• The Convergence

The Ontology of Memory: Reflection on the merger between Yale-NUS and USP

By Eldrick, Editor



Yale-NUS Campus. Photo: The Octant

On 27 August 2021, it was announced publicly that the University Scholars Programme (USP) and Yale-NUS would merge to form a New College. Despite the assurance that the New College would meld the best of the individual colleges – USP’s distinct interdisciplinary curriculum and Yale-NUS’s Liberal Arts education [1] – the common and widespread sentiment across faculty and especially, students and alumni was a negative one. [2] In particular, many felt upset that the programme they were in would soon “cease to exist”, “vanish” or become “non-existent”. Indeed, the “impending non-existence” of the individual programmes was not a welcoming prospect for most students. However, in the eyes of the academic leaders overseeing this transition, both colleges continue to exist, perhaps even in better forms. This indubitably contradicts the perspective of most students. It is interesting to note that these rhetorics revolved around the notion of existence, which is fraught with ambiguity. It thus calls into question: What does it mean for something to exist? In this case, what does it mean for either Yale-NUS or USP to exist or continue to exist? In this article, I shall examine the different notions of existence (within philosophy) and the effects it bears on the issue of merger between Yale-NUS and USP.


On Ontology


The question of existence falls neatly into a category commonly called Ontology. In Ontology, questions that are explored include notions of being, becoming, reality and existence. Different theories are put forward in accounting for existence. For instance, the American philosopher, Willard Van Orman Quine, borrowing from tools of first-order logic, suggested that “to be is to be the value of the bound variable” [3] Hence, for such an animal as the dog to exist is for us to be able to render a statement “There is a dog” (of natural language) in its first-order variation “There is an variable x such that x is a dog”. Meanwhile, others like Hegel and Heidegger wrestled with language to put across a phenomenology – “the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view” [4] – of human existence. The phenomenological approach tries to account beyond what can be said to exist spatial temporally speaking. As such, oftentimes, human emotions like shame, guilt and actions like praying, making art are lumped together as part of these “structures of consciousness”. [5]


There could be said to be a tension between the two views mentioned i.e. Quine’s and the phenomenologists. The former seems to be concerned more with what is causally interactive out there and which owns a referent, while the latter is more concerned with the human experience as a whole. I am drawing the ideas of these thinkers in broad strokes so as to create a dichotomy between two ontological perspectives that would be useful for the oncoming discussion. [6] One would be what I would call the “matter-of-fact” (MF) view – that associated with Quine – while the other would be the “less-matter-of-fact” (LMF) view – that associated with the phenomenologists. MF highlights existence in terms of what is out there and only takes into account evidence that can be causally justified or justified in a strong epistemic manner. For instance, an MF-er would admit or talk of the existence of a dog only if she is causally interacting – touching, playing fetch – with the dog. On the other hand, an LMF-er would admit or talk of the existence of a dog beyond just the causal interaction between herself and the dog. Perhaps the full experience of her, the dog and the environment they are nested in would be taken into account. In this case, her emotions, her state-of-mind and her anthropomorphising of the dog all play a part in accounting for their existence. In this respect, existence is characterised more as an experiential domain rather than a purely clinical or stipulated one.


On the merger part 1


The distinction between MF and LMF can shed light on the difference in perspectives, most notably, between the aforementioned administrators and the student population. Evidently, upon the merger, USP’s Cinnamon College would no longer be separated from the Yale-NUS colleges. They would now become one entity. From an economy-of-scale perspective, this is a boon since more students can now have access to the facilities that belonged only to Yale-NUS or USP previously. At the same time, more students can have access to the unique curriculum and excellent teaching faculty across both USP and Yale-NUS. Existence of the New College then takes on a largely positive tint. This could perhaps be the MF’s perspective. Under this light, both USP and Yale-NUS continue to exist, albeit in a better form. The amalgamation of the two colleges does not cause either to cease to exist, rather, they subsist and benefit everyone.


However, if this were so, why the largely negative sentiments among students? How can we make sense of the student’s lamentation of “non-existent”, “vanish”, “lost” and “cease to exist”?


On the merger part 2: The ontology of memory


The LMF perspective, as suggested above, examines existence from a more all-encompassing lens. As such, when we take into account the existence of either Yale-NUS or USP, it is not just the continuation of tangibles like the curriculum, faculty or facilities that matters solely. Students’ (past and present) experience matter, people’s memory within the places matter and the institutions’ history matter. Therefore, the merger, from a LMF lens, creates a dichotomy between the students’ own ontology of their colleges and the circumstances of reality. Indeed, the students’ own ontology is now at odds with the circumstances of reality, which inevitably creates the tension that is expressed by most students. The visual geography of one institution i.e. the New College now stands in contrast to what they remember i.e. two separate entities, USP and Yale-NUS.


