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Nagel’s Friend: Who You Were and Who You Are

By Courtesy of Henry A. Cerbone
By Henry A. Cerbone, Contributing Opinion Writer
Henry A. Cerbone ’23, a special concentrator in Ontology of Autonomous Systems, lives in Adams House. His column “Academic Flotsam” appears on alternate Wednesdays.

One of my best friends called me recently. He was panicked about writing a personal statement for a fellowship application, due the next night, that just was not coming together. His initial query was, “Can you read over it and give comments?”

Three hours later when I had gotten a chance to read the draft, I dialed the phone. “Here’s what I would do,” I said, giving an outline of how I would write my friend’s personal statement. “I knew you would know me better than me,” he said, somewhat jokingly. Later that night, he would send an existentially fraught text, “You may understand, but I forget who I was and who I am on a consistent basis.”

It is quite likely that many readers may also understand. When we come to a place like Harvard, move to a place like New York City, do anything new and large and exciting, we may feel that we lose a sense of self. The sense in which we have cultivated our personality. This may be due to a widened world view. It may be a result of being too exhausted to focus on oneself. It may just be because you do not have to think about it often.

Whatever the reason, it can be jarring when one is asked a question equivalent to, “Who are you?” to come up with no response. And this is the place we may find ourselves in when having to write personal statements, resumes, and cover letters.

Now these items are certainly not the only thing that answers the question of who we are. There are even a host of credible arguments that point to these documents holding nothing of real existential significance. Nonetheless, they do represent some of what we have been doing with our time.

In “A Mathematician’s Apology,” G. H. Hardy recounts a nightmare that Bertrand Russell had once. He is watching a librarian taking down books from the University Library’s shelves and either placing them in a bucket or reshelving them. The librarian takes down the last surviving copy of Whitehead and Russell’s “Principia Mathematica” and hesitates.

Unlike Russell, the kind of dread we might feel when we sit to write our personal statement is strictly preliminary to anything involving an omnipotent librarian. We have yet to write a damn book, the book of our life or otherwise. Even worse, we are faced with the possibility that there is nothing to write.

That we actually did nothing in our summer internship. That we do not actually have research interests. That our passions are baseless and only a product of proximity to problems presented by our institution or surroundings. These are the kinds of worries many students matriculating out of college find themselves having. The kinds of worries that will later constitute midlife crises. The kinds of worries that recent pandemics might have brought into one’s mind.

The saving grace in my initial tale, from a biased narrator, was of course the friend that was called. This hints at a potential solution to our feeling of existential baselessness. While this may seem risky or in bad faith, let us attempt to offer a philosophically sound argument.

Thomas Nagel, an American philosopher, has coined the idea of a “view from nowhere.” In short, the trouble with existential objectivity is that you can never get to an objective viewpoint. To do this, you would need to get to a view from nowhere, separate from your existence.

The thing that seems to offer us hope in the face of Nagel’s challenge is the call to the friend from our opening story. While this certainly takes into account and relies upon the existence of two people, in spirit, although still not totally objective, seems to be in the right direction. An account that is reliant on something external to just a single person’s internal experience of their existence.

The obvious takeaway from this is somewhat simple and overused: Friends are important. However, there is a more nuanced undertone here, that the role friends play is a sort of recorder of the facts. A rememberer of what you have done, good or bad. That you really did do a lot of research last semester. You are qualified to apply for that fellowship or position. Or that your sense of style sophomore year was, in actuality, atrocious.

For those of us who share Russell’s fear of being forgotten, of our books being discarded, we must not forget the preceding step: the writing of the book. We must be sure to remember who we were and who we are. And a seemingly efficient way to do this is through friends. Friends that not only support but critique. Friends that function as comrades but also mentors. Friends that will remember who you are and who you have been when you forget.

Henry A. Cerbone ’23, a special concentrator in Ontology of Autonomous Systems, lives in Adams House. His column “Academic Flotsam” appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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