Wednesday, January 08, 2014


"We can only understand and communicate to others what we ourselves can produce."
Immanuel Kant

One of the benefits of blogging is that it gives Thomas Presskorn a chance to contribute to your thinking. (If you're thinking about starting a blog, you can keep that in mind.) In his comment to my first post after my sabbatical, he offered the above quote as, I assume, a riff on my "epiphany", namely, "that if something is known it can be communicated clearly and easily to someone else who has been trained to know such things." Like the good scholar he is, he provided his source, which in turn, provided the original source in Kant's correspondence. I looked it up, and this is what I found in the following paragraph:

The composition itself is not given; on the contrary, we produce it ourselves: we must compose if we are to represent anything as composed (even space and time). We are able to communicate with one another because of this composition. (Kant, Correspondence, p. 482)

This remark will be all kinds of useful for me. Today, I want to say a little about how it unpacks the basic principle I gestured at in that earlier post.

Scholarly writing is the act of "composing yourself" before an audience of peers, i.e., readers who also know a great deal about the topic you're writing about. It is different from popular and literary writing in terms of the "authority" that is granted the "author". In popular writing, the writer knows something that the reader is ignorant of, and the author's task is therefore to teach the topic to the reader. In literary writing, the author has no authority and must establish his or her credentials in every sentence, using style to hold the reader's attention. Popular writing communicates knowledge to the ignorant. Literary writing shares "the loneliness that is the truth about things," to use Virginia Woolf's wonderful phrase. (The source of which Thomas also helped me to track down.) Scholarly writing communicates knowledge to the knowledgeable, with the aim not just of informing one's peers of one's discoveries but of giving them an opportunity to correct one's errors. Scholarly writing is therefore always an occasion for criticism.

What Kant is saying is a very important presumption in academic writing. Whatever you represent on the page must also be presentable to you, in your mind. This means that at the moment of writing you must be able to hold in your head an "image" of whatever it is you are committing to the page. On my approach, of course, you are always writing a paragraph that makes a single well-defined claim and offers support for it. The fact that makes this claim true should be easy for you to imagine at the time of writing. You should not hope to produce an image in the mind of the reader that is only vaguely present to you at the time of writing. You should be able to compose (bring together) the elements of the image in your own mind and hold it there for the twenty-seven minutes it takes to write at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words describing it.

When I talk of an "image", here, I don't necessarily mean an "inner picture". I simply mean the mental correlative of whatever "knowing it to be fact that…" might be in the particular paragraph you are writing. You are talking about something out there in the world about which your reader might also know something. And you are trying to produce, by the effect of your words, something in the mind, some mental construct, that corresponds to understanding the meaning of those words. If you are representing a complex data set, you need to imagine a "distribution" of values. If you are writing about your field work, the imagery will be less abstract. If you are reviewing a body of literature, you will have an image of texts and their interrelations. In any case, you must be able to "produce" that image for yourself.

However esoteric that may sound, my simple point is just that if you can't make whatever it is you want your words to make happen in your reader's mind happen in your own mind first, then you can't expect to write clearly about it. If you have only a vague idea of what you are talking about, and you want only a vague idea of it to form in your reader's mind when reading your words, of course, there is no problem. Your writing will be accomplishing exactly your purpose, and your paragraph will include all the vagueness that your mental representation does. But don't think your reader will be satisfied with a series of vague gestures. I won't pretend to know what is required in every field of inquiry, of course, but it seems reasonable to suppose that clarity and exactness are default values in scholarship.

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