Dealing with a PhD crisis

This post is adapted from something that I wrote on Facebook over a decade ago, and also left as a physical document in the Postgraduate study room, when I was freshly out of my own PhD. It is a little dated, and I don’t necessarily agree with all of it anymore, but a lot of people have told me that they found it useful, so I thought it was worth resharing here.

There will be a point during your PhD when you lose motivation completely.  In fact most of us have many of those times.  You haven’t done any work for days, maybe even weeks or months, you don’t see how it is possibly ever going to get finished, and the only option seems to be to drop the whole damn thing and find something else to do.  I am writing this for when you find yourself in this situation.  If it applies to you, keep reading.

Let it out

First of all, get it out of your system a little.  Grab a tissue and sob like a small child, kick an inanimate object (as an ethicist I am afraid I cannot condone kicking the cat, but perhaps if an inanimate object won’t cut it, you can find a consenting adult to thump with a cushion).  Perhaps if you are one of those strange people who finds exercise soothing, you could go for a run or a gym session (try playing some shitty 1980s high energy power ballad in the background so you can pretend you’re in a montage sequence – that’s always fun).  You may feel like you don’t have the time to do all this, but trust me, it might well gain you time in the long run.  When you’ve done whatever it is, come back to this and read on.

Assemble your resources

Right, now to read the rest of this in the correct frame of mind, you will need some vital equipment.  This can vary according to your personal taste.  One thing that does the job for me is a cup of tea, but coffee, chocolate, wine, spirits, cigarettes, pies or hard drugs (only kidding?) might do just as well. If any of them fail to work on their own, try a combination.  If that doesn’t work, try all of them at once.  If you don’t eat junk food, smoke, or drink caffeine or alcohol, that may be why you have found yourself in this situation in the first place.  Consider developing some bad habits.  You can do rehab after your viva. [this is one of the parts I no longer endorse!]

The first thing is that everyone finds themselves here.  When I say everyone, I mean everyone – except scary people who complete their PhDs in two years, but we don’t talk to them.  Most of us have taken around four or five years to get done (yeah, we don’t talk about that very often) [N.B. This applies to UK PhDs – elsewhere it often standardly takes much longer] and a good bit of that time has been spent frozen with PhD terror, crying into a pillow, or procrastinating with hours of Facebook, computer games or porn.  Look at everyone with the title ‘Dr’ before their name – if you have a behaviour pattern that makes you feel inadequate, there is a good chance that they have done it at some time or other.  It comes with the territory.  So now you know our terrible secrets.

The real bombshell

Of course, all of these are a precursor to the most terrible secret of all.  Prepare yourself for this: we all think we’re rubbish.  Some of us only think this occasionally, some of us think it all the time, but most of us think it most of the time.  We might think back to when we’ve been to a research seminar, or some conference, and they are full of brilliant clever people who seem to know the subject inside out, and we don’t feel like we know it at all.  You were probably among the brighter people at school, and perhaps among the brightest of your peers at undergraduate level, but people in this environment seem to be operating on some kind of higher plane.  Maybe you had the balls and resourcefulness to bluff it earlier on, but these guys really know their stuff, and they are going to find you out.

It may come as some comfort that my father, a retired professor, well known and respected in his field and with several books to his name, has admitted to feeling like this.  OK, so it’s an alarming thing that it never completely goes away, but lots of the brilliant clever people at those conferences and seminars feel exactly the way that you do.  That is no guarantee that you are brilliant and clever of course, but the way that you feel is no reason to suppose that you are not.  In fact, take it as some encouragement.  Philosophy is hard – very hard.  If you feel as though you understand something well, it probably means either that you’re missing the really hard (and really significant) bit of it, or that it’s time to move on and read new stuff until it gets hard again.  The fact that you are struggling means that you are working at the right level – good job.

The procrastination trap

But you might not feel that this is relevant.  If you haven’t picked up a book in five weeks, you almost certainly feel that it is not (if you have held a book recently enough that the previous paragraph applies to you – again, good job).  But the problem often isn’t so much understanding the work, it’s doing it in the first place.  You go to bed frustrated with your lack of resolve, and determined to put more effort in tomorrow, but every day the same strange thing happens – or doesn’t.  You turn on the computer, and rather than looking at that article or writing that chapter, your fingers involuntarily stray over the mouse and you end up doing the ‘Which Sex and the City character are you?’ quiz [I told you this was dated], or looking at tat on ebay.  Maybe you don’t even get as far as the computer, perhaps you sit in your dressing gown watching trash on TV, or reading a novel.  I have even gone to the extremes of doing housework as an avoidance activity.

Why do we do this?  I think everyone has their own answer, but for me it comes down to fear.  All that tricky stuff that you don’t really feel that you can achieve might just go away if you stick your fingers in your ears and go ‘lalalalala’.  OK, it won’t really go away, but as long as I’m not thinking about it, I don’t have to think about it (the first rule of tautology club is the first rule of tautology club -( XKCD)).

