Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The New Yorker in Hollywood

This weekend was the second time I read a piece in The New Yorker that made me reflect about my own practices as a consultant. The first was when I read about Paul Haggis, the screen-writer, and his break with scientology. I noticed that there is a fine line between what I call "writing process reengineering" and what the Church of Scientology calls "life repair", "study tech", etc. Any program that explicitly tries to get your life together around some standardized routines and habits of mind risks turning into a kind of cult—especially if the "technology" works! I ultimately decided that I am not a cult leader because (a) people are allowed to leave any time and (b) I have a well-developed sense of irony about the project. But I will grant that that's a pretty thin argument.

The second piece that gave me pause for thought was also about screen-writers and the ways they try to get their lives to "work". Dana Goodyear provides an excellent portrait of Barry Michels, a Jungian therapist in Hollywood who has a, well, yes, "cult" following among writers who suffer from writer's block. There are, in fact, many senses in which I would like to be the Barry Michels of academic writing. Consider Goodyear's opening image of Michel's prescription for writer's block:

Michels ... told the writer to get an egg timer. Following Michels’s instructions, every day he set it for one minute, knelt in front of his computer in a posture of prayer, and begged the universe to help him write the worst sentence ever written. When the timer dinged, he would start typing. He told Michels that the exercise was stupid, pointless, and embarrassing, and it didn’t work. Michels told him to keep doing it.

And the script that soon started flowing from the mind of the writer, of course, went on to win an Oscar.

I rarely suggest something quite as obviously therapeutic, but I do suggest something similar to something else that Michels promotes:

He gives procrastinators a tool he calls the Arbitrary Use of Time Moment, which asks them to sit in front of their computers for a fixed amount of time each day. “You say, ‘I’m surrendering myself to the archetypal Father, Chronos,’” he says. ‘I’m surrendering to him because he has hegemony over me.’ That submission activates something inside someone. In the simplest terms, it gets people to get their ass in the chair.” For the truly unproductive, he sets the initial period at ten minutes—“an amount of time it would sort of embarrass them not to be able to do.”

Again, I'm less likely to get people to say things to themselves (or to surrender to various deities), but the idea of simple and arbitrary time-discipline as a solution to a wide variety of otherwise "psychological" problems certainly resonates with me. Michels, who is a psychologists, does actually take psychology quite a bit more seriously than I do. If I don't it is precisely because I worry that my techniques will have a too directly "transformative" effect on people's lives beyond their writing. This worry is less relevant when dealing with "creative" writers (or, as in the case of scientology, actors) because a case can be made that art is precisely supposed to transform life. Making art, then, might understandably transform the artist.

Goodyear gives us an example of a writer who had the problem (faced by many academic writers too) of always "flip[ping] over to the Internet". Michels connected the cure to another problem this writer had: flirting too much. The solution is called "reversal of desire":

“We used it not only to get him to write and face the pain of not seducing women but also to understand pain better, because one of the criticisms of his writing was that his characters weren’t deep enough. He couldn’t quite connect to their pain, because he was avoiding his own.”

There is an important point here that can be applied to academic writing as well: the thing that is keeping you from writing at all may also be keeping you from writing well. Michels calls it "Part X". There is a distinct possibility that the same thing is also preventing you from living well. Sometimes, the solution to your problems as a writer really is to (for a lack of a better phrase) become a better person.

This also occasions resistance. Some people just don't like being told they have to improve spiritually in order to succeed professionally. This is especially true among academics, I think. But you find it in Hollywood too, it seems:

The novelist Bret Easton Ellis ... went to see Michels after he moved to Los Angeles to help with the production of a movie based on one of his books. The situation had grown sour—he was no longer speaking to his best friend, Nicholas Jarecki, with whom he wrote the screenplay, and the director, he felt, had misinterpreted the material. After working with Michels for a few months, he called Jarecki and invited him to a makeup dinner. Jarecki brought along his friend Sharon Stone. Ellis recalls that when the dinner conversation turned to the work that he had been doing with Michels, Stone interjected, “Barry and Phil and all that Shadow shit, all that Part X shit. I love my Part X, I’m not letting go of my Part X. Fuck Barry!”

