere.

Gendler, feeling that the phrase had given her something tangible to latch onto, said, "Yes, this is a common philosophical problem. There is a book by Thomas Nagel which addresses exactly this issue, The View from Nowhere. You might find it interesting. He struggles with the same issue." Even as she was saying this, a part of me felt deflated, as if I had squandered the opportunity to express what was really bothering me. I was excited at the thought that perhaps Nagel's book might help, but, deep within me, I also felt unsure that the book could really be about what I was feeling.

I thanked Gendler for the suggestion, and we parted. Over the holidays I went to a Barnes and Noble and found Nagel's book. It seemed so professional, and yet personal. So thought through, so encompassing, speaking of the basic impulses into philosophy. I bought the book. And yet later as I started to read it, there it was again, creeping up slowing up and without doubt, the same feeling I had had when reading Quine's essay. As I was reading Nagel's book, a part of me started saying no, no, no. No, this is not capturing what I am feeling. There is something here that is not right. What was it? Like with "On What There Is", I couldn't put my finger on it. I felt at a loss to object articulately, as if the text were chiseled in marble and I couldn't find a place to get a grip on it. Feeling defeated, and yet grateful that I didn't have to write an essay on it, I put the book aside and tried to forget about it.


It took me years to realize why I wasn't able to write that essay on Quine. The key was a memory from my freshman year.

During the semester I was taking the freshman writing seminar with Gendler, I went to her office hours once. I went to college thinking I would major in physics and had not heard of philosophy as a major. I had already been interested in philosophy through reading some Indian philosophy and especially talking with my father about the Bhagavad Gita. College was the last place where I imagined I would be able to have the kind of conversations I was having with my father, and yet the conversations in the writing seminar seemed somewhat similar to those I was having at home. Buoyed by this similarity, I went to Gendler's office hours to talk some more.

In our conversations at home my father introduced philosophical topics by raising pointed, direct questions, such as "What is the self?" or "What is consciousness?" It was an old Upanishadic practice: the bluntness of the question was meant to mark the space of discourse we were about to enter as different from the normal activities of life. 

Carrying this practice into the office hour, when we sat down and Gendler asked me how she could help me, I asked: "What is Being? Do you know the answer?" Gendler seemed taken aback by the question, that too posed in such a direct way as regarding her knowledge. I was unconsciously channeling what I thought philosophy discourse looked like, based on my inchoate sense that philosophy was ultimately about each person's personal growth in wisdom. Gendler seemed unsure what to say, the way a math professor might be when a student, instead of asking how to solve this or that math problem, asks instead, "What is a number?" She started to say something: "That is a big question. Philosophers have been thinking about it since the time of the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides." Sensing that perhaps this historical allusion was not quite answering my question, Gendler stopped and was trying to figure out what to say.

The office door was open, and just then Jason Stanley was walking by. Stanley, as I was to later figure out, was in his first year at Cornell as an assistant professor. Gendler called him in, and said: "Jason, this student wants to know what Being is. What would you say?" Gendler and Stanley exchanged knowing smiles, as if to say, ah, it is one of those wooley-eyed students. Stanley looked over at Gendler, seemingly to convey that he can take care of this, then looked over at me, and then back at Gendler. Then with an air of finality and obviousness, he said, "Oh, Being. That is what I have and Santa Claus doesn't. To be is to be the value of a bound variable!" At this pronouncement, Stanley and Gendler laughed and seemed content, as if that settled the issue. I missed the joke, waiting as I imagined a sincere student would do for the teacher's illumination. Then Stanley turned around and left, with an air that suggested he might not know where the next philosophical fire might be, but that he would be ready, as he was in this case, to put out such fires wherever they might arise. Gendler turned to me with a smile, as if to say, isn't he a riot? I wasn't sure what to say or feel. And I was all the more confused when I realized that with that Gendler assumed that the topic was over, and there was nothing more to say about Being. I left her office and walked into the quad in a daze.


As a freshman I had no idea what "To be is to be the value of a bound variable" meant. I had no idea that it was Quine's dictum from "On What There Is". I had equally little idea that for philosophers in the mid 90s who just finished their graduate work at Harvard (Gendler) and MIT (Stanley), the natural resonance of the question, "What is Being?" would have been to think of it as something Heideggerian. Nor did I have an idea that for philosophers so educated it is no part of their training that they would need to take such a question seriously, let alone that they attempt to answer it.

From the perspective of a world divided into analytic and continental philosophy, the question "What is Being?", even when uttered by an eighteen year old Indian-American student with no previous knowledge of professional philosophy, is bound to seem like something coming from the nether regions of the continental camp. Hence to the seeming Heideggerian frivolity Stanley responded by evoking a Quinean motto, that too in what must have seemed to him to be an appropriately frivolous manner. I was puzzled how what Stanley said was supposed to be a response to my question. Not knowing Heidegger or Quine, I missed Stanley's reference and the joke. What I was left with was the impression that a line had been a drawn of what kind of questions would be taken seriously in the philosophy department and what wouldn't be.

