Wednesday, October 31, 2012

When and Where

By an almost-too-good-to-be-true coincidence the "locale" of Support Your Local Sheriff!, the movie I wrote about on Monday, is a fictional town called Calendar, Colorado. The unfinished prison cell is a space that is situated in time.

Scholarly writing happens at a particular time in a particular place, and it needs your support in order to happen. You provide this support by marking off the space (in your home or in your office, or in the train on the way to work) in some symbolic manner (by doing something as simple as closing a door, for example) and by marking off the space in your calendar like any other appointment you might have. Show up on time in the right place and get to work.

The place you choose must have some minimum level of order. Writers differ about how neat they need their desks and offices to be in order to write; the important thing is that the place be one that you only have to show up at. Then you can begin. You don't want to show up on time and then spend fifteen minutes getting the space into shape for work. The start of the session is not when you turn on the computer; it's when you begin writing.

One last point about that movie. I must have seen it on TV when I was a kid. So I was a bit spooked to hear James Garner say "I've never turned down a cup of coffee in my life." That's almost exactly what I always say now when I'm offered one. From now on, it's going to be exactly what I say (at least when I say yes). For those of us who drink it, a cup of coffee is a kind of magical object. It has the power to distract us from the writing if we don't have one, and the power to focus our attention when we do. So part of supporting a writing session is making sure the coffee is made in advance.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What and How

In the comments to Friday's post, reader fjb has pushed against my suggestion that there is no time to discover what you want to say within any given 27-minute "act of writing". On my view, you decide what you want to say the night before, and then you "simply" write it down in the morning. "I can't think of anything I've completed and published," fjb counters, "that didn't include some ideas generated 'in the act.'" This is especially true, he says in a later comment, in the case of responding to objections. "It's hard to anticipate all that except in the course of expressing your arguments."

Now, it is certainly true that an idea might come to you while writing. But if it is not part of the supporting argument for the claim you happen to be working on at the time, you must note it down in a notebook and save it for later. Such an idea might of course end up in a published paper and we could say that it's been "generated in the act", but notice that it was not written down (in prose, at least, just in a note) at the moment it was conceived. The prose that presents this idea will be written sometime in the future, not now. Today, then, you are working on a claim that was not determined in this act of writing.

The basic distinction that I'm suggesting you observe is the one between what you want to say and how you want to say it. The "what" is determined in advance, and you don't discover it while writing. The "how" is what you have to spend 27-minutes working on. This distinction is actually quite central to my method. We might say that you are not using my method if you don't observe this distinction because the whole point is to know what (and when) you will be writing the next day. If you are waiting for the writing session itself to tell you what you want to say, then you don't know this, and this is robbing you of happiness as a writer. (Of course, if you are as happy as you can be doing things your way, then I am not saying you must use my approach. My approach is for those who feel their writing process leaves a lot to be desired.)

I want to make it clear, however, that even when you know what you will say in a particular paragraph, 27-minutes of work towards saying it will by no means be boring or uneventful. It may even hold surprises. You will discover lots of ideas you might not know you had in your attempt to support the session's key claim. That's certainly part of the fun. What you do not want to do, however, is to indulge in the hope that tomorrow you will "come up with something" and go to bed with no idea in your mind about what you will say.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Support Your Local Scholar!

In Support Your Local Sheriff! from 1969, James Garner plays a mysterious drifter who is passing through a boom town caught up in a gold rush. He is offered the job of sheriff but is surprised to find that the jail has not yet been finished. The walls are there, but there are no bars on the windows and no doors on the cells. His solution is to draw a chalk line on the floor and drip some red paint on it. When the prisoner asks, he makes a vague gesture at "the last man who crossed the line". That's enough to keep him in the cell, at least for a time.

A few seminars back, that scene came to my mind while I was talking about how to secure a space, "a room of one's own", for one's writing. I improvised it into my presentation, but mistakenly remembered it as a John Wayne movie, who only had to explain once to the prisoner that one just doesn't cross the line. "Because it's John Wayne explaining it to him," I said, the prisoner stays in the cell. It's funny, actually, how memory can play tricks on you. I still have, in my mind, a fully formed image, in black and white, of John Wayne drawing the line on the floor. When I saw James Garner do it, in color, last night, it almost seemed like an homage to that, I guess, non-existent film. Anyway, from now on, the scene will be a stock part of my seminars.

