May 26, 2021

On choosing a subject for a master's thesis in philosophy.

How to go about choosing the subject for a master's thesis in philosophy? A letter to the student.

On choosing a subject for a master's thesis in philosophy.

A year ago in the spring of 2020 I attended a course called The Human & technology (Mennesket og teknologi). The course consisted of only one book: The Philosophy of Technology – an Anthology (Scharff, 2014). A huge volume, it comprises several philosophical texts regarding the philosophy of technology, presented in chronological fashion. Our professors decided that the main text would be Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology. From there the course naturally led to Hannah Arendt as she was his student, but we also discussed modern philosophers like Daniel Dennett.

The exam form for this course was to write a paper of about 20 pages (8000 words) on one of the texts in the book. Apart from being a delightfully simple and free exercise, it also invited us to put ourselves in the work. At the time, I was also learning French. Thus, to kill two birds with one stone (as any lazy student with respect for the sloth would) I opened up the contents, and chose the first text I could spot where the author’s name was French. Voilà Rousseau and his Final Reply  from J. J. Rousseau of Geneva. His name ending in “eau” really gave it away.

At this point, dear reader, you might think: “But that is such an arbitrary way of choosing the subject for such a big assignment! Would you not prefer to write something you cared about?” Your protest is well heard, but consider this: To do philosophy is to submit to the logic of a subject. This definition of philosophy is a bit broad, but given that the subject is philosophical it seems to work. Now, as for my own thoughts that I want to realise in academia: Yes, I have them, I care for them, and I want to realise them one day. However, as my bachelor’s thesis taught me, writing on something close to one’s heart usually entails that one has a strong will regarding this project. Given that this will is not perfectly parallel with the logic of the subject, it follows that the project is damaged by the will, and thus by the fact that I care so much for it. I had experienced this to great anguish with my bachelor’s thesis, and I was not to do it again. Hence, I chose this text by Rousseau, and as an extra pedagogical workload I decided to partly translate the text myself into Norwegian. A decision which would yield untold fruits.

I quickly found out after translating some paragraphs that translating the text was a beneficial semantic and hermeneutic exercise. For this part to make sense, you should know, dear reader, firstly that your mother tongue is more strongly tied to emotions than your other languages. In fact, some couple therapists suggest speaking in a second language when there arises an emotional issue. Hence, second languages automatically become less emotional, and more logical. Secondly, both English and my mother tongue of Norwegian are of Germanic origin, meaning they evolved from the same proto-language. This is reflected somewhat in the overlapping vocabulary, but for me it is reflected best by a non-Germanic language, such as French which is of Latin origin. The contrast helped me understand that it is not just the what, i.e., vocabulary, that matters. It is also the how, i.e., the syntax and workings of the language. I like to think of these in an Aristotelian way, where vocabulary is matter, and syntax is form.

With this in mind, what I found was that by supplementing my reading with the Norwegian translation from French, and also reading the English manuscript, I was able to at least triple the nuance in my understanding. Hermeneutically speaking this was a stroke of genius. I was able to reveal meaning and argue for certain translations that would not always be the first translation. I managed to grasp the meaning behind the words, rather than simply the words themselves. As such, it was also a great semantic exercise. With this in mind, I could recount the text more clearly, and I also gained a deeper access to the logic of the text. By translating the text and working across three languages, I submitted myself to the logic of the text. I did philosophy.

Moreover, not only did this make for honest academic work, for I was to receive yet another gift from this method. By translating the text and working so semantically with it, I experienced and felt a whole new kind of ownership to the finished assignment. I knew it inside and out, I was ready to defend its strength and reveal its weaknesses. It was a marvellous experience, and once I felt it I was sure to chase it again. In addition, I got an A on that paper. So, it was probably effective.


Bibliography

Scharff, R. C. (2014). Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition: An Anthology. (2nd ed..). Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.

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