Thursday, November 26, 2009

Belief and Imagination

There is an important difference between the literary and the academic style. The literary writer is first and foremost trying to get the reader to imagine something; the academic writer, by contrast, is trying to get the reader to believe something. In this sense, literary writing has an aesthetic aim, while the aim of academic writing is epistemic. But that is not to say that literature does not engage with our beliefs, nor that academic writing does not engage our imagination. The difference is merely in their primary aim.

Any sentence, in order to be understood, must affect the reader's imagination. But it cannot produce this effect if the reader does not believe something in the first place. We can understand the sentence, "He opened the window," only because we hold certain beliefs about windows and the people who deal with them. (We would be surprised to discover that "he" is a cockroach.) But we can interpret the sentence without believing that anyone actually opened a window. The aim of the sentence is to get us to imagine something, not believe it.

The sentence, "Organizations are social constructions," by contrast, is somewhat difficult to, properly speaking, imagine. It asks us to consider the truth of a proposition, not to form a picture in our minds.

Both sentences express simple ideas. Even when we make them more complex, however, they retain their aesthetic and epistemic focus respectively.

"He opened the window and listened to the hushed voices of the conspirators, who sat on the bench in the garden, entirely unaware of his eavesdropping."

"Organizations are social constructions but this does not mean that they are merely linguistic fictions. After all, reality itself is a social construction."

I'm not sure where I'm going with this. We'll see on Tuesday.

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