Stop reading, start writing

9 januari 2010 | In BBC Books Meta-philosophy Self-indulgence | Comments?

My first all too serious philosophical essay was on Heidegger (well, actually, I did a number on the ”positionality” concept in the work of Sartre earlier still, but it would take an insane amount of scholarly obsession for anyone to ever dig that up). The nicest thing said about was that it is ”not as incomprehensible as these things usually are”. The literature I discussed, I found at the University Library, actually going through a number of philosophy journals. I had a computer at the time, which was just barely hooked up to the internet, but didn’t use it for literature searches, just for writing and the occasional email. I spent a lot of time thinking about the subject of my essay, and used a very limited amount of sources.

A year or so later, while working on a different essay, I discovered JSTOR, and for about a month and a half, the printer didn’t get a rest. It suddenly dawned on me that everything interesting had been written about, at length, from almost every perspective, and the goal to find a theoretical position that was not currently occupied, and then to occupy it, suddenly struck me as much more difficult than I’d imagined. I spent the next few years reading more, too much probably, and thinking and writing less.

I used to do all my best thinking during walks and while running (or derogatorily: ”jogging”). Usually in very dull environments, not to distract from the thinking. Then I got an iPod, and started to listen to lectures, podcasts and audiobooks during those walks and runnings. (iTunes university has some great stuff, the podcasts from Nature, and from TED and the RSA are excellent. BBC 4’s ”thinking allowed” and ”in our time” just have me in stitches). And instead of thinking about what I’ve just heard, I tended to listen to another lecture, podcast or audiobook. Similarly with papers, even books. Before I start working on this chapter, I argued, I just need to read this paper, or that book. One wouldn’t like to be caught out ignorant, now, would one? No, one would not.

The all too great availability of other people’s writing and thinking made me quite heavy on the consumer side of science and philosophy, and much less of a producer. It is, of course, a great thing to learn, and to listen, but in order to become a philosopher, it is necessary to start doing it for yourself. To actually not care, for a bit, whether someone has written that same thing before, and been more well read while doing so.

My dissertation took longer than it should have, and I know people who have been, and still are, in that state where they just can’t seem to finish their texts. Partly, I believe, for this reason. They are excellent, well-read consumers and thoughtful, accomplished critics, but seems almost to have forgotten how to actually do philosophy. (The dominance of ”critical” philosophy among published articles is a testament that this tendency is very common indeed). The kind of second-order thinking were you are constantly reflecting on how what you are writing relates to what other people have written tends to stand in the way of confident, genuinely original and interesting work. At some point, you just have to get out of reading mode, and enter writing mode.


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