Writer’s block—strong emotional responses that interfere with writing—grows from any number of doubts about the self—that one will be rejected, that one doesn’t work hard enough, that one isn’t smart enough. In this post, I am going to focus on philosophical doubt and on the place of certainty in scholarly work. Intellectual doubt can trigger emotional doubts: if you have unanswered questions, it’s natural to think “I don’t know enough.” It’s good to think you don’t know enough—doubt sparks growth and learning—but it shouldn’t stop you from sharing what you do know. All scholars work in the face of uncertainty, but too many let their doubts stop them from sharing what they do know.
The frustration of uncertainty and intellectual doubt
Uncertainty is emotionally draining. Each new question that arises can drain energy and enthusiasm, and every answer can inspire new questions. Research can feel like a treadmill, where no matter what you have done, you still continue to chase knowledge. You want somewhere solid to stand, and the never-ending doubt can make you feel like you’re sinking into a morass. And, if you’re self-critical, it’s easy to think that this constant doubt is a personal failure: “I wouldn’t have this problem if I were smarter/had worked harder.”
You can’t eliminate intellectual doubt
Doubt lies at the heart of research: if you already knew the answer, there would be no reason to research a subject. When you get into the details of any area of research, questions begin to arise: how do you define the terms of greatest concern or interest? What theories or models do you use to explain the phenomena of interest? What are the limits of your research? What are the limits of authorities on which you rely (any sources you cite for methods, theories, definitions)?
The famous skeptic, David Hume, pointed out that one can never be certain that the future will resemble the past (or, at least, that future empirical observations will resemble past observations), leaving scientists a legacy of doubt so strong that many researchers don’t even try to prove that things are true, they simply attempt to prove things are false, and then argue in favor of the alternative. The idea of a “null hypothesis” that is disproven in order to accept an alternative process (as often seen in inferential statistics), is a response to this problem, known as “the problem of induction,” and often called “Hume’s problem.”
If you are a scholar and you have doubts and questions and uncertainty, it’s the nature of the work, not a failing on your part. A lot of writers get stuck on their projects because of intellectual doubt: “I don’t know enough,” they say, “I have to read this article/book/etc. I can’t write until I’ve done that reading.” But research doesn’t eliminate doubt. Published research does not eliminate doubt. Yes, there are authors who argue their cases confidently and claim certainty, but that certainty is emotional, not logical.
Show your work
Your research may be incomplete, uncertain, and built on dubious foundations, but it still contributes to greater understanding of the world. Indeed, your incomplete, uncertain, and dubiously founded work, shares those characteristics with all research, so it is valuable to other researchers looking to explain the same phenomena as you.
Often, as you may recognize from your own experience, research can be valuable because of some specific aspect—for example, an author with weak results, might offer a very good definition of a concept, or might offer an interesting methodological perspective, or might just ask a really good question (even if they do a poor job of trying to answer the question).
A lot of research explicitly discusses its own limitations, its questions left unanswered, as well as new questions raised because other researchers can use that discussion of limitations to develop complementary research or to otherwise address weaknesses in the original work.
While it can be emotionally unsettling to write about all the weaknesses in your research project, it is actually a valuable and useful part of the work—both for its role in helping you understand your own work better and clean up errors, and for its role in communicating with others. Instead of letting your doubt on some issue stop you from writing, write about those doubts, be willing to explore them all in writing. Show your readers the variety of issues you considered, the problems they created, and your responses. Show the depth and complexity of your thinking, including the contradictions and doubts. Put it all on the page. It’s entirely possible that other researchers will find your processes of reasoning interesting and valuable.
Obviously, it can be intimidating to focus on the weaknesses of your work and to think about discussing those weaknesses with other people. In an ideal world, the people who see your work would be supportive and interested in helping you improve your work, and therefore you wouldn’t need to fear writing about the weaknesses of your work. But in the real world, of course, people can be quite aggressive and competitive. Of course, that doesn’t go away even for work of the highest quality—there’s almost always someone who is going to say you’re wrong, whatever you say—so you might as well just get it over with and share your work.
Filling the gaps
In academia, it is common to talk about how research “fills the gaps in the literature,” or addresses questions unanswered by previous scholarship. If you are addressing such a gap—especially if it’s a gap that other scholars think is important—then your attempt to fill the gap is valuable to the community of scholars, regardless of whether it succeeds. If your work does succeed, the gap is filled, and if your work doesn’t succeed, scholars who follow you may be able to use your attempt to avoid the problems you faced and try a different way of attempting to fill the gap. In both cases, your work helps the larger community.
It is true that there is a publication bias for successful work, but the issue is not that you wouldn’t prefer to have successful work, but what do you do if the work you have done has problems? Because your work is going to have problems, if, as I argued above, intellectual uncertainty cannot be eliminated. So the value in your work, for other scholars, lies not only in the conclusions that you draw, but in the whole fabric of your search—in all your theoretical and methodological choices, and how they shaped your research, and the insights they give not only into the questions asked, but into the ways that we try to answer those questions.
Intellectual uncertainty is unavoidable, and to try to capture any absolute ultimate truth in words may be impossible. As early as the 6th century, BCE, Lao Tzu wrote in the very first verse of the Tao Te Ching, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the absolute Tao,” or, to take a little liberty, “the truth that can be put into words is not the absolute truth.” If you’re making a conscientious effort to do good scholarship, which means critically questioning your own work as well as the work of others, you will certainly find places to doubt your own work, where intellectual certainty is impossible, and all you’re left with is work that is intellectually uncertain. But intellectual uncertainty can be paired with emotional confidence—the confidence that you made responsible and reasonable choices as you tried to understand the world better, and that your work, though susceptible to doubt, is also worthy of consideration for its contribution to the communal discourse in search of understanding.
Intellectual uncertainty is denied all scholars. A lot of success in academia goes to those who have emotional confidence, despite the intellectual limits of their work. Instead of letting uncertainty stop you, show your audience how you tried to deal with the limits of your (and your research community’s) knowledge.
While a researcher ought not be blindly stepping off a cliff, like the fool from the tarot, they do have to be willing to step into the unknown and risk the fall. Choose the course of action that seems best to you, and risk it, because no course of action guarantees a perfect outcome. Fortunately, as a writer, you’re unlikely to die if you take a chance by sharing an imperfect draft.