Research as Art


When I was little, my father did not paint yet. He was a mathematician. I also had heard that he had made movies and won awards with them, but I had never seen them. As I learned later, it was mainly because of the fragility of the film used for these movies and the danger that every viewing would damage it. 

When he sent me off to the university, he told me to turn my life into a work of art. “Easy for him to say,” I thought. It was difficult for me to grasp what he meant by it. I started my studies in philosophy and felt that this was the best possible fit for me (I still do now), but I was not sure whether this aligned with his ideas. There are many kinds of art and some are more practical than others. Philosophy was definitely among the beautiful but impractical ones at that time, or so people thought.

Helen Eenmaa at a conference at Yale Law School. Photo credit: Personal collection.

Today, when many new technological and environmental developments are challenging us, we need methods for understanding our choices in the emerging new circumstances. Living conditions are changing fast not only with the changes in climate but also with technology related changes in communities, information and governance. We need methods for understanding our choices (e.g. in the midst of the collective active problems) and for justifying the choices that we believe to be the best. 

Philosophy has been ready for this task for centuries and it can, of course, do much more than teach us methods. It is rich in thorough arguments and discussions of dilemmas that could help us in dealing with the emerging new circumstances. Its debates on responsibility, autonomy, personal identity, agency, fairness, rightness & wrongness, certainty, and many others can help us in systematizing, clarifying and approaching solutions to the challenges we experience with new technological and living conditions. At the very least, it has become increasingly clear for me that philosophy was the right choice after all. Looking at the number of jobs requiring or suggesting background in philosophy, there is no doubt about it. 

Does it help me to turn my life into a work of art as my father advised? Perhaps, although it is still worth thinking what an evaluation of life might depend on: how I feel or how someone else feels about it, what I prefer right now or what I would prefer if I was fully rational, or perhaps what I should prefer given some point of view of morality or art. Independent of this, thinking of life as a work of art does have an effect on how life is lived. 

In my case, it has taught me to appreciate collaborations and friendships as well as certain qualities in research without which life would seem bleak. Beyond clarity, precision and depth, it has led me to value charitability, consideration and grace in discussions and writings; particularly after my years at Yale. Without these qualities, it seems, an academic life (and perhaps life in general) could hardly be “a work of art”, at least not the kind that my father had in mind.

Helen Eenmaa (JSD Yale Law School) is a researcher in information technology law at the University of Tartu and a visiting professor of law at Luiss Guido Carli University. She leads the law & economics and technology law tracks of the European Joint Doctorate in Law and Development (EDOLAD) and has a long experience in teaching moral and legal philosophy from Yale University.

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