The Art of Writing

This week’s talk in the Art of Learning series is going to be very squarely “in my wheelhouse,” as they say. My goal is to present the core of my approach to academic writing in a structured improvisation lasting about one hour. There will then be plenty of time (another hour) to answer questions from the (live and online) audience. I have found that the second hour is especially useful, forcing me to clarify things that I said, a raising issues that I forgot to mention as I talked. As usual, I want to put some of my thoughts in blogpost form first.

My views on writing are inspired by figures as disparate as Ernest Hemingway and Roland Barthes. I believe they would support me in my conviction that writing, like reading, is an experience within experience. The task of the writer is to represent their experience in words that intersect meaningfully with the experience of the reader. (What the words mean depends on the shared the experiences of the reader and the writer.) Writing gives one human being access to the experience of another, allowing them to measure both the writer’s experience and their own, and, by that means, approach some objective sense of the “truth”. The future of our objectivity, we might say, depends on the history of writing.

Needless to say, we will begin with Hemingway’s iceberg. “The dignity of the movement of an iceberg,” he said, “lies in only one eighth of it being above water.” He said our writing should have such dignity, and he believed that, in the case of novelists and reporters, it came from the experience that the writer could safely leave out of the story because the reader would feel its presence anyway. The dignity of “academic” or “scholarly” writing, I will argue, comes from a variety of other sources, including experience, but also a lot of reading, and adds up to a formidable competence beneath the surface of our texts. (It is this competence, I should say, that my neologism “inframethodology” refers to.) Virginia Woolf wrote about “the loneliness that is the truth about things” but, while this may indeed be the ultimate subject of literature, academic writers have other things (and even objects!) to write about; scholarship deals with the truth that can be talked about to others.

Academic writing is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. Some people feel confident in their own heads and when speaking to live audiences, but they lack that confidence when they write. Others feel confident, when thinking “on paper” but not when speaking in public. Find your strength in any one or two of the primary manifestations of academic knowledge (thinking, talking, writing) and then leverage it in your attempt to develop the other(s). Work from the center of your strength.

Last week I wanted to say more about how exactly to train your ability to think, how to extract the propositions from your beliefs and discover the possibilities implicit in their concepts and objects. I’m going to get a chance to say something about this on Thursday as part of the “seven disciplines” of academic writing, which is essentially the art of composing paragraphs and arranging them into essays and papers. The trick is to establish a serious “writing moment” at the beginning of each learning day. With a little discipline, you can sit yourself down every morning and address yourself for 20 or 30 minutes to a like-minded peer (imagine a serious, fellow student). Part of this discipline is deployed the day before, when you think of something to say; the rest is exercised as one of the first intellectually challenging tasks of the day. You find the difficulty in what you are saying and make your claim a little easier for your reader to believe, understand, or agree with. That’s what the art of academic writing is mostly about: supporting, elaborating, and defending propositions you think are are true.

The Art of Thinking

You can’t learn something without thinking about it. You have to “get your mind around it”, as they say. Some things require a great deal of thought, some just a moment of reflection, but there’s no way around the problem of thinking. It’s one of the skills you are developing as a university student; it may even be the most important one; and it will be the subject of my talk tomorrow afternoon in the Art of Learning series. As usual, I want to use a blog post to prepare, working through the three levels on which I intend to approach the question.

First, thinking is the art of making up your mind, of forming a belief. It’s the process by which you reach a judgment about what is going on, or what it means. This judgment can then be expressed in a sentence and that’s actually what we mean when we say a sentence “expresses a thought”. And the important thing about judgments, assertions, and sentences as the foci of our thinking is that they can be wrong; a sentence doesn’t have to be true to be meaningful. We can even think something is true — that is, we can believe something — without it actually being so. Thinking isn’t yet knowing (if we define knowing as justified, true belief); it is a matter of putting things and ideas together in our minds to form propositions, i.e., the contents of our mental states.

The father of modern analytic philosophy, Gottlob Frege, once suggested that concepts are just “functions” that take objects as “arguments” and, when they do this, their value is “true” or “false”. In mathematics you can have a function like f(x) = x+2 and if you put 6 in for x (if you make 6 the argument of the function), its value is 8. Frege asked us to imagine a function like f(x) = “x is a horse”. If you put Bobbie in for x (if you make Bobbie the argument of the function) it is false. But if you put Secretariat in for x, it is true. In that sense, the concept “horse” lets us make true and false judgments about things in the world. Indeed, it lets us think about every single blessed thing in the universe; it lets us consider whether it is a horse or not. We might say that thinking is the art bringing concepts and objects together “for the sake of argument”.

