Thursday, November 03, 2011


“The essential business of language,” said Bertrand Russell, “is to assert and deny facts.” He was clearly thinking of scientific language, not language in general; as Deleuze and Guattari point out somewhere, language is just as often meant to be obeyed as to be understood. But academic writers, in my view, nonetheless do well to think of themselves primarily as asserters and deniers of facts. I sometimes say that what they need is a little bit of “assertiveness training” or, as I’ve also put it, they need to develop a “propositional attitude”. Their essential business, we might say, is very much as Russell conceived it.

An assertion, in the sense I’m after here, is really just a claim that something is the case. As a rough approximation, we think of a journal article as making forty such claims of various kinds. The introduction makes three claims: the first is about the world of practice, the second is about the theory of that practice, and the third is about the paper itself (a claim about what the paper will show). There are then five claims that elaborate on the world of practice (providing essential background information), five claims that elaborate the theory, and five claims that present your method. This is followed by fifteen claims that constitute your analysis, presenting the results of your inquiry, and five claims about the implications of your analysis, whether for theory or practice. Finally, your conclusion makes two claims that remind the reader of what you have just argued and emphasize its importance.

You are asserting that importance, of course. By starting in a particular part of the world and claiming particular things to be true about it, you are setting yourself up to make a particular contribution to our understanding. Keep in mind that in doing this you are likely to engage with your readers’ beliefs in a quite aggressive way. Your knowledge will often conflict with what others think on the same subject. But you are not doing yourself or your readers any favors by mumbling or otherwise obscuring your views. By stating clearly, assertively, what you think is true, you allow your readers to formulate their own views just as clearly, just as assertively. This will foster a precise confrontation of views, rather than a merely vague sense of disagreement. Your reader will know which facts to marshal against your position—if your reader intends to disagree with you. A good paper is written to occasion such a confrontation, not to avoid it.

Academic writers, that is, need to “get their facts straight”, and then assert them in the literature. This, like I say, is necessary for the conversation among scholars to remain precise and constructive, but it is also, in my view, necessary to maintain the true function of scholarship in society. Academic writing ought to foster high-quality discourse about subjects of importance to the surrounding society, and this discourse ought to have effects on the quality of discourse in general in that society. It is not that everyone needs to think like an academic, or go around asserting and denying facts (as if that were their essential business). But there must be a place somewhere in society for a conversation that is assertive in precisely that way. By training your ability as an academic writer, you are training your ability to make that contribution social life. I do sometimes worry that academics lack the confidence—grounded in a particular kind of strength and a particular kind of poise—to assert themselves even among their peers. This would go a long way towards explaining the marginal status of what they know in social life more generally. My aim is to help them assert the facts they know to be true.

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

I was discussing the assertiveness of academic writing with a class recently, and one student said that if she is too assertive in her sociology papers, she gets criticized for it. In sociology, she claimed, you are not supposed to be assertive. Everything is "maybe" and "perhaps" and "I think that" and so on.

It only later crossed my mind to wonder whether this is one reason why sociologists have a reputation for writing poorly.