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.

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