Friday, March 1, 2013

Philosophy is Difficult and Stays That Way

That's what I find, at least. A few years back, I mentioned that in studying for my dissertation defense, I sat down and reread the entire thing cover-to-cover (taking notes, making an outline, constructing handouts, etc). I said that I could see clear differences between the chapters that I'd written first and the ones I'd written last. I said, "the change in quality of writing, argument, and general sophistication between the first chapter I wrote and the last was astonishing to me; I am a much better philosopher now than I was when I started writing."

I feel the same way about the stuff I'm writing now in comparison with the stuff I was writing back then. The work I'm producing now is much more clearly written, the arguments are better, the general sophistication is higher. I am a much better producer of written philosophical work now than I was just two or three years ago. At least, that's how it seems to me.

The thing that's sort of weird about it—and, I don't know, maybe this isn't really all that weird—is that although I would say that I have gotten better at doing this, I would not say that it feels like I've gotten better, and I wouldn't say that it has gotten any easier to do it. If anything, I would say that it has gotten much more difficult. I find more and more that I wrestle with almost every sentence, and from there I wrestle with the arrangement of sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into sections, and sections into a coherent, complete paper. I struggle to formulate and organize and express the ideas and views and arguments that I'm trying to develop or defend, as well as those that appear in the literature that I'm trying to engage with.

I'm inclined to chalk it up to my being more sensitive to various nuances and subtleties and stuff, but maybe not proportionately better at expressing those nuances and subtleties, but I'm not sure. I don't know. I just made that up. It's probably wrong.

And now that I think of it, I'm not really sure why this seems surprising. I guess I was thinking of proficiency at philosophy on the model of proficiency at a musical instrument. When you first start learning an instrument, it's extremely difficult. You can't get it to do the things you want it to do; you can't make it play the sounds you want it to play. You can't play at tempo and you get tired quickly. But as you get better, it gets easier. You can make the instrument do what you want; you can play at tempo and for longer. A piece that gave you trouble or was unplayable two or three years ago comes easily now; a piece that would have been beyond impossible two or three years ago is merely difficult now. You can see and feel your improvement. And so I guess I figured that as I got better at philosophy, things that I found to be difficult would come to me more easily. (I'm not sure I ever really experienced this, but I think I thought that maybe I would if I got good enough.)

But now that I think of it, I don't think that's quite the right way to think of it. Now that I think of it—if you'll bear with me while I take this metaphor and torture it to death—I think that it would be more accurate to say that I've been playing a succession of pieces, each of which is right at the limit of my abilities. It doesn't seem like it's getting easier because improvements in my abilities make it possible for me to conceive of more difficult things (nuances, subtleties, etc) which I then immediately attempt. And so the work gets better, but not in a way that generates a literal awareness of improvement or feelings of ease.

So, anyways, that's what I've been thinking about as I decide whether to grade these exams or revise this paper.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

“It doesn't get any easier; you just go faster.” — Greg LeMond

Mr. Zero said...

Yeah. The LeMond Insight is pretty applicable here.

Anonymous said...

Nicely put, but I'm not sure about the comparison to playing a musical instrument. If you're trying to play it as well as you can, it seems that it's always difficult. You try to get just the right tone, volume, tempo etc. and regularly don't get it. Of course, you can play an easy piece more easily in a basic way, but that's true of philosophy too, e.g., getting what Gettier was trying to show more easily than you used to. Perhaps a better comparison would be learning basic arithmetic, where small differences in performance really don't seem to matter.

Anonymous said...

I'd say this is part of the real wisdom that comes along with a love for philosophy--you do get better at explaining and understanding things as you apply yourself in your areas of interest, and that translates into improved clarity of thought all-around. But all that usually translates as well into raised expectations for quality of achievement, and, if you have some rational measure of relative worth, real humility about what you have achieved. When I published stuff even before I finished my PhD I thought I was such a hot-shot. Years later I see it was pretty minor stuff and horribly over-written. I do better work now, but still--have I done anything like Lewis or Sober or Pettit or even produced a great zinger like Gettier? No--I'm a good, solid, yea--excellent--second-class philosopher. And proud of it.

Anonymous said...

I'm still always improving, and each year, my writing is better than the year before. However, I find the process *much* easier now than I did even a year or two ago. I don't find it more difficult.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

It doesn't take me as long to realize that an idea sucks. But all my ideas still suck.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I also think that playing a musical instrument is more like doing philosophy. There is definitely a point when learning an instrument when learning more challenging pieces is a sort of reward. This might be analogous to taking more advanced philosophy classes or writing longer papers (or more complicated papers). But when one becomes a professional musician the goal is to play all pieces as well as possible, and that requires holding oneself up to the highest standards possible. What used to count as playing a piece well may no longer count as such. So as one improves, one's standards get higher.