I'm sure there a people who talk that way about me. But maybe that conviction is just a veiled form of self-flattery. The New Yorker probably writes about writers so much because a lot of its readers are writers in one way or another. The aesthetics of getting your "ass in the chair" sells magazines to a certain kind of people (and I'm definitely one of them). This is another reason to read that magazine on a regular basis. The first reason, however, remains that it provides you with a weekly dose of exemplary prose.

* * *

Note: I apologize to my regular readers for the somewhat irregular posting these last few weeks. I've been traveling quite a bit, which has interfered with my writing discipline and my sleeping patterns. Regular service should resume now.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Epistemology of the Paragraph

"There are various problems as regards language."
Bertrand Russell

In his introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Russell distinguishes between "the problem as to what is the relation subsisting between thoughts, words, or sentences, and that which they refer to or mean" and "the question: what relation must one fact (such as a sentence) have to another in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other?" He takes the latter to be the basic problem of logic, and the subject of the Tractatus, and he counts the former under the problems of epistemology, which is the subject of this post.

Now, Wittgenstein focused on the logic of sentences. "Only in the context of a sentence does a word have meaning," as Frege originally put it. Well, only in the context of a paragraph, I would argue, does a sentence convey knowledge. The error of logical positivism, we might say, was to reduce the problem of epistemology to a logical problem—they read the Tractatus as a philosophy of science rather than a philosophy of language. Following Wittgenstein, they took the (true) sentence as a the unit of analysis.

When Foucault encouraged us to look not at propositions but statements he was opposing precisely this reduction. The study of "the dispersion of statements" rather than "the interrelation of true propositions" (Heidegger's phrase) improved our understanding of science greatly. But I wonder if it was very helpful to scientists themselves. The virtue of logical positivism was that it got scientists to think seriously about the individual truths they were expressing and the relationship between them. (The narrowness of their epistemology aside, one often hears that positivists are fantastic thesis supervisors. This doesn't surprise me.) I want to propose a unit of epistemic analysis that lies between the sentence and the statement: the claim.

A claim doesn't have to be true in any strict sense. And it doesn't have to be a viable element of discourse. It only has to be supported by the writer's knowledge and this support must be articulated in a prose paragraph around it. The paragraph, on this view, offers an excellent object of study for the epistemologist. We can see what is meant by "knowledge" in a particular field of research by looking at how published paragraphs are composed. What sort of support is offered for what sort of claim? "What," as Russell put it, "is the relation subsisting between thoughts, words, or sentences, and that which they refer to or mean?"

If I am right about paragraphs, then each paragraph is merely the tip of the iceberg of the writer's knowledge (much of which the writer shares with the reader because they are epistemic peers). The claim (expressed in the key sentence) is the apex of the tip of the iceberg. So, knowing where the peak of the tip is, as it were, we can extrapolate beneath the surface; we can take the "dignity of movement" of the paragraph as an indication of the depth of the knowledge that supports it.

But this support will be different in different kinds of text. A research article in the Administrative Science Quarterly is composed in a different way than a feature article in The New Yorker. Both may be thoroughly researched, and both writers may know a great deal about their subject matter. Still, how they know is different, and this difference ought to be apparent in the relative "composure" of the paragraphs that the article is made of. I'm at a conference in Barcelona the rest of this week, but I hope to be able to post an actual comparison of journalistic and academic paragraphs on Friday. Otherwise, it will have to wait until Monday.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Nulla Dies Sine Linea

"It was a custom with Apelles, to which he most tenaciously adhered, never to let any day pass, however busy he might be, without exercising himself by tracing some outline or other; a practice which has now passed into a proverb." (Pliny, Natural History, XXXV, 36)

Pliny tells us that Apelles "surpassed all the other painters who either preceded or succeeded him" and painted with a "singular charm of gracefulness". He lived in the 4th Century BC, which means his proverb "nulla dies sine linea", "no day without a line", has been with us for about two and a half millennia. Michael Gilleland (with a hat tip to Laura Gibbs), has found a classic application of the proverb for writers in the autobiography of Anthony Trollope:

It will not, I am sure, be thought that, in making my boast as to the quantity, I have endeavoured to lay claim to any literary excellence. That, in the writing of books, quantity without quality is a vice and a misfortune, has been too manifestly settled to leave a doubt on such a matter. But I do lay claim to whatever merit should be accorded to me for persevering diligence in my profession. And I make the claim, not with a view to my own glory, but for the benefit of those who may read these pages, and when young may intend to follow the same career. Nulla dies sine linea. Let that be their motto. And let their work be to them as is his common work to the common labourer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat. More than nine-tenths of my literary work has been done in the last twenty years, and during twelve of those years I followed another profession. I have never been a slave to this work, giving due time, if not more than due time, to the amusements I have loved. But I have been constant,—and constancy in labour will conquer all difficulties. Gutta cavat lapidem non vi, sed saepe cadendo.

