Thursday, November 29, 2012

Disciplined Imagination

(with apologies to Karl Weick)

In his comment to my post on imagination, Thomas Presskorn suggests that I am violating the spirit of Wittgenstein's Tractatus by identifying its "concerns" with my own. Russell locates those concerns as follows:

There are various problems as regards language. First, there is the problem what actually occurs in our minds when we use language with the intention of meaning something by it; this problem belongs to psychology. Secondly, there is the problem as to what is the relation subsisting between thoughts, words, or sentences, and that which they refer to or mean; this problem belongs to epistemology. Thirdly, there is the problem of using sentences so as to convey truth rather that falsehood; this belongs to the special sciences dealing with the subject-matter of the sentences in question. Fourthly, there is the question: what relation must one fact (such as a sentence) have to another in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other? This last is a logical question, and is the one with which Mr. Wittgenstein is concerned.

"Scholarly writing," Thomas says, "concerns everything but [the fourth question, i.e., Wittgenstein's]". This is certainly an important thing for me to get right. So what is the proper concern of a writing coach for scholars?

I generally leave psychology on the side. I have a few ideas about the role of "the unconscious" in writing, and the need to give it a chance to help us write, but "what actually occurs in our minds" doesn't interest me very much, and I am suspicious of anyone who proposes to tell me about it.

Russell rightly leaves the question of "using sentences so as to convey truth rather that falsehood" to the "special sciences". I follow his lead. While I encourage scholars to write down their "justified, true beliefs", I leave all standards of truth and justification to their peers within their discipline, i.e., their own special science.

Epistemology was once a respected, autonomous philosophical discipline and included philosophy of science, which presumed to explain "the scientific method" in generally applicable terms, i.e., terms common to all the "special" sciences. But after the project of developing a unified account of science was abandoned (so that now philosophers of, say, biology have little to talk to philosophers of even, say, physics about) I have decided to leave epistemology also to the disciplines themselves, encouraging authors to engage with the methodological and meta-theoretical debates that define their field, even as they apply particular methods framed by particular theories with some measure of self-assurance.

This leaves us with the question of what makes a sentence "capable" of representing a fact. And the practical answer I propose is this: representing a fact requires the disciplined use of imagination, 6 sentences (min.), 200 words (max.), and 27 minutes at a time. That is how we "make pictures of the facts". It is a scholar's job to make particularly accurate pictures of the facts. And it is the philosopher's job to make scholars more capable of this task. That is why being a writing coach is the most philosophical thing you can be. And isn't that exactly the activity that Wittgenstein proposed at T6.53, Thomas? My only innovation is to put it in writing.


Presskorn said...

I have a few ideas about this, but I'll have to leave it until next week... My WIP-seminar is coming up tomorrow... PS: If I had lived by the maxims of this blog, I would be at perfect ease now, I know...

Jonathan said...

What about PI? It seems that there W. turn the Tractatus on its head.

Thomas said...

Well, there are schools of thought on that. Some argue for a radical break in Wittgenstein's thinking, others for continuity. I lean mostly toward the latter. In the Tractatus, he is focused on the propositions of natural science and formal logic. In the Investigations, he's trying to accomplish the same kind of "elucidation" (T) or "perspicuity" (PI) but with the trickier materials of ordinary language and informal reasoning.

Russell says in his introduction to the Tractatus that "essential business of language is to assert and deny facts". In the Investigations, Wittgenstein is willing to acknowledge all kinds of other business that language might do. But philosophy is still that which comes before "scientific discoveries and inventions".

His philosophical method appears similar in both cases: to arrange descriptions in such a way as to emphasize their logical form.

Thomas said...

Good luck with the seminar, Thomas!

Jonathan said...

It's funny. My model of scholarly writing is based more on later Wittgenstein and on Gadamer's hermeneutics. There may be continuities in W's thought, but for me the discontinuities are more significant. Or rather, I am more interested in the ways in the ways in which he is different in his later works. That being said, I haven't studied the Tractatus in as much detail as Philosophical Investigations.

Presskorn said...

Alright, I see your last point of giving "What makes a sentence capable of reprensenting a fact?" a specifically *practical* answer. But that answer also displaces the question and gives a somewhat metaphorical twist.

But the other questions, I guess, contains equally good metaphors to exploited by a writing coach - I am thinking, eg., about using language *convey* truth (question 3) or about using language with the intention of *meaning something by it*(question 1).

Also, I wonder, if you never really don't talk about psychology or epistemology.

Doesn't this very recent post give an at least general advice in epistemology?:

True, whenever you mention the word "psychology", it is followed by some explicit suspicion, but I would merely call a post like this "transcendental psychology" (in the quite strict Kantian sense):

Talk about the necessity of scheduling, motivational tricks etc. would also regularly be regarded as a branch of psychology, namely as cogitive psychotherapy.

And this one, which I btw liked, is definitely Freudian:

So at least, I would say that you talk a lot *about* psychology and epistemology, even if you would perhaps insist that you don't talk *within* them.

Thomas said...

Yes, I'm a Kantian ... or, better, a Nabokovian ... "psychologist"

but that post, "Knowledge and Epistemology", does not offer epistemological advice. It merely situates epistemological problems in the broader context of research. It's up to you what epistemological problems you want to have and how you want to solve them.

I think my psychological and philosophical positions (at least as I apply them in scholarly writing) are entirely commonplace and don't depart very much from "folk" wisdom. That's necessary if my practical advice is to be effective.