from Sept. 18, 2017
Wise thoughts for students in this post. I spend a lot of time talking to grad students about finding the question that motivates them. They often come with an intuition of what’s interesting, but have no idea how to form that into a research question. The genius fallacy would have us believe that those questions come fully formed, and we can get down to the work of answering them. In reality, almost everyone I know spends a lot of time trying to articulate the question that animates them in a body of work (or, in some cases, in life in general, because those questions often appear in different forms in different places).
The story I tell, which students are sick of by now, is the story of how I figured out the question that animated my dissertation. It took a year of fits and starts, and that was after having done an undergrad honors thesis and part of a master’s thesis on the same figure (Jacob Boehme). I knew in those earlier works I didn’t really understand what I wanted to ask yet. So, I was teaching for a year at Trent while trying to work out the thesis question. I read a lot, I wrote down possibilities for questions. I reworded them, recast them, played with them. And after about a year, it became clear. And then I wrote 100 pages in the next month, because along with the question came the structure of the dissertation. Asking the right question also suggested the right direction for an answer.
So, that might be interpreted as perseverance, but it was directed perseverance. It was fairly systematic, and I could feel myself getting closer. That wasn’t genius, but it wasn’t just aimless work either.
What was the question? It was deceptively simple, in the end. It was “What is Boehme’s theory of knowledge in his later works?” But that hides a lot. It hides that Boehme is usually regarded as an idiosyncratic, undisciplined thinker, and so doesn’t really have a theory, at least not a stable one. It hides that you can figure out that theory by looking at the words related to knowledge that he uses, and see how they actually do have a structured relationship to each other. It hides that most people have brought a specific interpretive assumption to him, which is that he’s an early version of Hegel (Hegel called him the “first German philosopher). I thought he looked more like Nietzsche, in the end, but I started by setting Hegel aside as a lens. And, it hides that most philosophers don’t even count him as a philosopher (I got some raised eyebrows during grad school when I was working on him from some faculty), and so thinking that there’s anything of philosophical interest there is a futile search.
Anyway, the point is that this post has some wise advice. It’s not about genius – and philosophy is especially prone to the lure of the genius (which is usually modeled on the self-assured, argumentative male defending a position). And, it is about perseverance, but a particular kind, a disciplined kind that you learn by reading and watching others who are good at it. I’m inclined to think that this is not just limited to doing philosophy, either.