Perhaps the MF-ers might retort that rather than being destroyed, students now have an upgraded amalgamation of two great programmes in NUS, as stated in the previous section. They might retort: “The fact still stands that if we break the New College down, it would just simply be Yale-NUS plus USP, so what's the big deal?” Such a response is not perhaps not fault worthy, but it reveals a failure to understand the LMF perspective. At this juncture, I would like to bring in the concept of memory.


Memory is multi-faceted. Unlike the brute sense-experience which takes things as they are – a pen, a tree, a bird, you, me – our memory is imbued with sentimentalities that have been accumulated through the passage of time. This is why the places we have been to are not mere places. They are an amalgamation of the people we meet there, the things we do there as well as the overall experience we undergo there. In essence, memory appears like something that would serve the LMF agenda well, as it encompasses the entirety of one’s experiential journey, rather than just what is there. Existence then can be said to be inextricably tied to memory.


Given existence’s links with memory, it would appear that we have an inflated ontology of the places we’ve been to or were situated in. For instance, to a USP student, Cinnamon College is not just a building with seminar rooms, dining halls, residential rooms and offices. It is a place with seminar rooms where students discuss topics such as the nature of happiness, dining halls where students dine and discourse, residential rooms where they actually write extensively about their intellectual thoughts and offices where they then consult their professors or lecturers. The same can be extended to Yale-NUS students, who within their individual colleges, Cendana, Elm or Saga, cultivate a community where discourse and fun thrives simultaneously. In essence, the ontology of memory is such that it instills in places and experience more than what actual reality affords. In fact, the administrators’ neglect of such experiences brought about by their MF lens, however unwittingly, reveals a result-oriented inclination. This is most aptly captured by academic Simon Tay in his essay “The City and My Home”: “In the macro calculations of mega projects and national interests, these trade-offs of course make sense. What is the loss of one person’s home? When we see as a state sees, the interests of individuals are merely digits. But the lens of memory is individual.” [6]


Where Tay sees loss of individual memory brought about by the commercialisation of his previous home at Seletar Airbase, the same sense of loss can be related to the merger between Yale-NUS and USP. The referents i.e. the places (Cinnamon, Saga, Elm, or Cendana) may still be there but the experiences of the people, the memories that are individualistic in nature would have been lost. At the same time, while memory is individualistic, there is a communal aspect to memory, one which is characterised by the notion that the events that constitute them all took place in the past. When some things of the past are removed, it is not only the visible architecture or geographic region that is being disturbed. Naturally, the ontology of our memory undergoes a shift too. It is perhaps this tectonic shift in the make-up of one’s memory that stirs one the most. The realisation that what is gradually disappearing cannot be reclaimed exposes one to the finitude of time and existence.


Conclusion


In the book Repetition by Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard writes a fictional account of the narrator’s attempt to undertake "a voyage of discovery...in order to test the possibility and meaning of repetition” where repetition can be understood as the act of reliving a particular moment in one's life. As such, the narrator goes back to Berlin, checks into the same lodging that he did in the past and goes to the same theatre to watch the same opera. Unfortunately, he concluded that Repetition was impossible:


"I made no great discovery, yet it was strange, because I had discovered that there was no such thing as repetition. I became aware of this by having it repeated in every possible way." [7]

Just as the narrator in Kierkegaard's essay tries to relive the past and fails, likewise, for students who have undergone the USP and Yale-NUS experience, they are thoroughly aware of the fact that whatever there is in the past cannot be repeated. This is made worse by the fact that the past has now been disturbed. The ontological make-up is now different, more different than the MF-ers would deign to admit.





Bibliography


[1] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/parenting-education/yale-nus-to-stop-taking-in-new

-students-as-part-of-nus-plans-for-a-new


[2] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/yale-nus-usp-merger-new-curriculum

-students-2139471; https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/parenting-education/students

-unhappy-anxious-over-plans-to-merge-yale-nus-and-university


[3]: Quine, W. (2011). On What There Is. In R. Talisse & S. Aikin (Ed.), The Pragmatism Reader: From Pierce through the Present (pp. 221-233).


[4] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/phenomenology/


[5] See Elpidorou, Andreas, Freeman, Lauren. (2015) Affectivity in Heidegger I: Moods and Emotions in Being and Time


[6] See [3]; Quine’s ontological views are varied. For instance, although mathematical objects are not naturally said to be causally interactive, Quine thinks that we ought to be ontologically committed to its existence given mathematics’ indispensability for the sciences. This is not important for our discussion in this essay


[7]: Simon Tay “The City and My Home” Ethos, Issue 2, Apr 2007


[8]: Kierkegaard, S., Piety, M. G., & Mooney, E. F. (2009). 20. Repetition: And, philosophical crumbs. Oxford University Press.



Eldrick is a Y3 Philosophy student who likes films, music and literature. “To rejoice in one’s heart and to love, one needs solitude, but to be a success one must get about in society.” Stendhal