Some of my friends who read the blog may take this personally, and I hope they aren’t offended. But as I was researching yesterday evening, an idea occurred to me about what might be the best ways to approach philosophical research. And I thought of it in contrast to the research habits of some friends of mine, and how those habits tend to get in the way of what I consider the most productive way for a philosopher to engage with research material.
However, it’s also a weekend post, and it seems no one pays attention to a blog roll on the weekends. So it’s possible that no one who’d be offended, or who could stand to learn from my speculations, will read it anyway.
The profession of philosophy asks a lot of people. In particular today, I mean a very radical shift in your self-image in order to transition from a student of philosophy to a philosopher. Through our undergraduate degrees, our masters-level training, and in many cases even our doctorates, which are meant to be our transitional degrees where we become professional philosophers, we are told to be humble. Not simply in the sense of a general humility and awareness that we can make mistakes. That’s just an attitude that makes someone an ethically reasonable person. I mean, we are taught not to have a voice of our own. A student of philosophy reads the masterpieces of the discipline, and even the day-to-day contemporary articles by working stiff professional philosophers, with the attitude of figuring out what this person being read is trying to say. I’m almost finished reading Hegel’s Philosophy of History, so if I were reading it as a student of philosophy, I’d be continually asking myself what Hegel means, what Hegel is trying to do, why Hegel is doing what he’s doing, whether my understanding of Hegel was correct.
But that’s not how you create an original philosophical project. Even if my project were simply a historical study of Hegel’s philosophy (which it is nowhere near!), I wouldn’t get anywhere with this attitude. Because with that approach, you never escape the shadow of the person you’re reading.
Instead, researching like a philosopher means that you’re researching because you’re looking for material from which to craft your own idea, your own project. In fact, it isn’t even that raw. A philosopher researches because she already has a project in mind. She’s reading her research material already in a dialogue with it, interrogating it, plotting its ideas in relation to the ideas she has from her other research for the project. What’s more, she’s confident that her thinking doesn’t have to be faithful to any Hegelian project to use it. My own project on political temporalities is crazily complicated, weaving several disparate philosophical traditions into a single investigation. I’m reading Hegel to see how his ideas can fit into my own work. I’m reading Hegel’s Philosophy of History not as a student of Hegel, but as a peer of Hegel.
That’s the difference between a student of philosophy and a philosopher.