Monthly Archives: April 2016

On Academic Humility (by Umberto Eco)

“I had a problem, and none of the authors I was reading helped me solve it” (p. 143)

This post is an extract from the late Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis (published in Italian in 1977, but translated into English in 2015, pages 142-144). The quote resonates with my current state of mind. It is a lovely book, and I thoroughly recommend it to anybody doing research because it very much emphasises the disposition we need to do a PhD, rather than the raw, mechanical skills that are so often foregrounded in similar books for the autodidact (which I think one needs to be in research, however much we seek and are offered help, guidance, and advice). [Bolds and square brackets are mine]

…the ‘best ideas may not come from the major authors’. And now, to prove this, I will tell you the story of the abbot Vallet.

To fully understand this story, I should explain the question that my thesis posed, and the interpretative stumbling block that obstructed my work for about a year. Since this problem is not of general interest, let us say succinctly that for contemporary aesthetics, the moment of the perception of beauty is generally an intuitive moment, but for St. Thomas [of Aquinas] the category of intuition did not exist. Many contemporary interpreters have striven to demonstrate that he had somehow talked about intuition, and in the process they did violence to his work. On the other hand, St. Thomas’ moment of the perception of objects was so rapid and instantaneous that it did not explain the enjoyment of complex aesthetic qualities, such as the contrast of proportions, the relationship between the essence of a thing and the way in which this essence organises matter, etc. The solution was (and I arrived at it only a month before completing my thesis) in the discovery that aesthetic contemplation lay in the much more complex act of judgment. But St. Thomas did not explicitly say this. Often this is precisely the scope of interpretative research: to bring an author to say explicitly what he [sic] did not say, but that he could not have avoided saying had the question been posed to him. In other words, to show how, by comparing the various statements, the answer must emerge, in the terms of the author’s scrutanised thought. Maybe the author did not give the answer because he [sic] thought it obvious, or because – as in the case of St. Thomas – he had never organically treated the question of aesthetics, but always discussed it incidentally, taking the matter for granted.

Therefore, I had a problem, and none of the authors I was reading helped me solve it (although if there was anything original in my thesis, it was precisely this question, with the answer that was to come out of it). And one day, while I was wandering disconsolate and looking for texts to aid me, I found at a stand in Paris a little book that attracted me at first for its beautiful binding. I opened it and found that it was a book by a certain abbot Vallet, titled ‘L’idée du Beau dans la Philosophie de Saint Thomas d’Aquin’ (Louvin, 1887). I had not found it in any bibliography. It was the work of a minor nineteenth-century author. Naturally I purchased it (and it was even inexpensive). I began to read it, and I realised that the abbot Vallet was a poor fellow who repeated preconceived ideas and did not discover anything new. If I continued to read him, it was not for “academic humility” but for pure stubbornness, and to recoup the money I had spent. (I did not know such humility yet, and in fact I learned reading that book. The abbot Vallet was to become my great mentor). I continued reading, and at a certain point – almost in parenthesis, said probably unintentionally, the abbot not realising his statement’s significance – I found a reference to the theory of judgment linked to that of beauty. Eureka! I had found the key, provided by the poor abbot Vallet, who had died a hundred years before, who was long since forgotten, and yet who still had something to teach to someone willing to listen. 480px-Golden_key_icon.svg

This is academic humility: the knowledge that anyone can teach us something. Perhaps this is because we are so clever that we succeed in having someone less skilled than us teach us something; or perhaps even someone who does not seem very clever to us has some hidden skills; or also because someone who inspires us may not inspire others. The reasons are many. The point is that we must listen with respect to anyone, without this exempting us from pronouncing our value judgments; or from the knowledge that the author’s opinion is very different from ours, and that he is ideologically very distant from us. But even the sternest opponent can suggest some ideas to us. It may depend on the weather, the season, and the hour of the day. Perhaps, had I read the abbot Vallet a year before, I would not have caught the hint. And who knows how many people more capable than I [sic] had read him without finding anything interesting. But I learned from that episode that if I wanted to do research, as a matter of principle I should not exclude any resource. This is what I call academic humility. Maybe this is hypocritical because it actually requires pride rather than humility, but do not linger on moral questions: whether pride or humility, practice it [sic].