Making lists

The approach to this is to make it seem less scary.  As the most disorganised person in the world, I hate to admit it, but the best strategy here is to make lists.  Start with the whole big terrifying monster – what are the tasks ahead that are daunting you?  Perhaps all you can think here is ‘THEEEESIIIIIIS!!!!’  Grit your teeth and write them/it down, together with the date you need to get them done by.  OK, so that was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as you imagined.  Now think about how you can divide it up.  Split the thesis into chapters, and chapters into sections [N.B. See my other post The Fern Model of Writing for more help with this].

If you don’t know what the chapters or sections are yet, think about what you will need to do to figure that out.  Set little periods of time aside to read one article, one chapter, or to make plans (don’t make any of these longer than a few hours).  Include on your list the people you need to speak to, both to help you figure out ideas and to restore your sanity.  Make time to talk to them and stick it into the plan.

Also set aside time for yourself free from the PhD.  Believe me, all those activities you do to put off working are so much more delicious when you can do them guilt-free within your schedule.  The main thing though is that once you stop looking at the PhD stress as a huge tangled mass of stuff, and split it up into little tasks, you can work your way through them and feel good about ticking them off.  Remember those bad habits I suggested you cultivate?  Think of them as rewards for getting something out of the way.

What next?

So you’ve made your list, and this is probably already a bit of a weight off your mind.  Another thing to make sure that you do is talk to people.  There are a lot of people in your department or institution who are either at the stage you are at now, or will have been through it at some point.  These people can be a great source of moral support, as well as helping out with ideas and suggestions about your work.  They will not think that you are stupid or lazy or inadequate.  At least if they do, the good ones will indulge it because they think they are also stupid, lazy and inadequate.

It is very easy to hide from everyone when things are not going so well.  There is an almost animal instinct to cower behind the bushes so that we are safe from attackers.  This is the start of a self-perpetuating cycle, because there is nobody there to break those awful patterns of thought.  Try working in a postgrad room in your institution [pandemics permitting], and making regular opportunities to talk to people casually.  Returning to the vices (a recurring theme that you will have noticed) I used to find smoking particularly handy for this.  If you do not want to give yourself lung cancer, try meeting someone for coffee every day, even if it’s only for twenty minutes.

Discussing your work – and your life

On a larger and longer term scale, conferences (and postgraduate seminars) can do the same thing.  They give you a good chance to meet like-minded freaks, as well as providing that work deadline that can give us a badly needed boot up the backside.  They may seem daunting, but it is amazing how supportive people can be the moment you start tentatively mentioning your worries about your work.  Eidos, the postgraduate philosophy society at Durham, gave me a bit of a road to Damascus experience towards the start of my second year.  In the pub after the talk, when asked how my PhD was going, I offered a weak smile and a shrug of despair.  The reaction that greeted me was ‘Oh God, me too, I haven’t done any decent work in ages!’, then everyone started piling in with similar stories, together with useful tips about how to deal with these situations.  I left the pub feeling a great deal happier, although the beer may also have helped.  The experience has stayed with me ever since, and helped with some of the worst crises.

The weird time-warp of the last stages

Of course, there is a stage when none of this will help, and this is the last few weeks or months of the writing up stage.  I think I will save that for another time, because it deserves a piece all of its own, but this is the time where we all become very strange, stop eating properly, work stupid hours and turn into staring-eyed, wild haired hermits who live off coffee and packets of biscuits.  I remember, two days before handing it in, thinking ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, what would happen if I packed it in now?’  At this stage, almost everyone loses their grip on time and reality a little, and the important thing to remember is that in the bizarre parallel universe that postgraduates inhabit, that is absolutely OK.

Last Thoughts

The final thing you have to remember is that a PhD is at least as much of a psychological challenge as it is an intellectual one.  You’ve written essays before, and this is basically just one really long essay, and the main secret to getting it done is no feat of academic brilliance, it is not dropping out. Believe it or not, the rest of it will come, and there will be that day where your biggest stress is worrying if they will bind the damn thing correctly (for your information, they got mine wrong).

If you are a rationalist, you may not like me saying this, but you have to take the completion thing as an article of faith.  It may not look like there is any way that it will ever get done, but provided you are able to hang in there, it will.  It has happened to thousands of us thousands of times before.  Every PhD holder is just as crap*, and we got there in the end.

Dr Liz McKinnell, survivor

*Something that the original piece didn’t adequately take into account is that some people do drop out and do other things. I was obsessively narrowly focused on an academic career at this point in my life, but I have come to learn that there is a great deal to life other than academia, and although there is a lot of shame attached to leaving, for some people it makes them a great deal happier. More on that at another date.

“Teach me how to be original!”

This is one of the most common issues that I have encountered with university students, both in my work as an academic, and as a private tutor. It is also, on the face of it, one of the most difficult ones to solve. However, I’m going to suggest that it isn’t as hard as you might think.

