Language and numbers are the basis of our world, we need both to make sense of things and to use our ability to process information to its full potential. The sciences are about discovery, the humanities are about originality and invention where creativity and innovation thrive.
When we lose the teaching of literary arts, we lose ingenuity and imagination. Even worse, without the core skills of what it takes to form and then write a thesis we're hardly equipped to bringing new ideas to life. The most general meaning of thesis is a proposition maintained by argument — many of us write to advance an original point of view, better yet when as a result of research.
Umberto Eco's How to Write a Thesis was first published in 1977 in Italy, where it has remained in print ever since. He originally wrote the book to give his students the answers to questions they asked frequently. The book has provided instruction and inspiration for generations of Italian students over the years and it's been translated into seventeen languages, including Persian (1996), Russian (2001), Chinese (2003) and English.
“This book teaches a techie, in the Greek sense of applied and context-related knowledge—a sort of craftsmanship,” says Francesco Erspamer Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures, Harvard University in the forward. Networked knowledge rooted in context is valuable skill to acquire.
We're used to thinking about network effects when we talk about technology. Network effects create more value for more users, and they also make users more valuable to both the business and to each other. Media entrepreneur Tim O'Reilly coined a term to explain it:
“A true Web 2.0 application is one that gets better the more people use it. [For example] Google gets smarter every time someone makes a link on the web. Google gets smarter every time someone makes a search. It gets smarter every time someone clicks on an ad. And it immediately acts on that information to improve the experience for everyone else.”
The mechanism that drives the economics of Amazon, Netflix, AirBnB is also a driving force in networking our knowledge with sources and resources that can round it up. In the book Eco reviews how we build that core skill — starting with how to choose a topic, how to look for sources and prepare a bibliography, how to use a library’s research systems, how to organize and prioritize information, and concluding with how to write a captivating thesis.
Umberto Eco was professor of semiotics in one of the oldest departments at my Alma Mater, the University of Bologna, the very same where I attended classes, took notes and did research in exchange for access to the more expensive books that were required reading for exams. What he wrote about writing a thesis applied then as it applies now:
“Writing a thesis requires a student to organize ideas and data, to work methodically, and to build an ‘object’ that in principle will serve others. In reality, the research experience matters more than the topic.”
It requires we work methodically to build something of value as we build our thinking skills by being open to new ideas and ordering the mind by training to be accurate and responsible. It's the kind of competence that never goes out of fashion, especially where he says we should, “listen with respect to anyone, without this exempting us from pronouncing our value judgments.”
Eco was a lifelong learner and a believer in the value of unread books as reference material. have approached the English translation with a high degree of care and thoughtfulness to make the book culturally relevant to an audience wired differently linguistically by making frequent references to the Chicago Manual of Style (also Eco's resource).
They say Eco’s system though a bit rudimentary compared to today's available tools, “demands critical thinking, resourcefulness, creativity, attention to detail, and academic pride and humility; these are precisely the skills that aid students overwhelmed by the ever-growing demands made on their time and resources, and confused by the seemingly endless torrents of information available to them.”
We could say the same thing for the average business person. Access to information is not the same as ownership — we own something when we build it ourselves, when we do the work to construct arguments, find supporting and disproving data points, synthesize and elaborate what we've learned.
To illustrate how following a structured process helps our mid build bridges to new ideas, Eco tells a story in the introduction of the 1985 edition of How to Write a Thesis:
Here I would like to recount the most curious thing that happened to me. It regards a section of this book, specifically section 4.2.4 on the topic of “Academic Humility.” In this section I attempted to show that the best ideas do not always come from major authors, and that no intellectual contribution should be shunned because of the author’s status.
As an example, I recounted the writing of my own laurea thesis, during which I found a decisive idea that resolved a thorny theoretical problem, in a small book of little originality written in 1887 by a certain abbot Vallet, a book that I found by chance in a market stall. After the book you are reading appeared, Beniamino Placido wrote a charming review in La Repubblica (September 22, 1977). In it he likened this story of my research adventure with the abbot Vallet to the fairy tale in which a character becomes lost in the woods. As happens in fairy tales, and as has been theorized by the Soviet formalist V. Y. Propp, the lost character meets a “donor” who gives him a “magic key.”
Placido’s interpretation of my story was not that bizarre, considering that research is after all an adventure, but Placido implied that, to tell my fairy tale, I had invented the abbot Vallet. When I met Placido, I told him:
“You are wrong; the abbot Vallet exists, or rather he existed, and I still have his book at home. It has been more than twenty years since I have opened it, but since I have a good visual memory, to this day I remember the page on which I found that idea, and the red exclamation point that I wrote in the margin. Come to my home and I will show you the infamous book of the abbot Vallet.”
No sooner said than done: we go to my home, we pour our-selves two glasses of whiskey, I climb a small ladder to reach the high shelf where, as I remembered, the fated book had rested for twenty years. I find it, dust it, open it once again with a certain trepidation, look for the equally fated page, which I find with its beautiful exclamation point in the margin.
I show the page to Placido, and then I read him the excerpt that had helped me so much. I read it, I read it again, and I am astonished. The abbot Vallet had never formulated the idea that I attributed to him; that is to say he had never made the connection that seemed so brilliant to me, a connection between the theory of judgment and the theory of beauty.
Vallet wrote of something else. Stimulated in some mys-terious way by what he was saying, I made that connection myself and, and as I identified the idea with the text I was underlining, I attributed it to Vallet. And for more than twenty years I had been grateful to the old abbot for something he had never given me. I had produced the magic key on my own.
Humility is also admitting that without that inspiration Eco wouldn't have produced the same idea. The opposite also happens — we make an idea we discover ours and forget to attribute it. Ideas resemble jokes, they get better with circulation because they're part of our cultural experience.
The chapter on how to write (pp. 145-184) includes advice on the audience, writing with advice similar to Stephen King's translated in literary terms — as we're not Marcel Proust, nor are we e.e. cummings. He says, we should begin new paragraphs often, write everything that comes into our heads on the first draft only, and not to insist on beginning with the first chapter.
He then outlines ten rules of when an how to quote. At number ten, he says:
Quotes are like testimony in a trial, and you must always be able to track down the witnesses and demonstrate their reliability. For this reason, the reference must be exact and accurate (do not quote from an author without indicating the book and page number), and it must be verifiable.
When we paraphrase we use our own words to say what someone else is saying. Sometimes it's appropriate to add quotes within text we paraphrase. The two are distinct forms of citation. Footnotes also come in handy to reference material and add detail that didn't make it into the main copy. We use links for many of these references online, for example in Wikipedia entries.
Forty years after its original publication, How to Write a Thesis remains a handy guide for writers on how to structure an argument for a new idea and point of view.
We have more things in common than we'd like to believe, our decisions are highly influenced by culture and social circles. The splintering of reality into many apparently separate objects has created the illusion that we each have separate experiences and unique needs. Reason teaches us that we all participate of the same experience.
The humanities offer an opportunity for individuality and that is to work independently to form an opinion, to have a thesis.