What does it tell us about the writing space? you might ask. Well, I always emphasize that the writing space must be "walled in" and have a "door". But this has to be taken in a very abstract sense because many scholars lack an office of their own even at their department. Some share an office with one or two others; some even sit in open office landscapes. Every morning, I write this post at home while my family gets ready for the day all around me (I don't have a study). But since I'm the James Garner of writing, I am granted a magic circle around my process from 6:30 to 7:00. My wife and two children know that I am not to be disturbed, and they allow me this space, such as it is, because they know that at 7:00 I will return to my family duties. The "walls" and "doors" of the writing space only have to function as such for a determined amount of time. And much of its function is social, not material, just like Garner's socially constructed, if you will, jail cell. Once this is understood, a "location" can open up (near you!) for writing on a daily basis, whether you've yet secured yourself a writer's garret or not.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Act of Writing

Let's narrow the topic to the act of writing scholarly prose. On my view, this act takes about 30 minutes and, properly speaking, only really happens if it happens daily. (That is, you are not behaving like a scholar if you write once every three months for 72 hours straight.) A scholar can commit between one and six acts of writing every day. I recommend 27 minutes of writing followed by a three-minute break.

I know that sounds rigid. Let me explain. Scholars do many different things and among their activities is writing. But some of that writing cannot be considered "scholarly"; scholarly writing requires a particular kind of attention. You know you are paying the right kind of attention when you are working on your text one claim at a time, which is to say, one paragraph at a time, for 27 minutes. In the act of writing, you are putting down something you know for consideration by other people who know something about the subject.

The art of writing scholarly prose effectively is really the art of using those 27 minutes effectively. It is important that the writer knows in advance (the night before) what he or she wants to say. The act of writing should begin at an appointed time and stop 27 minutes later, so there is no time to discover what you want to say. The first perhaps 15 minutes will be spent just writing—putting down things you are know are true and which support the major claim of the paragraph you are working on. After that, time permitting, you can do some editing. One important component of the act of writing, if you have the time and desire to do it, is to read your paragraph out loud. This will give you a good sense of what you are saying and whether you are saying it well.

Before you reject this approach to writing, let me point out that a standard 8000-word journal article consists of about 40 paragraphs. It can therefore be composed during about 40 acts of writing, or about 20 hours of work altogether. This will produce at least a first draft, but it will be much more "composed" than what most people are used to when drafting. I don't think 20 hours of work is a lot. Spread over eight weeks, it will require only thirty minutes a day, five days a week.

The point of this rigidity is that is it makes your writing process explicit. If you work in this way, you will soon learn exactly what you can accomplish in the act of writing. This can be a very assuring thing to know.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Critic as Other

Most people are their own worst critics. I mean "worst" here in the sense of "least competent". It is not that people say nastier things about themselves than they say about others (though that is sometime true), it is that their criticism is less precise and less constructive. As I said yesterday, the function of "the self as critic" is too often simply to prevent writing, not improve the results. That is why scholars have to find good critics among their peers, both before, during, and after the publication of their work. Criticism works best when it is a social activity.

As in the arts, a critic represents the larger body of readers of a work. The critic does not just react personally to what an article says, but rather tries to imagine what competent, well-informed readers will make of it. A peer-reviewer has to decide whether the paper will be worth the author's peer's time to read it; after publication, other scholars have to frame their criticism in such a way as to contribute to the knowledge project of other scholars in the field. Before publication, a critic is also sometimes asked to imagine what peer-reviewers will say. In all cases, there is a reading that is not merely engaged and interested in the text, but also carried out on behalf of the rest of the field.

When we write as scholars we should keep those critical readers very much in mind. Wayne Booth evokes the spirit of a mythical Oxford tutorial in which only two questions were put to any given text: "What does the author mean?" and "How does the author know?" If you remember that that is what your reader is always asking himmerherself of your text, you'll be better able to write a critically robust one. Note that, on this view, the critic is not constantly asking "Is the author right?" or "How is the author wrong?" Criticism only involves identifying a claim and relating it to its basis in the text being criticized. It is true that a critic may eventually conclude that an author has nothing to say and has no knowledge of the subject. But the purpose of critical reading is, in the first place, just to trace a statement back to the ground on which it is made.