Damage limitation in the #PhD

On feeling very stuck

What do you do when you can’t bring yourself to read another word of your research readings, can’t muster a single sentence for your supervisors, generally feel threatened by any new information that is clearly relevant to your PhD, yet feel under constant pressure to produce, to say intelligent things, to be innovative and knowledgeable?

imageI’m sure this has all been felt before and that there is tons of advice out there on what to do, but I don’t want to know about that either because then I will feel under more pressure to do something about this feeling, and then feel guilty for not being able to (re)act.

I am stuck. I am saturated. I am overwhelmed with information. I am paralysed by the range of possibilities. I am frozen.

So I’m writing this to acknowledge my stuckness and face up to the fact that this is where I am in my research process, at the half-way mark, and plateauing. I’m also writing this in the hope that I can get to the bottom of what is blocking me, thus limiting some of the damage that my stalling may be doing, and maybe/possibly clearing debris so that I can start striding again.

This is what it feels like.

  • Reading: I have books all over the house and in my e-devices, piling up on floors and surfaces, using memory, imagewaiting to be read, half-read, unread, none of which I can focus on and enjoy because my mind is contemplating what I haven’t read and what I ought to be reading instead, and the extent to which I can use it in my work.



  • Avoiding the abyss: I actually know exactly what I need to do to get out of this static state (i.e. look at my data and use it to build my argument), but I also know that the minute I do that, I will be in a much bigger intellectual space than the tiny one I have safely constructed for myself so far – and I can’t face stepping into this void which I have opened because I know I will need to fill it with the same energy and vigour I had when I first started.
  • A written article that I have not sent to a journal: I wrote this last year, I’ve been advised to send it off for publication, but I haven’t, and I can’t bring myself to. Why? Because that, too, has the potential to open up spaces and conversations that I don’t feel ready to engage with.
  • Tired of my ideas: when I think about my thesis, I can’t see the point of it. This is because I am avoiding looking into the abyss (above). If I were able to face the void I have created, it would generate new momentum with the likely consequence of getting myself out of this cycle in which I simply keep repeating myself, like a broken record. Again, I know what to do here, but why am I not doing it? Because I can’t face the can of worms that I have started to open, I am not ready to expose myself as this would mean answering questions, not asking them.
  • Feeling stupid: there are some things I just don’t understand, or rather, that I don’t know how to connect and apply to what I am doing. I am reading concepts that I ‘feel’ are relevant to what I want to say, but I don’t have the intelligence/language/stamina/confidence/imagination to state boldly and to apply in an interdisciplinary way – I am looking to philosophy and sociology to explain academic writing (traditionally the object/subject of applied linguistics or literacy research), but then I get cold feet, feeling that I am overcomplicating things because I simply don’t understand them or because I have started something that I now can’t stop. Pat Thomson has written about the feeling of stupidity in much more hopeful and constructive terms.
  • So much information: during an academic year (roughly from October to July) there is so much going on … there are conferences, seminars, workshops, reading groups, development sessions, training events, and deadlines; if you work, like I do, there is teaching, marking, professional development, pastoral care, and preparation; then there is social media, a rich and fruitful (re)source when you are open and eager to tap into to what research is being done, but a burden and reminder of your inadequacy when you are feeling stuck, like I am right now.
  • Other selves: I have a family, and I like to paint, travel and read politics and literature . All this is on hold, or, when I do dedicate myself to my ‘other’ life, I feel guilty and that I then need to do overtime in my professional and research life. This is fine, I chose to do a PhD, nobody forced me, I have wanted to do one for a while and I started this one when I knew I could. I am not complaining because I am very lucky for all kinds of reasons. But my PhD now dominates everyday life, even when I seem to be doing and talking about other things, I am not really. I am thinking ‘how can I use this in my research?’ or ‘when can I get back to my research?’ [even when I am stalling and stuck in my research].

A glimpse of light beyond the tunnel

I think I have been here before. Not when I did my Master’s, but when I did my undergraduate degree. This is when I last felt so inadequate and intellectually challenged in a way that was uncomfortable and confidence-destroying. I wanted to leave after my first year and then, having been persuaded to stick with it, I wanted to drop out in my fourth year (I did an MA in Scotland, so 4 years of UG), but by my fourth year, it was too late, I was too far into it, my pride and my friends got in the way, so I ran the course and stuck with it. I am heavily relying on this past experience to make sense of what is happening to me now. It is a leap of faith and a trust in past patterns of behaviour, it is about knowing oneself, and being accountable to oneself. My pride is greater than my intelligence, and perhaps that is where I need to look in order to take off my blindfold, look at the abyss, and start inching my way into it …