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Epicurus and a simply PhD lesson

February 11, 2013

RadioI think I’m becoming rather sophisticated in my dotage – yet again I found myself listening to BBC Radio 4 (while traveling to a meeting) an activity I must confess I’ve never really indulged in prior to the past few months (other radios stations are available, but some are rather tedious). I say sophisticated as I presume erudite people listen to Radio 4, some of the stuff though is decidedly clever and often understanding passes me by.

It was rather like that this week as I listened to Melvin Bragg discussing philosophy with his guests – the discussion centred on Epicurus. Initially this confused me a little, surely an Epicurist is someone who purveys gourmet food or drink, or one who enjoys such delights from the perspective of having a palate that appreciates the finery of food and drink? Apparently this doesn’t mean the deli counter at Asda!

Epicurus

EpicurusThe Epicurus being discussed was a philosopher who founded his system of beliefs (Epicureanism) around 307 BC. His teachings were about the pursuit of pleasure, believing that pleasure itself is the only intrinsic good. As the programme developed it became clear that this ‘pleasure’ was a state of being, less physical, more a state of mental tranquility, a freedom from fear and the absence of pain.

Initially I was only half listening as my mind was considering my PhD supervision session that was hurtling round the corner towards me; what had I achieved, was I any clearer since the last time I had met with my programme director and supervisors? If you have read my last blog you will understand that, in relation to my PhD, I haven’t yet reached a state of ‘tranquility’. My literature search wasn’t revealing the ‘ta-da’ moment.

It was in relation to my PhD that I started to consider what I could learn or adapt from Epicurus. His philosophy considered that the way to reach tranquility (pleasure) included the gaining of knowledge related to the workings of the world around us and the limits of one’s desires. The state of tranquility was only possible in the absence of fear and pain. In this context PhD mental fear – what if what I have done isn’t good enough, or I’ve headed down a blind alley? – it all seemed rather self imposed doubt and rather self defeating.

Keep it simple

What struck me about Epicurus was that he considered simplicity as the path to the tranquility he sought, it made me reflect on my current PhD journey thus far, perhaps I wasn’t keeping it simple enough, perhaps I was over complicating things – as I said in a previous blog, I was too intent on getting it right from the start, rather than allowing myself to grow into it . Perhaps the ‘pain’ and ‘fear’ about progress and clarity were of my own making – the way to achieve a level of tranquility was to ‘keep it simple‘.

At my supervision the following day I had a clearer map to explore, I felt I understood the aspects of my search that sparked my interest – the ‘pleasure’ in Epicurus’ speak.

Supervision 2

This mindmap is less cluttered than my previous mind dump, this one narrows my focus onto two main areas of interest – impact on staff and impact on the individual. Neither area exists in isolation, however in pursuit of tranquility, at this point, it was agreed to keep it simply. Infection, as a topic has been sidelined, although it may return later. Ethnography is ‘parked’ while I read more about it and other methods of enquiry.

Overall it’s too soon to claim tranquility has been captured, however simplicity has brought a decided reduction in the fear factor, a more tangible sense of ‘the possible’. Perhaps pleasure will be the next step.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2013 6:24 pm

    simplicity is always good. Hope it leads both to enlightenment and contentment

    • February 11, 2013 10:28 pm

      Thanks for both comments Alastair – you know me I like simple, there’s a time and place for complicated, it’s just not at the minute. I’m sure at PhD level it will need to become more complex as I progress.

  2. February 11, 2013 6:24 pm

    although over-simplicity is deceptive.

  3. February 11, 2013 6:37 pm

    There is nothing better than removing/paring down content. My perception of the sheer ‘vastness’ of a PhD scares me, so this is fascinating: thanks.

    • February 11, 2013 10:29 pm

      Thanks Karen – for me this was/is about one chunk at a time, later on I’m sure I’ll have to join it all back together again.

  4. February 11, 2013 8:53 pm

    What I like about this is that you are probaly using your blog to refine and describe your thinking. I’m guessing you went back to your first draft and simplified it.

    I like simple, so it’s ironic that we both used our blogs this week to talk about it.

    Let’s keep it that way.

    • February 11, 2013 10:31 pm

      Thanks Phil – but you got to do your ‘simple’ in a pub, there’s a lesson in that as well I’m sure #jealous. Derek

  5. February 12, 2013 1:29 pm

    Try reading Lucretius- The Nature Of The Universe.

  6. February 13, 2013 5:29 pm

    Reminds me a bit of

    Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.
    Empirical Model-Building by Box and Draper, p. 74
    http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/George_Box

    • February 13, 2013 6:16 pm

      Thanks Alastair, I’ll have a look – I can do ‘wrong’; in future I’ll ask people how wrong do they want me to be!!

  7. February 17, 2013 8:40 am

    Your mind map seems to me to show 3 or 4 different types of information that I might separate, or show differently, in order to keep myself focused. You have the admin process (and timeline) of the PhD in with both the methodology and the content of your research & thesis. But I might think differently from many people. Incidentally, I grew up listening to Radio 4. You shouldn’t be daunted by it – some programmes have people talking nonsense, and it also has some of the best (and worst) comedy programmes. I listen to it less now, but it’s on constantly in my kitchen.

    • February 17, 2013 11:05 pm

      Thanks Janet – I agree about the links within the mindmap: I was acutely aware of the simplicity of the map in what had been a much more complex discussion. One of the frustrations of the timeline was ‘thinking time’ versus ‘doing time’, the need of the supervisors to see some progress, with my need to establish a sense of direction. Thanks for your thoughts, I’ll go back and re-look at the map.
      The Radio 4 thing is relatively new as I was getting bored with other stations – a couple of times its been pretty rubbish, but others are so very interesting in terms of being ‘outside my box’, which engages me in something new, which I rather enjoy. Thanks for commenting, I appreciate and value you taking the time. Derek

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