There are many things to notice in this passage. First, he emphasizes that the aim is quality not quantity (Trollope was famously prolific). Second, he insists on a certain "professionalism", which requires a particular "diligence". Third, he suggests that the writer see the work precisely as a work, "as common work to common labourer". Fourth, he dismisses the idea that in order to write you have sit at your desk for ridiculous lengths of time engaged in ridiculous exertions, an idea he also suspects of being a pose (something writers say they do, more than they actually do it). Finally, he emphasizes that one should not be a "slave" to writing, that one should leave time to enjoy the other things in life and that writing can easily be reconciled with other responsibilities, including holding down an entirely unrelated job.

My version of this advice, of course, is: no day without a paragraph. It nicely matches Pliny's gloss on the proverb, which calls for "tracing some outline or other" every day. We can imagine Apelles spending some time every day, no matter how busy he might otherwise have been, drawing some particular thing, rendering it, representing it, depicting it. He was not merely doodling. He was practicing his art. He was putting down on the page what a thing looks like. By a similar token, I recommend spending time every day, no matter how busy you are, articulating something you know. And by this I do not just mean writing whatever comes into to your mind, but stating a knowledge claim (writing a single sentence you know to be true) and supporting it with a paragraph of prose (about six sentences more). This really should be the mission of our universities: to train students to compose paragraphs that articulate knowledge in their chosen field. We must teach them to put down on the page what is true of things. Constancy in this labour will conquer perhaps not all difficulties, but a great number of the most important ones.

Friday, March 18, 2011

What do you propose?

Knowledge makes a real difference in the world. The world in which vitamin C is a known substance is very different from the world in which it is an unknown substance. (I’m not much for the affectation, cultivated by some social constructivists, of saying that it is not yet a substance in the world in which it is unknown. I prefer the equally affected manner of speaking, where we say that vitamin C was there to be discovered.) The world in which we think that Pluto is a planet is different from the world in which we know that it is not. In organization studies, too, we can imagine a world in which, say, ‘enactment’ is a known social process and one in which is unknown. Or we can imagine it to be well understood or poorly understood, or outright misunderstood. How well we know about something makes a real difference.

When you study the world you are also setting out to change it. You are, minimally, trying to change what we know about the world, but that knowledge will then be put to maximal use by others. You may even be doing your research on behalf of those who would apply it in practice. You may study labour processes in order to improve the conditions of factory workers, or to improve the efficiency of factories. You may study the financial system in order to avoid crises or in order to enrich investors. But you might also just be curious about how the social world works. If so, you have to remember that the world will not just satisfy your curiosity; you will change it merely by knowing.

So it makes sense to ask yourself what sort of world you propose we live in. Whatever you discover, will be expressed in a series of (hopefully true) propositions, and this will inspire a series of (hopefully just) proposals. If you conclude that, say, economic crises are caused by greed, try to gauge the normative implications to make it clearer to yourself what you mean. Try to convert the true proposition into a just proposal.

Notice that there is no simple answer to what proposals a proposition implies. Our proposition could support either the proposal that we must accept periodic economic crises (because greed is good and inviolable) or we must regulate markets to keep greed within bounds (because greed is a necessary evil) or we must stamp out greed forever in our hearts and minds (because greed is an unnecessary evil). The proposition that “economic crises are caused by greed” means different things to different people. One of the sources of this difference is the different implications it is taken to have for practice.

