Tuesday, April 26, 2005

English Empiricism

Sometimes I think the education we dispense is better suited to a fifty-year-old who feels he missed the point the first time around. Too many abstract ideas. Eternal verities left and right. You'd be better served looking at your shoe and naming the parts.

Father Paulus
(in Don DeLillo's Underworld)


As adults approaching a foreign language we sometimes forget how easily children learn languages. We forget how easily we speak our first language. I want to take a moment to consider why that is and I want to bring this to bear on something Jim Collier noted about "intellectual style" in his comment to a previous post.

Abstract ideas are an unavoidable component of academic writing. One way to draw the line between empiricist and rationalist attitudes to abstraction is to distinguish the sorts of writing that count as "mastery" of the ideas in question. A rationalist will grant that you understand a given set of abstractions if you are able to correctly deduce other abstractions from them. An empiricist will generally expect you to be able to describe concrete particulars that fall under or are subsumed by the abstraction.

One of the reasons that academic English can be difficult to master is that academic discourse is largely a rational enterprise. That is, academics are expected to combine words and phrases in especially orthodox ways more often than they are expected to describe a particular matter of fact. This is not in itself a problem. I don't want to suggest that one has to be an empiricist in order to write good English, nor that there is something fundamentally wrong with academic writing. I am simply trying to indicate a form of exercise that can be useful in developing one's style, and which may even be pleasurable in its own right.

I want to suggest that your language can be more or less empirically sensitive. Your native tongue has, if you will, a broad palate. Through it, you can describe very ordinary, very personal situations and very exceptional, very impersonal ones. And you will be able to describe a whole range of situations in between. But if you are working with English primarily as a research idiom, there will be a region of insensitivity somewhere between your ability to buy a train ticket and your ability to articulate the consequences of deconstruction for management studies.

Roughly speaking, this is the region occupied by illustrative examples of abstract ideas.

The way to make this part of your English more sensitive to the things you learn is to use it. In the course of your research you will have a variety of experiences about which you will discover yourself to be more or less articulate. You will discover this by experiment. You will find yourself having to tell a story, to describe a scene, to name the parts of a given object.

In academic life we too often confine our expression to a relatively small set of abstract gestures, indifferent to the detailed state of particular affairs. Native speakers suffer less for this because they have their empiricism always on hand in their daily routine. It is, as it were, ambient. To get by at a basic level, and, more interestingly, in that intellectual mezzanine of the academy provided by the classroom, they engage in story-telling and description and naming with the enthusiasm of children. This, I would argue, is generally good for their style.

Non-native speakers will have to work at it more consciously. Faced with a set of abstract notions, you do well to describe concrete situations to which those notions may be applied. You do well to write anecdotes that illustrate your ideas, and to write detailed descriptions of objects that can be subsumed under them. Faced with concrete experiences you likewise do well to set them down in writing in such a way that you might recognize them later.

A good exercise here is to describe a "text book case" of your favourite abstraction in concrete terms (using no abstract terminology). Then show it to one of your colleagues and see if they "get it". Throughout this process be on the lookout for lacunae (holes) in your language. Whenever you are at a loss for words, make an attempt to find them. Go looking for the phrases and constructions you need to illustrate your ideas. These will become elements of your style. It is a matter of building up a language that is able to articulate the rich texture of the research experience, not merely to trace the rough outline of its results.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

A Dead Metaphor: Notes on Grammatical Correctness

I'm reading Harry Blamires' Compose Yourself these days, which is well worth having a look at. I will return to it again to indicate why I think you should read it. Here I want to take up an aspect of it that is more likely to put you off.

Like most books on "good English" it sketches a very conservative looking project, which begins by observing the "increasing faultiness [of] English usage" (p. 2). He goes on to talk about incorrect usage in terms of the "damage" it does, the "decay" (and "decomposition") of usage. "We live," he tells us, "in a verbally infected environment" (p. 5).

This line is not new. Grammarians have long complained that "ordinary" or "popular" usage (and Blamires draws his introductory examples primarily from the media) is somehow flawed. The very durability of this complaint indicates that decay may not be the problem Blamires thinks it. If English had really been in decay as long as its grammarians have been complaining about it, it would have disappeared long ago. Sticking to the biological metaphor he invokes, describing usage as "a decaying mass of squalid remains" (p. 7), we might see in this squalor the hope that a biologist would. You can't have a rose garden without some dirt, even some compost. Out of that decay will come the nutrients of new usage, new forms of expression.

Wittgenstein pointed out that language is rooted in our forms of life and that these change. But language is not, as we grammarians so often would have you believe, a matter of life and death for something we call "civilization and culture" (p. 7). It is a matter of life and death and rot and life and. . .

We are dealing with a "life cycle", one might say. I suppose I'm suggesting a more cheerful view of the matter. Let your metaphors die and decompose and then see what new forms of life emerge from the ooze.

I say this because the vitality of language--which is something that needs to be encouraged, defended and fostered, make no mistake about it--is not served by the idea that there exists some fundamental species of "correctness" that grammarians are the arbiters of. Rather, there is a continual process of "correction", i.e., a reading that passes through a text and prunes it, letting pieces fall lifelessly but not without dignity to the ground in order to contribute to the soil (the language).

Wittgenstein said that philosophy is not a body of doctrine, but an activity. Likewise, proper usage (grammar in a broad sense) is not a code of rules but a practice, a craft. English composition is a bit like gardening. And we should not allow ourselves to stick only to off the shelf fertilizers (style manuals and writing courses). We must engage in the continual cycle of composition and decomposition, writing and correction. We must risk the editorial experience.