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The urge to know

by Christine Overall

the urge

It’s been said that to obtain a PhD you must learn more and more about less and less, until you know everything about nothing. That’s the cynical view of training for academic life. But like many clichés, it contains a grain of truth.

Becoming an academic requires highly specialized study, often producing results that, from any wider perspective, may be insignificant. Nonetheless, the experience can – and should – be invaluable, by offering the thrilling experience of independent discovery. It may even make you a world expert within your tiny field.

My own brush with global expertise began when I wrote a PhD thesis on the philosophy of mysticism – specifically, on an Anglo-American philosopher named Walter Terence Stace, a pioneer in the philosophical analysis of mystical experiences.

Stace was an unusual academic. Born in 1886 in England, he served for 22 years with the British civil service in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He even became mayor of its capital city, Colombo. After retiring from the civil service, he taught at Princeton University from 1932 to 1955. He was a prolific philosopher, authoring 14 books and many key articles in American and British journals.

In Ceylon he also developed an interest in Hinduism and Buddhism, an interest that became the basis of his later published work on the philosophy of mysticism. Starting out as a skeptic, over the course of 30 years he gradually became convinced of the moral and epistemic value of mysticism.

In my PhD thesis, I explored Stace’s views on mystical experiences, especially how those views were influenced by contemporary forms of empiricism and what he took the meaning of such experiences to be. Following Stace’s philosophical trail was not easy. His work had sparked some attention when first published, but by the time I discovered him, interest was declining. I studied just about everything he wrote, as well as reviews of his books, papers and monographs that critiqued his work, and various Who’s Whos with information about his life.

Within a few years of getting my doctorate, I developed quite different research interests but continued to check The Philosopher’s Index to see whether new work was being published about Stace. It wasn’t. Perhaps, by default, I was the world expert on W. T. Stace.

Fast forward to 2002. Out of the blue I was contacted by a philosopher who was co-editing a dictionary of 20th-century British philosophers. My early expertise had been recognized. Would I write a 2,000-word entry on W. T. Stace for this planned dictionary?

First I had to check: How much had the literature developed in the two decades since I had published a couple of articles about him? Often it’s impossible to keep up with the literature in a subfield. I thought it might be difficult for me to write authoritatively about my former research topic.

Not so, it turns out. In the past 20 years, just six philosophical articles had appeared, and some of them mentioned Stace only in passing. Evidently no one was particularly interested in challenging my expertise. So I wrote the requested essay and it was published in 2005. Since then, at least according to The Philosopher’s Index, only two other articles that mention Stace have appeared in print. Stace’s work isn’t exactly setting the world on fire.

Yet, in no way do I regret my early devotion to a little-known philosopher. Researching and thinking about his ideas was excellent scholarly training. Even more important for me was the thrill of exploring Stace’s philosophical ideas, seeing how they developed and changed, and even having the temerity to decide that he made some crucial errors in evaluating mysticism.

I never met Stace; in fact he died the year I took my first philosophy course. Yet my graduate research made me feel connected to him. I vividly remember the day when I realized that a metaphor, an image, had strongly influenced Stace’s understanding of mysticism and knowledge. That picture – of human minds as self-contained spheres that only interact when their boundaries melt away in a mystical experience – was beautiful, I decided, but also beautifully misleading.

I once had a professor who told his grad students that we should prepare to “push back the frontiers of knowledge.” Perhaps no savvy humanities scholar would use such terms today. Yet it was inspiring to think that I might contribute in some small way to philosophical understanding. I saw that human knowledge is a community effort; that while we each think our own thoughts and labour alone, especially in the humanities, still, we are all moved by a collective drive as old as humanity itself: the urge to know.

Today, if you Google his name you will find about 525 main Internet entries on Stace, and more than 74,000 others that Google reckons to be “very similar” to the first 525.

Perhaps, after all, I’m not the world’s expert on this man. But that’s fine with me.

Christine Overall teaches in the department of philosophy at Queen’s University and is our regular columnist on philosophical issues in the academy.

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