Wednesday, February 23, 2011

My Dissertation

The other day, Jonathan noted that your research agenda is an answer to at least one important question in your job interview. Another important question asks you to summarize your dissertation. There is, finally, supposed to be some connection between these two answers. My own reflections about my agenda are indeed related to career issues; I'm trying to move back into a research position, which means I am essentially applying for a new job. So how do I answer this question about the relationship between my doctoral dissertation and my research agenda?

In general, I worry about the effect of my dissertation on my ability to get a job. I wrote it with what I would today call a bad attitude—with an image of myself as a romantic genius. As I recall, I was using it to figure the (academic) world out, to figure my life out. It was that lame. But, in preparation for this post, I sat down with it last night and began to read it from the beginning, and I was struck more by its virtues than its faults. Since handing it in, back in 2003, I've reread it a number of times, sometimes thinking that it is a sham, sometimes that it is brilliant. This morning I am willing to defend the second of these two opinions.

My dissertation shows how knowledge is like power. I was trying to overcome what Steve Fuller calls the "profound ambivalence of Western philosophers toward the equation of knowledge and power". I ultimately defend the somewhat grandiose claim (which I stand by to this day) that knowledge is like power in our suffering and this suffering is the arch-likeness, the most elemental way in which experiences are alike. Things are like each other, and people are like each other, in so far as we are, first of all, able to see the likeness of our perceptions to our actions. Or to put it another way: we must be able to compare our beliefs and our desires. We must suffer the difference between them, precisely because they have something in common.

I was trying to show that philosophers could do more than just talk about other philosophers or comment on the conduct of science and politics. I wanted to show that they could do something specifically philosophical, namely, that they could write concepts down. This ability, I argued, is the basis of their professional dignity. But because I wanted to show what philosophy (philosophizing) is, not just talk about it in the context of what other philosophers have said, and not just report on my "empirical" attempts to "apply" philosophy, I struggled a great deal with how I should present my results. It turned out to consist of 193 short paragraphs, "philosophical remarks" in a vaguely (but not quite successfully) Wittgensteinian sense, framed by an introduction and a postscript. The text is 67 short pages long. I'm sure I passed only by the skin of my teeth and because I managed to look surprisingly human at my defense. (In fact, one of the external examiners expressed such surprise; I think he was expecting someone much less, well, charming.)

By the time I finished my dissertation, I was exhausted. This is in part because I had terrible work habits, and in part because I (therefore) discovered way too late what I was trying to do (until then, I had been pretending I was doing various other more traditional things). I decided to follow the example of my philosophical hero, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who quit philosophy after writing his first book (which would eventually be submitted as a dissertation) and became a country school teacher. Somewhat less radically, after a short stint as an assisstant professor, I decided to become a writing consultant (at the department that had granted my PhD), which is a decision I've never regretted. I can safely say that I've been practicing what I preached at my thesis defense seven years ago. Editing is a very precise kind of suffering.

If I had pursued an academic career at that time, I think I would have cut a poor figure. But in addition to living out the ideas in my thesis in practice, I've also, in fact, managed to do some writing that continues that work, establishing some continuity. So, for example, about a year after my defense I was invited to contribute an argument for what would become resident writing consultancy in a very good journal, namely, Philosophy and Rhetoric, with a response from Jim Collier, and Steve Fuller himself. A year later, I was able to write a more literary restatement of what I think philosophy is for the first issue of Absent Magazine. If I am proud of the article in P&R because Fuller called my hermeneutic "surly", I am proud of the Absent piece because I share the issue with the truly wonderful poet Kate Greenstreet (unfortunately, her poems don't display well in Explorer; it works fine in Safari). So I can safely claim that my current work, both in theory and practice, follows from the self-fashioning that took place in my dissertation work. There is continuity. And I'm not ashamed of myself.

Wittgenstein "[made] his [Philosophical Investigations] public with doubtful feelings". (In fact, he died before he made them public.) I have doubtful feelings about my dissertation because of its strange form and its somewhat pained expression—its vain struggle against its own intellectual context. It is marked by the pathos of a young man who is trying to sound like a much older one. But there is something very satisfying about reading it today. It is tight. It doesn't waste words.

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