For some, these implications push back against the proposition itself. If I do not want to propose we accept future crises as natural, nor impose regulations on the market, nor appeal to the moral sentiments of my fellow human beings, then perhaps I must abandon greed as the cause of economic crises. Or I must articulate a fourth proposal, one that I can stand behind. The point here is simply to recognize that knowledge obligates us to think about power. Once we have seen something, we must think about what needs to be done.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Critical Posture

Because it is a part of a conversation, a journal article should always be seen as the site of possible disagreements. For every claim you make, you should imagine the sorts of disagreements it might occasion. In fact, the paragraph that you compose in support of a claim is a way of providing precisely such a critical occasion. You are trying to shape the disagreement you and your reader might have.

The paragraph does not just support your claim, it sets it up for criticism of particular kinds. We might say that a paragraph gives the claim a certain posture—a stance—and is inviting the reader to take a position and push back against it in a particular direction. And here it can be useful to distinguish between the kinds of claim you might make in a paper in terms of the kinds of criticism you might inspire. There are, roughly speaking, three kinds of claim in an academic article: empirical, theoretical, and methodological. You are telling the reader either about what is going on in the world, or how we see the world, or what you have done in an attempt to improve our knowledge of it. Because the basis of each of these claims differs, the sort of criticism that might be levied against them differs too. Sometimes it can be helpful to imagine the disagreement you are setting yourself up for when trying to decide what kind of claim you are making.

Indeed, when we talked about this issue in Monday’s workshop, we discovered that what we thought were empirical claims were in fact theoretical ones, and vice versa, simply by imagining the sorts of issues that a reader might have. Some claims are a bit ambiguous about whether they are empirical or theoretical. Consider this one:

The concept of work-life balance is unable to capture the complexity of a job in a professional service firm today.

This claims something about a concept (work-life balance) and is therefore a theoretical claim, but it also says something about a corner of reality (what it is like to work in a professional service firm). We can imagine two different paragraphs for which this might be a key sentence. One will tell us how simple-minded the concept of work-life balance is; the other will tell us how complicated the work of consultant can be. Notice that the critic will be able to disagree with our claim on one or both of those bases: the critic may either claim that there is nothing simple-minded about the concept of work-life balance, or that consultants tend to exaggerate the complexity of their tasks.

To see this more clearly, consider the previous claim expressed in two sentences:

The concept of work life-balance depends on a simple distinction between work on the one hand and life on the other.

This concept is unable to capture the complexity of a job in a professional service firm today.

If we take these claims as the key sentences of a whole paragraph each, we can see what sort of support we have to provide in each case. In the first, we will cite the relevant literature to show that the distinction is actually made, and here we must keep the critic in mind as well. Will there be any disagreement about this distinction. Given post-structuralism, theorists are sometimes reluctant to admit that they distinguish sharply or “simply” between entities that are obviously also related. Will you have to catch them explicitly drawing the distinction (in their own theoretical pronouncements) or will you have to base your claim on a careful reading of major studies of work-life balance, showing that the distinction is implicitly drawn even where it is explicitly eschewed? In the case of the second claim, you will probably have to draw on studies that your reader has some initial respect for, in order to ensure that the complexity you describe is credible. The paragraph might argue, for example, that the time a consultant spends on Facebook is never clearly a professional or personal activity, and that one can therefore at no time weigh it in the scale of “work” and “life”. But notice that this observation itself depends on how sharply we draw the distinction and that your critic might not trust your own judgment. This is why you want to find other scholars who explicitly reach the conclusion you need.

We discover, then, that the meaning of a claim emerges from the support you provide for it. This support, in turn, should anticipate the sort of criticism you are likely to receive. Most importantly: you have some say in what in what kind of criticism you will open yourself up to. That, too, is part of the meaning of the claim you are making. You get to choose the place that you and your critic will meet. That is what it means to take a position. Whether the occasion is constructive depends on your stance.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Can You Compose a Paragraph in a Crisis?

"Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." (Ernest Hemingway)

I'm developing an almost mystical relationship to the prose paragraph. It is at the heart of the problem of "academic writing". The difficulty of academic writing is simply the difficulty of writing prose paragraphs. The problem of writing a journal article is the problem of composing forty prose paragraphs about the theories and methods you use, the practices you study, and the results this study brings. Your strength as a writer develops around this relatively straightforward task. Your confidence as a scholar lies in the knowledge that you can write a prose paragraph when it is needed.

