Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Philosophy of Writing

"In every day terms, we understand ourselves and our existence by way of the activities we pursue and the things we take care of." (Martin Heidegger, BP, p. 159).

It's nice to be understood. The other day a PhD student who has been attending my workshops for some time gave me this gift of understanding. She described what I am trying to teach them as a "philosophy of writing" and my philosophy, she said, is that we must love our writing, we must "care for the text". Now, another participant explained to the group that this so-called philosophy of mine (which is also very clearly a moral philosophy) is tied to the contingencies of my own subjectivity, which, in turn, has been produced by a particular disposition of bio-political forces. They are both right.

Your own writing also expresses a "philosophy". And you don't have to adopt mine or anyone else's to write well. (But mine is pretty good.) As a scholar, writing is an important part of "the activities you pursue and the things you take care of", and it is therefore an important part of the way by which you understand your existence. Specifically, your academic writing will be an expression of your philosophy of language and your epistemology (you philosophy of knowledge). Your reader will get an implicit sense of what you think language and knowledge are from the way you write about what you know. Your reader may even (as I have in the case of one prominent organization scholar) try to make this philosophy explicit by carefully attending to what John Van Maanen (1995) has called your "literary performances", your style.

"Le style c'est l'homme même," said Georges-Louis Leclerc (Buffon) back in mid 18th century. "Writing well consists of thinking, feeling and expressing well, of clarity of mind, soul and taste .... The style is the man himself." (This is commonly taken to be the source of the motto "Style makes the man"). I like to say that a perfect style would do away with the need for both "theory" and "method". (Van Maanen has talked about how a style can essentially be a theory, as in the work of Karl Weick. Barbara Czarniawska has rightly tied the question of style to issues of methodology.) Indeed, the "liberal arts", as classically understood, arguably have this as their stylistic ideal. "Social science", we might say, is the attempt to accomplish with theory and method what humanists must accomplish by style.

It is important to keep in mind that your academic style does not have to express your whole existence; it is not an expression of your self entire. It must express only that part of you that cares about knowledge. Or, if that be the case, your academic writing could express the part of you that could care less about knowledge. There are skeptics out there who proudly declare that knowledge is a vain illusion that is fostered by a privileged elite. But they might be said to care about knowledge too, only they care about it as one might care about injustice (it is something to be opposed). And there are academic writers, of course, who are simply charlatans. They pretend to know but they don't really care about knowledge. This, my philosophy says, will show in their writing. The style of your writing tells us how much and how well you care about knowledge (and, obviously, how much you care about language) and what you take that care to imply. It tells us this whether you like it or not. What the reader learns from your style is not part of the "intention" of the text.

This may provoke some anxiety, as it should. It is impossible to understand the complex "bio-political" forces that are trying to make you care about particular things in particular ways, i.e., shape your subjectivity, i.e., make you who you are. We must proceed in a more intuitive and tacit way and we call this procedure the development of a "clarity of mind, soul and taste", in short, moral development, or what is traditionally called Bildung, and what Leclerc identified with your style. You cannot pretend to care about knowledge in a particular way, on this view (which is also largely my view). What you really care about will always be apparent in your style, at least to the careful reader. And whether or not you care about what the careful reader thinks may be the most important thing of all.

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