If you look at the marking criteria for your course, there are probably references to original or independent thought. Typically, at least in the British educational system, this is emphasised more at university level than at school or sixth form college, where you often need to say particular things to show that you have met the criteria to get marks.

This emphasis on independence and originality can be intimidating to some students, especially the less self-confident ones: very clever people have been thinking about these ideas for millennia, so how can I, a random person who has been thinking about this for all of three weeks,be expected to say something new?

Nothing new under the sun (or near as dammit)

First of all, take a deep breath and relax. You don’t need to come up with a totally novel approach that nobody has ever thought of before. Many well-respected academics go through their entire careers without saying anything completely novel or revolutionary, and some of the most famous philosophers are great recyclers, adapting older ideas to address problems in different ways. You would be hard-pressed to find a single thought in Sartre that someone else hasn’t said elsewhere, although he does say it in his own unique way (more on that later).


I can’t generalise across all philosophy and philosophy-related degree courses, but most marking criteria only mention originality in their descriptions of the absolute top grades (even then, you can often reach those grades if you do well in the other criteria, without ticking the originality box).

What tends to be emphasised more throughout the spectrum of grades is independence. Originality means that you have said a new thing, or said something in a new way. Independence means that you have autonomously gone beyond the material that was mentioned in class and thought about it yourself. You can show a degree of independence by describing, summarising, and structuring your explanations and arguments in a different way from the one that was presented in lectures. It means that you don’t simply regurgitate material, but process it and synthesise it yourself.

Originality: an anecdote

Still, it would be sort of satisfying to tick that ‘originality’ box, wouldn’t it?

There’s no straightforward method that will allow you to nail this every time (if there were, it wouldn’t really be originality) but I can give a little advice.

First of all, a little story:

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, I found myself stuck for a long time on mid- to high 2.1 grades. For people unaccustomed to the British system, this is roughly in the range between an A- and a B. It’s perfectly respectable, in fact it’s pretty damn good, but it is still frustrating if you want to get an A or A+. I (mostly) did all the reading, I was keen in class, I put time an effort into my essays, but they always seemed to lack that spark.

When I took a philosophy of language course, I found it utterly bamboozling. It wasn’t that I didn’t follow the arguments about rule-following and scepticism about meaning, it was more that I didn’t understand how anything hung on it, how it connected to other ideas in mind and metaphysics, or what it would mean for the world if meaning scepticism was true. I had no idea about the status or significance of any of the entities or relations that I was studying. I could join it together, but it felt a little like trying to build Lego houses in zero gravity.

When essay time came around, I read in the syllabus that “intellectual risk will be rewarded”. This was a very nice touch from Patrick Greenough, the module leader for this course, and it prompted a minor miracle for me.

I felt like this gave me permission to approach things in a way that would help me to address this weird vertigo that the subject induced in me. After checking with Patrick to make sure I wasn’t doing something totally off-track, I took Kripke’s meaning scepticism, something that I thought I didn’t understand at all, and compared it to moral scepticism, something that I thought (perhaps mistakenly) that I had a fairly firm grip on. I placed the two side by side, and looked at them analogously, where the two kinds of scepticism had similar arguments in their support, and where there were major differences between them. In a spirit of open-minded puzzlement, I joined these dots, hoping that whatever I could grasp in ethics might give me something of a foothold in philosophy of language.

I was very nervous when I submitted this essay, since I felt that it had opened up even more puzzles than it had attempted to solve. However, when the results came back, I was astonished to find that the essay had been awarded nineteen points on a twenty-point marking scale: a full grade boundary higher than anything I had written before, and close to the maximum that I could have been awarded. In a bizarre twist, it was my nervousness and lack of confidence in the subject that allowed me to write something genuinely original.

After this, I felt much more confident with trying things out and experimenting with new ideas. I eventually graduated with a first class degree, and went on to take a masters and a PhD.

What can we learn from this?

So that was very nice for me, but how can it help you?

  • Sit with your confusions and discomfort.

Before this essay, when I hadn’t fully understood an issue, I would either avoid writing about it, or try to gloss over the bit that I didn’t get. On this occasion I was forced to face up to my confusion and dive into the bits that confused me. It is very easy to think that whenever we feel that we don’t quite grasp something, it is a problem with us and our understanding, but often, when something doesn’t quite seem to gel with you, it’s because you have the germ of an argument against it, or you intuitively approach the issue from a different, perhaps novel, angle. Interrogate yourself: what is it that you don’t understand? What makes you feel resistant to a topic or argument? Why does something bore you? Sometimes when we listen to our feelings about this, rather than gritting our teeth and hammering out the stock answer that we think that we are supposed to give, we end up saying something very interesting.

  • Find analogies and examples – this means reading, and having a life outside of your studies!