The second level on which I want to approach thinking is as a means with which we can distinguish belief from understanding and imagination. We can never be sure that we know something because we can never be sure that what we believe is true. We always think we know things. We can understand the sentence “Bobbie is a horse” just as well as we can understand the sentence “Secretariat is a horse” but only one of them is true. Here “thinking” can be seen as way of bringing true and false sentences onto a level playing field so that they can be compared to each other. In understanding, that is, the two sentences are equals, they mean comparable things. This also means that we can form an image of the two animals in our minds. To think, you have to use your imagination.

And this brings us to the third level, which is perhaps the most philosophical, even “transcendental” level. Thinking can shift our perspective from our beliefs and judgments, to our understanding and imagination, and then on to the “conditions of the possibility” of our objects of knowledge. We can reflect upon how things must be (think ontologically) and how our minds must work (think epistemologically) in order for it to be possible to know them. When Kant tried to do this, he focused on what he called our “intuitions”, the sense in which objects are “given” to us, as it were, “immediately”. We see a horse and recognize it immediately because the concept and object come together instantly when we see the horse on the meadow. But how is this possible?

That’s something we can think about. We can try to catch ourselves in the act of making these snap judgments and we can notice that sometimes they lead us astray and sometimes they save us a lot of time. Kant tried to capture the things we always already get right in experience, the things that must be true for us to have any experiences at all. But we can recognize the “contingency” of these intuitions, too, the sense in which particular experiences depend on a variety of different factors. Some of those factors have a long history, some a broad sociology, and some a deep psychology. There are things that are very difficult to believe, and even imagine, but some of them are, indeed, difficult even to think. Something — something in our livesseems to prevent us from “going there” immediately — we have to find a “back way” to them, if you will. As Heidegger put it, the whole point of metaphysical thinking is to “prepare a free relationship” to the things we think we understand. This requires us to think.

I realize that all of this is a bit philosophical. And I want to assure you that you don’t have think this deeply (if that’s what I am) about everything all the time. In fact, I recommend that you don’t, and instead develop some strategies for deciding when to think at the different levels I’ve suggested and how long to remain there. Most of your thinking should consist of the free arrangement concepts and objects in the construction of propositions that you can then try to decide whether are true or false. Some of your thinking — probably also quite a bit of it — will involve trying to understand what those propositions really mean, and trying to imagine the facts that they imply. Finally, you will sometimes run into the limits of your thinking; you will feel less free to think certain things that you’d like and you will have to try to explore the conditions under which you are doing it. “I can’t work under these conditions!” as the old complaint goes. Well, have a look at them. See if there’s something you can do about it. Think.

In my talk, I will try get all this to make a little more sense. You have to do a lot of thinking at university. There are different kinds of thinking and different ways to do it. My ways aren’t the only ones that work and the important thing is to find your own way of thinking — one that works for you. My view is that our ability to think can be improved by deliberate practice, and tomorrow I will try not to forget (as I almost did last week) to emphasize that being good at something means being able to enjoy it. To become good at thinking you have learn to take pleasure in it, to find the joy in it. It can be as fun as imagining dragons.

The Art of Reading

I have heard it said that the two standard tutorial questions at Oxford are “What does he mean?” and “How does he know?” I doubt the report—no university could be that good…

wayne C. Booth, A rhetoric of irony, p. x.

Reading is an indispensable part of learning. And while it sounds like a simple skill, there is a whole art of academic reading that you will master mainly through trial and error and deliberate practice. You have to find the right things to read, the time to read them, and the energy to understand them. That’s what I will be talking about tomorrow, and I thought I’d write a quick post on the subject to prepare.

Let’s begin with what you are reading. Obviously, as a student, you’re going to have to read what your teachers tell you to read, i.e., what is on the syllabus. But already here it can be helpful to think a little about what you are being asked to do. Course materials can include textbook chapters, journal articles, selections from books, classic essays, business cases, magazine and newspaper articles, and even the instructor’s own lecture notes and blogposts. Sometimes these are all gathered together for you in a compendium, and often they will be presented to you in electronic form in your “learning management system” (at CBS we use Canvas). And sometimes you will be asked to buy books (and cases) yourself. What all this means is that the form that your reading materials come to you in is not always the form in which they were originally published. It can be a very good idea to learn to distinguish between, e.g., textbooks, articles, and monographs. They were written for different purposes and should be read differently too.

When reading a textbook it’s important not to take it too seriously. It’s trying to cover a lot of ground as efficiently as possible, to define some terms, and to give you a sense of what the facts are in the area. It will never be the definitive statement on a subject that it often sounds like it is trying to be. Notice that it will often cite a bunch of sources, many of which will be classics in the literature. A textbook is merely your entry into that literature. The real learning will happen when you engage with the sources, often to find out that either the textbook or your reading of the textbook was wrong. There’s no shame in that for either of you. You are forming your ideas gradually as you read, not just this book but everything else, and the textbook’s author(s) can’t be expected to keep up with (or even track of) what you are learning. Use your textbook as a map of the area, not as a monument. It’s what gets you where you want to go. It’s nothing to see in itself.

