Tag Archives: Hegel

PhD as self-discovery

I decided to do a PhD because I had a question about law I wanted to answer. So the goal of the PhD has been to make that “original contribution to knowledge”. But as I progressed, I have found that my research has been plastic, in the Hegelian sense. On the one hand, I have shaped my research not only in deciding what to do but also in how my background has shaped my paradigm. In realising the latter, I started to learn things about myself. Doing the PhD became a process of self-discovery. In a sense, at some point, the boundary between my research topic and myself became porous.

As PhD student Kirsty Warren said in the video below, I didn’t start to discover myself by attempting to discover myself; I did it by getting on with life and focusing on something beyond myself. In a sense, as Hegel said, only by recognising that there was something outside me worth recognising did I recognise myself. I became a posthuman researcher.

Emily Warren, discovering herself


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In the beginning was the word…

This might sound egotistical but I have realised recently that the title of this blog, ‘From Tweet to Thesis’, points to the PhD as an image of divine creation (in the same way than humans are made in the image,of God). As I have probably said so many times before, a PhD thesis starts with a tweet in the imagination – a phrase that could be written in a limited number, say 140, of characters. In my case, that tweet would have been ‘How does law change behaviour, if nagging doesn’t work?’ The answer is physically embodied in my thesis, which is also a collection of words. One is words in my mind, the other is words on a page. But the whole point of this blog is that the tweet of the imagination is not the real beginning of the thesis, because it itself is the result of a process. The tweet can be broken down into smaller collections of words, and words themselves, and each word is themselves the result. As Hegel argues in his preface to The Phenomenology of Mind, my tweet of the imagination is merely a proposition. Trafford argues from his research into the nature of doctorateness that my submitted thesis will be a proposition too.

There had to therefore be a first word, from which all words came. And if there was a first word, there had to be a first speaker and thinker. According to the Gospel according to John, in the beginning was the Word. He used the Greek word, logos, which translates as ‘word’ in English but was used by Ancient Greeks to describe an underlying rationality. But John continued: the Word was with God and the Word was God. The first word was God and it was also with, that is, in the mind of, God. In other words, God is the first word and the underlying rationality of that word. In autopoietic fashion, God beget God. As alpha, he is at the beginning of the first word and, as omega, he is at the end of the word; that is, God will last for as long as God exists.  And when God spoke, as per Genesis, the word became embodied. For Christians, the word is Jesus Christ and the thesis or embodiment of him is The Bible. Therefore, there is a dialectic or conversation between God and everything he speaks into being; he speaks, it exists, and he then sits back and sees that it is good, before speaking again. Given the experiential beginnings of PhD theses, it could be argued that they – like everything else – are part of the continuing creative work of God. However, he does create things to have a mind of its own and they can choose how to act, so even though as he is writing his thesis, as any PhD student knows, the thesis often resists being shaped. In many ways, though, writing a PhD is like creating one’s own world, where one’s thesis is the prevailing value. (Just to be clear though, the PhD student is most definitely not God.)

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A PhD topic as one node in a network of ideas

I started this blog because I was interested in that tweet of the imagination, that moment of inspiration, that lead to a phd topic. But, according to Steve Johnson, there is no such thing as the famed Archimedes moment. In reality, The badly-named environment is a network of human and non-human entities in contradiction and in dialectic to each other. One person’s tiny idea is, as Hegel would say, the synthesis of thesis and antithesis. Those big ideas – one amazing example that Johnson cites is the development of GPS – are really the collision of smaller ideas, that occur through the communication of people with their network.  We talk about the apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head but the apple wouldn’t have fallen without gravity to pull it down, without Newton being in the right place and who knows what else happened from him to be there.  (Indeed, the ‘apple of the head’ is believed to be apocryphal, most likely developed to explain the moment that drew everything that Newton went through before together.) Catherine Malabou would have described this idea as le voir venir (to see what is coming). In this video, Johnson refers to a number of famous innovations and the network,behind them and explains why coffee shops are a part of writing a PhD. It turns out that they are a part of our societal DNA. But it also raises a good and pedantic question: why is the outcome of a PhD called a thesis when it should surely be a synthesis?

I have just realised that through this post and the previous one that this blog is  part of a larger network of researchers.

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My Archimedes moment

I came up with PhD research topic in the shower.

Over the previous three years, while working as a paralegal, I was given the opportunity to manage my employer’s corporate social responsibility policy. I am not sure why the managing partner decided to select me but I think it might have been something to do with that ‘diatribe’ about cars. Possibly, the biggest challenge was reconciling the tension between my colleagues as particular individuals and the universal goal of environmental responsibility. such as switching off monitors and not wasting paper. I thought there must be a better way to initiate environmentally friendly behaviour than through compulsion or nagging.

Archimedes in the bath

Archimedes thinking about the King's problem

But, although I had thought about doing a PhD for a number of years, long before I worked for the above law firm, it wasn’t until I was made redundant that I decided to take the plunge. If I hadn’t been, I could still be working as a paralegal and trying to train as a solicitor even though I actually hated it.

And so it was, during a period of enforced unemployment as a result of the credit crunch, in the shower and wondering what to do, that I had my ‘Eureka’ moment.

You’ll be happy to know that I showed more restraint than Archimedes. I did not run naked through the streets.

My research topic developed out of my own work experience in corporate social responsibility, but I had prior experience in environmental law and, ever since I was a teenager, I have been passionate about protecting the environment. I believe it is possibly the single most important thing we can do as human beings, because, let’s be honest, we’ll be kinda screwed without this planet.

But, I seem to have been quite interested in psychoanalytic readings of Hegel and particularly relating the parent/child relationship to the relationship between the environment, society and law. This isn’t anonymous blog so I am not sure if I want to go into too much detail, it’s pretty obvious to me that my view of the society/law relationship in influenced by my own relationship with my parents, particularly my dad. It is not surprising therefore that I am particularly interested in the feminist critique of the Oedipus Complex – Freud took it to mean the domination of men over women, but the original Greek myth is about the relationship between a son and his father.

I used to struggle with the idea that my reading of Hegel was not particularly objective, but in the course of writing my first chapter I have recently realised that actually no-one can ever look at something objectively. Everyone is subjective. What’s important is that one recognises the limits of one’s subjectivity.

As a result, I have become fascinated by how people comes to pick their research topics. Amongst my own PhD colleagues, there are some whose topic is related to their career: an insolvency lawyer looking into the effect of harmonisation on insolvency law; an architect-turned-construction lawyer researching the arbitration mechanisms for firms involved in building the Olympic stadia; an engineer with experience in development interested in how irrigation technology affects the legal rights of indigenous people at different points on a river. On the other hand, there are others where the origin of the research topic seems kinda random, but it is my ‘hypothesis’ that it is not so random.

One thing that I have noticed from conversations with colleagues and on Twitter is that supervisers seem to exert quite a bit of influence over the direction of phd research, more than just providing research guidance. I have heard a number of people say how their superviser makes it quite clear that they are not interested in research that does not more closely align their own interests. This surprised me because my own superviser seemed to stick to providing guidance and challenging my thinking but not dictating what I should do – even if sometimes I really wished he had. I am glad he didn’t. But, lately, the theoretical direction of my research has started coming close to the specific interests of my superviser.

How did you come up with your PhD topic? How has your life influenced the direction of your research? Please feel free to contribute a post


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