This, of course, is why I recommend organizing your writing around claims that can be supported in paragraphs. If you ask yourself "What do I want to say?" and "How do I know it is true?" and then spend 27-minutes, six sentences, and about 175 words answering those questions, you are giving your critical reader the right sort of material to work with.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Self as Critic

"Critic, n. A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him." (Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary)

Among artists, the critic is often considered a necessary evil. Scholars, on the other hand, condescend to the critic at their peril. Indeed, scholarly writing presumes that there will be critics and that their opinions matter.

Nonetheless, the critic has been drawn into disrepute even within the academy. Critics, albeit sometimes more in the imagination of the writers they criticize than in reality, don't always know their place, and some scholars have therefore taken the view that critics should be avoided and ridiculed. That is, when someone expresses a critical opinion of a scholar's work, the scholar feels justified in dismissing the critique on the grounds that critics are, by their very nature, perversely interested in flaws, and writers in any case have a right to associate with more "positive" personalities who will be "supportive" and offer them "encouragement". While some critics do, of course, take things too far, I think it is more often true that the writer doesn't know how to take (and leave) criticism, than that the critic has no sense of his or her place. It takes two to be undermined by critique.

And it takes one to know one. So the best way of developing an understanding of the critic's function in scholarly life is to train one's own inner critic, to sharpen one's own critical edge. (A sharp knife, remember, is safer than a dull one.) Indeed, the first healthy or unhealthy relationship any writer develops to a critic, the most important healthy or unhealthy attitude a writer has about criticism, is that which is established in the writer's own case. Some writers never let their inner critic speak at all, and this shows in, well, very uncritical writing. But the more common problem is that the voice of the critic that the writer hears in his or her own head prevents the writer from writing. And this function of criticism—to prevent writing—is not healthy. Nor is it what the critic (if a proper critic) meant, or at least not what the critic is entitled to mean.

Criticism is supposed to prevent bad writing, but not by preventing writing altogether. That is why it is important to write down what one knows every day and then let the critic look at it only at particular times. Moreover, the critic's input needs to be absorbed in a constructive manner. That is, we must train ourselves to receive criticism, and we do this by regularly translating criticism into tasks that might improve the text. Absorbing the criticism is then a matter of completing those tasks ... one paragraph, 27 minutes, at a time. This gives the critic a robust, but limited object to criticize. You, the writer, knows how much you have put into it. And this gives the critic an important but limited task to complete: What could this paragraph get out of another 27-minutes of work?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Logic and Rhetoric

The shift of focus from propositions to statements is also a shift of focus from the logic to the rhetoric of science. Logical arguments are intended to establish truths on the basis of other truths. Rhetoric, meanwhile, is intended to make an impression on an audience, in a word, to persuade. In scholarship, it is not enough to know that a set of propositions are true, and that these truths imply other truths. You must also know what a particular group of people, your peers, think is true, and you must then engage with those beliefs in your writing.

One of the most important differences, therefore, between propositions and statements is that the former are true or false in themselves, where the latter are tenable or untenable relative to some audience. They "hold up" or not in what we call "discourse", and there is no simple relationship between their truth and their tenability in this regard. The great difficulty in writing for an academic audience, then, is not so much knowing the truth, but telling the truth. You cannot be content with being right; you must develop your rightness into a persuasive position.

The institution of academic writing, especially the journal literature, frames this difficulty in particular ways. These days, however, there is a lot of concern (which is not at all misplaced) that the social pressure to publish has changed the rhetorical situation of the academic writer. After all, it is possible to entirely detach the rhetoric from the logic of research. If writers and their readers come to see the task of "making a statement" as entirely unconstrained by the truth of propositions then scholarship will lose much of its distinctive value. It will become a species of literature, to be judged on the aesthetic pleasure of our direct experience of it. On this score, I think we can agree, it is not likely to succeed.

Scholarly writing presumes that the statements that are being made are intended to express propositions that are true. It must be meaningful to ask whether or not they are true in a sense that this question is not meaningful when reading a novel. Academic writing is not supposed to be merely plausible.