You can show a great deal of independence, and often originality too, by making analogies and comparisons, and giving examples. These may be other theories and arguments from different areas of your subject (as it was here) but it can also be from other areas of your life. Maybe you’re studying rule-following arguments, and you’re also a football fanatic. Can you think of any interesting examples where the rules had nothing to say, or it was unclear how they should be interpreted? Are there any good analogies or examples from literature that you love, or from your favourite movies? If you cultivate a rich and interesting life beyond your academic studies, it will be good for your mental health, and also provide you with a much better store of material to draw on in your writing.

This, provided you can form a useful analogy or example that illustrates an idea, is enough to show a good degree of independent thought, but maybe you can go further than that: what would we say about your analogous case, whether it is in philosophy or in something else? Can what we would say about that example be transposed back onto the philosophical issue that your essay is tackling?

  • Take (calculated) risks

If you are unsure whether to write an essay-by-numbers that is basically correct, or something more original that might be wrong, it is often better to take the risk. This is not always the case, but it is true more often than you might think. You can always check with your tutor or lecturer to make sure you’re not on completely the wrong track. If you’re nervous about this, try it out in essays that don’t count towards your final degree, or which only count for a very small percentage. This can help you to work out what level of risk is right for you.

  • Talk to your tutors, lecturers, and fellow students

If you have an idea that you’re unsure about, talk it through with people who can give you advice or different perspectives. A tutor or lecturer can help you see if it works, how you might develop it, and whether anything similar has been said on the subject (don’t be put off if it has, this is still independent thought if you have got to it independently!) Friends and fellow students might have their own take, or offer you other examples and analogies. It is OK to use their thoughts, provided that you can make them your own (if you pursue postgraduate study or an academic career, it is good form to acknowledge their ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with starting that now if you like – stick a nice ‘thank you’ to them in a footnote).

This is not exhaustive – there are a lot of ways of showing independence and originality. The main thing to remember is that it isn’t as scary as you might think, and if you can sit with your discomfort, you might come to realise that what is lacking is not so much original ideas, as the confidence to express and develop them. This confidence is something that you can work on and develop, although it may take time. For now, please take this blog post as permission to try things out and see where it takes you!

Religious Language, Wittgenstein, and Language Games in the A-Level Syllabi

I’ve had loads of conversations with A-level students and their teachers about religious studies and philosophy, and one of the topics that always makes them turn pale is religious language, and specifically the stuff on Wittgenstein and language games.

This is unsurprising when the resources linked to in the OCR A-level specification are Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and a dense article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. These are far from ideal reading for a frazzled teacher with a thousand other things to think about, and still less for an A-level student who is probably unaccustomed to texts on this level.

If you have struggled to understand exactly what Wittgenstein is getting at, please don’t worry. In universities all over the world there is a whole cottage industry dedicated to trying to figure out exactly what Wittgenstein is getting at!

Having said that, there are some basics that can help you to navigate this material at the depth that you need for A-level, and once you get your head around those, you have some really handy concepts at your disposal for which you will find uses all over the place. I feel that they have lots of applications in the ways that we communicate in online spaces, and in political discourse, as well as when we talk about religion.

This is something I hope to make a short video about at some point, because it is something I get asked about so often, but for now, here’s a rough and ready blog post about it.


The background to this topic may already be familiar, so feel free to skip this if you have followed all that, and just get hung up on the language games bit.

The question that all this is geared towards is “What is going on when we use religious language?” So, when we use words like “God”, “miracle”, and so on, what are we doing? Do these terms refer to real things? Do they have meaning in the same way that words like “cat”, “atom”, and “chair” have meaning?

A lot of doubt was cast on this in the early 20th Century following the thought of the Vienna Circle and A.J. Ayer (you can see more about that in relation to ethics in my video here.

The basic point here is that according to logical positivism (the view adopted by the Vienna Circle and Ayer) there are only two kinds of thing that count as knowledge: things that can be demonstrated through experience and observation, and things that can be proven through logic.

Statements are only the kind of thing that can have meaning if they can be true or false. They can only be true or false if there’s a way of testing them through science or observation, or if their truth or falsity can be demonstrated logically. They can be meaningful and still false, provided that they can be tested. So, for example, if I claim that all ginger cats are male, there’s a way of going out and checking this. If I make a mathematical statement, we can examine it logically (the logical positivists believed that mathematics was reducible to logic).

Anything that can’t be subjected to these kinds of tests is, according to this view, meaningless. It isn’t about anything at all.

This applies to talk about God and many other religious entities and concepts. They cannot (or so Ayer thought) be empirically tested, and they cannot be logically demonstrated. So, on this view, religious language is largely meaningless. It isn’t just that God doesn’t exist, but that when we talk about whether or not God exists, we’re not saying anything at all.


So where do games come into this?

Philosophers of the early to mid 20th Century were a little obsessed with games, for reasons that I can’t really go into here. You can get a flavour of it in Mary Midgley’s article ‘The Game Game’ (Philosophy 49, no. 189 [1974]) and in this rather obscure but spectacular 1960s lampoon from Beyond the Fringe:

The part of all this that matters is Wittgenstein’s notion of language games. The idea is that the meaning of language is dependent on the kind of ‘game’ that we are playing when we use it.

