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Jack Gladney

This is my first blog comment of all time. Here are some things I'd tell myself. Perhaps they're worth telling yourself, or not. Just my $0.02!

(1) Never work with the internet on. Turn it off or go somewhere to work that doesn't have it. (2) Schedule writing time and keep track of progress. Set specific goals for regular work that are obtainable. 500 words today on that draft; finish that half-done referee report; whatever. (3) Read extensively, on lots of different topics, even stuff by people who don't write philosophy. Reading good prose is surely a way to improve writing. You want to internalize a writer's voice in your head. When it comes time to refine your words, the voice can help. This doesn't come naturally for most of us. Do what you can to develop the voice, beyond just practicing writing. (4) Read works by dead people who cared about your topics. Learn about the history of your debates -- not just the last 25 years, but way back (if possible). So you work on philosophy of law: find out what Hugo Grotius said. And I never assume that because it's old and famous, people have taken account of it either. Lots of stuff that's regularly pointed out isn't even read or understood. Go read the classics in the field *yourself* and get a sense for what was so important about those ideas. You'll probably be a better researcher because of it. (5) Find out what makes excellent writers tick. Read *The Paris Review*. Some of the interviews with authors are fascinating (see Don DeLillo's interview) and give you a sense for how a hard-working writer thinks about the craft. (6) Keep a notebook.

Andreas Wolkenstein

Marcus, thanks for pointing out the need to trust oneself. I can confirm what you say.
(1) What I learned during the years after graduating (and maybe it all started a little earlier) was that you always have to trust yourself, and that this is one of the most important things. This is not easy because there are a lot of things that can make you lose your trust (people with a huge publication list, people with grants over grants, people giving talks about everything), but if you take a closer look at those things (and people and the way the academy works) you realize that as long as you can stand behind what you say, write or think, you can and want to defend it, you can trust yourself. And the converse is also true: as long as you trust yourself, you will be able to defend your ideas and stay behind them. There is some probability that one has too much trust in oneself and defends ideas that are really weird (and basically wrong); according to my experience, this problem is common especially in the first years of studying philosophy. So maybe the second point I wish to mention will help here.
(2) I also agree with you that writing helps a lot, although I think it not only serves to discern good from bad ideas in the sense that after reading and presenting your paper you come to the conclusion that the idea was good or bad. It is more that through writing down your ideas and through the necessary effort to formulate correctly and so on, you are nearly automatically forced to see which of your ideas are defendable. Un-defendable ideas are hard to formulate, so to speak.
So, what do you think?

Marcus Arvan

Interesting points, Andreas - and I'm glad to see we agree on some things! :) Alas, I don't think undefendable ideas are hard to formulate. I do it quite a lot, and -- if the literature is any indication -- other people do it all of the time too.

See, for example, my remarks on phenomenal concepts in the philosophy of mind and the "reasons-first" view in meta-ethics (in a couple of other posts). For my part, I don't think that anyone has *ever* formulated the phenomenal concepts idea in even a halfway defensible manner -- and yet the idea spread like wildfire, and is one of the most discussed issues in recent philosophy of mind. As I see it, phenomenal concepts were always an indefenible idea, but it is all physicalists really have, so it took off.

Anyway, maybe I'm unique in this, but my trouble is that I have trouble distinguishing my good ideas from the bad. So I just let conferences and reviewer help me figure it out. Not all that efficient I know, but it's one way to go.

Finally, I also don't think it's so bad to defend ideas that are really weird or totally wrong. I'd rather defend something weird and wrong that gets other people talking than something right that falls on deaf ears. But maybe that, too, is just me! ;)

Andreas Wolkenstein

Thanks for these points, Jack. I find them very useful. However, I want to add a comment on your point (4).
I sometimes have the impression that reading historical figures is not really - let's say helpful. Maybe I say this because I never really went deep into the history of philosophy although I should have done that. I nevertheless think that reading all of what all dead philosophers from past centuries wrote about a particular question leads away from the systematic questions in philosophy. Isn't it more helpful to have the arguments right and to see the practical problem (what to do given climate change? How to improve democracy and democratic deliberation? What to do against terrorism - and how to do it?) than discerning what exactly Aristotle or XYZ said (if you do not use Aristotle or XYZ to make your argument, of course).
A second point would be to say that reading the classics is not that easy. I think that it is rarely possible to read historical figure XYZ full stop. You always have to translate the language, see what terms they use (which might differ from our way), and so on. So I think that you either are a historian of philosophy and work about certain philosophers of the past and you then translate their ideas and make them fruitful for current debates. Or you stick to systematic questions and do the historical work apart from that. Using dead philosophers from past centuries as though they were contemporaries, however, seems to be rather difficult.
Now, I think that does not necessarily count against your thoughts in (4). Maybe it makes a little more concrete what the debate with the philosophical past can look like. Do you agree?