Tomorrow, I will consider perhaps the most important notion in our understanding of the rhetorical situation of academic writer, namely, the critical reader. This reader, especially as he or she appears in the mind of the writer at the time of writing, is notorious for not knowing his or her place. As a result, I'm afraid, s/he has been banished from the academy, or at least forced to the margins of discourse. In one sense, this has made it too easy to publish in the academic literature; in another, it has made scholarship well nigh impossible.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Propositions and Statements

I've promised to discuss scholarly writing "as such" for a few weeks. As a way into this subject, this morning I'm going to be a bit philosophical, perhaps in the pejorative sense of "too abstract to be useful". It can't be helped. Tomorrow, I'll translate these ideas into more practical terms.

Propositions are the spectral entities in the universe that are true or false. They do not quite "exist", like the furniture in your home exists or you yourself exist. If there is a vase on your coffee table then there is a proposition that articulates this fact and that proposition is true. No one has to say it or even think it. All around you there is evidence of propositions because all around you there are facts and these facts make propositions true. Even before you considered the fact that your stereo had been left on, the proposition that it was so was true. It became true the moment your stereo should have been turned off but wasn't. In not turning off the stereo (in leaving it on), then, you made a proposition true. But you didn't make a proposition. That happened all by itself.

Propositions, said Gilles Deleuze, don't exist, they insist, which is a nice way of putting it. There are propositions in so far as we insist on them. Our insistence does not bring propositions into existence; rather, we are insisting that the proposition (the articulable truth) is already there. Nor is a proposition a sentence. A sentence may express a proposition, but so too may a plain and simple fact, or a gesture, or a facial expression. And the same proposition may be expressed in any number of sentences, in any number of languages. Propositions are not man-made.

Statements, by contrast, are made. There are no statements except in so far as we consciously undertake to say something. While statements can be made in all sorts of media, our interest here is the way scholars make statements in writing. A scholar sits down and composes a number of sentences, each of which expresses a proposition (or sometimes several) and this asserting of a proposition as true is a statement. It will normally take several sentences, indeed, a whole paragraph, to make a proper scholarly statement. As we will see tomorrow, there is a difference between composing six sentences that express propositions, and making a scholarly statement. We have to intend to say something to someone.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Writing as Such

When you think about it, it's strange that I ask scholars to think of their writing on the model of activities like music and sports. Why should they be more familiar with these activities? Shouldn't I be able to get my point across entirely without analogies? Aren't we all familiar enough with what writing is like to talk directly about how to do it most effectively?

Next week, I'm taking a scheduled break from the blog; when I return I will try to write about writing as writing, not as something that is somehow like some other activity, like running or playing the piano. I will assume familiarity and even a little facility with the business of putting words together into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into papers and chapters.

Since I'm interested in scholarly writing, not just any composition of words will do. I will also assume you are familiar with the act of writing down something you know. Scholarly writing is writing that represents your knowledge on a particular subject before an audience (a readership) of epistemic peers, i.e., people who know a great deal about the subject too.

This, in fact, is the problem with using music and sports as analogies. (I'm not going to stop that practice altogether. I'm just going to try not appealing to them for a week or so.) I end up talking about something I don't know very much about. Unless I'm very superficial, I'm out of my depth. Scholarly writing, by contrast, I know a lot about. I want to see what happens when I write about it for people who I presume also know a great deal about it. I.e., people who do it for a living.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


There's the old joke about the tourist in New York who asks a street musician for directions. "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"

"Practice, man," answers the musician, "practice."

Musicians, actors and poets, will sometimes talk about the "chops" of their colleagues. The term can be traced back to the fifteenth century, when it simply referred to the jaw or sides of your face. Musicians then began to use it to refer to their embouchure (from "bouche", mouth, i.e, the apparatus of the mouth), and Merriam-Webster has a nice phrase to capture this: "the technical facility of a musical performer". It is important to keep in mind that the embouchure is not just the muscles of the face, it is "the position and use of the lips, tongue, and teeth in playing a wind instrument". It is not just the equipment, but your facility with it. It is your readiness to use it, an apparatus.

Needless to say, you acquire this apparatus, this readiness, this facility, by practice. When musicians talk admiringly of a peer's "chops", it is a gesture towards the countless hours that were spent training their face to make the sounds that come out of their instrument. This language has also been adopted by other arts, where it means simply "expertise in a particular field or activity". Chops do not account for everything, but they count for a lot. Certain scenes require acting chops, certain poems demonstrate poetic chops. Etc. Sure, innate talent and the intercession of the muse is also at times required. But you need those chops to benefit from the less "earned" part of the craft. As Hamlet said, "the readiness is all".

