A PhD student who would like to remain anonymous writes in,
I was wondering if you might bring the following pair of questions before the Cocoon: What is it to be philosophically confident? And how can one begin to foster confidence in their work/thoughts/abilities in graduate school, when, for all intents and purposes, the deck seems to be stacked against them, and when the normal avenues for instilling such feelings (i.e. a paper being accepted into a journal, etc.) is hard to come by?
I think these are great questions to ask, as in my experience many graduate students struggle with confidence. I struggled immensely with a loss of confidence myself in grad school, and it took a lot of work and soul-searching to regain it. What, then, is philosophical confidence, and how can one gain it, especially in graduate school? Before I open up a thread for discussion, I suppose I will present some of my thoughts on the matter.
I'm not sure how to define philosophical confidence, but as a rough first pass I guess I would define it as something like this: A mean state of psychological being--between hubris and self-doubt--in which one is reasonably inclined to judge, and feel, that one is capable of realizing good work (whether it is teaching, research, etc.), and in a position to reliably judge the quality of one's work for oneself. Let me now unpack this a little bit.
First, qua "state of psychological being", philosophical confidence can wax and wane. Even to this day, some days I feel more philosophically confident than others. Some days I feel reasonably inclined to judge, and feel, that I'm capable of realizing good work, and on other days not so much.
Second, true philosophical confidence (in my own opinion and experience) has to be reasonable. One thing that many grad students struggle with (and which I struggled with) is vacillating between over-confidence (or hubris) and under-confidence (or self-doubt). In my experience, many grad students begin grad school thinking they are "the bee's knees", or, very roughly, the greatest philosopher since Kant. Then, what often happens is one finds oneself among other super-intelligent grad students and faculty who tear one's work apart--and you begin to think you are the most worthless philosopher who ever lived. Some hyperbole aside, this is roughly what I went through, and I've seen plenty of others go through it too. To a certain extent, I think it may be a necessary part of "growing up" as a philosopher and human being. We all want to think we are "special", especially when we are young--and it is a hard lesson to learn (a kind of growing pain) to learn that, no, there are a lot of other people out there at least as smart and talented as you are, in some cases far more so. I'll say more about how I think one can develop philosophical confidence momentarily, but for now let me turn to the the rest of the rough definition above. Philosophical confidence, in my view, has to be reasonable--otherwise, it is not confidence, but rather hubris. In order to become philosophically confident, one must therefore demonstrate, to oneself and others, that one actually does have what it takes to produce good work (and have the capacity to judge the quality of one's work for oneself). Because genuine confidence has to be reasonable, it is not something purely "internal"; one has to earn philosophical confidence--showing oneself and others that, indeed, one's confidence in oneself is not unjustified hubris.
Third, because (in my view) confidence is a mean between hubris and self-doubt, it's not easy to learn, and indeed, one can struggle with hitting the right mean continually throughout one's career. In my experience, confidence is difficult to learn as an early-career philosopher because it's hard to reliably distinguish reasonable confidence from either hubris or too much self-doubt (after all, some amount of self-doubt is necessary to avoid hubris!). Similarly, there are times throughout one's career where you might feel confident but lapse into hubris, or experience self-doubt when you should feel confident.
Finally, in my view, true philosophical confidence not only involves reasonably judging and feeling one is capable of good work, but also involves a reasonable judgment and feeling that one is capable of judging the quality of one's own work for oneself, not simply deferring to others. In my own case, I experienced this as follows: after receiving my PhD, presenting papers at a lot of peer-reviewed conferences, and publishing several papers, it seemed to me that I reasonable evidence that, "Yes, I can sort of do this philosophy thing." This isn't to say, again, that I thought anything like, "I'm the greatest", but rather, something like, "I'm a professional philosopher. I have a PhD, and have demonstrated an ability to produce work my peers judge to be worth publishing." Hence, when I wrote a rather ambitious paper that was really long and wide-ranging--far longer than a typical article--I no longer felt like I had to defer to others. A few colleagues (including a few well-known people) I sent the paper to said, "You need to cut this down. It's trying to do too much." As a grad student, I probably would have deferred to others' judgments--and probably rightly so (I think one should indeed learn from others before "confidently striking out on one's own). However, now that I was a professional with a track record, I felt confident enough to the paper really needed to be as long and wide-ranging as it was, and so I stuck with my own judgment: I kept the paper long and wide-ranging, and I'm glad that I had the confidence to. I thought then that it was the right call, and think the same now!
