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Eco on how to write a thesis May 21, 2020

Posted by Andy in Uncategorized.
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Because everyone who writes a thesis should get an office

The original is actually from the year of my birth, and it’s interesting to note which elements have aged. The chapter on how to treat final formatting and your typist obviously has only antiquary value, but I find myself still arguing with our Italian academic after I’ve put the book down. We have very different attitudes to footnotes, even though I am still embarrassed by the choices I made in my own thesis (to which Eco would perhaps have been kinder). He considers the Author-date system a largely good innovation, although doesn’t see how it can work if you are treating prerevolutionary materials. It was of course this that stranded my bibliographical inner discussion. I still don’t really know how I was to deal with a text that brings theorists and narratives, ancient and modern, into discussion with each other.

I can do no better, however, than the editors of the English translation (by Farina and Farina) who dispensed with recommendations for their back cover and merely delivered a series of quotations. I have always admired Eco more for his ambition and style than for his philosophical insight (although I am now tempted to revisit his Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (which made it into the bibliography of my MA thesis of 2003)) and there are some jewels in here with which I may decorate my office if I can only find a calligrapher.

“But I learned from that episode that if I wanted to do research, as a matter of principle I should not exclude any source. This is what I call academic humility. Maybe this is hypocritical because it actually requires pride rather than humility, but do not linger on moral questions: whether pride or humility, practice it.” (page 144)

“But usually works that do not affably explains the terms they use (and that rely instead on winks and nods) reveal authors who are more insecure than those who make every reference and every step explicit. If you read the great scientists or the great critics you will see that, with a few exceptions, they are quite clear and are not ashamed of explaining things well.” (page 145)

“…approach two or three of the most general critical texts immediately, just to get an idea of the background against which your author moves. Then approach the original author directly, and always try to understand exactly what he [sic] says. Afterward, explore the rest of the critical literature. Finally, return to examine the author in the light of the newly acquired ideas.” (page 104)

You are not Proust” (page 147)

Write everything that comes into your head, but only in the first draft. You may notice that you get carried away with your inspiration, and you lose track of the center of your topic. In this case, you can remove the parenthetical sentences and the digressions, or you can put each in a note or an appendix … . Your thesis exists to prove the hypothesis that you devised at the outset, not to show the breadth of your knowledge.” (page 151, emphasis original).

Thank you Mr. Eco. God rest your soul.

Eco, Umberto (2015) [original 1977] How to Write a Thesis. Translated by CM Farina and G Farina, Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press.

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