A paragraph is a single claim with a measured amount of support. So to think in paragraphs is to think in terms of supporting claims. As an academic writer, your pride should be your ability to compose paragraphs on a particular range of subjects essentially at will. Part of this ability comes from simply training your prose; it is a matter of developing strength and grace as a writer. Another part of it, of course, comes from the knowledge you are building every day through study. You know that a number of statements about a number of objects are true, and you know why those statements are true. So you can't just state the truth, you can elaborate its basis. Your elaboration ties the claim to a foundation that is shared and respected by your peers. Each of these grounded claims is a paragraph.

How much support does a claim need? Knowing the answer to that question for each claim defines your scholarly expertise. From the abstract perspective of writing, I can tell you that the answer is that each claim needs about six sentences of support. But I can't tell you what those six sentences have to say concretely before your reader will let you move on to the next claim (which may, in turn, have to be a claim that supports a previous claim or supports the support you offered for a previous claim). All I know is that, as an academic writer, you will not say a series of things (write a series of sentences) that neither require nor provide support. Your efforts will be devoted to making claims and supporting them.

One morning last October, I wrote 236 words in 9 sentences in ten minutes. I only had ten minutes because I was digging myself out of a pile of work—the result of taking too much upon myself that week. I was pressed for time to get everything done, so I decided to minimize my writing time. That week I managed to write a half-dozen coherent paragraphs in five ten-minute sessions. Less than an hour of writing over five days resulted in about a thousand words. Six not altogether useless paragraphs. Seen strictly from the point of view of quantity, that's one-eighth of a journal article.

Though I was very busy, I was not getting stressed out. The act of writing for ten minutes was not just a sign that I was keeping it together, it was a means of doing so. Instead feeling my writing slipping away from me, I felt that I was making progress, despite some radical constraints. I was also able to think of my other tasks in the same perspective, devoting some time to each of them without letting any of them consume all my energies. The act of composing my thoughts into paragraphs every day kept things in perspective.

No matter how busy you get, I tell writers, always give yourself at least ten minutes with your prose every day. Do this just as you will spend at least ten minutes in the bathroom every day, and (hopefully) at least five hours in bed every day. In fact, even if you have to get up ten minutes earlier than usual every day during the "crisis" to do it, it is well worth the effort. You will get more out of your time in bed that way, trust me. No matter how bad it gets, show yourself that you can articulate one true sentence (you can always do this; don't make it out to be harder than it is!). That will take a minute or two. Now, show yourself that you know why that sentence is true for eight or nine minutes. Then go on with your day. Whatever ever else happens, at least your prose still works.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Writer, Scholar, Lover

An academic is many things: a reader, a researcher, a teacher, a peer. An academic is also a writer. And that's just in so far as we are thinking about our professional identities. As an amateur, an academic is normally also a friend, a lover, or a parent, a musician, an athlete, or mountaineer. All of these identities need a space in one's life to develop. They need, more accurately, to be given time to grow.

We become unhappy when some essential part of us is not allowed to develop. The teacher suffers without students; the scholar suffers without the literature. The lover is unhappy to be too long away from the object of his desire. The musician must not leave her instrument in its case for too long. Parents lose some part of themselves when separated too long from their children. But sometimes one must make tough choices or face unpleasant facts. The affair may end. The music may stop. The children grow up and move to foreign cities. Happiness returns when our identity is reoriented around what is left, and sometimes we then discover what has been long neglected.

The writer in an academic is too often neglected. Much of the moral psychology of what I do as a writing coach has to do with getting academics to respect the needs of the writer "inside" them. It's an unhappy metaphor, and I normally simply ask scholars to consider how they are treating their "writing self". If they cancelled their dates with their lover as often as they cancel their dates with their self-as-author, how long would the relationship last? Not very long. If they treated their children like they treated themselves-as-writers, wouldn't they feel terribly guilty? Of course they would. In fact, most ineffective, unproductive writers do feel very guilty about their writing. They just lack an understanding of where that guilt comes from.

It is sometimes said, and often cynically, that ninety percent of life is showing up. Less glibly, more profoundly, we can say that the most important part of any relationship is being there. Being there for the other. Being attentive. Being "present" in the full, existential sense of that word. But the difficulty is most often practical, not philosophical. How many love affairs go awry because the lovers worry too much about profoundly "being there" (in spirit) and not enough about simply "getting there" (on time)? Presence begins with a commitment to some rather bourgeois, rather middle-class values. Get to work on time. Keep your appointments.