Okay, so much for defining philosophical confidence. How can one build it, especially as a grad student? Here are a few thoughts, roughly in order of priority (in developing it):
- Competence through help and hard work: When I first suffered loss of confidence in grad school, I did what (in my experience) many grad students do. I isolated myself, continued to read philosophy, but mostly "wait for it to return." This was a really bad idea. You won't regain your confidence by isolating yourself from your fellow grad students and grad faculty, or by simply waiting for confidence to strike you again. The longer I went down this road, the less confident I became. No, when you're struggling with confidence, the things to do are to (A) reach out to others for help/advice, and (B) work your tail off to become better at what you do. In my case, I worked with a few grad students, and a faculty member, to start a reading group and then a paper draft/dissertation group. Getting involved in these groups helped me see what other people did that worked, enabled me to compare what they did to what I was doing (things that didn't work), and finally, gave me incentive to work hard to improve. And that's the real key. You need to work, work, and work some more to get better at what you do. When others knock you down, you need to get back up and work again. I can't tell you how many times this happened to me, or how valuable it was. It was only once I committed to working harder every time someone's critique, etc., knocked me down, the more I developed. It wasn't easy. At many points, it was horrible. But, if I had continued to give in and give up, I don't think I ever would have regained my confidence or finish grad school.
- Be receptive to, and implement, feedback: It's easy to get frustrated, upset, and "beaten down" by critiques of one's work. But the critiques you receive are important. People are, in their own way (sometimes good, sometime bad), telling you what you need to do (in their view) to become better at what you do. Listen to, appreciate, and do your best to use that feedback to improve yourself, as opposed to resisting or avoiding it.
- Actual accomplishment: There are few things that can increase confidence as much as actual accomplishment. This is what makes it so hard to have confidence in grad school. One sees people at least as smart as you doing better than you, and so you begin to think, "I really suck." Here's how you overcome that: if you got admitted to a grad program and did well enough in your courses, chances are you have the raw materials for success. The key, again, is to seek help and work hard through the times you lack confidence until...you start actually racking some accomplishments (conference and journal acceptances, etc.). Once you start accomplishing things, confidence will start to come (at least in my experience).
- Measure yourself against yourself (focus on what you can do to improve), rather than measuring yourself against others): Grad students tend to be competitive. Everyone wants to show "they deserve to be there." It's almost inevitable that other people will accomplish more than you, or do so more quickly. If you focus on what other people are doing (how much "better" they are), it's a recipe for self-doubt. As I explained here, it was only once I stopped trying to compete with others, and just focused on the craft--on philosophy! (writing, teaching, etc.)--that I began to enjoy philosophy again; and, when it comes to motivation to work hard (qua point 1 above), enjoying what one does is critical.
- Emphasize what you're good at, but work hard to improve your deficiencies: In graduate school, your professors will tell you what they think you need to improve at. Qua point 2 above, listen to and learn from them. They are your professors because they know what it takes to succeed in academic philosophy. Still, never forget "who you are", or what your natural talents are. Early in my professional career, both in grad school and post-PhD, I tried being the philosopher I thought "I was supposed to be", patterning the kinds of things I was writing on the kinds of things other people were writing. Although learning from others is crucial to developing as a philosopher, and developing confidence, it's also critical to recognize, and emphasize, one's particular strengths while improving one's weaknesses. After all, we are all different. Some of us are good at making nitty-gritty distinctions, others of us are good systematizers, others very original thinkers, etc. Early in my career, when I "tried" to be a certain kind of philosopher, I wasn't very successful--as I wasn't emphasizing my strengths. It was only once I embraced my particular strengths, and committed myself to trying to improve my weaknesses, that I began enjoying philosophy and producing work I was (and am) proud of. So, I would say, recognize and emphasize what you're good at. Don't try to "be someone you're not." But, at the same time, do your best to learn things that don't come naturally to you, or which you're not the most gifted at. If you do these things, you'll stand a good chance of (A) becoming a philosopher with unique strengths, while at the same time (B) becoming well-rounded--both of which I think are helpful when it comes to confidence.
- Update - form and uphold good relationships: Finally, I've also found that forming and upholding good relationships--with faculty, fellow students, etc.--can be critical to developing and maintaining confidence. It's hard to have confidence alone. It is much easier to develop and maintain confidence with good social (and philosophical) support groups.
In short, I think philosophical confidence--especially in grad school--can be difficult to achieve, as well as difficult to maintain throughout one's career. I also think struggling with one's confidence is probably a necessary part of developing as a philosopher, but that there are some good all-around strategies for developing it. Finally, I would say--given how many graduate students struggle with confidence, in some cases never finishing their degree as a result of losing it--that graduate programs should take active steps to help students develop confidence, as well as help students through losses thereof.
Anyway, these are just some of my thoughts, and I hope the reader who submitted the query finds them helpful! What do you think philosophical confidence is, and what strategies do you think are good for developing it?