In my experience this is much the same as philosophy. I may write/argue better now than when I first entered grad school, but I'm also aiming higher. Consequently, what used to count as exciting insights may now be footnotes, and there is much the same struggle in producing the central arguments.

Anonymous said...

Unrelated question: is it appropriate to approach your advisor about his or her advising habits? I'm ABD and my advisor is great, for the most part. Which ways, if any, is it appropriate to ask your advisor to change? Does anyone have any experience here? (My advisor is not sensitive.)

Anonymous said...

Re: 5:26 pm,

I'm ABD, and in the fall I'll begin a TT job. My advisor is great, for the most part, too. I've thought previously that it would be great if my advisor did X and didn't do Y, but I never requested a change. I don't think that I would have been justified in doing so. In my case, asking for a change in the suspected not-great respects would have led to a change in the respects that made the approach and general attitude great. And that's given the possibility that my suggestion actually was taken up, which would be giving my powers of rational persuasion and my advisor's powers of habit-alteration way too much credit.

So, in my opinion, unless the not-great aspects are egregious, or you're sure that you have a great justification of why you know better how advising should go, find constructive ways to deal with it. Mine involved the occasional commiserating with committee members and the more than occasional commiserating with fellow advisees.

Anonymous said...

Re 5:26 PM,

Yes, it depends on how much it is getting to you. I'm also ABD and starting a TT job next year, and while there are many good things about my advisor, I had an incredibly hard time with his methods of advising. His feedback was exclusively critical, including some very harsh feedback, and I spent the first two ABD years crying and considering quitting every day. I did speak to him about this once, but nothing changed, and I also ended up taking refuge in another panel member who was much kinder. Part of me wishes that I had changed advisors, because my mental health would have been much, much better if I had. But as I said, I'm starting a TT job in a few months, and I don't know if I would have gotten there if I hadn't been pushed so hard. Perhaps you could talk to some of your advisor's recent advisees? They might be able to tell you, in retrospect, whether the things you're having trouble with were helpful or harmful in the long run.

Anonymous said...


A few years ago I nudged a committee member to advise differently. I simply explained to him how I work, where and why I was encountering struggles in that work, and why I thought I was more likely to benefit from doing tasks in a way other than the way he wanted me to do them. It led to a productive conversation about different approaches to producing philosophical work. As a result, he better understood my advising needs, and was able to advise me more productively.

The way YOU should approach your advisor depends on the relationship you have with her and the specific issues you have with her advising. The relationship I have with this particular committee member made our conversation feel entirely natural and comfortable. I might have approached someone else, or a different problem, in a different way.

Also, keep in mind that this sort of conversation doesn't have to be adversarial. Mine wasn't. The two of you are working together towards the common goal of having you produce a good dissertation.

-an almost-done ABD

Anonymous said...

Not wanting to be rude, but how can you tell your work is better now than previous work? For example does it get published without revision and resubmission? If it just reads better (clearer, better argued etc) now, than could this not simply be an effect of it being what you're working on and interested in now, so you already know what you're trying to say, whereas the stuff you were writing in the past appears unclear now because you've forgotten some of the context that made it clear then (you know longer no the arguments you were responding to as well and that sort of thing).

My experience reading my old papers is different. I read them and think 'how the heck did I ever manage to do that?'

Anonymous said...

I agree with 5:58. I occasionally will think that I should have phrased a sentence differently, but mostly I just wonder why I don't remember any of the stuff I wrote and assume that I must have become dumber.

Mr. Zero said...

Not wanting to be rude, but how can you tell your work is better now than previous work?

Yeah. There are a few reasons. I do generally publish in better places than I used to, though I still get plenty of rejections. (However, I haven't gotten an R&R in a really long time. However-ever, I don't attribute that to anything other than high levels of competitiveness allowing journals to be especially selective, and therefore they can dispense with R&Rs. But I guess I don't know. Maybe we should discuss it.) The writing seems better--clearer. The ideas seem better, and better-expressed. More subtle; less obvious.

I also think that the stuff I'm working on now is more interesting and fresher in my mind than the stuff I was working on then, and it's not impossible that this plays a substantial role in my reaction to the earlier work. I'm sure it plays some role. But I honestly don't think it's the whole story. I also think my newer stuff really is better.

And I don't think that's nuts. After all, I've been practicing.