Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Claims & Support

One definition of beauty is: aptness to purpose. (Ezra Pound, ABC, p. 64)

A few months ago I argued that as an academic writer your job is to support claims. Preparing for our afternoon workshop on argumentation, reading Booth, Colomb and Williams' classic The Craft of Research, I am reminded how utterly non-earth-shattering (indeed, entirely foundational) this idea is. In the workshop, we will look at the logic and rhetoric of academic argument, which is to say, we will look at what it means to support a claim in the context of a conversation among knowledgeable peers. I will define some basic terms, of course, like "claim", "reason", "evidence", "warrant", and "objection", and I will talk about what Graff and Birkenstein call "the moves that matter in academic writing". In this post, I want to develop the metaphor of "support" in the sightly less metaphorical perspective of the "craft" of writing.

Consider the apprentice carpenter who is learning how to build cabinets, chair and tables. The finished product must, crucially, offer support. It must be structurally sound, and this will come both from the quality of the materials and the workmanship that goes into joining them together. The master carpenter draws on years of experience with various techniques and kinds of wood and guides the apprentice, not so much towards the right techniques or right materials, but the right experiences of joining materials together soundly. Some joints work best with some kinds of woods, others not so well. The support that is offered by a shelf in a cabinet is not of the same kind that is offered by a tabletop or a chair, though they all, it is true, "hold up". The apprentice is exposed to the possibilities that are implicit in the materials, the way they hold their shape, and the way the "give" under various kinds of pressure.

A chair can be tested in various situations. The elegance of its design is apparent in the efficiency with which it passes these tests. Now, there may of course be a great deal of "ornament" in a piece of furniture, features that serve no useful purpose ("all this useless beauty," Elvis Costello sings), and one must evaluate these features by the way they manage not to get in the way of the table or chair's primary function, namely, that of providing a stable thing to sit on and to put, say, your food on when you eat it. That is, the primary function of furniture is to hold things up in various ways: books on shelves, bodies on chairs, plates on tabletops. The alternative would be to leave them lying around all over the floor.

Your writing does the same thing, I want to argue, for your ideas. It holds them up, keeps them from lying around uselessly in piles on the floor. Even your most decorative ideas can be given a place in your writing, a place where they don't interfere with the orderly arrangement of the rest of your ideas. Most importantly, by furnishing your mind with structures (arguments) that support your ideas, and keeping things relatively neat and orderly, you are building a place where you can invite others in. They, too, can test these structures by putting ideas of their own on them. To situate an idea within the structure of argument (whether your own or someone else's) is to make a claim. Instead of holding the idea up yourself, you are putting it down somewhere, but not all the way down on the ground. You can pick it up later.

I hope I'm making my point. You are trying to build something that will help contribute to an orderly conversation. It must have a certain elegance, a kind of beauty, but it must also, very importantly, serve the purpose of supporting the argument you want to make, the series of claims you are trying to get across. You will learn how to do this well, not by exposing yourself to a set of principles or rules (whether mine, or Wayne Booth's, or Gerald Graff's), but by going into your workshop and joining the relevant materials (reasons, evidence) together to support claims against all manner of objections. The carpenter has to imagine how the table he builds will be used. And he will build it in such a way as to indicate its proper uses. He will not build a coffee table to look like a workbench or a dinner table to look like a writing desk. Likewise, when writing, make sure you build something that will serve your purpose, and make sure that this purpose is on the surface of the text. It is much more likely to hold up under the criticism of your peers in that case.


Shannon O'Donnell said...

Hi Thomas. One of your disciples here, revisiting the problem of claims. Does the art of making claims in writing, structuring arguments that way, have an epistemological bias? For instance, does it work in post-positivist arguments, and less so for social constructionists? I want to use claims in my writing, but I may be confusing that in what I express with the impression that i am MAKING CLAIMS ;-)

PS: Enjoying your own account of writing in 20 hours. Soldier on!

Thomas said...

I know there is some radically post-positivist (post-structuralist, post-modernist, etc.) writing that does not, or at least claims (!) not to, make claims, and I do sometimes think about what advice to give to such writers. The question is, if it's not going to support a claim, what is an individual paragraph then supposed to do? At the most general level, it must, let's say, "have an effect", it must "affect" the reader in some way, emotionally or cognitively.

"Supporting a claim" is merely one such "effect", and depending on the claim, it may be to persuade the reader that something is true, or dissuade the reader from holding a particular opinion. The intended effect may be to strengthen or weaken a belief, that is.

So you definitely have to be clear about what effect you intend to have on the reader. Maybe there are some effects that are not best brought about by supporting particular claims, but I would point out that much writing in social constructivism is straightforwardly factual, claim-based.

Some paragraphs may be written with the intention of "modulating the desire" of a reader, I suppose. And some fields do promote that sort of thing. In such cases, you might want to "evoke an image" rather than "support a claim", and you might mean precisely that you will not be claiming that this or that object or situation "looks like this" (or that), but only that the reader "can imagine" it.

(I could then stick to my guns and say that the implicit claim in such a description would be: you can imagine this, dear reader.)

As always, the best way to proceed here would be for you to give me an example. Show me a paragraph that doesn't, finally, make a claim. Show me a 40-paragraph journal article that doesn't proceed through a series of claims for which it offers support.

I'm thinking of Deleuze now. Even his paragraphs can easily be interpreted as making claims. Difference and Repetition, for example, opens with the claim that (and I quote) "Repetition is not generality." We may not quite know what he means yet, but we know the paragraph is going to support that claim (and, sure enough, it does).

It is possible, I suppose, to write a text, also, that only pretends to make claims in the service of some other purpose. (Maybe that's what Deleuze would say he was doing.) Still, the challenge of writing (academic) prose is the challenge of supporting claims. For the most part, anyway. I look forward to any exceptions you might provide.

I'll offer one example right away: Wittgenstein. His Philosophical Investigations explicitly eschews any claim-making, and sticks by and large to straight description, a series of images (sometimes he does, however, let himself go and assert something.) But in an important sense Wittgenstein is not an "academic" writer. He is much better thought of as a literary writer (philosophy, he said, ought really only be composed in the manner of poetry.) Compare Heidegger: one ontological claim after another.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Thank you for this explanation Thomas! I tend to like claims as an organizing structure, perhaps leading me to oversimplify my reading of the field. But this helps me imagine possibilities for building arguments or experiences for the reader that might open up multiplicities of meaning rather than narrowing down: to evoke, imagine, affect. Supercool.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Oh, and I'll keep an eye out for an example...