Stewards of the Facts

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

“The world is the totality of facts,” said Wittgenstein, “not things.” His early philosophy is no longer as fashionable as it once was, and he himself rejected it later in his life, but I’ve never really been able to shake the hold it got on me when I first read it. “We make ourselves pictures of the facts,” he also said, and I’ve made a great deal of that through the years.

“To think is to draw logical pictures of facts,” I tweeted yesterday, for example. “Philosophy is the art of their arrangement.” That was almost a plagiary of Wittgenstein, who said that propositions are logical pictures of facts, that such pictures are thoughts, and that philosophy could confine itself entirely to the perspicuous arrangement of scientific propositions. The austere “modernism” of that project has always appealled to me.

It is my view that scholars are stewards of fact, intellectual housekeepers. They maintain the machinery we need to cultivate a “propositional attitude” — a posture of belief, if you will, in “facts of the matter”. Ezra Pound said that good writers keep the language efficient as a means of communication and I would argue that good academic writers do this mainly in regard to our ability to make factual claims and challenge them.

As Bertrand Russell put it in his introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, “The essential business of language is to assert or deny facts.” Wittgenstein himself would later recant on this point, granting that language has a lot of other business to conduct on our behalf, but I would suggest that academics can reasonably take this as their “core business”, if you will, the logical form of their “value proposition”. The job of an academic is to assert and deny facts — to maintain and discard factual propositions in accordance with their truth and falsity.

Again, I understand that this is a rather “modern” value. Many academics today, working under the banner of some variety of “postmodernism” might chafe a bit at the idea their “job” is to keep “the facts” in working order. (Indeed, they might chafe at the idea of being told what their job is!) But perhaps our collective horror of the “post-truth condition”, our indignation over “fake news” and the circulation of “alternative facts”, can bring us together in a common cause?

Yes, this metaphysics of presence — this ontology of “facts” and epistemology of “truth” — is open to deconstruction. But surely there are some things that are more reasonable to believe than others? Perhaps our scholars can help us keep track of them. Reality may be a social construction, but surely a construction can be more or less well made?

Most of the important facts cannot be known to us by direct observation. Indeed, we are consigned to believe many of them simply because we have been told that they are the case. Others we must infer on the basis of our data, and we must be open to challenge from peers with data of their own. So long as we clearly distinguish between our claims and our basis for making them, we are opening ourselves to the criticism of people who are qualified to tell us that we are wrong. In this environment, claims may be evaluated on a running basis, even if some of them are likely to be wrong. We’re not going to get all the facts right, but we’re also not going to leave the truth entirely to chance.

We can’t all be responsible for everything. My own “modernism” is predicated on a division of labor, which is itself an perfectly modern notion. Not only can a scholar not know all the facts, there are other responsibilities. Consider the politician who we hold responsible for “the acts”. Or consider the philosopher! Socrates famously claimed only to know that he didn’t know. His responsibilities lay elsewhere, and modern philosophy traced them squarely to a stewardship of our concepts, our categories of thought, our capacity for reason. Or consider the modern poet, whose job it is to refine our emotions, to keep the language of passion in working order, to keep upright our posture of desire.

Everyone has a job to do. Sometimes our fields overlap a little and that is fine, but we all have something to be good at, something to be proud of, and scholars, like I say, do well to understand themselves as stewards of factual discourse. They maintain the parts of language that we need to assert and deny statements about what is and is not the case. I think this is an important job.

* * *

I’ve been granted a leave of absence from my duties at the library this summer to work on a book. That also explains my lack of posting these past few weeks. Bu the writing is going well and I’ve decided to compose a little “Sunday sermon” like this every week on the side. I’ll jot down some notes while working on the book and then compose the sermon more or less extemporaenously on Sunday morning. Like this one, I will try to make them “edifying” in the moral sense — that is, I will try to reach your conscience.

More next week.

Craft Skills and Guild Privileges

Thinking about the (fading?) hopes and habits of my craft, a thought occurred to me and I pulled my long-suffering copy of Steve Fuller’s Philosophy, Rhetoric, and the End of Knowledge off the shelf and, as usual, it fell apart in my hands. I reassembled it and found that that the sentence I had remembered had been helpfully underlined by my younger self, probably twenty-five years ago. I don’t approve of that practice any longer (especially not using a pen!) but it was interesting to see how long these ideas have been with me.

“Scientists may prefer to concentrate the expression of their their knowledge claims in dense jargon rather than diffuse it through a cognitively permeable ensemble of words, pictures, artifacts, and ambience,” Steve tells us. “But that is a guild privilege that we can ill afford scientists to enjoy” (1993, p. xix). It was that last sentence I was looking for. I wanted to connect it to what turned out to be another underlined sentence in that book, which I have talked about before on this blog: “Truth and falsehood are properties of sentences in a language that has been designed to represent reality; prior to the construction of such a language, there is neither truth nor falsehood” (p. 189). Representation is difficult, and the difficulty, Steve tells us, is rhetorical. We have to “beat the logical positivists at their own game by envisaging what it would be like to implement their account of language.”

