How to write a thesis, according to Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco, in How to Write a Thesis (from this excerpt):

The language of the thesis is a metalanguage, that is, a language that speaks of other languages. A psychiatrist who describes the mentally ill does not express himself in the manner of his patients. I am not saying that it is wrong to express oneself in the manner of the so-called mentally ill. In fact, you could reasonably argue that they are the only ones who express themselves the way one should. But here you have two choices: either you do not write a thesis, and you manifest your desire to break with tradition by refusing to earn your degree, perhaps learning to play the guitar instead; or you write your thesis, but then you must explain to everyone why the language of the mentally ill is not a “crazy” language, and to do it you must use a metalanguage intelligible to all.
[…]
And when Marx wanted to talk about workers, he did not write as a worker of his time, but as a philosopher. Then, when he wrote The Communist Manifesto with Engels in 1848, he used a fragmented journalistic style that was provocative and quite effective. Yet again, The Communist Manifesto is not written in the style of Capital, a text addressed to economists and politicians. Do not pretend to be Dante by saying that the poetic fury “dictates deep within,” and that you cannot surrender to the flat and pedestrian metalanguage of literary criticism. Are you a poet? Then do not pursue a university degree. Twentieth-century Italian poet Eugenio Montale does not have a degree, and he is a great poet nonetheless. His contemporary Carlo Emilio Gadda (who held a degree in engineering) wrote fiction in a unique style, full of dialects and stylistic idiosyncrasies; but when he wrote a manual for radio news writers, he wrote a clever, sharp, and lucid “recipe book” full of clear and accessible prose. And when Montale writes a critical article, he writes so that all can understand him, including those who do not understand his poems.

What Eco writes here seems both current and dated. It is dated because the idea that a thesis must use “a metalanguage intelligible to all” is not a given fact in today’s university, where discursive pluralism is the reality. Its currency is in the idea that a thesis and any other research publication has to strive to connect the inside of a text, community, culture, or era with an outside of diverse readers. Fundamentally, a thesis is not about understanding the inside, but about knowing both the inside and the outside and being able to move between the two. The sociologist of science Harry Collins called this ability “meta-alternation.” Meta-alternation is about knowing science and knowing sociology, and being able to move back and forth between them. The more common expression “hermeneutic circle” (“the idea that one’s understanding of the text as a whole is established by reference to the individual parts and one’s understanding of each individual part by reference to the whole”) refers to something similar.

Even in the pluralist condition, some idea of a universal metalanguage remains as an ideal and as practice (as Hsu implies below.) Eco expresses this by saying that a thesis is “not simply a private letter to the advisor, it is potentially a book meant for humanity.” (147) This flags something very important: perhaps even more than its choice of subject, a thesis necessarily expresses an idea of who matters in its choice of addressee and mode of address. For some students, only the advisor will matter. For others, only themselves. For most, I hope, what matters will be something more expansive. I take what Hsu says below as expressing this sentiment, but adding that in the minutiae of academic writing lies an ideal of community. (Two important corollaries: one is that if one wants to change the community, then one must change the minutiae of its modes of communication. The other is that a person who only ever writes in one mode possesses an impoverished view of humanity.)

Hua Hsu at the New Yorker:

But “How to Write a Thesis” is ultimately about much more than the leisurely pursuits of college students. Writing and research manuals such as “The Elements of Style,” “The Craft of Research,” and Turabian offer a vision of our best selves. They are exacting and exhaustive, full of protocols and standards that might seem pretentious, even strange. Acknowledging these rules, Eco would argue, allows the average person entry into a veritable universe of argument and discussion. “How to Write a Thesis,” then, isn’t just about fulfilling a degree requirement. It’s also about engaging difference and attempting a project that is seemingly impossible, humbly reckoning with “the knowledge that anyone can teach us something.” It models a kind of self-actualization, a belief in the integrity of one’s own voice.

Reviews with interesting insights from the perspectives of teachers and students at Inside Higher Ed, and LSE Review of Books.

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