Initial Conversation, 22 Sept 2017
Who are you as a doctoral research and/or who do you hope to be as a doctoral researcher?
[Karl F Tullah, Nadim Bakhshov]
Karl: Hi, and welcome back to the show. In this next section, we interview Nadim Bakhshov and chat to him about how his work is going, what the theme of his next book is and – more interestingly for me – why he is doing a doctorate.
[Turns to Nadim]
Karl: Welcome back. I can see from your posts, blog and other activities you’ve been very busy. Up at 5 every morning?
Nadim: Hi Karl. Yes, working really hard. Over the summer I took advantage of being able to study and decided to push myself harder in the second phase of my work.
Karl: Second phase?
Nadim: Yes, well over the past 4 years, as you might know, the philosophical language, concepts and grammar I have been working on have begun to settle down – a bit like Charles Peirce’s idea of the fixing of concepts – and I’ve begun the process of generating new conceptual formulations out of this. This is phase one. And this work is, as I like to call it, my Gesamtkunstwerk – my total art work.
Karl: Didn’t you once say, about twenty or so years ago, when you were in the early days of this work, that you might fail? You might never actually develop the thing you set out to develop? Have you passed that danger?
Nadim: Yes I remember. It sounds like a such a negative things to say but my ambition was a version of Descartes’s dream to reformulate the conceptual fabric of ontology, epistemology, ethics, politics, aesthetics and so on. (Yes, a little like Hegel but heavily situated after the postmodern moment.) When you embark on such a life-project, when you set out to develop something like a completely new way of thinking and then spend every waking minute, aside from the day job and family, when you spend so much time writing and thinking you come to understand both the process and product are, not just the product. Having said that, I think I have been lucky. I could still be where I was ten years ago, creating an umpteenth new notation and symbolism, devising another grammar and trying to get the whole thing to work – only to find the whole edifice crumbles under pressure. But I think I have been lucky. Without expecting it, a symbolism, grammar and conceptual fabric emerged that did not collapse under harsh critical scrutiny it was subjected to. I now realise I have something that I might be able to do something with.
Karl: Do you think it helped that you worked outside of any institution?
Nadim: Well, I can’t say, but probably yes. In this current academic climate, where you have to publish frequently, where you can so easily get caught up with a career and its worries, and somehow lose sight of the point of it all – perhaps in this climate it would have been more difficult for someone like me. I wanted to be free of any obligation from anyone or any institution telling me what the parameters of ‘thinking’ should, which paths I could follow. I wanted utter freedom to invent and explore the direction that had opened up to me in my undergraduate days. This also meant freedom to fail. And that was a risk that lay at the heart of my own commitment – a leap into the unknown, not knowing beforehand whether it would work out. I thank my encounter with the proto-existentialist Kierkegaard to guide me in these early days.
Karl: So, why a doctorate? Why now? What do you hope it can do for you? And, do you see yourself comfortable in this identity? Are you, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, finally coming down from the mountain?
Nadim: Why now? Well, as I said the core symbolism, grammar and logic of this new philosophical language is stable. I am now in a position to test it, articulate, apply it and explore its implications. I am now in – what I term phase two: the presentation and communication of this work, the phase of engagement.
Karl: So, have you stopped working on it? Are you only working on its presentation to others?
Nadim: Well, no I am working at it harder than before. And actually it is misleading to say phase one is over, or that it had no engagement with other thinkers. The whole philosophical project was built in dialogue with the philosophers.
Karl: Why are you working harder at it rather than its presentation? I don’t follow.
Nadim: My idea is simple – the work, if it is what I think it is, needs a fuller articulation. By writing it out I am hoping I will arrive at an expression of the real originality and profundity at its core. I mean, why else pursue it? I doubt I need to reformulate the core conceptions, dismantle the whole complex edifice and burn my notes so I can start. I doubt this symbolism will fail me now.
Karl: Anything good so far?
Nadim: I hope so. I have an example that I am working on for possible publication – I have loosely formulated it using the concept of ‘onto-ethical schemes’. This, I am hoping, is a useful bridge from my work into the wider debates surrounding value and meaning in religious discourse.
Karl: Do we have a moment for you to say something more about this onto-ethical formulae? I know it’s not necessarily the path of your research.
Nadim: The idea is simple: a religion, a politics, all social formations encode complex and sometimes contradictory onto-ethical formulas. That is, they formulate a relationship between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’. Some of these formulations are explicit – listen to things said – the discourse-formations of Foucault, for example – but a large part of these formulations form the context-operators of these social, political and organisational practices. For me, if I can get personal for a moment – this stuff I am talking about is critical when grasping how the human world works and where change may come. The originality comes in the form of a mathematical and symbolic form.
Karl: So, why a doctorate? You’ve never struck me as a researcher – an investigator and inventor, yes, but a researcher, I’m not so sure.