My work is all about helping scholars develop their writing chops. These constitute an important component of the technical facility of a scholar.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

High Reps, Low Weight

You always have to be careful with analogies. Not long ago, I tore into the idea that writing a dissertation is like running a marathon. Yesterday, the shoe was on the other foot. Answering a question at one of my writing seminars, I said it might be better to write 9 18-minute paragraphs in three hours than 8 27-minute paragraphs in 4. Not only, I said, would this be a better use of your energy (the fourth hour of writing is rarely very effective), it may improve the "definition" of your prose, "just as a high reps, low weight workout improves your muscle tone."

Well, one of the participants said that that's just nonsense. That sort of workout, he said, will produce bulk, not tone. And last night I went home and looked into it and, sure enough, I was simply transmitting a widely held myth about "muscle toning" (this post and this one are representative of the contempt fitness instructors have for the myth). It seems that a lot of people who are worried about getting muscles that are too big, but do want them to be visible under their skin, have fallen for this myth. The truth, it appears, is that you can't, properly speaking, "tone" your muscles or "shape" them. All you can do is make them bigger and then reduce your body fat (mainly by dieting). That is what makes you "ripped".

Now, it's tempting to simply incorporate this new information into my analogy and rework it to make some other point. But it's important to keep in mind that it really just is an analogy. There is no real or physical connection between your muscles and your prose. There is no scientific reason to think that what goes for your abs and biceps will also go for your writing "chops". Nor can we really compare writing a paragraph in 18 minutes or 27 minutes with "reps" and the length of a writing session with "weights". On closer examination, all analogies will break down at some point.

In this case then, I have only been reminded not to compare writing to something that I know nothing about, like weight training. There are ways in which your prose is "like a muscle". But this, it turns out, isn't one of them. Hopefully some of my other attempts at this analogy still hold.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The Whole and the Long Run

When presenting the pragmatist slogan "the truth is what works", my philosophy teacher used to emphasize the qualifying clause "on the whole and in the long run". It can also be used to qualify my approach to scholarly writing, both at the level of the process and the product. My ideas about the writing process, we might say, are true (for you) if they "work" (for you) on the whole and in the long run. And the product (your paper) is true if its claims "work", i.e., function well in the ongoing conversation that constitutes your field, on the whole and in the long run. That is, it's not the individual exception, the bad day, the glitch, that is important, but the discipline as it develops over a longer period.

Keeping that in mind will obviously help us to think about the big picture. Though it really is important to be able to focus on a single paragraph for 27 minutes, there is nothing magical about how a paragraph is able to represent a truth you know. Getting a paragraph to work requires strength and poise in your prose, which you develop over time through training. And the truth of a paper or chapter or book depends not on what happens in each individual 27-minute session but on steady work that is distributed over days and weeks and throughout the whole of the text you are making. The more orderly the process of writing things down becomes, the more effectively can all your other activities (observing, reading, thinking, talking) support the truth of your scholarship. The key is to get your writing to "work".

Finally, "the whole and the long run" extends beyond any individual writing project. Your prose is like your health. It is a capacity you have, even when you're not drawing on your full strength. (And your style depends on not working at the limit of your strength at all times.) Your prose, when it is in shape, also helps you avoid intellectual and grammatical error, just as a healthy, fit body is less susceptible to disease and injury. In homage to the pragmatists, then, we might say that your prose is your capacity to "practice the truth", your ability to make something that works ... on the whole and in the long run.

Monday, October 08, 2012

One Idea at a Time

I wrote another stand-alone page recently called "27 Minutes". Added to "40 Paragraphs" and "16 Weeks", a nice set of a not-quite-arbitrary proportions to guide your scholarly writing is emerging. You can read these pages by following the links in the sidebar on the right.

I say "not-quite-arbitrary" because these guidelines are supposed to feel at least a little arbitrary. They constitute an order you can impose on your writing process no matter what you are writing about and no matter how the work is going intellectually. If you're struggling with your ideas, you will now be struggling with your ideas 27 minutes at a time, working on 1/40th of the problem, as part of a 16-week program (divided into two 8-week periods). This allows you to appreciate your finitude, and the finitude of your writing problem.

