Don’t read! Or how to start writing

I had an intriguing conversation with a student today. He told me about the thesis he is currently writing and complained that he’s drowning in the literature. He had just rushed through a list of names in the secondary literature when I stopped him by asking what his initial interest had been. After a little moment of puzzlement, he began to tell me, with sparkling eyes, about how he got interested in social notion of the self. It was clear that he was fascinated but had already had a hard time trying to relate this to the secondary literature he was supposed to invoke. – When people start writing a philosophical essay or thesis they are often advised to get an “overview of the literature first.” The next step is to structure the paper by comparing two positions and eventually taking a side. I made this mistake myself for too long. Somehow it seemed natural to set out by doing “the reading”. By now I’m convinced this is a bad strategy. More often than not it crushes good ideas and leaves you with a half-alien set of positions that you’ll have difficulty to form an opinion about. In what follows, I’d like to explain why these problems arise and how an inversion of the order might help. (Spoiler alert: you’ll still have to read, but much later in the process.)

How things might go wrong. – Students are often asked to find a topic or even provided with a set of suggestions. In academic philosophy, this often amounts to finding a position or conclusion to be defended. How do you do this? Well, start reading (secondary literature) and something will come. But this way of beginning often means putting the cart before the horse. Firstly, in view of the vast literature, taking a position will always feel arbitrary. Secondly, given the overall unfamiliarity with the literature, students will likely feel unsure about whatever they say. – Of course, the advice to read first is understandable: it is designed to avoid reinventing the wheel. The incentive is to get an overview and develop one’s own position by ever so slightly deviating or contradicting the literature. Yes, the wheel won’t be reinvented. But the likely outcome is that good ideas get crushed under the wheels before they are looked at.

The problem of legitimacy. ­­– Why do ideas get crushed? Well, think about what reading authoritative texts (in the secondary literature) does to you. Even dry reports of the state of discussion exert normative force. You’ll be inclined to align your terms, your thoughts and your arguments with the state of discussion. This alignment makes your own piece sound authoritative but it will likely bury your initial thoughts. You will now think of them as immature beginnings that eventually led you to the actual discussion. In other words, secondary literature has a deligitimising effect on your ideas. Your ideas? Worthless musings… Of course not. But the effect of supposed authority is strong. Going this way, you’ll structure your piece in line with the actual discussion, you will hopefully tick all the right boxes, apply the hip terms correctly and forget about your early musings. At the end, you’ll note a small unclarity in the literature, improving the field with a valuable correction.

What to do? – Look, I don’t want to talk you out of this. Much of the time this works nicely, even if it leaves you a bit unsure about your aims and goals. If you’re in a hurry, it is good to go along with this advice. Why then change a running system? – Well, perhaps because it might work slightly better and because it might allow you to connect to your own ideas. So here is a suggestion of how to begin in a different way: Try to retain as much as possible of your original ideas. That doesn’t mean to stubbornly hold on to them. Rather, you should try to figure out what you actually think. Often that’s not altogether easy or clear. But you’ll get used to it. But what are your ideas anyway? Now, that is not so obvious. If you want to find your own ideas, you’ll have to watch your reactions. Observe how you react to other ideas! Be it in discussions or in (primary) texts. Something might stand out, upset or irritate you – that’s where your ideas lurk.

The beginning: locating an issue. – If you think you should start by finding some literature about your topic, you overlook that you already have begun with something else. But what was that? When the time comes for you to find a topic for a paper, you should not look ahead but back. Yes, you already have begun. Probably you were confronted with some funny idea or read a bit of primary literature that seemed interesting or puzzling. That is your starting point. Stick with a concrete formulation or the concrete passage that gave you pause. Quote that passage or sentence. Think about it by going through every sentence. Clarify any terms that are unclear with a dictionary. Then write a paraphrase in your own words. Start playing with it. Take out sentences and ask yourself what that does. Formalise it, if you like. Get a feeling for what the passage depends on. Create a map of where that passage belongs. What are other bits of text or associations that support it? Etc.

