PhD and me – starting with realism

Projecting a realistic ideal

A blog offering a little reality into what a nerd considers to be a summer well spent. My preparations towards the start of my PhD. And how reality really is far from ideal.

📆 My formal introductions to my PhD are almost upon me. This summer has perhaps been my final dalliance with free time for what may be years. The little prof within me is quietly pleased. I’m excited, like only nerds can be, at going back to school.

🗄 Administration is still real…🖇📎🪪

Registration at University of Leeds felt quite familiar last week. All online and a few weeks ahead of time. A wrestle with new systems, weblinks, passwords, ID checks, and proofs. But all-in-all pretty slick. Very much akin to my online registration at University of Nottingham a year ago, almost to the day. And if I think back to City, University London, in 2019, registration has become easier. No disrespect to City, I am sure they are improved too. I just think the post-Covid era has moved us all on. The same admin required, but queuing at a desk beats standing in line. Especially 4 hours away from my campus, dealing with lockdown still, and less enthused at standing amongst a mostly near-teen cohort, me being aged 49.

📉 Reality check in a bear market

Did someone say recession three times in early July? Because the housing market has suddenly dried up. That’s the summer experience I can offer, anyway. So I’m starting my next degree very much like the last – remotely – albeit I hope not for long. My supervisors are being wonderfully understanding – my estate agent doing all that they can.

💭 Philosophically speaking 🗣

Ongoing lockdown has afforded me more time spent philosophically engaged. I have spent the summer in the company of phenomenology, transcendental idealism, and existential fear. Heidegger’s 1927 Being and Time as the spine from which wider reading has ballooned. This meant revisiting Kant, introductions better made to Kierkegaard, Tillich, Barfield, and an inevitable flirt once more with Jung, and all manner of those living with the greater crisis of meaning – more meaningful at least than any crisis of my own.

📚 The reality of learning what is hard

Philosophical works can be impenetrably hard. Assistance is almost compulsory for us mere mortals – especially those of us hobby readers with no prior philosophical training or formal learning. For me, that has meant books and academic papers to help unpick that puzzle. A few friendly post-grads (found via LinkedIn) willing to offer up a list of those secondary sources from whom experience has confirmed explain all best. But also so many lecture series that are worth watching. Audiobooks of some of those great philosophical works. Most are freely available on YouTube. I wonder how many know how much there is out there? Knowledge just waiting to be watched.

👥 Real networks for real people 🫂

I must also mention the ongoing generosity of peoples’ time. I give mine up too, but it is still amazing how many people are happy to speak openly about subject matter that is otherwise so hard. LinkedIn is full of possibility, if one just asks. So much welcoming active-learning and sharing.

As a PhD student I now have a new title to use in introductions. However, I think my success in making such connection is simply by being actively engaging in discourse online. Demonstrating some shared interest. Finding those with something to say. That creates a trust enough for strangers to become willing to give up their own time. This summer that has included a few friendly and generous professors and project practitioners equal in their kindness in sharing precious time. One of whom knows Heidegger’s work well enough to use in business school teaching – wow! – and he was delighted to receive an invite to chat – I think I may have struck gold with that cold call. We have spoken once a week all summer, and will probably do so for sometime more.

Such two-way engagement, one-on-one real-time discourse, is unquestionably my preferred mode of building. Building my network and building upon knowledge at the same time. Each of us in it for nothing more rewarding than a little discourse. A possibility of loosening the grip upon one mindful perspective at a time, enough to let new ideas in. That’s how ideas become real. Leaving the mind, and let free into the world. Free and for free, for those willing to be.

💭 Real thought lives outside the mind 🧠

Manage your network, and make that the value of your time. These are the projects of learning and the projects of future possibility.

Producing thought leadership is sometimes as simple as “you show me yours, and I’ll show you mine”. The output need not be a formality or a production. I’ve made connections and friendship over the summer that I hope last a long time. Trust builds that way.

“…projects are about people, not spreadsheets…”

Real advice I recently offered to Euromoney Project Finance students

As I said as part of some training production materials I participated in creating recently, “projects are about people, not spreadsheets…”. In my career I have had the privilege of being part of problem solving moments and all come from time spent with people. I feel sure it is that human interface that will be central to any success I hope to have in my PhD.

↪️ a real change of mind ↩️

Now for the bigger reality check. For me a lesson, or perhaps affirmation, or reward, for keeping an open mind. Despite the hundreds of hours of spare time I’ve given up towards new learning this summer, the philosophy I have spent so much effort to better understand may have fallen short in the end. I can best illustrate this by offering an examination of the final book of my summer read. I hope the real reason for my reality references are herein revealed.

Tom Sparrow (2015) “The end of phenomenology: Metaphysics and the new realism

[with a foreword by the Object Orientated Ontologist, Graham Harman – editor of this wider speculative realism series]

Tom Sparrow has proved a fitting – if phenomenologically devastating – end to my summer reading. He made quick work of the future failings of “phenomenology” and with it perhaps much of the truth I have gleefully read over this summer.

He concludes that my beloved phenomenology is doomed, and can only hope to be “…the handmaiden of science” (Sparrow 2015 pp188).

Sparrow is drawing upon the clashes of past masters – Husserl, plus his rebellious 20th century defining protégés Heidegger, and the almost greats who have since stood upon those shoulders: notably Merleau-Ponty; but Derrida, Sartre, and much of the continental tradition are herein drawn into view.