Sometimes you will be given a journal article to read in one of your courses; sometimes it will merely appear as a source in a textbook or monograph. Either way, you should learn how to find it in the journal that originally published it, see it in the context of the other articles that were published that month, or quarter, or year. More importantly, remember that a journal article always strives to contribute to a conversation, so you might want to use the library’s citation databases to track down the articles that have cited the one you’re reading now after it was published. And take a note of the books and articles that it itself cites. When reading, remember that there are probably a couple of dozen people who have a serious interest in what it says. You are eavesdropping on the conversation they are having and trying to learn from it. As a student, the article wasn’t written for you, but you are expected to learn how to read one of these things and, eventually, how to write something like it. So notice how it is structured, and try to figure out how it works.

Sometimes you’ll be asked to read a whole book, but you’ll probably mostly be reading chapters of books. Every now and then, go to the library and find the whole book. Have a look at the chapter you’re reading in the context of the original book. Books, too, can be located in our citation databases, but they’ll normally not be part of a small, well-defined conversation. And they will have bibliographies of their own, though these will usually cover a much wider field. Still, it can be useful to take a note of what a book has been used for and what work it makes use of. This is all part of how it works, and, in a certain sense, learning to read is just learning how texts “work”, i.e., what you can use them for. At the end of the day, you’re using them to learn things, to acquire knowledge, and books are especially good at giving you this sense of what is there to be known, even if they’re not always the most up-to-date sources of knowledge available. They are the monuments you can see from a distance.

There are lots of other kinds of reading matter. I usually recommend that people read some high quality magazines — like the Economist, Harper’s, or the New Yorker. Not only are they good sources of information, they usually provide you with examples of good prose that you can use as benchmarks for your own style. You should probably also try keep abreast of what goes on in the daily newspapers. In a similar vein, there is no shortage of “pulp” non-fiction out there: knowledge-based books aimed at a popular audience. Here, again, the prose is usually serviceable and the ideas are often interesting. Finally, do not think that reading poetry and fiction is a waste of time. I have found that poetry often helps me to see things in prose I wouldn’t otherwise have noticed, and that reading a novel can be a good way to train my sense of narrative when telling my own (entirely true) stories. Whatever you do, make sure that you are reading something for pleasure on a regular basis. You don’t want “the literature” to feel like work all the time. It will be good for your style to experience a little of what Nabokov called “aesthetic bliss” when you’re reading.

When it comes down to it, the art of academic reading is the art of reading paragraphs. For every paragraph in a well-crafted academic text, Booth’s ideal Oxford tutorial questions should apply. You should be able to ask, “What is the author trying to say in this paragraph?” and “How does the author know it is true?” Answering these questions for yourself is what reading a text carefully is all about. It’s fine to struggle to answer them. For a time, your answer may be “I don’t know”, and this will mean only “I don’t understand this paragraph”. But there will be times when you don’t think it’s your fault and there’ll be times when you’re right about this. It is simply not clear what the author is trying to say. And the author may simply not know what they’re talking about! This is hopefully not what you’ll decide is the case most of the time, but it’s perfectly normal to arrive at this conclusion. And it’s quite okay to change your mind a few times. The authors of the books you read aren’t going to take offence.

The Art of Learning

I’ve been looking forward to this week. Today I will be holding my first writing workshop of the semester and tomorrow the Art of Learning Series begins. My theme this year will be “rebauchery” — a word I have made up to name the process of bringing meaning into our work, of taking our problems into the workshop (“bauche”, cf. “debauchery”). This will require us to find the pleasure in our labors, to discover the purpose of our studies. As always, I find my inspiration in the instructions of Oliver Senior and will try to help our students “acquire the mental equipment by which their vision may be directed, extended, and refreshed.” 

Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands, 1944, Plate XVIII

If you want to learn how to draw hands you will need to sit down at your desk, take out a piece of paper and a pencil, hold one hand steady in front of you, in a comfortable position, in good light, and look carefully at it. Then, with your other hand, pick up the pencil and begin to mark up the page in such way that it represents what is present before your eyes, namely, a distribution of light and shadow that is recognizable as your own hand. This is not easy and your first attempts will probably not be very satisfying. But if you want to become good at this you’ll just have to keep trying.

Now consider the problem of writing down your ideas. Here, again, you’ll need to get comfortable with the situation. You’ll need to hold an idea steadily before your mind’s eye and, well, be a little “bright”, light it up. (“When I’m writing a poem,” said Tony Tost long ago, “I’m basically just trying to be brilliant.”) Just as you wouldn’t try to draw a hand as it looks when you’re waving it around in the dark, you don’t want to try to write down an obscure idea that keeps changing the more you think about it. Don’t pick something your hardly know is true. Pick something you know comfortably and get to work on the other difficulty: the problem of writing. That’s what my writing workshops are intended to show you how to do.

