Thursday, April 18, 2013

Discipline and Spontaneity

If I remember correctly there is a scene in the classic sitcom Cheers in which Diane Chambers, an "academic", "sophisticated", and "pretentious", college student, cocktail waitress, and aspiring writer, is accused by the rest of the gang at the bar of lacking spontaneity. She denies it: "I can be spontaneous." Then clarifies: "When it's appropriate." The joke of course is that this is hardly the kind of spontaneity that her friends are talking about, nor what is called for in the moment. (I can't remember what the episode was about. But it required her, I'm guessing, to go out and do something rash. Against her natural inclinations.)

Playing vaguely on Kant's use of the word, we can say that an act, whether mental or physical, is "spontaneous" when it is underdetermined by the current situation you are in. If you do something "spontaneously", there is nothing in the present moment that requires it of you. It is, in that sense, always "inappropriate". As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it: "A cognitive faculty is spontaneous in that whenever it is externally stimulated by raw unstructured sensory data as inputs, it then automatically organizes or 'synthesizes' those data in an unprecedented way relative to those inputs, thereby yielding novel structured cognitions as outputs."

When you sit down to write according to a plan, at particular times, to work on particular paragraphs (which will make particular claims and provide support for them) you are not, of course, behaving in an outwardly very spontaneous way. On the contrary, you are behaving in a very disciplined way. But this is in many ways just an appearance. Because you are writing, what you have done is given yourself 27 minutes to be truly spontaneous. For 27 miunutes, your imagination is unconstrained by circumstance. It has no significant "stimuli", "input", or "data" to "synthesize". It can "yield" its "novel structures" out of thin air, based entirely on what you already know. Since you have decided in advance what to write about, you don't even have to "come up with something".

You just write. Your spontaneity is focused on the way you say things. You've given yourself an appropriate situation in which to be entirely spontaneous. Use your imagination.

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