Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Style and Knowledge

"The love of ambiguity of in the early Establishment, the endless theses so intricately structured in the syntax of their own jargon that parodies of the old Partisan Review style used to deliver insights, willy-nilly, as good as the original..." (Norman Mailer)

Grammarians, editors, and curmudgeons of various kinds sometimes complain about the obscurity of academic writing. In fact, it is sometimes argued that much scholarly writing is simply empty, a mere pretense of knowing, or even a kind of "put on" (most effectively by Norman Mailer in his characterization of the New York intelligentsia of the 1950s.) The complaint is worth taking seriously, I think, if only because the consequences seem quite serious.

After all, if writing is used, as Kierkegaard quipped, not to hide thought, but to hide the fact that we don't think, or, what may amount to the same thing, if it is used to hide the fact that we don't know, then the system of human knowledge is in a bad way. The editors of X, a literary magazine, lamented the fact that an "abominable, degraded jargon [had become] the common currency of American academic criticism" in 1960. "A great deal of harm has come out of the necessity for academics to publish as a means to promotion and to compete with their fellows in the domain of the physical sciences. Driven on by the same categorical imperative, 'Publish or Perish', they invent this drivel by the yard." (X: A Quarterly Review, vol. 1, no. 2., March 1960, p.159.) It is the possibility that pretentious "drivel" is doing harm that I want to emphasize.

What harm could it do? Well, if scholars do not express what they think clearly, then other scholars may misunderstand them, or not understand them at all. Worse, if they are mistaken about something, their peers will be less likely to correct them. Clear writing is a way of opening your thinking and your knowledge to critique, and it is through the criticism of others, as much as our own observations and reflections, that we build our understanding of any subject. The quality of our writing has epistemic consequences. Style is a proper concern of epistemologists.

1 comment:

Jean-Philippe said...

To be obscure is also a way to be published: doubt is often profitable to the writer...