The result is a beautifully crafted critique. All pointing to a mind that is going to work methodically and cautiously; but with critical verve and devilish mastery of building a critical case. I loved his analysis of the dissonance and squabbling within the one phenomenology palace. His courage enough to professionally stand with those on the southern more impoverished side of the tracks is also noted, given he comes from a phenomenology orientated university accord. He appeals to the speculative realists, although admits to the further need of building a critical case toward their speculative place. Indeed his lean upon Graham Harman is extensive, freely admitted, and becomes the basis of a large weight of arguments made, including the predicted future orientation of the philosophy of things in themselves without transcendental idealism or hard-nosed materialism (cf Chapter 4 in particular).

All is not lost, he assures me, of my summer spent with Heidegger or phenomenology. We are advised that phenomenology’s strength is when it is put in opposition to scientific reductionism to offer another perspective, thereby, “…locked in a dialectical relation to scientific naturalism…” pp187. But it’s future is no less a relegation. Destined to be the “…irreducible supplement to natural science…” pp188.

Notwithstanding these huge blows, Heidegger has made a lasting impression upon me. As has existentialism and the recently claimed limitations associated with intentionality, consciousness and the object:subject phenomena pairing of correlationism – the eidos or intellectual core that makes phenomenology what it is (to which eidos our Sparrow has helped deny from within). Tom Sparrow pulls the latter asunder and my summer living with phenomenology may have just flown south as a result, at least as a complete philosophy.

The Sparrow that took the intentions of consciousness and thereby denied phenomenology a means to breath real air. Pinning it into its “correlationist” corner, branding it a “philosophy of access” – siding with Meillassoux and Harman by their critique and those boundary defining terms.

Meillassoux and Harman are both from the Goldsmith University origins of speculative realism. Both of whom tell us phenomenology demands those living by its name must also be tamed by the human lens by which all reality (if one is to stay true to phenomenology) is therein framed. Speculative realism rejects this. Objects are not so easily assumed to be as we subjectively perceive them. That claim cannot be made from within phenomenology. And Sparrow assures us the philosophical fashion of the day is speculatively turning, and that continental examination is on the wain. The real, not the ideal.

🧰 Ready-to-hand 🔨🔧🪛

This book threatens much of my summer preparations. Phenomenology appeals to me because my research up until now suggests we need to better explain what a project is. What being in a project represents. My whole summer has been spent reading this philosophical perspective of seeking what it is to be, because I think it offers some machinery, a tool, or device, that may help me refine my own arguments as to what a project is. What it is in a meaningful and wider sense, beyond any pithy definition. And here is Tom Sparrow successfully (in my opinion) presenting fundamental questions to that ontological grounding.

Mercifully, Sparrow (together with Harman and the speculative realists) do at least permit me to embrace phenomenological method. I merely delegate its primacy. If I have a tool, one that enables additional perspective alongside more scientific rigour, well that might actually suit me just fine. I do not need a complete philosophy, I just need method or examination of those limits, as to apply to matters of human interaction and ways to be. And how best they can be applied as projections towards better outcomes in projects by grasping better the needs to control what is yet to be. Surely I may be permitted to have claim on what is not yet present, to not yet be real? So my Sparrow, and his hawkish SR clan, perhaps leave me that future carrion at least to plunder as I go.

🌞 My summer summary 📚📕📗

That perhaps better summarises my summer project, or least in it’s aim fulfilled. Hardly reflecting the pedagogy, or the praxis, but certainly the teleology.

It further supports the next project I embark upon this week. I have that knowledge imbibed, at least. That goal fulfilled – as the insight I sort. Insight that further exemplifies the dangers of committing to a position as much of the late 20th Century philosophical canon has committed to. But it also confirms the necessity to commit one way or other anyway. How else can one find the limitations from which all knowledge grows? That is the reality of learning, the participation, and the experience, even when driving beyond what can be propositionally known.

💼 Ready for school?

I pack my metaphorical school bag again, and I reflect upon those more concerned with such fundamental truth. I remain unperturbed – unperturbed by knowing I cannot hope be the disrupting ideas or reality as Sparrow or the hawk-eyed Harman et al are perhaps moving us all to be. Them the realists. Me just being realistic. Realistic to the time I have left. Realistic to my intellectual neglect or the capacity it reflects.

🎯 Teleologically clear 🎯

I am however, seeking to conclude my own purpose in this cacophony of noise, and in a sometimes too constrained academic space. I can at least press to understand a little more those grander notions of what is. And towards a question of doing that sustainably.

In the end, is that not what project management becomes or can ever hope to be? A scarcity of resources and time, conflicting perspectives and interests necessarily but temporarily aligned (or at least cajoled) and directed towards an end. Managed to maximise likelihood of intended outcome, or more cynically to facilitate a distancing from blame. Realistic or idealistic is therein moot – speculative or otherwise – because if we are not being sustainable that is now our shared existential threat. Indeed if I may play with a word learnt today, we share culpability for iatrogenic risk, now as existential threat, and all project priorities teleologically clear.

“…the handmaiden of science”.

Tom Sparrow 2015 “The end of phenomenology” (pp188)

Everyone’s goal now needs to be orientated around sustainability. My purpose, or at least my intent, is to seek evidence that we can find ways to assess the appropriateness of the how. Ways that I suspect are best accepted as “…the handmaiden of [project management] science” but a compliment to risk assessment all the same. So perhaps, I am well placed enough to contribute in some modest way toward this fundamental enquiry all the same.

…to be continued