Monday, April 21, 2014

Thought, Language, and Writing

The philosophical problem of the relationship of thought to language is related to, but not identical with, the literary problem of the relationship of thought to writing. It is important that we don't conflate the two, for while an argument can be made against the "ontological illusion" that thoughts have some kind of existence independent of their articulation in language, we should not let this convince us that we don't know what we think until we see what we've written. This issue came up during a series of twitter exchanges yesterday, which allowed me to push back against what I think of as a prevalent and pernicious myth about the relationship between thought and writing, one that is especially mythological and pernicious in the case of scholarly writing.

As readers of this blog know, I suggest we think of our scholarly writing as the act of writing down what we know in coherent prose paragraphs, 27 minutes at a time. The claim that each paragraph makes should always be decided upon the day before, leaving only the writing of the supporting sentences for the 27-minute writing session (which you can have up to six of each day). A common objection to this is some version of "I don't know what I think til I see what I say"; it is absurd, on this view, to ask anyone to decide the day before what they are going to write. How could they know? As Dyi put it on Twitter, do I imagine that people actually have "access to what [they] think", so that it can be simply "transferred onto the page"? Well, actually, yes, that is a presumption I make. I believe that you can know something in advance—say, twelve hours in advance—of the writing, and that you can make a conscious decision about which item of your knowledge you are going to commit to the page tomorrow.

Obviously, it is possible to think a thought without writing about it. To show this, all I need to do is ask you to imagine opening a window, and then to communicate this idea in mime to someone else. Surely, whatever you come up with, and however competent your miming is, the "thought"—the idea of opening a window—is available to you without the aid of, specifically, writing (even "in the head"). What this tells us is simply that there is a difference between having a thought and expressing it, whether in writing or otherwise. Obviously, I could also ask you to write a coherent prose paragraph of about 150 words describing, in detail, the act of opening a window. But that act (of writing) stands in no closer relationship to the thought (or act) of opening a window than the mime's actions. Now, you may be a great mime or less great mime. You may be a great writer or a not so good one. But you will only become better at either by imagining the relevant thought and then practicing the art of its presentation.

My view is that the idea that writing is inextricable from thinking is an affectation that undermines the efforts of writing instructors like me to identify the specific problem of writing, the literary problem of representing thought in prose. People who claim that they are not thinking about their area of expertise unless they are writing are saying something rather disturbing about their expertise. What are they doing when they are teaching? Or just conversing with peers? Or reading for that matter? What mental operations correspond to these things qua being knowledgable people about a particular subject matter? Most importantly, how do they decide whether or not they have written an idea down clearly, or otherwise effectively? If their only access to their thinking is the evidence provided by their writing, how can they decide whether a particular paragraph fails to capture their meaning?

I'm willing to commit to the strong version of this thesis, by the way. I'm not just saying it is possible to think without writing. I'm saying that, as a scholar, it is absolutely necessary to spend a good deal of time writing without thinking, i.e., writing down what are already "finished thoughts", rather than drawing on your writing skills to think those thoughts through for you. True: it is sometimes helpful to your thinking self to enlist the assistance of your authorial persona. But I'm not sure that's always the real motive behind the mixing of thinking and writing. The truth is often that you're trying to use the part of you that thinks to do your writing for you, which is unwise. You may as well be trying to open crates with a precision screwdriver, as Wittgenstein's sister once said.

After you've gotten the thought clear, in any case, whether with or without the aid of writing, do yourself and your writing self the favor of taking another 27 minutes to work on the problem of writing alone—detached from the problem of thinking. It is only when you decide on a thought and then undertake specifically to write that thought down (not: to think that thought in writing) that you can focus your efforts on improving your writing skills. You must not, at the end of the 27 minutes say, "Now what do we have here?" or "What was I thinking?" but "How did that go?" You have to be able to distinguish clearly between what you are trying to say and how well you are saying it.

I'd like to close with an interesting observation that Woody Allen once made about how he evaluates his own films. There is of course the question of the wether it's finally a good film or not but, as I understand it, he leaves that to audiences and critics. For him, the much more important question is whether the film as it appears on the screen resembles what he had imagined before he started making it. I suppose he and his critics would be within their rights to judge him as an artist based solely on the aesthetic effect of the final outcome, but as a film maker his pride is bound up in something different: his ability to represent "what he had in mind" on film.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this interesting post, Thomas. I've written some reflections on this topic in my latest post: Even though we completely disagree, I appreciate the inspiration!