So if you think back to the Vienna Circle and logical positivism, there’s an idea that our words correspond to particular things. I can speak meaningfully about cats, chairs, and atoms, because those are the sorts of things that we can observe and describe.

When I say that all ginger cats are male, my words point directly to a certain sort of entity, ascribe certain properties to them (maleness and gingerness), and make claims about the arrangement of these properties in relation to those entities. Word meaning is quite a definite and fixed sort of thing, and my meaning can be grasped by anyone who understands the language that I am speaking.

Wittgenstein’s idea of language games casts doubt on that, since he argues that the same words can have different meanings in different games, and sometimes they have meaning in some games and no meaning at all in others.


When I see this image, I immediately recognise it as the board for playing the game Connect Four. This is a simple game where players take turns to drop a counter into a slot, each attempting to get a straight line of four counters before their opponent does. Once a player connects four, they have won.

Hasbro image of Connect Four, displaying a blue upright plastic board filled with round red and yellow plastic counters. More counters are shown beneath the board.

However, when my three-year-old sees this board, he recognises it as the equipment for playing a different game. In his version, each player takes a turn to place a counter in a slot, in such a way that both players work together to build neat alternating columns of different colours. Once the board is full of perfect columns of red and yellow, or we run out of counters, we have both won.

The problem occurs when I try to teach my son how to play Connect Four. Quite simply, he isn’t having any of it, and continues to play his game of Build Columns. We can play a few moves quite harmoniously, if they are compatible with the rules of both games, but once I play a red counter on top of his yellow counter, he is ENRAGED! Why? Not because I am beating him (in his game that isn’t even a thing), but because I am not playing according to the rules as he understands them. We are playing different games. At this point, the board gets tipped over in frustration.

Religious Discussions

Now let’s imagine a televised debate between an eminent priest and a prominent atheistic scientist. The cleric speaks about God, the afterlife, atonement, miracles, and blessings. The atheist responds that there is no empirical evidence for such things, and the priest is talking a load of nonsense. They each keep elaborating on their points and making further arguments, but to the audience it feels as though they are headbutting opposite sides of a brick wall. They don’t even seem to be talking to each other, and are unable to respond to or build upon each other’s points.

Wittgenstein would say that the two interlocutors are each inhabiting a different form of life (lebensform). The exact meaning of this term in Wittgenstein’s writing is disputed, but roughly these are ways of living that encompass our cultural practices, the ways that we organise our concepts and language, and generally our way of navigating in the world.

When we have different forms of life, we play different language games. The game played by the scientist revolves around notions of empirical proof, material entities, the interaction of physical forces, and so on. The priest’s life, and thus his concepts, are quite different from this. The language the priest is using has meaning within his own world, but not within that of the scientist (the urge to be balanced tempts me to add ‘and vice versa’, but since our contemporary culture is permeated by scientific discourse, it is quite likely that the priest will be more familiar with the scientist’s world than the other way round).

They, like my son and I with our Connect Four/Build Columns board, are playing different games from each other. The discourse is frustrating because it is not a genuine discourse at all. Each keeps making moves that the other regards as invalid, because they are invalid moves within his game.

This leads us to the conclusion that there is not a simple yes or no answer (as the Logical Positivists would say there is) to the question of whether religious language – or any kind of language- has meaning. Its meaning depends on which form of life we inhabit, and therefore on which language games we play.


You’ve probably noticed all my caveats. I’m always a little nervous about talking about Wittgenstein, since whatever I say about him, there is probably some Wittgenstein scholar or other waiting in the wings to say I got him all wrong (the same is true of many other philosophers to be fair – I’d add Kant and Aristotle in particular).

Having said that, here are a couple of criticisms of the view as presented above.

Firstly, it doesn’t seem to tell us much, and perhaps it rules out the possibility of saying much about religious language at all. It rescues religious language from the charges of the Logical Positivists by creating a set of religious spaces that are immune from their view of language (in fact, their view would probably be limited to a very narrow scope of language games in logic, mathematics, and the natural sciences) but it does so at a certain cost. It potentially throws us into a relativistic situation where religious language could mean anything at all: if you don’t like this form of life, I have others. For some religious people, this would undermine the all-encompassing truth that they see in their religious doctrines. After all, for many, God is everywhere, and relevant to everything, no matter how any groups or individuals choose to look at it.

Secondly, although we definitely do observe spectacles of the kind that I described with the priest and the cleric, it is actually rarer than we might suppose for someone to overturn the board and storm off because the other person isn’t playing their game properly. Indeed, there is plenty of apparently meaningful and fruitful dialogue between people of different faiths, and between religious people and atheists.


There are many possible answers to these criticisms. For example, we could respond to the first by saying that it isn’t a threat to God’s significance or omnipresence that he doesn’t feature in the pages of physics textbooks, and that even religious people may not have use for religious concepts when they are playing the ‘ordering-a-pizza’ language game. To the second, we could say that fruitful dialogue is possible only because we can enter a little way into other forms of life, even if we only do so imaginatively. I could keep going in this way with more criticisms and counter-criticisms, and many people do just that.