We might also say that this approach allows you to work on your writing one idea at a time. By "idea" here I mean that which is expressed in a single true sentence supported by a paragraph. It is something you know. You can work on an idea as many times as you like, as long as you do it for 27 minutes and then stop. After a three-minute break, you move on to another idea, or you stop writing for the day.

On my approach, you can work on any given idea as many times as you like, not as long as you like. Don't spend an entire day, or (as some people do) several days, vaguely trying to think "something" through. Sit down every day for 27 minutes and write something down. In some exceptional circumstances, you might sit down every day for a week and work on the same idea, writing the same paragraph five times. But this should happen only near the completion of the paper, when you know that this paragraph is the one that needs the work.

That is, you can write a paragraph as a many times as you like, but not as often as you like. As a general rule, try to work on each of the forty paragraphs once before you work on any of them twice. (An exception here can be the introductory and concluding paragraphs, which you might return to once after having written, say, half the paper.) Then decide which ones to work on again. And then work through that list before you get hung up on any one idea/paragraph. This keeps your process "flowing", rather than getting stuck.

If you are left with a single paragraph to work over again and again, I recommend doing it only once a day. You'll find sleeping helps solve the problem. You may as well sleep between each attempt.

Friday, October 05, 2012

The Scientist and the Artist, part 3

I've been arguing that there are important differences between scientific and artistic values. It is not that one activity is more or less valuable than the other. It is that they pursue different aims. The artist does not have to be embarrassed about not discovering the truth. Likewise, the scientist does not have to worry about revealing a new beauty.

But Zorthian's complaint to Feynman does suggest that beauty and truth may share a common ecology. At times, the dogged pursuit of truth will interfere with the pursuit of beauty. It may even produce something ugly. The image of the "mad scientist" or "evil genius" offers something of a model here. It is not that there is no truth in what they do; it is just that they have abandoned all other values. Likewise, we must beware of the artist whose work overwhelms us with its beauty, blinding us to truths that we would like to know.

Under the "cold gaze" of the scientist, in the glare of the laboratory's lights, the flower (or the woman) ceases to be beautiful and begins to express a truth. But, by a similar token, the artist's studio sets the object in a light that obscures the truth, at least long enough to reveal its beauty.

So, I guess I side with Zorthian after all. Science can "subtract" something from our experience of beautiful things. (And if Feynman thought about it for a moment he would admit this, since he knows that in order to see one aspect of a thing, we must shut out a great deal of other aspects.) But I add the equal and opposite warning for the artist: You may have access to an especially difficult (and especially rewarding) beauty. But by bringing it before us, you blind us to the truth.

Like all valuable pursuits, it's not easy. There are tough choices to make. Might I recommend reading Albert Camus' "Helen's Exile".

Thursday, October 04, 2012

The Scientist and the Artist, part 2

Zorthian might of course just as well claim that the "truth" about the flower is as available to him as it is to Feynman. He may not be as scientifically "refined", of course, but he can understand the cell structure and the biological processes that constitute the flower. You don't have to be a scientist to know something, just as you don't have to be an artist to appreciate something.

But Zorthian is right to say that science can interfere with our enjoyment of life. At 3:58, for example, he reminds Feynman that he knows perfectly well how to enjoy the company of a beautiful woman and that it would not have very much to do with marveling at the evolutionary process that produced her physiology. Now, as a debating point, I think Feynman's next move should be to suggest that art can also interfere with our enjoyment of life. To approach the beauty of a woman as an artist means to render that beauty "problematic", to engage with it as a difficulty to be overcome (e.g., how to capture this beauty on the canvas), not as a gift to be enjoyed.

But this would undermine Feynman's message of hope and abundance. "Science ... adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of the flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts," he says, with an almost desperate intensity. But the simple point here is of course that any specialization of effort will focus on some things and leave other things at the margins of our attention. Science must leave beauty at the margins of experience as it pursues truth. Art must leave truth at the margins as it pursues beauty.

In the end, science will hopefully produce knowledge that helps us to live more intelligently. Art will produce works that help us experience life more fully. But neither the art nor the science is, in itself, life. That is why we don't want a society run by either scientists or artists alone. We want a society that has a place for both.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Scientist and the Artist

John Keats famously said that "beauty is truth, truth beauty". In this clip, starting at 2:30, Richard Feynman makes a similar argument for the beauty of science and, not incidentally, the science of beauty. I think it is important to push back on this idea in order to clarify our values. Art and science are both valuable pursuits, but the value of art is not the value of science.