Martinus Rørbye, Scene Near Sorrento Overlooking the Sea, 1835. (Source: Nivaagaard Collection)
We must retract our offerings, burnt as they are.
We must recall our lines of verse like faulty tires.
We must flay the curiatoriat, invest our sackcloth,

 and enter the academy single file.

                      - Ben Lerner, The Lichtenberg Figures

To learn is to acquire new knowledge, to become knowledgeable — able-to-know and enabled-by-knowing. Though we say we “acquire” it, knowledge is not so much a possession as it is a competence. Knowledgeable people are capable of things — things they know something about — that ignorant people are not. Specifically, they are able to think about things, to talk about them, and to write them down. Students and scholars — academics, if you will — are more cognizant, more conversant, and more literate about their subjects than most people. Or that, in any case, is the ideal that guides our institutions of higher learning. On an average day, I am a defender, even a champion, of those institutions. I’m an idealist, let’s say.

My advice to students about how to get the most out of their education centers on those three basic skills: thinking, talking, and writing. But becoming good at these things requires us to consider some complementary ones: feeling, for example, and listening, and reading. So, in my Thursday afternoon talks, I will suggest ways to develop an academic comportment in our attempts to gain knowledge. After all, there are many ways of knowing and “academia” isn’t for everyone. Academic knowledge, we might say, is the sort of thing you can learn in school, and there are many things you very definitely can’t learn here. (Some would say there are things you positively mustn’t!) But there are also many things that can be imparted to you by way of books and lectures, and these things can be tested by way of writing and speaking. The gradual formation, and periodic examination, of your beliefs is what school is all about.

The last two talks are called “How to Enjoy Things” and “How to Know Things Again”. I’m looking especially forward to these talks because they introduce something that has occupied my mind this past year with increasing intensity. To be good at something is to be able to enjoy it. And if you have ever known something — I mean really known it — you know how to learn it (or similar things) again when you need to. You understand the discipline. You know your way around the workshop. And you can derive genuine pleasure from the work. That’s what I want “rebauchery” to mean.

The Place of Forms and the Form of Life

Martinus Rørbye, Scene Near Sorrento Overlooking the Sea, 1835. (Source: Nivaagaard Collection)

Words only have meaning in the context of a life. Your words matter to me not just because they matter to you but because I use those same words to similar ends. We are here with each other, each in our own way. Our words, Heidegger pointed out, are part of the “equipmental contexture” of our existence; even our most theoretical pursuits are subject to our moods and require material resources. Our language is invested with the significance of the things and people we rely on to carry on our work.

Heidegger also taught us that human existence (Dasein, being-there) is a “place of forms” (topos eidon in Greek), a locus of ideas, a site of meaning. All of us are meeting places for ideas, our own and always also those of others. And, as William Carlos Williams famously said, there are “no ideas but in things”, i.e., ideas come to us in the significance of the things we find in our environment. We are simply the clearing in which they come to light. Our words are illuminated by this significance, just as our lives are. When we write we share that light with others.

“To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life,” said Wittgenstein. Much of his work consisted of getting us to imagine various “language games”, i.e., activities in which words might be used in particular ways and in which their meaning would arise out of their use. “Speaking a language is part of an activity, or a form of life.” If that activity involves tools and materials of various kinds then those things (and the way we use them) will contribute to the meaning of the words we use (and the way we use them). To make myself understood by you I must understand your form of life.

Writers must discover this again and again. Kenneth Burke approached literature as “equipment for living”; Roland Barthes argued that “writing is essentially the morality of form”. “A writer’s problem does not change,” said Hemingway, “He himself changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it.” That is, the writer must find a way to arrange words such that what they mean in the context of the writer’s life remains when they are thrown into the context of the reader’s life.

Technical language (the language of the science, for example) is really just ordinary language used in the context of some specialized equipment. The language will include the names of the dials and switches on the machines we use to engage with the world and the instructions for using them correctly. This includes things like “interview transcripts” and “intercoder reliability”. To the right person, which is to say, the person who leads the right kind of life, properly trained in the methods we deploy, these concepts are meaningful in the ordinary way. Their “meaning is use,” as Wittgenstein might put it.

The words in this post, too, are only meaningful in the context of a particular kind of life. “Yes, the life of a philosopher!” you might say. Fair enough; I suppose I’m being a bit philosophical, and these words will only matter greatly to someone who is interested in such things. But all academics, to a certain degree, are invested in philosophy; and academia, too, is in any case a form of life. It can be useful to have a look around the place now and then, this place of a particular set of forms, this locus of a particular class of ideas. They are “in things” to. Try to find them. They are very close at hand, I promise you.