On Not Believing In One's Work

 For a while now I have been unable (unwilling is what I should say, but from the inside it feels stronger than that) to really commit to doing philosophy research. (I have stuff from before this in the pipeline so it might not be obvious from the outside that I have not been doing new work, but to those who know me this is not news.) The basic issue is that I do not think my work is good or interesting. I have posted about this briefly before but there was an important difference between then and now. The LSE is unusual among British schools in  having something like a tenure institution - there is a review I must pass which, upon being passed, renders it very difficult indeed to fire me, so long as I still do the basics of my job. Since I have now passed this review, the extremely strong instrumental reason I had to publish despite my self-assessment has vanished. As such, where before I thought my word worthless but kept producing it in miserable bad faith, now I can simply follow my heart.

Now, I hardly think the world is just crying out for more philosophy publications. And there are other things I can do with the time that would be spent on papers - prominently, that time can be spent on mentoring students. So it seems to me that I can use that time to actually advance philosophical research better than I would if I were writing my own stuff.  So it seems that I am neither bound by my particular job's demands, nor out of some general duty, nor some role obligation, to talk myself into getting  back on the publication grind. Yet for all this I feel some aversion to surrendering (see how I am inclined to  phrase it?) to this feeling and putting an end to my publication career. This post is me trying to reason aloud as to why that might be and whether the  feeling is worth indulging. I am sure I am not the only academic to have been in a similar situation, so I hope this will be useful for others to see.

First, a word on what I mean by my work not being good or interesting. For examples of specific critiques follow the link above to my previous post. But I wish to stress that in general I do not have massively high standards. My problem is not that my words have forked no lightning. There are some who seem to think that philosophy is advanced only by genius and the rest of us do little but pass the time from Kant to Frege. This is not at all my attitude. I am ok with that vision of philosophy wherein

in slow careful construction insight after insight will be won. Each collaborator contributes only what he can endorse and justify before the whole body of his co-workers. Thus stone will be carefully added to stone and a safe building will be erected at which each following generation can continue to work.

When  I look around it seems to me the vast majority of my colleagues and fellows in the field are doing work that could be seen as part of this collective project. I am not uniquely bad, but I do think I am far worse than this field average. As such, I simply do not think my work is interesting enough to contribute even a small part to this collective project. 

Second, regarding how I come to that assessment. If there is one thing my PhD bought me it is that I view myself to have professional expertise that legitimises quality judgements with regard to philosophical work. Philosophy being peculiar (perhaps normal among humanities) in the lack of clear external standards by which to judge things, it seems that expert assessment may be self-vindicating or at least all we have to go on. In which case I do not think I need any more justification than my own opinion. But I guess I could add that my sense is that even among people friendly and well disposed towards my work the general assessment is that it is fine but unspectacular, whereas I know of some who view it (and my broader presence in the field) to be somewhere between ridiculous and pernicious. Given that my friends are likely biased in a positive direction whereas my detractors form a motley crew with no obvious shared bias, I think this total picture suggests poor work. 

(As a note, I think good taste requires I request: please do not weigh in with your own assessments of the quality of my work. If the assessment is negative then, hey, why kick me when I am down eh? And if it is positive then the worst thing that could happen with this post is for the comments to just be people reassuring me that it is good actually. I can tell you from experience that it will not reassure me, and if people reading it get the impression that it was just an attempt to generate compliments then I think it will negate any usefulness it has in publicly trying to be honest about negative self-assessment and how one should respond to that. It would instead just be a means of me personally overcoming that assessment, which would be only useful to me, and is not what I want this to be about.)

Third, I am aware of a couple of arguments that might be used against my self-assessment and think they should be dealt with here. Most obvious is that mental illness might make me an especially poor judge in my own case. To this all I can say is: I can only work with what I got. I have done my absolute best to counter my own biases and still this is the assessment I come to. Eventually all I can do is say here I stand, and I can do no other. And second is that my publication rate and ability to attract awards of some sort was not exceptional but probably above average. If you take these to be representative of informed collective opinion (you can already see where I disagree) then it seems arrogant to set my own judgement against this. But of course pre-publication peer review (and prize review) is most certainly no such thing. Against the combined estimation of the field I would pause; against a few people with whatever quirky biases they have and all sorts of instrumental reasons to be seen near me I am happy to pitch my own judgement.

So it seems to me I have a stable conviction that my work does not pass the minimum adequacy requirements for it to be a better use of my time than mentoring students, doing my work as placement director here at LSE, working with postdocs to help them with their ideas, etc. It seems to me there are three alternatives yet to just stopping doing research:

1) Lower my standards. There are some people for whom this is appropriate. Indeed a certain kind of perfectionist neuroticism seems to me to be co-morbid with whatever problems in reasoning cause a person to go to grad school in the humanities. So if this post has so far resonated with you I think you should take this option very seriously, and the best way to do that is to try and set in advance explicit standards you would hold yourself  and others too, then check those explicit standards with people you trust. Once these are agreed upon as reasonable between you and them then commit to judging yourself by those,  rather than modifying them upwards once they are met. Alas, however, this is not the right option for me - I have never really been a perfectionist, i am a corner cutter and slacker at heart, one of life's natural scruffy fellows. 

2) Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead. Just continue to do work even though I do not think it is good enough. I do not see any reason why I would take this leap of self-belief. Maybe I should aim to be some sort of knight of epistemic self-faith who ploughs on despite that, but I really do not see the appeal. I think that this comes to mind mainly because there is such a strong bias in favour of publication as what one should be doing as a research academic that it can overcome reason. 

3) Git gud. Why not rise to the challenge, do better work? Well that was my initial plan. And I stand about a year into this self-realisation and attempted process of getting better having to honestly face the fact that it just doesn't seem to be happening. I do not know what the timeline is, and I think it is fair to say I have not put literally all efforts into this. But I have tried writing on new topics and produced nothing of note, I have tried switching genres and had some fun writing fiction but nothing, I admit, that seems especially noteworthy. I have tried longer form writing but flounder for lack of ideas. So I could stand to do more and haven't entirely given up on this yet. But part of writing this post is acknowledging to myself that maybe I am just not good enough.

That then is where I end. Of the options for still publishing none seem tempting. I am relatively young in academic terms, perhaps inspiration shall strike again. At the least, as mentioned, I still have a few things in the pipeline so there will be the odd new work from me over the next few years (love those academic publication timelines). Maybe something spins off from that, who knows. But for now, even having wrote all this out, it yet seems to me that the best thing I can do for the field I so love is keep my pen still.


  1. I feel for you. As far as getting better goes, it seems like you've mainly been working by yourself. Would it help to get a co-author or simply a mentor?

    1. Oh I actually mainly work with coauthors! I just don't feel I personally contribute much, often actually holding things back.

  2. I wonder if there's a fourth option, which is to try to approach philosophy with a kind of playfulness and curiosity, without any hope or plan to publish good work, and to focus on those questions that ignite your curiosity. There's a famous story of Feynman, feeling burned out, decided he's only going to do physics that sparks his curiosity (after all, he has a cushy position that lets him teach, which he enjoys), and he starts working out a problem about how spinning plates wobble and that eventually lead to much more "important" work.

    I make this a fourth option instead of a version of "Damn the torpedos" because the attitude isn't to *push* through despite the pain, the attitude is more like in which direction can I move without experiencing pain and angst, in which direction does the question automatically pull me. I feel if you try that, even if you don't end up accomplishing something important according to your own lights (though you very well might), you might end up enjoying doing philosophy, which is worth a lot.


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