Friday, April 24, 2015

Solving the Problem of Representation (3)

Here's a practical little trick that sometimes helps people write their paragraphs. Remember that my advice is always to decide today what and when you'll write tomorrow. (Happiness is knowing that tomorrow you will write.) You have to choose something that you know well enough to write about today, but then wait until tomorrow to write it. Tomorrow, then, you sit down at the appointed time and write your paragraph of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words, stating a claim and providing support for it. You begin with the sentence you chose yesterday ...

And this is where people sometimes run into to trouble. What seemed to be "the truest sentence that you know" yesterday afternoon, seems altogether less founded in the morning as you try to construct a paragraph to support it. You feel vague, even ignorant. What should you do? Well, you should not stop writing and start reading, and you should not try to think of something else to write about. You've made a commitment to this paragraph. For the next twenty-seven minutes, make an honest effort to represent the fact it is about.

But what to do with your doubts about whether it is even a fact? Whether you know what you're talking about? Here's the simple trick. Write the negation of the sentence. If you had hoped to say, e.g., that the Internet has changed the way companies communicate with their customers, but can't think of why that is or how that is true, then type out the following sentence: "The Internet has not changed the way companies communicate with their customers." However much you may be in doubt about the first sentence, you'll probably now feel an immediate sense of certainty that this sentence is false. Okay, write down the reasons you are so sure, and then notice that these are also reasons to think your original sentence is true.

Another trick is to tweak the original sentence a little until you feel it's sitting more comfortably on your knowledge base. Maybe it isn't the Internet but social media you meant, maybe it's not businesses but organisations, maybe it's not customers but stakeholders. The original idea was true enough; you had just chosen the wrong words to express it.

All of this work of negating and tweaking your decision from the day before is to be done in the twenty-seven minutes you have given yourself to represent a particular fact in a particular paragraph of prose. Get used to doing this work. It really is at the core of scholarship. It's what we expect scholars to be capable of doing. With time, you will derive real pleasure from succeeding.


Jonathan said...

I'll try this: "The matter of who killed Lorca is a fact very easy to represent in language."

Thomas said...

Indeed! I wouldn't know, but I imagine that its easy (for you) to say "It's difficult to say who killed Lorca". It's a tenable position among Lorca scholars, right?

A graduate student studying Lorca, then, might find herself in doubt one morning. So she tries the negation, "It's easy to say..." Then she thinks, "Okay, how would that be easy?" And she realises she'd have to commit to something like "Franco killed Lorca." If that were true, it might be easy to represent. But then she tries to imagine that paragraph and realises how wrong it would be. The various partial and conflicting facts of the murder, however, ultimately add up to support for her original sentence. And then her 27 minutes are up. Time well spent.

One thing your sentence made me realise is that when we say that a scholar has "said" something we mean, precisely, "represented a fact in language". In ordinary language, "saying" can mean many other things. But when "Mayhew says" something, we're talking about representation.

Jonathan said...

Just to clarify, there are a hundred ways of talking about who killed Lorca that are not accurate. For example, "Franco killed Lorca." (another general gave the order, not Franco, it was Queipo de Llano) Franco's army killed him (it was a paramilitary, not the army itself.). The Falange arrested him (it was a paramilitary from another party, not the Falange.). So even if you know the facts, they are hard to represent in language. One case I came across recently said he was killed "because of his opposition to Franco." But he was killed for who he was before the war, not for some opposition he evinced in the month of the war that he survived.

That's why I chose that example. Something very simple, but that would take more than a paragraph to represent accurately even with the facts before one.

Thomas said...

Ah! Now we're getting into it. On my view, it never really makes sense to say "It would take more than a paragraph to represent" something. Any fact can be represented in, first, a sentence and, next, a paragraph. That's just what a fact is.

You may be saying that there is no (known) fact of the matter about who killed Lorca. But you can't (if I'm right) say that the (known) fact of Lorca's murder cannot be represented in a single paragraph. If it can be represented in any amount of paragraphs, it can be represented in one. And therefore, like I say, also in a single sentence.

Jonathan said...

Like Russell says in his prologue to Witt, language can be vague. How exactly do we want to represent a fact? There is a matter of scale, and a point at which more exactitude becomes less significant. Yes, a sentence would do, if it were accurate enough. A paragraph too. I am dealing with headlines today that a police document from 29 years after the death "proves" that Lorca was killed because he was a freemason and gay. Well, the document says that, and is official, but what does it prove? It is a fact that the document says this, but is it a fact that Lorca was a mason? That he was killed for this reason?

Thomas said...

Let's say that the fact of Lorca's death can be expressed more or less specifically and more or less accurately.

Lorca died.
Lorca was murdered.

I suppose the first is actually more certain than the second. But a paragraph could be written to establish (i.e., argued for) either.

Lorca was murdered by the fascists.
Lorca was murdered because he was gay.

These, if I understand you correctly, are getting the fact in some sense wrong, though a paragraph could be written in support of each.

It's not clear why Lorca was murdered.
We don't know why Lorca was killed.

Notice that these differ slightly. I guess something could be made of the difference between "murdered" and "killed". But here's one that's quite wrong:

We don't know why Lorca died.

In that sense—i.e., "cause of death"—the facts are pretty clear.

To me, the important thing is to form a belief about why he was killed and by whom. Then you express that belief in your writing and hope that it's also an accurate representation of the fact.