And that’s good fiction writing to me as well, but I want first to concentrate on my philosophical writing. I spent much of Thursday afternoon editing the third chapter of my ecophilosophy manuscript. One of the reasons why editors are skeptical when someone pitches them a manuscript based on a dissertation is that dissertations usually stink. They’re written on a highly specialized, extremely technical topic, and their purpose isn’t to be readable or approachable to the public, but to demonstrate that the writer knows how to do research and organize ideas in a reasonable manner.
I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to write a doctoral dissertation like that. In part, it was because of my ego: I didn’t want to write a work of such a size and investment of time that would only have an audience of my committee, examiners, and my mother. But it was also a pragmatic calculation. I was entering a labour market where the only successful people are the ones who distinguish themselves from the crowd as soon as possible. To thrive in academia, you have to become remarkable.
I got a decent amount (not a lot) of advice throughout my doctorate that the best way for me to have a good career was to go to conferences only in my exact specialty, and have a very tightly focussed dissertation that was very deferential to the major names in my specialty. In other words, be a good little student and don’t stand out. You can guess that was the advice I didn’t take.
|A useful book for the|
I think it’s with this bad advice in mind that the book From Dissertation to Book was published. It’s a guide to do exactly what it says in the title, and from the first time I approached editors or other university-based authors about what I wanted to do with my dissertation, I was told to read this book. I did. I’m always open to good advice. And it offered great advice. Most of it, I had done already in conceiving of a complex, politically relevant project that would be interesting to a wide intellectual audience. Precisely because so few doctoral candidates approach their dissertations this way is why such a book is needed.
Chapter three is a case in point of my aim for a wide audience from the start. The ecophilosophy project, like everything I write, is pretty complex. I could summarize it in a blog post pretty easily, but I don’t really want to right now. I prefer to tease the blog with my big projects. But chapter three focusses on what I call, in its title, “Two Paradoxes of Practical Philosophy.” Paradox one is that environmental philosophy emerged from a tradition of political activism, but as the environmentalist movement caught on throughout so much of our society, the style of philosophical discourse actually alienated environmental philosophy from the activism that gave birth to it. We were still talking, trying to figure out how best to change the world. Meanwhile all the disciplines that were later adopters of environmentalist conscience had surpassed philosophy in actually working to change the world.*
* Yes, this is the one Thesis on Feuerbach Marx wrote that most people actually remember. But I don’t want my ecophilosophy project to be pigeonholed into Marxism, because only other Marxists read Marxist books. My eye was on the general audience.
Paradox two examines another aspect of philosophical styles of discourse and their incompatibility with practical action: the niggling nitpicking of philosophers. We write our theories of moral philosophy paying intense attention to nuance. Our texts (and blog posts) become longer as we consider all the possible interpretations of our simple statements, and continually add qualifiers and counterfactuals to make our ideas more precise. But the practical politics of social movements like environmentalism are motivated by simple slogans and images that inspire popular anger and empathy. People aren’t motivated to action by a complicated moral investigation; they’re motivated by sloganeering and advertising. The nature of philosophical discourse isolates us from the political engagement that environmental philosophy was developed to be part of.
I examined these paradoxes in the context of a wider problem in philosophy: the perception of philosophy’s irrelevance to the world and to other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. So I had written the chapter not only to examine this problem I saw in the sub-discipline of environmental philosophy, but to make a larger point about philosophy as a whole in the present time. The chapter also introduces my solution (which can be one of many, it just happens to be the idea I thought of), a solution whose structure maps out the entire rest of the manuscript.
If I had written a manuscript that focussed only on a single specialized problem and didn’t include any reference to wider relevance, I wouldn’t be able to make the points that I did. Instead of writing a perfectly serviceable but unremarkable dissertation about a specialized problem in environmental moral philosophy, I wrote a manuscript thematically dense enough to touch on wider aspects of our knowledge institutions. That’s how you stand out.