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.
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.