Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On Socrates

Socrates, the philosopher, supposedly said that the only true wisdom lies in knowing that you know nothing.

I must be really wise, then.

It is humbling, really, to be able to work with a research project of a magnitude that whenever I think I almost have the hang of it, I only discover that there are new things popping up. Things I haven't considered. Things I really should consider. I keep getting the feeling that I could easily devote my life to writing my thesis, and it still would never be entirely done.

I started out, two years ago, knowing nothing more about the Middle East and the conflict(s) there than the average newspaper reader does. I dived into the subject - took out every book there was in the library, and even managed to read some of them. I copied off articles to read. I wrote a project proposal. I held a "test lecture" for two professors as part of my exams. I did everything I could to make sure I knew everything I had to know about what was going to become the topic of my master's thesis.

And yet. Every time I opened a new book there was a new aspect. Something I hadn't thought about. Something that changed my perception of what I was working on completely - over and over again. No matter how deep I penetrated the problems I was working with, I continued to return to my starting point. There was still much more I didn't know about this conflict than what I did know.

I wrote a chapter. I read some more. I went to the US, where I spent the greater part of my time in an archive. I've read through thousands of documents. I've categorized them, analyzed them, written about them. I've read more books. I've written more chapters. I've talked to professors, and fellow students and other who have worked with this conflict.

I have done everything that was possible for someone with my resources and capacity to understand the topic of my thesis, and to make it comprehensible for others. Looking back, I can see my learning curve has been steep. Reading my first project proposal makes me cringe, because I am now able to see flaws, inconsistencies and imprecise formulations in every paragraph.

Despite this, however, I still feel like there are light-years to go. There are more books and articles and papers than I can fathom written about the very thing I try to make sense of. Then why in the world am I trying to write another one? I have no idea. I am supposed to have a brilliant answer to that, and it is supposed to go on page 8, circa, of my introduction chapter, which currently is a mess.

Regardless of all my hard work - or because of it, actually - I am still left with the feeling that I know nothing. I suspect that this is the way it will be. And I'm starting to wonder if it isn't also how it's supposed to be. The more I learn, the deeper I go in my research, I will only find that there is more left to explore. I will never reach a total understanding of the conflict I am supposed to be an expert of - nor would I of any other subject. It's just not possible. The more I search for answers, the more questions I come up with.

In the end, isn't that what research is all about? Perhaps Socrates had it right?


Cold As Heaven said...

That's how research is. You start out with one question, and end up with ten new. The challenge is to sort out which are the important questions.

A friend of mine use to say that research is to read two papers that no one has read before, in order to write a new paper that will never be read >:)

Cold As Heaven

Astrid said...

Wow. Thank you for explaining your thesis and research project. I think what you're doing is amazing. It sounds like Socrates did have it right. There is so much out there that we don't know.

Great post :)

Anonymous said...

I think it's good to know little (maybe not nothing!) because it's also good to learn.

CJ xx

Yvonne Osborne said...

Any post that mentions Socrates in the first line has my attention. Interesting people admit they know little. Insufferable people think they know it all. The Middle East is a roiling stew, always has been and.....

Thanks for an interesting post!

And, yes, since you asked in your sidebar, I am crazy. Aren't all writers?

Sandra said...

But your life is full of amazement and awe. I think you are so very smart!

Jules said...

I'm sorry but that sounds exhausting :) But yes, the more we think we know the less we really do.

Just so you know... that ain't research, that's life :D

Wishing you tons of insight..
Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

HulaBuns said...

Yep, I believe that is how research is... In fact, in my current job I feel like I'm always learning and reminding myself that "I know nothing". But a lot of good comes from that perspective. You are wiser than many just knowing (and admitting) that you don't know it all and still have a lot to learn.

If you thought you knew it all, then we would be worried. Since we all know how smart you are, it makes us look up to you even more to hear you admit that there is more to learn. :)

nonamedufus said...

You may have just unearthed the reason why the mid-east conflict has never been resolved! Well done.

Hart Johnson said...

Oh, Mari--breathe. Accept.... the fact that you NOW look at your proposal and wonder what the hell you were thinking (and they accepted THAT, yes?) means you really have learned a ton, even if there is much more left to learn. You need to reach a point of 'as much as I can do' and come to emotional terms with it.

In Oregon at my first research job we had a sign that read:

"We regret that we have not answered your questions. In fact we have generated more questions, but we believe these new questions reflect a higher degree of understanding." (or something like that) It is the nature of the beast.

Talli Roland said...

Wow - kudos to you for taking on such an enormously complex subject, and for having the persistence to see it through!

Kelly said...

You're showing much wisdom in knowing that there's always more to know.

Just keep at it and do your very best. No one can expect more.

The Golden Eagle said...

There are always more things that come into play, more things to know, more questions, and on and on . . . but it's also nice to think that the world's inexhaustible in that respect. No end to the ideas. :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

If you're wise, then I must be a genius!!

K A B L O O E Y said...

I like Hart Johnson's workplace sign. And your description of your research sounds like you're getting some critical distance from your work, which has to be good, right? If you just figure out some great questions to ask, you'll be accomplishing a lot.

Clarissa Draper said...

The sad thing about the middle east is that I'm sure they don't even know why they're fighting anymore. The feud has been going on for years. But, I don't know much. I could be way off on this.


Aleta said...

What you wrote is beautiful and how you linked it to Socrates was perfect. When it comes to such complexities, the very essence of understanding it is... not being able to do so. I admire all the research you have done!

Cruella Collett said...

So I meant to reply to each and every one of you yesterday, but guess what - knowing nothing aka research is also exhausting, so after pulling what almost turned into an all-nighter yesterday, I sent the complete draft of my thesis to my supervisor and went into a bloggy coma. I really appreciate all of your support, though - so much wisdom (and I'm not just saying that because none of you know nothing...) to help me get through this. Thank you!

Hannah Kincade said...

Socrates was so right. I am bloody brilliant!

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