Quora answer: How does one get started as an independent researcher?

Apr 07 2013

The best way is to fund your own research. That way funding has no strings attached except those that you attach yourself.

The best way to fund your own research is to either be rich to begin with, or get a good job. There are many jobs where research is part of the job, because problem solving is part of the job, and research is part of problem solving.

What you do on the first day, is find a book on some subject that fascinates you. You read that book, and in it you find references to other books that might be interesting, and of those you pick the most fascinating to you. And so on . . . about a thousand books later you have a general education.

It is nice if while you are doing that you are working on your masters or Ph.D. but a lot of times, going to school is an interference with research, rather than help, because you are normally researching what someone else finds interesting, not necessarily yourself.

While you are reading all those books, and some articles along the way, you will want to begin to formulate your problematic. It is nice if that problematic can become your Masters thesis or Ph.D. dissertation, but regardless it is crucial to have a problematic. It has to be something that you are willing to study for years in order to unfold your understanding of it. Within the problematic myriad questions arise, and it is to the answering of those questions that you need to direct your thoughts.

Reading myriad books is not enough, you actually need to think about what you are studying to make progress. One way to do that is to write working papers. These are short or long explorations of what you know and don’t know about one of the questions that arise within your problematical arena.

A good way to work is to make diagrams of the structure of the ideas in the texts you are studying, and continue to try to synthesize the information in more and more complex diagrams. Then write the working papers to explain the diagrams. After you finish writing the working paper, put that down for a while and take up another question, or relevant subject, while your unconscious, subconscious or supraconscious mulls it over, then come back to the same question later when you know more and rewrite the working paper, or write another one on the same topic. Eventually it is nice if these working papers can coalesce into actual articles. Submit them to conferences, go to the conferences and talk about your subject, and listen to what others have to say, and try to meet other researches working in the same area. Read their books and articles and try to find the cutting edge of your area of the tradition.

Finding the cutting edge of the part of the tradition that is relevant to your own work is probably the most important thing you can do, because that is what makes your work relevant to others. There are various kinds of workers within the tradition. There are the lemmings, who write papers on subjects that are popular. There are the ground breakers who find new unworked territory and establish their name in that new territory. There are myriad workers of different types and you really need to figure out what kind of worker you are so you can play to your strengths. But the key is to always maximize your own creativity, independence, judgement, reason, intuition, etc. Following Praeto’s law 99% of what is written is worthless. Your job is to find the 1% of what is out there that is worth while, significant, relevant and meaningful to you AND OTHERS. Accept that the classics in your discipline are what everyone agrees is in the Canon. But there  is always the wilds where few have traveled and where those who travel there seldom return. You really want to find that for yourself and then go there, go native there, and then come out with something extraordinary to tell you fellow explorers about. With that you will be recognized if what you find is really extraordinary. Or maybe you won’t because you are too early. Nietzsche said he was a hundred years too early and he was right about that now all of philosophy, worth thinking about, is shaped by his thought. But during his life he lived and dies in obscurity only selling a few of his books, that are so prized today for the insight he gave us into our own tradition. He found the cutting edge of the tradition, and explored it before anyone else got there, and we know him today because he found it for us to further explore.

Another point is to follow G. Bateson in Mind and Nature and always study at least two different subjects at the same time because you get higher order information and higher quality information and deeper knowledge from that exercise where very different subjects resonate with each other in your head.

All this advice is  geared toward making you truly independent as a researcher, it will not result in a job, because they don’t really want independent researchers as academics. They want sheep, and sometimes the sheep turn out to be wolves in sheep’s clothing after they get their tenure, but this is rare that the academic can sustain his fascination, in the face of myriad services, administration activities, sessions with struggling students, reading stacks mediocre papers, and departmental politics. But those who manage to forge ahead despite the handicaps of being employed as an academic and actually do good work and get results are few. The academics keep other in check via specialization, the peer review process, the pressure to teach predetermined curricula and syllabuses, etc. We can pity them if we achieve true independence ourselves. Otherwise we will merely pity ourselves.

Now lets talk about the ADVENTURE, it is of course an intellectual adventure, but it is the reason it is worth while becoming your own independent researcher. Basically you go places intellectually few have gone before and understand things that very few understand. When you find out something amazing in your thinking things through, then the research really begins and that is the search for precursors. Basically any great idea you have probably was had before by someone, and it is best to try to find that person, because they can help you understand the things you thought were your bright idea, and that has a two-fold purpose, it confers humility, and it also gives you a comradeship with those who came to the same thought as you have struggled to discover. When this happens your precursors can help you think through the idea even deeper, and go to further levels of discovery, and thus adventures in ideas.