Andreas Wolkenstein

Of course we do, Marcus...;-) And I'd say that we can agree on the points you made in your comment, too. I think that I used "in/defensible" not necessarily in the way that implies that at the end of the day all philosophers will come to the conclusion that idea X was right/wrong. Nobody can that in an apriori way because nobody has that look from nowhere. It is possible and indeed very common (we see it every day) that an idea that seemed right turned out to be false (well, that's science). So it is true that some ideas are able to be formulated but in the end indefensible.
The point is that some ideas - at least some of my ideas - at first look very interesting, bold, new, paradigm-shifting and so on. When it comes to formulating them, for instance when writing a paper on it, these ideas suddenly fail to be defensible in the sense that you see all the flaws in your reasoning etc. I used "in/defensible" in this way. Of course, some of the interesting, bold, new, and paradigm-shifting ideas manage to be defensible in this way but eventually, when discussed by the philosophical community, turn out to be wrong. Or to be true, of course.

Marcus Arvan

Oops - yeah I totally misinterpreted what you meant. You're absolutely right. Getting things down on paper can really help one figure out which things are indefensible by one's *own* lights. Ideas that seem promising in one's head can quickly reveal themselves to be blind alleys when one tries to get it down on paper. I totally agree. I was focusing on "indefensible to others" -- and it's this that I have trouble judging in my own case. I often find resistance against arguments that I think are good, and conversely, interest (by others) in arguments I think are not so good -- so my main way to figure out which of my arguments
fly is to get all of the one's I think are good out there on paper, and let conferences and journal reviewers help me figure out which one's are actually good and which are garbage.

Jack Gladney

Dear Andreas Wolkenstein:

I wasn't trying to say that every single philosophical debate is such that there is a history that is useful to read. (I am also not a historian of philosophy, b/t/w.) For lots of areas in metaphysics or ethics or political philosophy, say, it's easy to learn a lot as a non-specialist about earlier debates, and I believe this only serves to make your approach to your subject more nuanced. No need to learn languages or go to archives or anything like that. Suppose you work on ethics. Then just pick up T. Irwin's terrific books (http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Philosophy/EthicsMoralPhilosophy/?view=usa&ci=9780198242673).

That would count, by my lights, as learning about the history of your debates. Does this make sense?

You wrote:

"What to do against terrorism - and how to do it?"

If that is your research question, then you'd benefit from learning about the origin of tolerance in the early modern and modern period (and not just via J. Rawls' potted history), perhaps by reading Hobbes or whomever. And certainly by watching this old movie:


Good luck!

Kyle Whyte

I find in myself and others the tendency to get increasingly frustrated after having put time aside to write yet have nothing but a blank page to show for it at the end of that day. I bet a lot of folks have that issue. I don't know if it's writer's block, but it's just the idea that it's not everyday that one's writing - even one's bad writing - makes it onto the page. I've found that perhaps the answer to this is that it's just part of writing to have these sorts of days. So that when we think of how much time to put aside for writing, or how much time we need to finish something, we should account for the inevitably of not being productive at all sometimes. Sometimes getting to those good days, or even to a day where something makes it to the page, might require a bad day or two. It's all just part of one's writing process.

Jack Gladney


This is entirely understandable. But I myself try to resist the thought you express: "I've found that perhaps the answer to this is that it's just part of writing to have these sorts of days."

I think the best advice I've heard on this problem -- how to avoid those days where there's time to write but nothing gets written -- is to always leave a trace of your struggle to write.

For me, even if I can't generate anything that will wind up in the final paper, or even an early draft on the way to the final paper, I produce "zero draft" material. Here is some information on what I'm talking about:


It's rare that I will have a solid hour or two to write and yet not at least produce something that helps me the next time out, or the time after that. Sometimes I use a notebook; other times I'll use the computer. The point is, I keep writing and this serves to advance my thinking about my project. Zero drafting allows me to make a mess and not feel a pang of guilt. I know I'll be able to clean it up later or just throw it away.

I learned about zero drafts from some a friend who's an exceptional writer. The idea struck me as strange at first (how could my friend literally make a mess and have that contribute to the development of a project?), but it's useful and I recommend that any writer try it.

Marcus Arvan

In my experience Jack's advice is absolutely right. It is one of the most important lessons I learned to get my dissertation done. Just get stuff out of your head and onto paper each day you work -- don't judge, don't edit, don't try to think everything through before writing. Just get it out, then go back and clean up. In my experience, if there's one secret to production, this is it.

Kyle Whyte

REALLY good points!

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