How to Know Things

You can’t just believe what you are told. This used to be a truism but seems, for many, to have become an outrageous fact, indicating a, to my mind, fallacious hope. There are increasing calls among otherwise intelligent people for institutions that pronounce reliably on the pressing questions of the day. People don’t want to think for themselves it seems.

They want their minds made up for them. They think that “fake news” violates some basic right to an epistemic authority; they want a source of ready-made beliefs that can be counted on to be true. I think this situation is the result, first and foremost, of a failure of education, but it has been sustained by media, both new and old. We have forgotten how difficult it is know things. We no longer understand why it has to be this way.

Even to believe your own eyes in this day and age is no easy matter. And education too often simply shows us pictures of unbelievable sights, unimaginable feats, and then asserts them to be real and wonderful. What it should do is teach us to overcome the difficulty implied by our natural skepticism. If something is hard to believe, we should provide our students with the evidence we have for it. If something is hard to understand, we should not demand that they believe it before they are ready to.

The world is indeed wondrous and strange and it can take some time before it all makes sense, or even some part of it does. We have to let our students disbelieve us for a lot longer than any given exam period. What we have to insist on, however, is that they state their reasons to believe as they do, and that they consider ours for thinking otherwise. If disbelief and misunderstanding were normal states of the educated mind, perhaps a biased media wouldn’t be so confusing to us?

What, then, does it truly mean to know something? What is a knowledgeable person capable of? I want to go through this in a few posts, but the short answer goes something like this. Knowing is the ability to make up your mind, to speak your mind, and to write it down. It is the ability to form a justified, true belief about something, to interrogate, entertain and provoke people who are knowledgeable about it, and to compose a coherent prose paragraph that supports, elaborates or defends it.

Knowledge is maintained through the application of philosophical, rhetorical, and literary skills. Knowledgeable people don’t just hold correct opinions, they have reasons for doing so. They can distinguish good from bad questions, share a sense of humor, and passionately disagree with each other. All of these capacities require years, not just of learning, but of discipline. Knowing is a rich and complicated craft and it is not for everyone.

Minimum, Maximum, Exactum

Try to write paragraphs, I always say, of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words in exactly twenty-seven minutes. Please don’t feel this immediately as a constraint. Think of it like walking into a room that is just the right size for you to do a particular thing. It should feel safe and at the same time liberating. Some people, after all, set minimums only. They resolve to write at least 500 words a day, or to work for at least an hour. Others work to a “maximum” in the sense of trying merely to reach a goal. So they’ll write 1000 words or keep at it for two hours, sometimes using both goals and stopping when they reach the first. To my mind, this is a terribly imprecise way of organizing your work. My approach may seem more rigid, but is in fact very flexible. Crucially, it provides you with an ordinary, workaday sense of success and failure.

You decide in advance what you are going to say, i.e., what the key sentence of the paragraph is, and when you are going to say it, i.e., when the 27 minutes are going to start. Now, since the minimum is six sentences, your first problem is to find five things to say that support the claim in your key sentence. Once you’ve written six sentences your writing problem changes. You are now thinking more in terms of the quality of your argument than the mere quantity of your sentences. Improving the argument from here on might involve writing more sentences, but does not, formally speaking, require it. When (if) you reach 200 words the problem changes again. You now know your paragraph is probably getting too long and you have to ask yourself why. Did you subtly introduce a new topic? Are you repeating yourself? Are you just needlessly verbose?

Now, it is of course possible that you fail to keep within the minimum and maximum bounds. (Academic writing is not like one of those ridiculous businesses where, at least in the fictional universe of their advertising campaigns, “failure is not an option”.) But you only know you have failed because you have run out of time. Obviously, having written four sentences after five minutes is not failure. Nor is a 220 word chunk of prose at the 15-minute mark. And by similar logic, you haven’t succeeded when you’ve written 9 sentences using 176 words after 22 minutes. Anything could still happen! You could impulsively delete 5 sentences in the twenty-fifth minute. You could certainly find yourself writing another fifty words. You do have the option to sit still for five minutes, neither adding nor deleting, just reading the paragraph. But you have to keep at it.

The 27-minute “exactum”, which is a word I apparently have had to coin for this purpose, keeps the process centered, grounded, anchored. Pick your metaphor. It gives the experience of writing a small sense of its Sisyphean fate. It prevents you from “just getting it over with”. You start “in the middle” with a resolve to write for exactly 27 minutes. At the lower limit you have to write six sentences. At the upper limit you must stay within 200 words. That’s the nature of the problem. Defined in its finitude.


