When you first came to Princeton, what did you think your major would be?
Classics. Though I think that if you prodded me a little bit further, I probably would have admitted that Philosophy was more likely. But at some level I think it was a naive view of mine (though not only mine)- I thought you came to university and more or less defaulted into Classics if you were vaguely interested in the humanities, and then you could sort out what it was that you found most compelling afterwards.
What made you decide to major in Philosophy?
Feeling like my work was being taken seriously. By the time I took my first philosophy class, it must have been the fall of sophomore year, I was comfortable writing 20-page papers pretty quickly. A lot of times, I could see points where my argument didn’t quite work, little gaps or explanatory failures. But it seemed like there was a lot on my mind, and mostly, I’d just leave things the way they were, hoping that no one would notice. In philosophy classes, they always noticed, and I think that made me think very differently about my own work.
Are there any stories about your experiences as a Philosophy major at Princeton that you would like to share?
I remember a friend of mine, a few years older, who was writing his thesis in epistemology when I was a sophomore. That, I told him, sounds like the least interesting subject conceivable. Fast forward to a few years later, and I was writing an epistemology thesis. I liked that Princeton’s department could cause those kinds of intellectual upheavals.
What did you do immediately after leaving Princeton?
I went to Oxford for a BPhil in philosophy, and then spent some time teaching “applied political philosophy” in Vladivostok, Russia on a Fulbright.
What do you do now?
A few things: I’m working on a PhD in social philosophy at Columbia; working on a novel on a left wing political theater troupe that leaves Calcutta just after independence and ends up in Soviet Russia post-Stalin; now and again writing some criticism for popular publications like n+1 and the Washington Post. [This interview was conducted in July 2017.]
There’s a bit from the writer Ben Lerner’s essay “The Hatred of Poetry” where he talks about how, as a poet, your interlocutors will often ask you bizarre questions about your profession, like who your favorite poet is (when it’s unlikely that they will know most of the poets that you like). This struck me as a fitting, too, for philosophy: even given the countless jokes about how you plan to earn lots of money (said as though it’s the first time you’ve heard this), questions about your favorite philosophers, or your personal philosophy (as though you’re writing copy for a section on a corporate website), it’s all been worth it.