Nadim: I am guessing you think of the idea of a researcher as a category of academic practice, rather than the thing I have been up to?
Karl: Yes, I think I do. So, why are you doing one?
Nadim: If we talk about the concept of an academic community and a research community then we might be able to unpack this.
Karl: Where to start?
Nadim: I would start by discussing the professionalization and institutionalization of thought.
Karl: What does that mean?
Nadim: I have to start in this rather strange place – thinking, exploring, investigating are all structured and constrained within the parameters of academic and research practice. That doesn’t mean there’s a simple single framework – in fact there’s a staggering plurality of frameworks and – perhaps – a lack of an overall epistemological paradigm. Anyway – when you think in these formal contexts the tacit moves available to you in a discussion and exploration are structured by certain agreements in judgements (to borrow a phrase from Wittgenstein) – some moves you can make, others not and certain languages.
Karl: Are you saying that academic practices and research practices are complex language-games – I don’t mean this in any cynical way, but purely as a phenomenological description of how they operate?
Nadim: Yes, I’d go with that. Research communities have parameters – Kuhn’s model of how a paradigm works is quite useful here. It is not, to paraphrase Isabelle Stenger in her study of Whitehead: a free and wild creation of concepts.
Karl: So why are you doing one?
Nadim: What is my role in these practices and institutions?
Karl: Yes, that is the question. By undertaking a doctorate what do you hope to achieve?
Nadim: In thinking about this I thought my identity as a professional researcher did not interest me. I thought that all of that stuff was too subjective and a little irrelevant. But the more I thought about it the more I found myself thinking how important it was –
Nadim: I’m not sure I can say but I will try. I’d like to find my place in these practices through my work, through a contribution, through the idea that in being here I have something to say and add. I suppose I have no interest simply being here for its own sake. It’s about dissemination and context. I would hope that the process of distilling relevant threads of my work and thought and then articulating them within the parameters of the academic community has some independent value.
Karl: Do you have some idea of professionalism that is appropriate, if not personal?
Nadim: Well, I would say the essence of being an educational professional and, in this case, an educational researcher, is purely ethical.
Karl: And what does that mean?
Nadim: Well, everything I commit myself to – and I hope to dig deeply into this to unearth and establish some linkage to my philosophical thought – requires a commitment, not just to uncover what is true but the value these truths have to leading a just life. It’s like teaching. When I teach I see it as something which guides another human being towards a fuller grasp of not just a body of knowledge but of themselves. This question – this question of what a life means, who a person is, how the human world works and so on – this is what I find of profound value. Like everyone else I have had to do qualifications to allow me to practice as a professional in my field – I became a software engineer to finance myself and my family. But this deeper motivation is important now.
Karl: Do you think an educational doctoral researcher is an ethical activity? I find this discussion interesting. It sounds to me that in the process of understanding the point of undertaking doctoral research, of bridging your Gesamtkunstwerk – your life-project – to research, you have questioned the value of doctoral research for you. Your idea of professionalism is linked to the integrity of your thought and also the integrity of the ambition to disseminate this philosophical edifice you have created. Would that be fair?
Nadim: Yes, I think so. As you know the meaning of things uncovers itself as a function of the unfolding and reflecting upon the narrative of situations. At this early stage my thought is inevitably naive and idealistic. In a month, after engaging the topic, my grasp will shift. My modus operandi is to digest and think through – to participate in a dialogue with other thinkers, other work, to try and grasp the significance of all this within the given parameters. I know, for example, I am not undertaking this with absolute freedom. I know what that means – when you have criteria which form the framework of judgement this can no longer have the quality of freedom you are used to. But that is not why I am doing it. I certainly don’t expect it. Becoming a doctoral researcher is also, as some suggest, a movement from the periphery to the centre of a social practice. This social practice involves a practice of formulating and encoding insights and concepts within various methodological strictures. There’s no doubt that this is more fluid and flexible than I originally imagined. The advantage to me is that I can find a form of articulation which maximises the quality of presentation, be it empirical or philosophical.
Karl: In short, you stand a chance of making a contribution that might work?
Nadim: Yes, but at this early stage I cannot see which thread is the best to pursue. That is how my engagement will unfold. That is my personal duty here – my personal effort to try and make a success out of this. If it fails it certainly won’t be from lack of appropriate intellectual effort.
Karl: That’s interesting. I look forward to having you back to discuss the progress you make and – more importantly – whether you find that thread to draw into this. In the meantime are you still going to write?
Nadim: Oh, yes. Of course. If I give up my work and limit myself only to this I think it will distort and warp everything. My own work has an intrinsic and necessary participatory value. There’s a whole list of publications contained within it, not only those which work for one set of audiences but to a plurality of audiences. So, yes, I am still writing.
Karl: Thanks for the chat.
Nadim: Thank you.
September 28, 2017