I’ve been reading some of Quine in Dialogue. While the interviews are often light, Quine does say some illuminating things about his philosophical views and their development. I’ll post on that later.

 

In the popular pieces section, there is an article called “To a Graduate Student in Philosophy.” Being a graduate student in philosophy, I was rather interested in it. It turns out to be rather warm, eminently reasonable, and encouraging. It is also surprisingly positive on the study of historical figures.  There is a bit in the middle that I want to quote. I’m not sure that this need be limited to grad students. A bit of background: Quine earlier praised the value of sympathetic engagement with great historical figures and is now talking about thesis work. 

But it may happen not only that your earlier eager philosophical thoughts have gone hopelessly awry, but that your financial situation compels you to go promptly for your PhD. So you may have to settle for some ad hoc thesis topic, and just hope for a more inspired research career in your future years as a professor. So you cast about for an unused topic, however dismal. A likely recourse is to the writings of some philosopher sufficiently recent and minor not to have received much treatment. 

Very well, it was an emergency. But I still have a plea to enter: that the sympathetic understanding you strove for in your study of the classical philosopher, in your required course, be extended to your latter-day thesis philosopher as well. The unsympathetic line is easier, because of the conjectural and free-floating character of philosophy. Our tentative formulations and figures of speech lend themselves to stalwart reading and nitpicking, which can pack a thesis. Don’t do it.

It is an evil that is not limited to PhD theses. It floods current philosophical literature. It is promoted by the real or fancied policy of publish or perish. It is inimical to the collaboration and mutual understanding that have expedited the sciences. There is perhaps a policy of publish or perish in science too, but carping and quibbling are less productive of a bibliography there, thanks to the precise and generally shared technical terminology. 

I also want to quote the opening of the final paragraph, which sums up most of the advice.

Intellectual curiosity, a thirst for understanding, is what made you choose philosophy, and your contentment with the choice hinges on continuing to give that drive the right of way.

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