Feynman and Zorthian both err, to my mind, by approaching this as a kind of contest. Zorthian (Feynman's "artist friend") had apparently argued that science destroys the beauty of natural things, like flowers, by "taking [them] all apart". And Feynman then explains that this is not only not true, science can see much more beauty in the flower than the artist. It is as if they both think there is only one way to be right, and that is to appreciate the beauty of something. (There is of course something admirable about that scale of values.)

This morning I want to deal specifically with Feynman's argument. Tomorrow I'll have a closer look at the alternative example Zorthian proposes at the end of the clip.

Feynman begins by saying that he also recognizes the immediate beauty of the flower. But it is telling how quickly he passes over it to get into the biology of the thing. He claims that "the beauty that is available to [Zorthian] is also available to me", what Zorthian sees, Feynman sees. But he makes an important concession: "I may not be as aethetically refined". And that of course the whole point of Zorthian's objection. The beauty of the flower that Zorthian sees is simply not "available" to the scientist (qua scientist) in the same way, to the same degree, that it is to the artist. "Beauty is difficult," (said Beardsley to Pound). For the artist, the beauty of the flower is the hard part, not just an obvious impression it makes on us. It is the point of artistic engagement to bring that beauty out.

Feynman then goes on to claim that the science of flowers, its understanding of cells and even the science of perception, somehow bear upon the beauty of the flower itself. But the fact that science, too, has an aesthetic dimension, the fact that a cell, for example, can be beautiful, or that knowledge can be elegantly expressed in words and pictures, does not speak for science's appreciation of the beauty of the flower that Zorthian held before Feynman.

This is going to take a few more posts to get clear about, I can see.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Basic Discipline

"We cannot think if we have no time to read, nor feel if we are emotionally exhausted, nor out of cheap material create what is permanent. We cannot co-ordinate what is not there." (Cyril Connolly)

A scholar should write at least 27 minutes a day. (There are different schools of thought about this. I'm just going to tell you what I think this morning.) In the evening, the scholar articulates one thing he or she knows in a simple, declarative sentence. In the morning (usually as the first order of business) the scholar writes a paragraph in support of that truth. The paragraph should be at least six sentences long and no more than 200 words. The 27 minutes includes writing, reading out loud, and some editing. After 27 minutes, the scholar takes a three-minute break and moves on to the next order of business, which may or may not be another paragraph, the central truth of which had also been articulated the previous evening. The scholar will write up to six paragraphs in this manner on a given day, i.e., no more than three hours' worth.

By observing this discipline, the scholar's mind is formed in a particular way. The scholar is making explicit the units of his or her knowledge. The scholar is training an ability to produce prose of a particular kind, namely, scholarly prose. If the scholar is already a good writer, the scholar is keeping himmerherself in shape, maintaining also the ability to focus dependably, long enough to form a thought in prose. Discipline coordinates a "there" for the work of knowing.

Monday, October 01, 2012

The University

"Your finer senses are protected, the eye by bone socket, etc."
Ezra Pound (ABC, p. 82)

Universities are sites of 'fine sensation', let's say. They are places where one can cultivate and exercise what Jonathan Mayhew calls "receptivity". Just as the eye needs the skull to protect it, so too do the finer receptors (and even 'motors', the tiny engines) of our minds need to be protected from social pressures of various kinds. We can ask: do universities protect our finer senses?

These last few posts might sound like a complaint about the state of the university. They are, at least, an expression of concern. (I'm no longer employed at a university, so I am not really in a position to complain.) The idea that "the work of knowing" is an exercise of highly sensitive mental faculties, and that scholars must therefore be "protected" by their institutions of higher learning seems to have fallen somewhat out of favor. What's so special about academics? people now ask in all seriousness. Why should they have special protections?

The answer is as simple as Pound's truism about the eye. Scholars have been entrusted with the task of knowing complicated things, of understanding difficult issues. To do this they need to keep their minds "open"; they need a certain amount of naiveté about social life. They cannot continuously worry about the social relevance of their work, the security of their job, their ability to find funding for the next project, even to publish, and also care properly for their objects of knowledge.

The thick skin they develop to deal with these pressures necessarily implies reduced sensitivity.