Saturday, March 29, 2014

Living Philosophy

Over the last year, my professional life has undergone a number of major changes. Obviously, moving to the Netherlands is on the list, but I have in mind more differences in how I view myself and my work. While finishing my dissertation gave me a sense of completion, it took a while to find a well-developed sense of myself as a philosopher. In particular, I have a very different relationship to my research today than I had when I defended my dissertation.

The dissertation stage is filled with lots of uncertainties and fear along with the other challenges of actually writing the thing. For one thing, I had never written anything that long or unified. I had to design and execute a book-length argument on one topic, and I had to say something relatively novel. Thankfully, my supervisor Bruce Brower was an excellent mentor. He helped me identify the topic very early in my doctoral studies, so I spent two years or so thinking about it before I began principal writing. We worked the topic into one of my qualifying assignments, so I had the chance to do some preliminary work, and he helped through applying for the fellowship that supported one year of writing.

During the writing, the research was a task, a very demanding task. My life became a routine of read-write-recover or occasionally write-read-read. Through the hours spent writing and revising, the research was a challenge, a wall I had to climb. It made demands like a physical force, pulling me just enough to force me to trudge through the rough terrain. It became a real presence in my life, an invisible ball and chain.

For about a year after defending, the ball and chain hung around. I knew I was supposed to continue working, but I had only a vague idea about how to begin writing and publishing articles. Again, other postdocs seem to report the same learning curve unless they have solid early career mentorship, so I know I'm not the only one with that problem, at least. I did have a sense that the research wasn't supposed to be like that. There is a cultural narrative about relating to one's work, especially creative/intellectual work, as a bittersweet challenge. It pushes the scholar, but also motivates. The philosophy drives you, not the other way around.

Well, I felt not so much pushed but dragged. There were topics that I wanted to develop, but I still didn't feel all that sure about how to go about it. I wrote but just couldn't make the arguments do anything for me. Last summer, I started to rethink my relationship with philosophy to find a way to turn things around.

One thing I appreciate about the Buddhist tradition is the sense of lineage. The Dharma stretches back in an unbroken line to Siddhartha Gautama. Every Buddhist teacher should understand that the insight she has is the very same insight held in the mind of the Buddha. The Dharma is a living thing, passed through the centuries in texts, by word of mouth, and by example. These ideas give the Buddhist tradition a resonance, an existence alongside our own.

Thinking about these things, I began to ask myself what philosophy is, exactly. This is a question I became absolutely sick of during my MA studies in Vancouver. Many philosophers pose that question, and few agree. At the time, I thought it was a hindrance to philosophy to worry about what it is. It is something, and we do it, so let's get on with it. Now, I can humbly say that I understand why the question arises over and over again. The answer to that question is the name that gives philosophy its living form. Philosophers don't have to agree on what it is completely, but they should know what it means to them.

I started rereading Wittgenstein, then Heidegger, Carnap, Quine, Nietzsche, Descartes, and Kant. This time, I didn't pay attention to the content of their arguments but to the care with which the arguments are framed. In their master works, philosophers put a great deal of effort into putting forth something that is in principle very difficult to describe or articulate in words. If the "something" were obvious, the description would be trivial. At its best, philosopher plunges into the fringes of our understanding. For me, philosophy became Vipassana. In Pali, the word means "insight/investigation" and is used to describe meditation practices directed at a clear understanding of reality.

At this point, two things happened. First, I had an evaluation standard for my own work. If it's too easy to say, I haven't thought about it enough. Every article should contain a key insight that is difficult to see and understand, but can be brought out with great care. In addition, by giving it a name, my research became a living thing. It now pushes me to the ends of my understanding and motivates me to go as far as I can. I'm still working on testing, developing, and writing, but I now know what it means to hit the mark, even I haven't hit it yet.