Understanding yourself through the text: seeing friction. – Remember you picked the passage because it stood out. Now try to spell out what exactly is so very interesting or puzzling and why. This has two parts: (1) You have to figure what the precise formulation is and (2) how it irritates or even counters your expectation. The first step means locating the precise word or idea that gives rise to the issue. It might sound trivial, but it is that term or phrase that your whole paper will be about. Because it is this piece that needs explaining. The second step is more difficult. First you have to see why this concerns your expectations: Well, if something irritates you or looks odd, it’s often because you expected something else to be said. Something is said that you would not have said or not have said this way. That is your expectations frustrated, as it were. But your expectation is not in the text. It’s in your head. Now, your expectation (frustrated by the text) is your entry point for the explanation or argument that your paper is to develop. Unfortunately, it is often not entirely obvious what gives rise to your irritation. Is there something in the text that sounds unfamiliar? Does it counter a belief you hold? What belief? Your task is to find out the assumption (you hold) that makes the text come out wrong, odd or unfamiliar. Once you see that, you have a friction between the text and yourself. Now you begin to understand how your reactions to the text arise. Now you enter into a conscious dialogue with the text. This dialogue arises out of your ideas; the friction makes them visible.

The next steps. – Now it’s still not time to read. Probably the temptation is enormous by now to search for bits and bobs of discussion on the web, but that has to wait. Once you have an understanding of the tension that guides you, it’s good to write an abstract (or introduction) and design a structure. What needs explaining? What is the friction or problem you see? As I have said in an earlier piece, you can employ a number of strategies to spread out your proposal. Only when you have done so, should you begin to dip into the literature. The upside is that now you will have concrete questions that you want answered. At the same time, the fact that you have written out your ideas will (hopefully) prevent you from feeling delegitimised by the discussions you are going to encounter. Rather you will enter the discussion with your own questions and worries. Those need answering.

Exploration. – As is perhaps obvious, the idea is not to discourage reading. Quite the contrary: you should read as much as you like, be it to explore or whatever. But if you want to write, you have to find a way to protect a space for your own ideas to unfold. Your ideas and questions are not your own because no one had them before or because they counter the secondary literature. They are yours because you find them interesting. They guide you. But you have to find them through the friction with others.

6 thoughts on “Don’t read! Or how to start writing

  1. This basic idea has always seemed compelling to me as I have tried to write philosophy. But I really appreciate some of the ways you have some meat on the bones of that intuition. Thank you!

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  2. By all means – spend time thinking hard about your idea. Write it out, revise it, come up with objections and replies. Then start reading only to realize you were scooped ten years ago. This has happened to me countless times. It’s so demoralizing.

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    1. I’m very sorry this happened to you. As far as I can tell, that rarely happens, especially in student papers. But if you don’t mind sharing, I’d be very interested in the specifics of your case(s).

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      1. I’m not sure if your post was meant for undergrads – but I am thinking of my time in graduate school. I know others who had the same issue. It’s way more common than I think people like to admit. I wasted countless hours coming up with ideas that were already in the literature. Well, not wasted from my perspective, since I enjoyed the exercise and I think I learned more than I would have just reading about those same ideas. But from a professional standpoint, it was a waste.

        As far as specifics, I’m not sure how helpful that would be. I had an idea – whether on my own, from something in a seminar, or whatever. Then I thought hard about it, wrote it up, came up with objections, etc. Then I (gingerly, cautiously) checked what was written, and more often than not found either the exact point I had developed, or something sufficiently close that it was not worth trying to publish.

        To be honest, I don’t know that there’s any solution here. If you read to much at first, I agree that it stifles creativity. But if you don’t read enough, there’s a good chance you’ll waste your time with an idea that is already in the literature. (Of course, you may get lucky and cotton on to something genuinely new. But it’s just that: luck).

        My advice: do philosophy for fun, do something else for a living.

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