An Obsession with the Infinite

May 22, 2018 | By Eve Tolpa

Zhen Liang (SF14) is studying philosophy at DePaul University.

While Zhen Liang (SF14) was growing up in Jining, a city in the Shandong province of China, becoming a philosopher never entered her mind.

The subject itself was barely on her radar.

“I thought all philosophers died 2,000 years ago,” she says. “I didn't know there were practicing philosophers in the world.”

She did know, however, that she was drawn to the humanities, and that interest led her to study law in her home country.

“But I was never satisfied,” Liang says. “There were always these deeper questions. What is justice? What is law? Why is there law?”

As a college sophomore in China, she decided to cut short her legal education and enroll at St. John’s instead. It was here that she ended up encountering the questions that continue to define her intellectual life, even though philosophy did not present itself as an obvious pursuit at first.

“It was the most remote to my tradition,” she says. “It was pretty hard for me at the beginning. It was hard to relate to.”

Liang’s relationship with philosophy changed over time, through several turning points in her education. The first came in her freshman year, when she was introduced to Zeno’s paradox.

“He somehow proved that motion is an illusion,” she says. “From our everyday experience, we know that motion exists. So how is this possible? How can we have such a beautiful piece of sophistry when we all know motion exists and experience it in our lives? It comes down to the problem of the infinite. How we utilize the infinite and how he utilized it.”

Then, the summer after her sophomore year, an Ariel Internship award allowed Liang to explore political economy in Duke University’s political science department. From that experience, she concluded, “Those were not the questions I wanted to ask.”

Her conclusion was reinforced during junior year math, while she was studying calculus and Newton. Liang recalls that tutor Russell Winslow “helped me see that there is a philosophical and metaphysical layer under that beautiful mathematical system laid out in Newton’s Principia.”

With Winslow as her advisor, she wrote her senior essay on Newton and calculus.

Now Liang is at DePaul University pursuing a PhD in philosophy, with a math component.

“I'm really interested in the ontological status of the infinite,” she says.

“Why I am obsessed with this question is (that) we often use calculus without questioning the foundations. We assume the basis for calculus is self-evident, made up of concrete truths. Instead, there is so much nuance at a foundational level. I’m into what philosophical and metaphysical presuppositions underlie the practice. When we ask these kinds of questions, we see the paradigm shift. When we start at this fundamental level, we find out that the deductive system that we place so much trust in is not true and timeless and self-evidently correct. It has a human origin, and it’s a construct.”

DePaul has proven to be a good fit for Liang. One reason is the strength of the university’s continental philosophy program, in which Liang is enrolled—although she is quick to point out that her particular focus doesn’t fit neatly into the defined philosophical camps.

“This weird hybrid interest doesn’t place me in either a continental or analytical program,” she says.

The other is the university’s reputation of receptivity to Johnnies.

“They respect the St. John’s Program,” Liang says. “They told me that they want more people who come out of a program like this to come to DePaul.”

An influx of interdisciplinary thinkers would likely result in Liang feeling less alone in her field.

“Not a lot of colleagues are doing what I’m doing,” she admits.

But she’s passionate about the questions that continue to propel her forward.

“Motion, infinity, continuity, indivisibility, space, and time—these are the things that forever bother me.”