Blogging my way to a PhD

02 Feb 2014

It’s been said that a writing doctorate thesis is a marathon, not a sprint; that dissertations are abandoned rather than completed. 1 Well, right now it feels more like an experiment in torturous boredom; a perverse combination of never ending workload and constant input, coinciding with an almost complete absence of productive output.

Now it could be that I’m just climbing the hump; it could also be that I’m just crap at writing. But either way, logical reflection says that it shouldn’t be this hard. After all, it’s only a book - 80,000 words of scholarship that is sufficiently original and contributes to the body of human knowledge - not a bloody magnum opus.

The sensible thing to do of course would be to just break it down into little pieces; 500 words a day and in 6 months a completed monograph would materialise from the keyboard. Except of course, the coherence of an argument written over 180 days would probably end up reading like a biology textbook written by a young earther; and reading back over some of my own notes from the last few years makes me cringe like a geeky kid at a high school dance. I fear I’d be spending all of my writing time redrafting last months efforts.

The biggest challenge that I see with writing before one knows the answer, which is the brutal reality of scholarship that I’m still struggling with, is the lack of argument flow. How does one write convincingly when one isn’t convinced by one’s own arguments? 2 I’ve tried structuring my thoughts into logical form - writing dot point premises and fleshing them out - but this lacks the rhetorical force and flexibility of less structured writings. Regular writing is important for habit and avoidance of writer’s block but quality still matters. So I think I might try a different approach.

Arguments consist of premises that entail conclusions (or at least strengthen them). Arguments and their conclusions form premises of larger arguments. In this way, arguments form interconnecting webs of premises and conclusions, which should hopefully, entail the thesis of a work. Essentially, any premise that contains an empiric claim should be able to form a discrete argument that can be broken down ad infinitum into smaller units of premises an conclusions.

So in order to maintain the writing habit but not worry about long term coherence, I’m going to commit to writing a small philosophical argument representing a single premise daily. But because I’m not sure how these premises will fit together into the bigger picture, let along my final thesis claim, I’m going to structure them into discrete units - blog post.

Each blog post will be a premise whose title is an assertion related to my work, along with at least 500 words of justificatory text. I write in markdown, so I’ll add some keywords to the YAML front matter which will enable a little javascript magic that is currently percolating at the back of my mind. The solution to the coherence problem will involve building a graph of all the premises linked by their keywords, and a small browser based app that will allow me to drag and drop the atomic premises into one grand argument.

Well, that’s the plan anyway. We’ll see in 10 months time….

  1. By whom you ask? Shut up! This is pure rhetoric, not research god dammit. 

  2. Strangely I find this completely different to writing an argumentative essay. Strangely, I can convincingly argue just about any position I may take. The difference now is that being correct, rather than convincing, has become important. And I’m not sure I’m correct about much these days.