We are all like Lewis and Clarke in some sense once we find the cutting edge of the discipline we have chosen to give our precious life to study. The territory has been purchased at a high price, but it then must be explored to find out what we have bought and whether it is worth while for others to know about and ourselves to stake out. Eventually the settlers will come and the land rush will allow them to fill in the details. But Lewis and Clark kept going until they reached the coast, i.e. the unknown unknown beyond the territory they were exploring.

All this is a tremendous amount of work to which you must dedicate yourself, and for which you will probably not get any rewards other than the satisfaction you derive from higher knowledge and deeper understanding. When you find something out that others should know you should make it public so others can build on your own work, because you would not have been able to do anything if it had not been for the others in the tradition that made your thoughts and ruminations possible through their work. It is through this contribution to the future scholars and what Nietzsche called Free Spirits that you join a timeless community, of those who actually understand something from their knowledge, and for which knowledge is not something rote to be learned from textbooks and famous works to be revered, but whose authors we mostly do not imitate.

Lets go back to Aristotle and consider the different kinds of knowledge. Techne is related to Praxis and Phronesis is related to Poesis. These are the activities and knowledges that are fundamental to Practical Reason. But then when we climb out of Practical Reason we encounter the type of knowledge which is related to science which is the episteme. But there are at least two further levels of knowledge that Aristotle discusses sophos which is wisdom and nous which is the highest knowledge. Our goal as researchers is to have a firm grasp on Techne and Phronesis of our scholarship. For instance, Techne has to do with how to write a research paper. It is a praxis which is a practice guided by theory and this is the kind of thing we learn in school. But simultaneously there is the growth of our own understanding which is a kind of poesis, and productivity of the type that nature alone can do even nature within ourselves. Phronesis is normally called judgement. But it has to do with knowing how much to read before you start thinking yourself, how much to think before you start writing your working paper, how many and what kinds of diagrams to make to formulate the conceptual structure of what you want to express, how much processing time, i.e. stepping away from the subject to let your unconscious work on the synthesis while your mind is occupied with living your life and not missing it just because you have dedicated yourself to research, we are not monks like those in the Glass Bead Game after all. Poesis is based on Phusis, the unfolding of things in nature, which then is transformed into a logos as we write down our understanding and by that come to know more than we really are entitled to because knowledge grows within us as we study, and takes us beyond the information given, which is Heidegger’s measure of real understanding.

But understanding knowledge itself is difficult, because it is something very strange, it is the most permanent thing in our own experience. Try unknowing something you know. While every other aspect of our existence is a Heraclitian flux, knowledge (not Being) is stable and has an uncanny permanence and that is why culture is able to be built upon it. But knowledge as we have found out this century is not enough. There is also wisdom. Should we create a flu virus that will kill half of the human race just because we can? Wisdom, Temperance, Courage, Justice, are the measures according to Plato by which we need to measure ourselves. He does not say we should measure ourselves by testing our knowledge. Rather we should seek to know what is relevant, significant and meaningful yet do no harm. Apollo says know thyself. The wise is the one who knows himself.

Nietzsche was wise because he looked into the horror that Conrad speaks about which the imperialists of Europe created across the world, and he took it on as part of himself. He assiduously avoided the Starbucks “ecology” that Zizek criticizes. He said that what his tradition did was himself and he accepted it as his cross to bear. He saw it all around him, even in the horse that was beaten by its owner in the street that he tried to stop, because it was happening right in front of him. For him it was all the Western tradition concentrated in a single act of ownership and assertion of private property by the man who was beating his own horse in the street. Even the anti-christ has a cross to bear, which is our tradition and the destruction by it of the earth, which we feel we have a right to because we own it, after taking it away from its indigenous peoples who did not know how to exploit it properly.

But wisdom is not really the goal either. Rather it is nous. Nous is a strange word that combines comprehension of the numinous with seeing things around us more clearly in their concrete sensuousness as manifestations of the gods. Nous is an intuitive understanding that takes us beyond not only the information and knowledge given but beyond wisdom as well. I say that this is a type of nondual supra-rational knowledge. If there is some ultimate goal for truly independent research it is this nous of the numinous which we see as the working out of Absolute Spirit in Pure Reason in History as lived which Hegel tried to define in a more flowery vocabulary.

Research means to search again, it means to find what again what has already been found, because Plato said all knowledge is remembered prior knowledge. In-dependent means not dependent on anyone else.

There is ur-search, primordial search, which is ultimately a search within oneself and ones world to the extent one is an embodiment of ones world. Via the nous one finds the golden thread that allows one to produce results that no one has done before, and then be able to see the precursors for that leap into the unknown from which one wrests knowledge. Ur-search can only be independent, because when one steps out on that abyss where no one has ventured before if there are any dependencies then one cannot make an truly orthogonal move, reach a truly independent variable, which is ultimately oneself on a line of flight (as Deleuze would call it) into a new dimension of the world which is simultaneously a new dimension of the self.



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