But that’s not my purpose here. I aimed to say something that would help you find a way into these ideas in the depth required for A-level, and hopefully I have done a little bit of that.

Dealing with the blank page: how to write philosophy (and probably other stuff) when you really don’t feel like it

I was going to start by saying that everybody gets this. Actually though, some people don’t seem to get this. I know a small number of people come to writing with a beautifully worked-out idea, calmly open a blank Word document, and just write. As the well-turned prose flows from their fingers, they smile calmly to themselves as the thought is perfectly transferred from their mind to the page.

I am not one of those people, and most people aren’t.

Instead, you may have a vague idea of what you want to write about, a fully-formed idea that doesn’t easily translate to the linear format of an essay or article, or maybe just an essay question with a looming deadline.

The thought of starting can be so unsettling that you do almost anything to avoid it: your house gets sparklingly clean, your email inbox empty, awkward bits of admin complete. When you do start, knowing where or how to start feels impossible. You type out a title, write a sentence, delete it, write another sentence, and so on.

If you are at all like me, the degree of this issue fluctuates. Getting started is always hard, but there are times when I can get past those issues, and other times when it feels like attempting to pass solid metal through a meat grinder.

Here are a few things that help me with the more difficult times:

  • Make yourself a rule that anything that goes on the page counts as writing. So do any handwritten notes or plans that you make in order to get your ideas out.
  • Brainstorm on paper: just write down anything you can think of that is at all relevant to the topic. Once you have those written down in front of you, you have something that you can select bits from, and try to arrange into some kind of rough structure.
  • Write section headings in your document: if you aren’t feeling up to composing sentences today, just try to think about what you need to do in order to give a good answer to the question (whether it’s an essay question, or a question that you have posed to yourself). Turn each stage of this into a section heading. These section headings can be really boring at this stage: you can always change them to something a bit jazzier later on. If all that you have at the end of the day is a title and a series of section headings, you have already made a lot of progress. Show some self-belief and save this document as your article or essay.
  • On that note, if you just have a topic, not a question, set yourself a question. Giving yourself a definite question to answer helps you to think more clearly about what an answer would involve.
  • Collect relevant quotations and stick them at the end of your document. You can delete any that you don’t end up using. Other people’s writing doesn’t count as doing your own writing when it comes to issues around plagiarism, but it does when it means using properly attributed quotations to get the ball rolling.
  • If you have section headings and quotations, but still don’t feel like writing sentences, move your quotations so that they are under the relevant section headings.
  • Once you have section headings, and quotations under each heading, think about whether a reader would be able to see how they connect to each other. What do you need to say to make it a coherent whole? Where do you need quotations to illustrate something else? Which points are left out or unclear? What else belongs under this section heading? This can just be instructions to yourself rather than actual content. I usually use square brackets for this, e.g. [say something here about why Iris Murdoch thinks that love is connected to accurate perception]
  • By the end of this, you should have a broad structure, an idea of the method for answering the question, and a set of little instructions to yourself for little tasks that you need to complete. This means that your job is immediately less daunting. Instead of “Write something about contemporary virtue theory and psychotherapy” (what I’m attempting to do right now) you have a long list of little tasks: “[describe Plato’s cave], [explain how the cave is an analogy for philosophy – seeing things accurately], [say why this is a theme in psychotherapy too], [explain reality principle in Freud], [talk about discounting in transactional analysis], etc.
  • An advantage of this approach is that if you get called away from writing by other stuff (your job, kids, teaching, etc.) returning to it is a little easier. You don’t need to spend a lot of time retracing your steps and trying to remember where you were going.
  • You might not have instructions for the whole thing. Sometimes you need to get writing before you know quite where it will go. If you’re feeling that way, start doing what the stuff in square brackets tells you to do, and use your quotations to guide you.
  • If you get stuck, this might be because you’ve reached a tricky point. Maybe you suddenly see that there’s a question that you need to answer in order to move forward. Write this question down. Go away and think about it over a cup of tea if you need to.
  • If you’re stuck on one bit, move on to another section. Don’t worry that you’re leaving something incomplete. It often seems less intimidating when it’s a little gap in a more complete work, and what you say further down the line might help you see why you were stuck earlier.
  • Many general guides for overcoming writer’s block suggest simply free-associating and writing down anything that occurs to you. This can sometimes be helpful for philosophy, but some people find that it doesn’t help them move to something more structured or rigorous. Experiment with this and see where it gets you. You might want to try thinking from a totally different angle: what images pop into your head when you’re reading this philosophical work? What does Plato’s cave smell like? What else do you think Spinoza was doing that day? These things probably won’t help you get closer to an answer to your question, and will (in the case of traditional philosophy) probably end up being deleted, but what they can do is help you to get unblocked. Imaginative exercises involving your senses and emotions can get you into a place where the dry ideas that you are tackling feel more alive – they have context, history, and importance for life. Sometimes thinking like this can even help you to see a problem from a new angle.