Think of your relationship with your writing self precisely as a relationship. Your writer needs to know she is being respected, even loved. Don't be sentimental about it; take it seriously. Your writer gets nothing out of your good intentions or your guilty conscience. Arrange to meet for an hour or two every day. Show up for that meeting on time, prepared to "listen". That is, bring your writing self to a quiet place where she can get some work done. Don't interrupt her with the concerns of your teaching self, your reading self, your researching self, or the vast multiplicity of selves you share with your colleagues. Close the door and write. Every time you do this, your writing self will become happier. You are building trust.

It's a relationship, so it works both ways. Your writing self must not demand whole days, sweating at the keyboard. Your writing self must learn that the writing session ends just as arbitrarily as it began. Your writing self is learning to trust you, but you must also learn to trust your writing self. In the morning, the lovers must part.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011


I have been interested in the social epistemology of so-called "fringe" science for a long a time. Back when I was doing my PhD, I even visited a parapsychology research institute in Germany, which was founded by the terms of a rich benefactor's will. He believed that we would one day develop the technology to speak to him beyond the grave. Quite reasonably (given this belief), he left all his money to research into the "boundary areas" of psychology. Not all the researchers I met there believed very earnestly in telekinesis, telepathy, or clairvoyance and such, but their research (in advanced statistics, say, or theoretical physics, or cognitive science) all in some way contributed to our understand of so-called "psi" phenomena, if sometimes a bit indirectly.

The institute also conducted actual experiments in parapsychology. One of my favorite setups (which I was sadly only told about) was intended to test for some innate capacity for precognition. Can we know what will happen in the future? The researchers assumed that any such capacity will resemble some more familiar capacity, and they quickly hit on memory as the best analogy. Precognizing would be a bit like remembering, except you would be "remembering" what will happen rather than what has happened. Now, this leads to two interesting consequences. First, like memory, we must expect precognition to be fallible. The fact that we often remember things differently, and often simply wrongly, does not mean that we don't have memory, it just means it isn't perfect. I'll get to the second consequence in a moment.

The researchers set up an experiment that tested both memory and precognitive abilities. In both cases, the subject would be shown a series of randomly generated numbers (between 1 and 9), one at a time, on a screen. In the memory task, they would be asked whether the number they are currently seeing is the same number they saw, say, five numbers back. If so they would press a button, if not, they would let it pass. They wouldn't get every number right, of course, but they would perform much better than chance because they would have actually seen the past number that they are comparing the current number with. Some subjects perform better than others, of course, but all demonstrably have memory.

In the precognition experiment they simply ask whether the number they are seeing now is the same number they will see five numbers further on. Here people obviously perform less well. (In fact, contrary to what some popularizes will tell you, the research at the institute I visited pretty clearly shows that we don't have parapsychological abilities. Sorry.) But here's an interesting thing about what they were also looking for (and also didn't find), and it's the second consequence of the analogy with memory. People who do the memory experiment will, not surprisingly, get better at it through practice. Would we not expect the same thing of a precognition experiment (if we had the ability)?

I thought all this was very clever. It really gets you thinking about how science works. But why am I telling this story here? Well, sometimes writers do actually balk at planning their writing on the grounds that they can't see into the future.

And sometimes people tell me that by making them plan their writing, and by forcing them to report on how well they stuck to their plan, I'm just making them feel bad about their lack of discipline. The plan is always so definite and clear and unambiguous and right, and then their actual week is a muddling through, ambiguous and wrong. They feel guilty because they are judging their performance according to the standard set by the plan.

The parapsychologists' attitude here might be instructive. Why, after all, do we imagine that it is our performance that was "wrong" and the plan that was "right". Why do we imagine that we are, from week to week, testing only our discipline? Could we not just as easily test, not your precognitive abilities perhaps, but at least your ability to predict what you will be doing next week. Try, sometimes, to let your actual performance be a judgment on the realism of your planning, rather than thinking of your plan as the basis of a judgment about the seriousness of your resolve.