I also recommend you do your feedback this way. Here it’s important to set a specific amount of time, like 9 minutes, that stands in some meaningful proportion to the amount of time spent writing. Stick to it exactly. That is, let the person who is giving you feedback sit and think in silence as long as they need, but if the time runs out, that’s it. The feedback was that the reader couldn’t think of anything to say. In any case, it’s much easier to experience the (mild) discomfort of criticism if you know it will stop at a certain time, rather than when the critic runs out of ammunition.

Giving, and Taking Time

It’s been a while since I read Bourdieu’s critique of Mauss’s theory of gift giving. As I recall, Mauss reduced gift-giving to an economic transaction–receiving a gift obligates you to return one. Bourdieu pointed out that this forgets the role of time. If you give someone their gift back later the same day, you aren’t really giving them a gift. Rather, you are misunderstanding the institution. The whole point is to give them something else and at some other time. But both the difference and the deferral are not specified in some set of explicit rules. You work it out by feel. I’m probably butchering Bourdieu’s subtle notion here, but this “feel” for the institution of gift-giving is shaped by experience, what he calls “habitus”.

I was talking about this recently and realized that the notion of time plays a significant role in my understanding of “giving” feedback, or what might be called “the gift of feedback”. If someone spends weeks and weeks on a paper and asks you for feedback, and you look at the first page and grunt your disapproval, we can all agree that you haven’t really given them anything. (Even though you arguably gave them that tiny bit of your attention entirely for free.) But the same is true if you overdo it. If I spend a few hours on the weekend throwing together a draft introduction and you hold on to it for two weeks, finally identifying every error, tracking down every source, and completely destroying my argument, you also haven’t really understood what I was asking for. There has to be some proportion between my effort as a writer and your effort as a critic. Otherwise the feedback just doesn’t feel right.

This is why I always propose carefully measuring your effort and that of your reader. You spend 27 minutes writing a paragraph and you imagine your reader taking about 1 minute to read it. When you ask someone for feedback, you’re of course asking them to be a bit more than an ordinary reader, so let’s say 9 minutes per paragraph. You’re asking them to spend 1/3 of the time you spend writing something, perhaps reading it out loud, trying to identity the key sentence, and making some judgments about how well it all works. You can imagine this being done with a single paragraph, or a series of paragraphs, but the important thing is to imagine your reader/critic devoting a reasonable amount of time to the task, an amount that stands in some measurable proportion to the time you spent writing it…

…and to the time you will spend re-writing it. To receive the gift of feedback is to spend another three times as long as your reader writing the text again, one paragraph at a time. In any case, feedback is a gift. It takes time.

Getting Better

It’s natural to expect to become a better writer over time. Students, especially, should expect to be better writers at the time of their graduation than when they started in their program. Specifically, they should become better at writing about a particular range of subjects, defined by their curriculum. But they should also, more generally, become better at writing about anything they happen to be knowledgeable about. This ability is a valuable one.

What does it mean to be good at writing about things you know? Let me emphasize, first of all, that not all people have this ability. They may be very knowledgeable about something but have never found a way of writing effectively about it. This is very often the case with “know-how”, i.e., the knowledge needed to do certain things, like cooking or playing the piano. In a certain sense, you can’t be knowledgeable about “academic” matters without knowing how to write about them because the ability to write about them is part of the competence of knowing. But, in another sense, their are many knowledgeable scholars who either don’t write very good prose or write well only with great difficulty. These people want to become better writers separate from their desire to know more.

One of the reasons I promote the “writing moment” is that it lets you experience your competence as a writer in a particular way. One question you can ask is whether it is easy to write at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words about something you know in 27 minutes. Another, perhaps more important, question is whether you enjoy those minutes. Does it give you pleasure to write about things you know? It is my view that being good at something means, in part, being able to enjoy it. (This also goes for cooking and music.) Enjoyment is a trainable skill, we might say; knowing how to do something pleasurably is simply an advance on being able to do it painlessly. And if it pains you to do something you are doing it wrong. You’re not good at it.

By focusing your efforts on a single, well-defined claim (stated in the key sentence), and limiting yourself to a specific time in a specific place, you are giving yourself an occasion to have, and therefore potentially to enjoy, an experience. Too many people, too often, try to write without actually experiencing the pleasure it affords us. It is of course because, in their experience, it’s either tiresome or painful to write. But, in an important sense, I suspect they’ve never really had the relevant experience. They’ve put words together on a page but they’ve never really tried writing. They haven’t given themselves the opportunity to enjoy it. That’s tragic because it costs so little–indeed, it only takes a moment–and brings such great rewards.