These are just a few ideas, and you can find plenty of other advice on academic writing here and elsewhere, but I hope some of them might be helpful. Try to remember that even the greatest minds in history have been stuck from time to time, and don’t feel too discouraged.

Psychotherapy in the Cave

The prisoners have lived in the cave their whole lives. Shackled to rough stone, they are forced to stare at dancing shadows projected onto the wall ahead from shapes held before a fire. There is nothing else to see. For them this cruel puppet show is life itself. Since shadows are all that they have ever seen, shadows are what they take for the world: they mistake the projections for the reality which they represent. Like the Lady of Shallot in her tower, they are doomed to see a simulacrum of a world, which lacks the depth and complexity of reality.

Suddenly one day, one of them (somehow) realises that he can escape. After breaking from his chains, he dwells for a time by the fire, staring into the flames, and witnessing how the illusion of a world had been created for him and his fellow prisoners. Eventually, he leaves the cave. We can picture him inhaling a breeze sharp with vegetable scent, feeling wet grass between his toes, squinting in confusion in the sunlight. Initially blinded by the intensity of the light, he slowly comes to see the world as it is: the delicious colours and twisted stems of plants, the ethereal motion of the butterfly, the complex weatherworn faces of other people, the joyful dance of sunlit waves, and all the glorious objects of creation, illuminated by a sun that makes this vision possible. As time passes, he even finds that he can look at the sun itself.

He returns to the cave full of excitement, keen to enlighten his comrades so that they can secure their own liberation, but he finds that he is as blind in the darkness as he previously was when entering the light. His eyes are clouded with swirling phosphenes, and he can see nothing of the cave or its inhabitants. The remaining cave-dwellers, noting his blindness, conclude that the world beyond the cave has impaired his vision, and decide that they are better off where they are.

This is the famous allegory of the cave from Plato’s Republic. The shadow-play stands for the flat distorted ideas of a mind that is unenlightened. When we do not really look at what is around us, we mistake projections for reality itself, and really looking is a difficult business. The process of escaping from the cave is the journey to become a lover of wisdom: one who can see the world as it really is. The allegory is intended as an illustration of what philosophy can do: through becoming wise and applying reason, we gain a clear and undistorted view that is free from projections.

This is a (very flattering) portrait of philosophers: how many working philosophers today imagine themselves involved in a process of this kind? My suspicion is that as philosophy has become increasingly segmented and specialised, we may have moved away from visions of this kind.

Since October last year, I have been training to become a therapeutic counsellor alongside running my fledgling philosophy business. Over the past few months, it has occurred to me that the image of the escape from the cave is strikingly similar to many descriptions of the process of therapy: proponents of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) talk about overcoming cognitive distortions to gain a more realistic view of things; the Adult ego state in Transactional Analysis is described as allowing a person to make an accurate appraisal of reality; and Freud talks about the triumph of the reality principle over the pleasure principle. In all these approaches, at least part of the aim of the therapeutic process is to gain a clearer conception of reality as it is, and in all cases this involves overcoming distortions and projections that come from within the human mind. Many therapists are in the business, one way or another, of helping people out of the cave.

This is not always the stated aim of therapy. Besides clear realistic vision, there are a host of other goals, often overlapping, and sometimes competing. To take a few examples, therapists speak of achieving self-actualisation; living authentically; gaining autonomy; overcoming ‘mental blockages’; developing talents; integrating the personality; becoming resilient; attaining happiness, well-being or inner peace; or finding or creating sources of meaning in life. How does escaping from the cave fit with these goals? What, for example, does clear vision have to do with happiness or well-being, or getting our thinking unblocked? If therapy is in the business of helping people to live authentically and create meaning in a meaningless universe, to what extent can this be compatible with the idea of a clear objective vision of things unclouded by our own projections? Where do human values fit in this picture, and to what extent should a therapist even take a stance on these questions?

These are huge questions, touching on the fundamental questions of both philosophy and psychotherapy. Since the early days of psychotherapy, it has always been in a complex dance with philosophy. At times, especially when the focus in Anglo-American philosophy turned away from questions of significance and the well-lived life, it sometimes seemed as though psychotherapists were more philosophical than the philosophers. At the same time, it sometimes seems as though there have been important philosophical developments that therapy has missed. There is great scope, for example, for a conversation between philosophically-minded therapists and philosophers working within the virtue-ethical tradition. My psychotherapy textbooks contain numerous references to Sartre, Buber, and Kierkegaard, but I have not yet seen a single mention of Iris Murdoch, Mary Midgley, or Alasdair MacIntyre, all of them fascinating scholars of human flourishing.

This post is terribly vague, and has mostly posed questions rather than suggesting any answers, but I’m very excited about bringing these two sides of my life together and seeing where it can go.

