April 28, 2013, by Stephen Mumford
On Reading Oneself
Now that my hair is getting more grey by the day, and it’s long since I was classified as an early-career academic, I have almost 25 years of written research behind me. I recently started tidying my office and have found all sorts of old writings lying around, neglected and mostly unpublished. Some were hand-written manuscripts from days when computer access was a rare privilege.
Curiosity got the better of me and I started reading them. It was just a bit of fun at first, much as one looks through old family photo albums and sees pictures of an earlier self. But I started also to find a philosophical interest in the hobby. Some of the work was bad, with embarrassing mistakes. In other instances a case is made for a view I now reject but reading through the argument allowed me to see why I once attracted to such a conclusion. My earlier self was even able to challenge my present thinking. I work in a discipline where it is always useful to rehearse an argument one accepts again and again, where one should always be sceptical, to see whether one’s theories really do stand up to scrutiny.
But I still don’t know whether reading myself is pure self-indulgence, just like looking at those old photos. Can I count it as research if I’m reading my own work? Just to play safe, I’ve been doing it in evenings and weekends so that it’s not on company time. Then again, I also get a feeling that my current work will benefit from a little retrospective rethinking. Occasionally I’ve found a good unpublished argument that I had forgotten about and thought that I must use in the future. I also wonder whether it is only in philosophy that reading one’s earlier work is beneficial.
I’d welcome views of readers.
I think it is beneficial in all instances … to take a tiny example: if you were to be the kind to write diaries, I am sure you could learn a lot about yourself by re-reading things you thought (about yourself or life) many years ago. And yet, the same goes for so many other and larger examples as well. Scientists, authors, doctors – the point is, I guess, that our ideas mature over time (and so does our ability to critically reflect on them). As our knowledge increases, we often forget where it originally started from and how it got to the point it is at now. Even in matters of style, looking back can be beneficial. Maybe, once upon our time, we held the exact same ideas, but lacked the means to fully articulate them. In fact, I look back quite a lot at my own ideas and often find it funny why some disappeared, others changed and again others grew into their own more adult versions. As young people, we are often more radical and somewhat less critical, so it is good for any ego to remember that all ideas are always in flux – that we are in flux – and that it took a lot of work to get to this point in our lives. Moreover, the work will continue and our ideas will (hopefully) never stop growing, expanding … in short: maturing.
In academic work as in life more generally, I agree that it’s always constructive to have an eye on where you’ve come from. It’s right to wonder whether this amounts only to self indulgence, but I don’t think it’s worth getting hung up on that.
I don’t think the benefits of reading earlier work are limited to philosophy. As we develop an understanding or ‘knowledge’ of a particular subject it has to be beneficial to look at things afresh. Older work might seem naive, radical or underdeveloped, but is that a voice we want to lose? I’d suggest not.
If we are to make sense of the state of flux mentioned above, it’s useful to challenge the assumption that as we get older or further into our careers our ideas and work are necessarily ‘better’. I agree that to develop academically and personally, it is beneficial to revisit these ideas, as long as it’s balanced with a healthy interest in what others are doing.
Looking back at old photos is really interesting, too!