My PhD thesis: deadline is looming and feedback is always a useful thing


Between the two Philosophy buildings in Durham.

This morning I had my PhD progress review. I am writing this post in order to share some thoughts, because – of course – of a bit exhibitionism (otherwise I would keep these things for myself), and also because writing will help me to organize ideas and, perhaps, getting some feedback from readers (hello!).

A couple of things: my reviewers were a historian of ideas and a philosopher in the field of environmental ethics (can I mention them?). They had read a summary of my thesis and a timeline for completion. My thesis is on John Stuart Mill’s democratic theory and, if you could look at it, you would probably notice it starts from a quite general view (chapter II is currently titled «A note on utilitarian political philosophy») and then, eventually, it adopts a narrower and narrower focus on more and more specific topics: education, then democracy, then political representation, with a final turn on political ethics. The final chapter, though, has a sort of unexpected twist: I have been reading some of Zygmunt Bauman’s works lately, and at one point I thought they may fit into my thesis. The basic idea is that I want to theoretically ‘test’ Millian democracy, totally changing the social context and see how it could work and whether it could result strengthened or weakened.

I copy and paste from the summary I have provided to my reviewers a couple of weeks ago:

Chapter VII is the final chapter of the thesis, showing my conclusions. I use Zygmunt Bauman’s theory of liquid modernity in order to ‘test’ Mill’s political and social philosophy in a XXI century scenario. I argue that, on one side, the weakening of a sort of common class sentiment and the possibility, over one’s life, to be in a different position in the social ladder, and the increasing power of multinational/supranational economic and/or financial powers, may somehow reduce the strength of Mill’s argument; on the other side, the ever-increasing availability of information – both in quantity and in quality – may help the role of the intellectuals and of the well-educated and foster their moral obligation in political participation – for which I make the case in chapter VI.

Another thing you should know is that, when I started my PhD in October 2010, my intention was mainly to make a contribution on the history of Mill’s political and philosophical ideas. Eventually, I thought that some aspects may be addressed more critically.

During our meeting, we have raised and discussed two points.

1) In the thesis summary, I mainly used verbs or expressions such us “deals with”, “shows”, “provides a description”, “discusses”, “presents” and so on. In my opinion, this reflects the genesis of my thesis. I have been suggested that it may be the case to rather use expressions – in the thesis – such as (I am copying from my notes, they may not exactly reflect the examples I have been told): “I argue that the way history of this ideas can be framed is this…”, “This is how I have been interpreting this…”, etcetera. The point was that I still can just expound on others’ views or just describe things in large sections of my thesis, but that I may also still argue and comment on the way I show these views. I think that in such a way I show I am aware of the literature and the way I use it (or not use it) is still a case I have to make and somehow justify: mere description does not imply neutrality. Furthermore, what I may really need in these circumstances is crafting an elevator pitch (thanks to the reviewer who let me know this expression) in order to shortly explain why I am writing this, why I am concluding this, why I am relying on this interpretation and so on. The direction I am heading for is important.

2) The final chapter may be a too big task for a single chapter and at this stage of my PhD (I am expected to submit by the end of September). One of my reviewers was under the impression that, actually, what I was planning could definitely be something one could research on during a postdoc, and not just in the short time of the very final stage of a PhD. I agree with him, and I have received some good suggestions: first, I should not give a definitive account (indeed, I want just to pick a couple of issues and use them to ‘test’ Mill): second, I should suggest the next direction I intend to go.

We have also talked about my future inside or outside academia, but this is an object of discussion for another day.

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