I had an interesting conversation with a student today. He told me about his doctoral thesis that he was working on and complained that it was drowning in literature. He was just going through a list of names in secondary literature when I stopped him asking what his initial interest was. After a brief moment of confusion, he began to tell me with sparkling eyes how he was interested in social self-image. It was clear that he was intrigued, but it had been difficult to connect this with the secondary literature to which he was supposed to refer. – When people start writing a philosophical essay or thesis, they are often advised to first get an “overview of the literature”. The next step is to structure the paper by comparing two positions and finally taking a page. I’ve made this mistake for too long myself. Somehow it seemed natural to start the “reading”. I now believe that this is a bad strategy. Most of the time, it crushes good ideas and leaves you with a semi-alien range of positions that are difficult to form an opinion about. In the following I want to explain why these problems occur and how reversing the order can help. (Spoiler warning: you’ll need to read this much later in the process.)
How things can go wrong. – Students are often asked to find a topic or even given a series of suggestions. In academic philosophy, this often boils down to finding a position or conclusion to defend. How you do that? Well, start reading (secondary literature) and something will come. But starting this way often means putting the cart in front of the horse. First, given the extensive literature, an opinion will always feel arbitrary. Second, given the general ignorance of the literature, students are likely to feel unsure of whatever they are saying. – The advice to read first is of course understandable: it is to prevent the wheel from being reinvented. The incentive is to get an overview and to develop your own position by deviating even slightly from the literature or contradicting it. Yes, the wheel is not being reinvented. But the result is likely that good ideas will be crushed under the wheels before they are considered.
The problem of legitimacy. – Why are ideas being squashed? Well, think about what reading authoritative texts (in secondary literature) does to you. Even dry reports on the status of the discussion have normative power. You will be inclined to adjust your terms, your thoughts, and your arguments as the discussion progresses. This alignment makes your own piece sound authoritative, but it will likely bury your first thoughts. You will now think of them as immature beginnings that eventually led you to the real discussion. Secondary literature therefore has a de-legitimizing effect on your ideas. Your ideas? Worthless brooding … Of course not. But the effect of supposed authority is strong. This way you structure your piece in line with the current discussion, hopefully you will tick all the right boxes, apply the trending terms correctly, and forget your early musings. In the end, you will notice a little ambiguity in the literature that improves the field with a valuable correction.
What should I do? – Look, I don’t want to talk you out of this. Most of the time, this works fine, even if it makes you a little unsure of your goals and objectives. If you are in a hurry, this is one piece of advice you should follow. Then why change a running system? – Well, maybe because it might work a little better and you can get into your own ideas. So here’s a suggestion for how to start differently: Try to keep as much of your original ideas as possible. That doesn’t mean holding onto it tenaciously. Rather, you should try to find out what you are actually thinking. This is often not very easy or clear. But you will get used to it. But what are your ideas anyway? It’s not that obvious now. If you want to find your own ideas, you have to pay attention to your reactions. Watch how you react to other ideas! Be it in discussions or in (primary) texts. Something can stand out, excite or irritate – this is where your ideas lurk.
The beginning: locate a problem. – If you think you should look for literature on your subject first, you are overlooking the fact that you have already started something else. But what was that? When the time comes for you to find a topic to work on, look back rather than forward. Yes, you have already started. Chances are you’ve been presented with a funny idea or read some primary literature that struck you as interesting or puzzling. That is your starting point. Stick to a specific formulation or the specific passage that you paused. Quote this passage or sentence. Think about it by going through each sentence. Clarify unclear terms with a dictionary. Then write a paraphrase in your own words. Start playing with it. Take out sentences and ask yourself what does that do. Formalize it if you want. Get a feel for what the passage depends on. Make a map of where this passage belongs. Which other parts of the text or associations support this? Etc.
Understand yourself through the text: see friction. – Remember that you chose the passage because it caught your eye. Now try to spell out exactly what is so very interesting or puzzling and why. This has two parts: (1) You need to find out what the precise formulation is and (2) like it irritates or even contradicts your expectations. The first step is to find the exact word or idea that is causing the problem. It may sound trivial, but it is this term or phrase that is all about your work. Because it’s this piece that needs to be explained. The second step is more difficult. First you need to see why this affects your expectations: Well, if something irritates you or looks strange, it is often because you expected something else. Something is said that you would not have said or would not have said. These are your expectations that are frustrated, so to speak. But your expectation is not in the text. It’s in your head Now your expectation (frustrated by the text) is your entry point for the explanation or argument your paper is to develop. Unfortunately, it is often not entirely clear what is causing your irritation. Does something sound unusual in the text? Does it contradict a belief you hold? What belief? Your job is to figure out the assumption (which you are holding) that is causing the text to appear wrong, strange, or unknown. As soon as you see this, you have friction between the text and yourself. Now you begin to understand how your reactions to the text come about. Now you enter into a conscious dialogue with the text. This dialogue arises from your ideas; the friction makes them visible.
The next steps. – It’s not time to read now. The temptation is probably now great to search the Internet for discussion material, but that has to wait. Once you understand the tension that is leading you, it is good to write a summary (or introduction) and outline some structure. What needs to be explained? What is the friction or problem you are seeing? As I said in a previous article, there are a number of strategies you can use to get your suggestion out there. Only when you have done this should you start delving into the literature. The advantage is that you now have specific questions that you would like to have answered. At the same time, the fact that you have your ideas written down will (hopefully) prevent you from feeling delegitimized by the discussions ahead. Rather she will contribute to the discussion with your own questions and concerns. These have to be answered.
Exploration. – As may be obvious, reading is not intended to be discouraged. On the contrary, you should read as much as you want, be it to explore or whatever. But if you want to write, you need to find a way to give your own ideas space to grow. Your ideas and questions are not your own because nobody had them before or because they contradict secondary literature. They are yours because you find them interesting. They lead you. But you have to find it through friction with others.