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 I recently started tidying my office and have found all sorts of old writings lying around, neglected and mostly unpublished.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 Occasionally I’ve found a good unpublished argument that I had forgotten about and thought that I must use in the future.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.