Still mystified after essay feedback? Try an essay health check.

Are you wondering how you can improve your grades in philosophy essays?

Sometimes it’s hard to understand why you keep getting the marks that you do, or why you always fall just short of a grade boundary. Perhaps you understand why you got the feedback you did on a particular essay, but you need help working out how you can put that into use in future work.

I offer a detailed personalised essay “health check.” Here’s how it works:

1. Contact me for a quote

2. After we have agreed to proceed, you send me:

  • The essays you have submitted so far (and any others that are in progress)
  • All marks, comments and other feedback you have received on the essays
  • Your course outline and/or module outlines
  • Your department’s marking criteria
  • Anything else you think is relevant

3. I read all your essays, and use my experience as a tutor and lecturer in philosophy to determine areas of strength, and areas that require more work. I send you a written report detailing what areas need more work, and what you need to do to improve.

4. After reading your report, you can (a) leave it at that and work independently on the areas that need improvement, (b) request written exercises and advice tailored to your needs, (c) request subject-specific or study skills tuition. I also offer a proofreading service if you want to reach towards your full potential with academic writing in English.

Why philosophical writing needs philosophical proofreading and copy editing.

It has been a while since my last update here at Flourishing Philosophy. I have had a steady stream of tutoring, proofreading, and other philosophical work. I have also just started my training as a counsellor. This is a new and exciting thing, with a lot of connections to my philosophical work, and I will certainly post some thoughts about that here at some point.

Today though, I want to say a little bit about what I do when read philosophical writing for clients.

You may have used a proofreading or copy editing services before. Typically a proofreader will check your work for errors in formatting, grammar, and spelling when it is close to its final form. A copy editor will check your material for grammar and spelling, but also for stylistic problems. There is a little more to it than that, and the distinction is not clear-cut, but that’s the basic gist of it. When I do work of this kind, I don’t make a rigid distinction between proofreading and copy editing, because each client’s requirements are individual. I calculate my rates according to how long it will take me to complete the work, and will sometimes factor in discounts based on the client’s individual circumstances.

So why would you choose to have your work read by someone who is a specialist in philosophy? There are any number of reasons for this, but I will mention three.

The first (and least interesting) is that I am likely to be familiar with technical terminology that you use. It might be important, for example, that your work is being read by someone who understands the difference between egoism and egotism, or between cynicism and scepticism.

The second reason is that philosophical audiences are particularly sensitive to ambiguities in language, and that this can sometimes make or break your writing. When I do basic proofreading, I won’t usually identify all the ambiguities that appear in a piece of writing, while I will do my best to check for any ambiguity or unclarity when copy editing (as I said, the difference is not clear-cut, and I can do as much or as little of this as required). However, even correcting grammatical errors can sometimes reveal these ambiguities: something as simple as the placement of punctuation can make a dramatic difference to the meaning of a sentence. A non-specialist reader will typically ‘correct’ this error to whatever feels right or looks most elegant on the page. When I encounter these cases, I take a little time to consider the range of possible alternatives and make several suggestions for how the sentence might be correctly worded and punctuated. This is obviously more useful than a process that results in you having to go back and correct all the corrections, but it does more than that: sometimes it can highlight important distinctions that can greatly improve the quality of your argument.

The third reason for using the services of someone who knows your discipline is perhaps the most contentious: style matters! I don’t just mean that it helps people to understand your words (although that is obviously true) but that a philosopher’s style of writing is not easily divorced from the substance of what they are saying. Many of my favourite philosophers create a whole conceptual landscape, and their writing invites you to enter their world and have a look around. Writing style, especially the use of metaphors and imagery, can open up new ways of seeing. One of the ways that I can help you is by trying to engage with your whole project, and helping you to convey your arguments in a way that will invite your audience into your conceptual world. For example, when you are talking about a concept or phenomenon, are you reaching for a general atmosphere that is more mechanical or more organic? Are you using the language of qualia, phenomena, appearances, or subjective experience? Often, terms that might superficially be taken as near-synonyms carry a rich set of associated images or historical connections. By using the services of someone who is experienced in philosophical teaching and research, you can more easily create the conceptual landscape that you need.

VIDEO: Emotivism and Emojis

A little gimmick for explaining emotivism – easily transferable to the classroom.

The basics:

  • Logical positivism: statements are only statements of fact (the kind of thing that can be true or false) if there’s a way of testing them through science or observation.*
  • They can still be meaningful and false, provided that they can be tested (I should have made this clearer in the video!)
  • Moral statements don’t pass this test, so if they aren’t statements of fact, what are they?
  • A.J. Ayer: they are expressions of emotion. This view is called emotivism.
  • Expressions of emotion are different from statements about how I feel (because those can be true or false).
  • You can demonstrate this with emojis: “Liz is angry” can be true or false, but a little angry face emoji can’t be true or false because it adds mood, not factual statements.

*Statements about logic and maths are a slightly complicated exception. I’ll say more about that in a more detailed resource (to follow).