As you may know, I'm currently in the thick of finishing up the dissertation. I'm so close to the finish line, yet I keep asking myself who this project is for and why it matters.
It's weird to go back to this formal academic document after I have been writing so much for a public audience. There's all these strange academic locutions that I need to use to communicate complex ideas, or at least that's the story I tell myself when I find I've written sentences that are 4 to 5 lines long or use "one" instead of "you."
It doesn't get much better when I reread these horrific, long academic texts that are necessary for the dissertation that have these disconnected, almost nonsensical language cages they've built around moral responsibility. Most of them aren't well-written either.
Who is all this overly-formalistic, hard-to-understand scholarship for? Is it really just for other academics, studying this narrow topic within philosophy? Most of these texts are really hard to access, unless you have library access through an institution. Some of the published books are easier to acquire, but only if you're willing to spend $40-$50 on the less popular ones.
The Dissertation's Function
If I were staying in academia, the dissertation would be a first step in an overall research project that I would develop in the coming years. Perhaps the dissertation would become a book, a series of articles, or otherwise provide a launching point for other ideas.
Now that I'm leaving, the dissertation is just a capstone project that I have to complete in order to get those three letters at the end of my name. Who will read it? My committee. Maybe some family members. A close friend or two. Maybe even one other graduate student who is interested. (This is an exceptionally optimistic list.)
We're talking about four years of my life spent developing this massive, book-length project, that basically now serves as just a final hurdle to get the degree.
The thing is, I don't know that the dissertation would necessarily be that impactful even if I did stay in academia. The work itself does make me an expert in this topic I now mildly hate, but the dissertation might never be read again. It might die in obscurity.
Why the Dissertation Still Matters
What's the point of finishing up this document? Is it just the sunk cost? Is it just to get the PhD? I think it's more than that.
It's true that I already have 50,000 words that mostly need to be rearranged until this document is done, over half heavily revised and edited. It's true that I have family members who are expecting me to get the PhD. It's also true that having the PhD will be helpful in certain ways for my future.
But I think there's something valuable in finishing a project of this size and scope, and I'm doing the best I can to make the dissertation meaningful. I chose the topic of moral responsibility in part because I often do weird things in my own life when it comes to moral responsibility. I tend to blame myself for everything, and I find it hard to accept praise.
To be honest, when I started, I really just wanted to get super precise on how exactly I was blameworthy. Some of the other contemporary views didn't quite seem to capture the difference between the voluntary and non-voluntary, and how I thought that reflected on the judgements I was making about my character.
As the project has developed, I've started to see how focusing so much on precisifying praise and blame can be a vice itself. There's such a strong focus on blame in the literature, and the reward for being morally responsible has to be something better than the commonly given reason of avoiding sanctions.
I've spent a lot of my life trying to be good to avoid punishment, but maybe moral responsibility is something that we use so we can recognize the good in others through gratitude, or name and work to repair the wrongs in our relationships through resentment and forgiveness. The ultimate prize for being morally responsible seems to be something more like the ability to live well with ourselves and each other.
By paying such close attention to a single topic over several years with multiple rounds of expert feedback, you learn quite a bit of humility. You also start to see new things that you would not have seen with a much shorter project.
Philosophy, when done right, can serve as a kind of therapy. It can help you process things in your own life and find the language to name things that you didn't have the language for before.
How I'm Trying to Make It Meaningful
The best dissertation is a done dissertation. And I am so close to being done. At the same time, while my goal is to have a complete minimum viable product to send off to my committee, I also want to write something that feels meaningful to me at this point.
I've obviously gotten a lot out of writing the dissertation thus far, but I'm also breaking some conventions as I'm finishing it up. I'm adding short interludes before each chapter to bring in some of the personal experiences that informed my philosophical thought. I'm trying to find ways to cut through the academic jargon to write something that's enjoyable to read.
At the same time, this is a technical document through which I have to demonstrate a certain amount of competence and engagement with the literature. This means that, unfortunately, I still have to spend a good bit of time talking about authors I really don't like engaging with. The good news is that I am mostly done with those parts of the dissertation, and I'm almost ready to start talking about what I really care about.
I'm sure I'll have to make a number of revisions once I send the final document to my committee, but I'd like to have a dissertation at the end of the day that talks about something real and that maybe has a chance of meaning something beyond just some narrow, technical advancement in a dying literature. I don't know that I'll ever try to actually turn it into a book, but it's nice to know that I could.
If you're interested in thinking about moral responsibility, let me know! I'm spending the next few months in the dissertation cave, and I might try to lay out my dissertation thoughts in a few blogs to come. What questions do you have that I can try to answer?
P.S. I plan to be seriously on the job market starting at the beginning of November. Solidarity to everyone looking for a job right now, because the market seems rough. If you hear of any writing jobs that I would be a great fit for, let me know!