Let me stress "sometimes". Obviously, we can't just make planning an attempt to predict performance. The plan must have some normative force. But a plan that is too rigorous or too ambitious is not going to be followed as precisely as a plan that respects the actual conditions you will be working under next week, and the state of your knowledge about what you are writing about. Imagine a memory experiment where the number is not between 1 and 9 but between 1 and 999, and imagine the question is whether the current number is the same one as the one you saw 20 numbers back. That would be much harder. But we would still imagine some improvement. In fact, we would imagine that if you start with the easy experiment, you would be able to increase the difficulty level over time. This, in fact, is more likely to improve your performance on the hard test than doing the hard test over and over again and largely failing.

When planning your writing, then, keep in mind that you are always learning about your ability to write. How much can you write, and how often? You are learning to predict next week's performance. But you are also improving your ability to write. As you write more and more often you also become able to write more and more often. So your plan can get more ambitious as time goes by without becoming unrealistic.

* * *

I sat down this morning at 6:00 AM knowing I was going write a post on this topic. By 6:46, I had written 920 words. I then had about ten minutes (after writing these words) to read it through before posting it. I can generally predict my blogging performance as follows: on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I will start writing at 6:00 and post at 7:00. I will write between 500 and 1000 words. And I can even predict what I will write about. Sometimes I can predict content five days in advance, but in almost all cases I am right the night before about what I will write in the morning. I don't of course have any occult abilities. I just have a bit of discipline.

Monday, March 07, 2011


I always associate the idea that objectivity is really just intersubjectivity with Donald Davidson, the analytic philosopher. There is nothing perfectly out there, we might say; things are imperfectly between us. This idea, as I recall it, occurred to me while reading Davidson's ideas about the "coherence theory" of truth, especially when I came to understand his image of how we "triangulate" our sense of reality. We discover what is real, what is really "out there", what "objects" there are, by discovering what other people take to be real. Reality never impresses itself upon us as such, by itself. We are impressed largely with the impression reality leaves on others.

This social sense of "what there is" (ontology) is now quite commonplace. In the strong form of social constructivism, reality itself is a social accomplishment. A somewhat weaker version (and a more defensible one) says that, while there's obviously something "going on" out there beyond our shared experience of it, what we call "reality" is that which we can agree on the existence of. Davidson made me see that this constructivism (which I don't think he ever called by that name) does not imply any sort of relativism. "There is exactly one world," he says somewhere.

Why am I thinking about these things this morning? Academic writing is a great example of intersubjectivity. A journal article deals with a shared reality, grounded in a shared body of knowledge. Our "objects" are merely the stable themes of an ongoing conversation between knowledgeable peers. Keep that in mind when you are writing. You are not just trying to establish an individual relationship to the individual things you find in your field work. You are representing your peers when you go out to observe the world. You must see what they would see, not just report your own impressions. And then you must talk about what you have discovered with them.

This means that each paragraph you write should, ideally, make a claim about reality, and this claim should, in each of those paragraphs, then be related to the concerns of a network of already interrelated subjects, who are interested in, and know something about, the object that the claim is about. Knowledge does not get any more objective than our ability to take our responsibility to other inquirers seriously.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Everything That Is the Case 2

When you are revising a draft, you should always do so with an eye to the central claim of each of your paragraphs. If you are writing a journal article, there will be about forty such claims, expressed in forty key sentences. Consider the paragraph I drafted on Monday:

There is a tree outside my window. It is swaying gently in the breeze and casting a shadow along the ground. Yesterday, I walked past the tree and saw a squirrel scurrying up its trunk, scaring off a bird that had been sitting in its branches. Today, it seems to be abandoned in the parking lot, growing out of its little island of earth and cobblestones. But there is more: there are buildings all around, a hundred windows that look out on the tree. The tree is outside each of those windows. There is a tree outside each of those windows. The world is everything that is the case.

Most of it is written as though the first sentence states the central claim. It is as though the paragraph is about the tree outside my window. The paragraph supports that claim by providing concrete details; it elaborates on the claim in the first sentence. But things change in the last three sentences, where the fact that is stated in the first is shifted into another logical position—that of an example of a general claim: "The world is everything that is the case." This morning I want to make this shift a little less abrupt.

Let's concentrate those last three sentences. The paragraph has until then been focusing the reader's attention on the tree as an (increasingly) isolated fact. Our task is to connect that fact to the whole world of facts. Notice that it does this by reminding the reader that the central fact is not just that there is a tree out there in the parking lot but that it is outside my window. This suggests the point of view from which it is being observed. It is from out of this multiplicity of perspectives on the tree that we will build its "objectivity".