At the time the main issue in my life, as I thought of it, was whether I should go to college or whether I should become a monk so as to follow the form of life which I revered in Indian thinkers such as Shankara. From my somewhat random reading of Indian philosophy, a question such as "What is Being?" seemed a natural move in philosophical discourse, an inquiry which brought together seeking a metaphysical understanding of the world with the personal urgency of Being understood as the meaning of life. Whether in general the question is meaningful or not, it was for me at the time central to my self-conception of who I was, where I was coming from and who I hoped to become. Tied in with the question was the awe I had for Indian philosophy (which was the only philosophy I knew at the time), the reverence I had for my father as a philosopher (who introduced me to philosophy) and the nascent hope I had of connecting my education in America with the Indian culture of my home.

Before going to Gendler's office hours, I had wondered, at the borders of my conscious self, whether I should go and ask such a question, if I should reveal the brownness even of my thought by asking a kind of question which obviously was not raised in the class I was taking. But heartened by the kindness of the professor in class, I decided to take a chance. Which was why I was all the more puzzled to see the reaction I got. A reaction not just by one professor, but by two of them, together laughing. A natural interpretation is that Stanley and Gendler enjoyed the joke not out of mean spiritedness but out of themselves not knowing what kind of a response would be appropriate. That the laughter was really nervous energy. But that was certainly not how it seemed to me then, in that context. What I felt instead was that all the reasons I had feared for why I shouldn't raise this question in office hours had been reaffirmed by the professors as having been right after all. That I should have known better. That of course there was a difference between Shankara in his eighth century Indian saffron mendicant robe and the twentieth century modern, American philosophers. How could I have been so silly as to imagine that these two worlds could be bridged?

Later in my freshman year I wondered whether I should continue studying philosophy in college. It would be so easy to not study it. After all, my parents preferred I become a computer scientist. And most other Indian students I knew at Cornell were becoming doctors or lawyers or engineers, being good sons and daughters and making their parents' reasons for immigrating to America come true. Why should I disappoint my parents only to study in a department which doesn't even mention, let alone discuss and teach, the kind of philosophy my family and I value? Why torture myself?

And yet there was the philosophy itself. Not Eastern or Western, not ancient or modern. Just pristine, pure, joyful, mesmerizing, infuriating, seductive, loving, annoying philosophy. There was so much more of it I wanted to know. So much I knew I didn't know. The pristine philosophy was like a jewel, and the philosophy department, with its contingent, Eurocentric, illusory universality, was like a sometimes considerate, sometimes thoughtless guard who stood between me and the jewel. Should I forsake the jewel out of resentment of the guard? Should I punish myself and give up the jewel because of the guard's limitations? No, I told myself. I deserve better. I deserve the jewel.

I didn't realize it at the time, but it seems obvious now that when I was in Szabo's class and I read Quine's "On What There Is", and read the phrase "to be is to be the value of a variable" in it, I must have unconsciously experienced Quine's essay as a manifestation of the guard. The effect of Stanley's joke -- which no doubt must have seemed to him inconsequential, a throw away comment meant to amuse a colleague -- was to color my association of that phrase in such a way that instead of me just being able to engage with Quine's motto simply at the level of ideas (the way that would have sufficed for writing my essay), the phrase evoked for me nothing less than the line which I felt had been drawn segregating the philosophy I was learning in college from the philosophy I had first loved. Through the association that had been formed in my mind between Quine's motto and the painful experience I had, I turned writing an essay on Quine into fighting against the arbitrary and inconsiderate line that I felt had been drawn in Gendler's office, as if showing Quine's view to be wrong would somehow correct what I felt to be the wrongs of my education.

A simple 10-15 page essay on ontology? Not quite. In the context of writing a normal final essay for a class I was trying to make sense of my whole education, with all of my anger and frustration focused onto Quine's dictum, as if it was somehow responsible for my situation, and that I had to prove it wrong to breathe easy again. No wonder I wasn't able to write that essay.

If I could now meet that former self, from more than fifteen years ago, who struggled so hard and so desperately against forces much bigger than what he could possibly understand at the time, I would give him a hug. And I would take him out to lunch and we would have a nice long talk.


  1. Thank you for expressing your experiences so beautifully. I ran up against similar obstacles as an undergraduate, even though the atmosphere of censorship was less severe as there were a few faculty members at my philosophy department who straddled the "analytic-continental" division. There are encouraging signs that this climate is improving, and I hope that continues.

  2. "Stanley and Gendler enjoyed the joke not out of mean spiritedness but out of themselves not knowing what kind of a response would be appropriate."

    It is still a bit surprising that they would treat a question from a freshman as a move in a philosophical game (that, in an analytic setting, might evoke a witty riposte). The alternative is to simply open the discussion up a little more, e.g, "That is an important and valid question. Can you say a little more?".

  3. I've always had a 'thing' about Quine's "To be is to be the value..." etc. My PhD thesis was an attempt to blow it out of the water and I may yet produce a book on the matter one day: