Thursday, April 24, 2014

Thought and Writing: The Debate Continues

I was going to wait until tomorrow to write about this. But blog comments and tweets aren't really going to allow me to say what I want to say today. (And I've got lots on my mind.) I want here to simply defend my position again. Tomorrow I want to talk about why it's so important to me as a writing coach, i.e., as someone who is trying to help people become better and happier writers.

Patrick Dunleavy has billed this discussion as a "debate", and that certainly captures the spirit of the exchanges we've been having on Twitter and, thankfully, also in the more developed form of Rachael Cayley's blog post over at Explorations of Style. In a classic debate there are two positions, the debaters each adopt and defend one of them, and their rhetoric is intended to move the audience towards it. Of course, it is perfectly legitimate for anyone listening to (and even participating in) the debate to suggest a compromise, adopting a position somewhere in the middle of what is then construed as two extreme views. I think even the debaters, at the end of the day, usually go home with a position that has moved towards the middle. But their contributions will necessarily be taken to represent something more permanently "out there", on one side or the other. That's the function of debate, and it's a valuable one. I'm happy to play my part in it.

But I think the well-intentioned and conciliatory gesture of saying "Isn't it a little bit of both?" is a bit misplaced here. As I've been saying throughout, I'm not against the moderate position on this issue, which is that sometimes writing should be used to clarify your thoughts, and sometimes it should be used simply to express them. I'm against the extreme view that writing is, as Patrick put it, "almost always constitutive for thinking" (my emphasis), and that you therefore can't normally set thinking on one side when sitting down to write. I'm defending the view, which I have developed on the background of years of experience as a writing instructor and coach, that you can actually sometimes, indeed, regularly, and, in fact, often (if six times a day counts), simply and straightforwardly write down what you know, one paragraph at a time, in a timely and dependable way. Your knowledge base should be a reasonably stable formation, but you can't predict where your thinking will take you from day to day, of course. And that's why it's so important to protect your writing process from this capricious, but of course entirely necessary, element of research.

As many have already noticed, a great deal depends on what I mean by "thinking". During the exchanges on Twitter, Patrick and I hit on what I think is a pretty good initial gesture at a definition: thinking makes our contradictions visible. And here writing is obviously an excellent tool. It's not for nothing that I trace my own philosophical tradition through Wittgenstein, who said that the problem of philosophy is "the civil status of a contradiction", and back to Frege, who proposed to use "the two-dimensional surface of the page" to render thought "perspicuous". But thinking is also a "mental" operation, perhaps best described in terms of the effect it has on our beliefs.

Thinking is a way of coming to know something independent of experience, i.e., working only with the beliefs we already possess. Thinking is the act of bringing our beliefs together in close proximity so that their consequences, taken together, can be assessed. I may believe A, B, and C, but not yet D, even though D is a logical consequences of A, B, and C. By thinking about it, I can deduce D, and add this to my beliefs. Now, if A, B, C are also all true, which is to say, things I actually "know", then I can add D to my knowledge. But I may think a little further on it, and discover that D actually implies not-E, though E, I realize, is something I also happen to believe. Here we have a contradiction, something I must think about, and until I realize that A, which was essential to my belief in D, is actually not as true as I thought, the contradiction is unresolved. I don't know what to think.

Now, my point is that there is value in simply writing down why you believe D (i.e., because A, B, C), in a 27-minute paragraph-writing session during which you have resolved not to think so hard that you might compare D to E. I'm not saying you should never get to the point where you realize that D contradicts E, and that D therefore has to go, which in turn forces you to discover the empirical falsity of A. I'm just saying that those 27 minutes are well spent, learning how to say A, B, C and D, and explaining how they go together, even if you ultimately (i.e., long after the 27 minutes are over) reject the paragraph that says D, i.e., for which D is the key sentence and A, B, C constitute the support. Writing that paragraph didn't just show you what you thought (though it did that too) it gave you an opportunity to be a better writer. More specifically, it made you a better academic writer, because academic writing is all about being able to represent things you believe to be true. And at the time of writing, before you began to think about how E figures into all of this, you did actually believe D.

What I'm saying, then, is that it is good for you as a writer to spend at least half an hour and at most three hours every day writing without revising your beliefs, i.e., without "thinking" in the sense I've just suggested. It's no more radical a proposal than suggesting that you refrain from doing field work, or conducting interviews, or analyzing survey questionnaires, or, of course, reading, while writing. All of those activities are likely to revise your beliefs and the author you are should be given a few moments' "peace of mind", let's say, just to try to craft an accurate representation of what you actually think. I say this knowing full well that there are people who will insist there is just as essential a connection between their reading and their writing, or their analysis and their writing. Don't get me started!

In any case, before you suggest a middle ground, please, please, please, remember that I am not advising you never to use a page of writing to bring your beliefs into contact with each other in a way that makes their contradictions visible, and, more generally, in the spirit of revising what you believe about a particular issue. Nor am I advising you to put off writing anything until everything you know is clearly and distinctly present to you in your mind. I am advising you to regularly take off your thinking cap and put your ass to the chair and just say something you think is true for 27-minutes, using at least six sentences and at most 200 words to explain why you think so. That's one of the things you want to be good at as a scholar. You will only become good at it by practicing.

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