Why can’t you finish that paper? What’s keeping you? – There is something you still have to do. But where can you squeeze it in? Thinking about salient issues I want to address, I often begin to take the paper apart again, at least in my mind. – “Kill your darlings” is often offered as advice for writers in such situations. When writing or planning a paper, book or project you might be prone to stick to tropes, phrases or even topics and issues that you had better abandon. While you might love them dearly, the paper would be better off without them. So you might have your paper ready, but hesitate to send it off, because it still doesn’t address that very important issue. But does your paper really need to address this? – While I can’t give you a list of items to watch out for, I think it might help to approach this issue by looking at how it arises.
How do you pick your next topic for a project or paper? Advanced graduate students and researchers are often already immersed in their topics. At this level we often don’t realise how we get into these corners. Thus, I’d like to look at situations that I find BA students in when they think about papers or thesis topics. What I normally do is ask the student for their ideas. What I try to assess, then, are two things: does the idea work for a paper and is the student in a position to pursue it? In the following, I’ll focus on the ideas, but let’s briefly look at the second issue. Sometimes ideas are very intriguing but rather ambitious. In such cases, one might be inclined to discourage students from going through with it. But some people can make it work and shouldn’t be discouraged. You’ll notice that they have at least an inkling of a good structure, i.e. a path that leads palpably from a problem to a sufficiently narrow claim. However, more often people will say something like this: “I don’t yet know how to structure the argument, but I really love the topic.” At this point, the alarm bells should start ringing and you should look very carefully at the proposed idea. What’s wrong with darlings then?
(1) Nothing: A first problem is that nothing might seem wrong with them. Liking or being interested in a topic isn’t wrong. And it would be weird to say that someone should stop pursuing something because they like it. Liking something is in fact a good starting point. You’ve probably ended up studying philosophy because you liked something about it. (And as Sara Uckelman pointed out, thinking about your interests outside philosophy and then asking how they relate to philosophy might provide a good way to finding a dissertation topic.) At the same time, your liking something doesn’t necessarily track good paper topics. It’s a way into a field, but once you’re there other things than your liking might decide whether something works. Compare: I really love the sound of saxophones; I listen to them a lot. Perhaps I should learn to play the saxophone. So it might get me somewhere. But should start playing it live on stage now? Well …
(2) Missing tensions. What you like or love is likely to draw you in. That’s good. But it might draw you in in an explorative fashion. So you might think: “Oh, that’s interesting. I want to know all about it.” But that doesn’t give you something to work on. An explorative mood doesn’t get you a paper; you need to want to argue. Projects in philosophy and its history focus on tensions. If you want to write a paper, you’ve got to find something problematic that creates an urgent need for explanation, like an apparent contradiction or a text that does not seem to add up. Your love or interest in a topic doesn’t track tensions. If you want to find a workable idea, find a tension.
(3) Artificial tensions. Philosophy is full of tensions. When people want to “do what they love”, they often look for a tension in their field. Of course, there will be a lot of tensions discussed in the literature. But since people often believe they should be original, they will create a tension rather than pick up one already under discussion. This is where problems really kick in. You might for instance begin a thesis supervision and be greeted with a tentative “I’m interested in love and I always liked speech act theory. I would like to write about them.” I have to admit that it’s this kind of suggestion I hear most often. So what’s happening here? – What we’re looking at is not a tension but a (difficult) task. The task is created by combining two areas and hence creating the problem of applying the tools of one field to the issue of another. Don’t get me wrong: of course you can write intriguing stuff by applying speech act theory to the issue of love. But this usually requires some experience in both areas. Students often come up with some combination because they like both topics or had some good exposure to them. There might also be a vague idea of how to actually combine the issues, but there is no genuine tension. All there is is a difficult task, created ad hoc out of the need to come up with a tension.
Summing up, focusing on your interests alone doesn’t really guide you towards good topics to work on. What do I take home from these considerations? Dealing with darlings is a tricky business. Looking at my own work, I know that a strong interest in linguistics and a deep curiosity about the unity of sentences got me into my MA and PhD topics. But while these interests got me in, I had to let go of them when pursuing my actual work. So they shaped my approach, but they did not dictate the arguments. Motivationally, I could not have done without them. But in the place they actually took me, I would have been misguided by clinging to them.
Anyway, the moral is: let them draw you in, but then let go of them. Why is that worth adhering to? Because your darlings are about you, but your work should not be about yourself, at least not primarily. The tensions that you encounter will come out of existing discussions or texts, not out of tasks you create for yourself. How do you distinguish between the two? I’d advise to look for the actual point of contact that links all the issues that figure in your idea. This will most likely be a concrete piece of text or phrase or claim – the text that is central in your argument. Now ask yourself whether that piece of text really requires an answer to the question you can’t let go of. Conversely, if you have an idea but you can’t find a concrete piece of text to hang it onto, let go of the idea or keep it for another day.