There is a tree outside my window. It is swaying gently in the breeze and casts a shadow along the ground. Yesterday, I walked past the tree and saw a squirrel scurrying up its trunk, scaring off a bird that had been sitting in its branches. Today, it seems to be abandoned in the parking lot, growing out of its little island of earth and cobblestones. But there is more: there are buildings all around, a hundred windows that look out on the tree. The tree is outside each of those windows; there is a tree outside each of those windows. It is not just the case that there is a tree down there in the parking lot, nor merely that it is swaying gently in the breeze. It is also the case that the tree is outside my window, that I can see it from my bedroom. Nor is my point of view the only available one; the tree exists in a shared world, on which there are many windows. This individual fact, which may at first appear lonely and isolated (because, in his own loneliness and isolation, the writer misplaces his empathy?), is not, on closer examination, alone. It is the case that there is a tree outside my window, but the tree is outside the windows of my neighbors. This, too, is the case and there is, I must now realize (the writer must now realize), a world outside my window. The world is everything that is the case.

I'm starting to like this paragraph, but it is still not finished. I am establishing a rapport between the observer of the tree and the tree itself (a "loneliness that is the truth of things", as Virginia Woolf put it). I am then trying to establish a further relation, more rapport, with a whole neighborhood of observers of the same fact. A community. Moreover, by explicitly identifying the observer and writer, I am further trying to establish a rapport between the writer and the reader. In the end, I want a paragraph that constructs the "objectivity" of the world out of the intersubjectivity of our experience of it. It is the intersubjectivity of facts that ultimately supports our claims about them.

Bear with me. I now see where this going. More next week.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011


While thinking about the book I need to write, I recently noticed a telling affinity between my two strongest role models, Steve Fuller and Jonathan Mayhew. Their influence on me is very different, and I came to their work from very different angles, so it is reassuring to discover a similarity of Anschauung. My book, I realized, will resemble Steve's Thomas Kuhn and Jonathan's Apocryphal Lorca quite closely. It will be a study of the reception of an influential twentieth-century intellectual figure and, like my models, it will focus on the reception of the work: its context, not its content. (As Jonathan puts it, "This book is not about the Spanish playwright and poet Frederico García Lorca.") My models are exemplary in many ways, not least their choice of publisher: Chicago University Press, arguably the most prestigious academic press in the world. But that is not the affinity I want to emphasize here.

What Steve and Jonathan share is a constructivism about genius. They both reject the idea that genius explains influence and suggest, to the contrary, that the cult of genius is a largely insidious influence on culture. As Steve puts its, "genius is an occult mental property superstitiously projected backwards to explain the cause of deeds that have already had a remarkable effect on us" (TK, xi). Jonathan, meanwhile, is "skeptical of approaches that rely too heavily on the romantic ideas of 'genius'" (AL, 1), and which have turned Lorca, he argues, into "a semidivine figure of inspiration rather than a poet like any other" (AL, 181). Both then set out to "construct" their object in the light of their reception in a particular context. Kuhn is constructed in the context of History and Philosophy of Science (what is now Science and Technology Studies). Lorca is constructed in the context of twentieth-century American poetry. These constructions are also, of course, "deconstructions" of the "occult property" of their genius, which has had the largely negative (darkly magical) effect of marginalizing alternative readings.

And alternative writings. The cultivation of the "genius" of Kuhn and Lorca, represented by the iconic notions of "paradigm" and "duende" respectively, have, argue Steve and Jonathan, guided the development of their fields. It has dominated them, "to the detriment of newer voices," as Jonathan puts it (AL, 180). Most importantly, I think, the attribution of "genius" to a particular figure and the subsequent dominance of that figure in a particular tradition is a barrier to serious criticism. Steve expresses his deep personal disappointment at Kuhn's influence in this regard, but he is "not without hope" (TK, pp. xv-xvi). If we get out from under the romantic image of genius, we may be able to see "better paths that were originally not taken, but that (with some adjustment) may be taken up in the future". It is this "devoutly" constructivist hope that Jonathan seems to share with Steve, and I with both of them.