When I was 25, that’s what I thought I’d be doing when I grew up. And, in a way, that is exactly what happened. I am implementing language.

Scientists, researchers, scholars, academics … whatever we choose to call them … are using language to represent reality. Now, you might argue that everyone does this. “The essential business of language,” as Bertrand Russell put it, “is to assert and deny facts.” But a moment’s reflection should remind us that not everyone is trying so very hard to do this very well. Ordinarily, we don’t care very deeply about the facts. “In everyday life,” Steve reminds us, “an utterance is presumed to move its audience unless explicitly challenged.” We don’t usually use language to present our understanding of the facts with the intention of letting them correct us if we’re wrong. Ordinarily, we’re telling people how we feel about them and how we think they should feel about us. We’re telling them what to do, not what we’ve got on our minds. Represent reality? We pay people to do that! Scientists, researchers, scholars, academics …

“Ordinary language,” says Steve, “is ill suited to any of the usual philosophical conceptions of epistemic progress” (p. 187). But academic writers are no ordinary language users! We expect them to make progress in the usual, philosophical way, don’t we? We expect them to discover the truth and represent it. We want there to be people who know what the facts are and who can explain them. But must they be able to explain them to us? If ordinary language is “ill suited” to representation, why can we “ill afford” to let scientists use their jargons among themselves? Why must they paint us pictures too?

For Steve, it’s all about what in fact happens when a scientific claim is challenged. Scientists “will often justify it,” he says, “by invoking standards that, indeed would test the validity of the utterance if construed representationally, but which, under normal circumstances simply serve to terminate the discussion” (p. 189). Scientist who are challenged in public are likely to make hand-waving gestures at the complexity of the underlying data that supports their claims and, sometimes, even start browbeating skeptical objectors as “science deniers”. Sometimes they will invoke the intricate and expensive laboratory equipment that they use in their work, sometimes they will invoke the “vast peer-reviewed literature” that, effectively, insulates their own contributions from criticisms. “This institutional arrangement,” Steve reminds us, “is rather expensive to maintain,” but it is necessary if the the language is to afford us “representation” and “reference” (p. 188). All too often, unfortunately, this system of reference becomes a system of deference — a signal that continuing a critical line of questioning will simply cost too much.

“The search of for truth is quite an artificial inquiry,” Steve admits, and “one that is directly tied to the regimentation of linguistic practices.” Those practices, in turn, are tied to “surveillance operations” that allow us to test the truth and falsity of utterances. But, to repeat, those operations, in part because they’re so expensive, are more often invoked than deployed, which brings about a slide from “the representational function of language” to the “rhetorical function of representation”; and here Steve makes a point that he couldn’t have understood the signifiance of back in 1993: “A common example of this representationalist rhetoric occurs whenever one scientist incorporates another’s results into her own research without feeling a need to reproduce the original study.” This was once a commonplace, but the replication crisis gives it scope!

These days, the problem isn’t that scientists are unwilling to abandon their “dense jargon” in favor of “a cognitively permeable ensemble of words, pictures, artifacts, and ambience.” In fact, the poster child of the replication crisis is still the second most watched TED talk of all time. Scientists are happy to make their work available for mass consumption as “ideas worth spreading”, long before they’ve let their peers approach them as theories worth testing. By the time somebody does apply a “verificationist semantics”, it’s often too late. Perhaps it is time to to return to a more “artisanal” sensibility? What we can’t afford is to let scientists circulate their representations only in the cognitively hospitable environment of the mass media, where their truth is more often presumed than challenged. We need to let them hold each other to their higher standards, their more expensive tastes. Like other guilds, we need them to regulate themselves.


F. débaucher is, according to Littré and Hatzfeld, derived from n. bauche, of which the precise sense and origin are according to the latter unknown; according to the former it = ‘a place of work, workshop’, so that desbaucher would mean orig. ‘to draw away from the workshop, from one’s work or duty’.

Oxford English Dictionary

I used to introduce my writing workshops by explaining the etymology of “debauchery”. Today, the word means “a vicious indulgence in sensual pleasures”, but it stems from “seduction from duty, integrity, or virtue; corruption.” The modern sense of “debauch” apparently emerged in the 17th century, i.e., at the beginning of the modern era, when we began to separate the pursuit of profit from the pursuit of pleasure. Today, of course, these pursuits are specialized, and localized in places like factories and brothels, office buildings and movie houses. We commute back and forth between drudgery and debauchery, meaningless toil and mindless fun.

The central message of this blog is that we must learn to “get back to work”, that in a “post-industrial” age that is becoming a little too comfortable with the idea of “knowledge production”, we must insist on research as a craft. A workshop is a place to take craftsmanship seriously and derive pleasure from the first-hand manipulation of materials. Quality in any art, I believe, depends on integrating (and in our age this means reintegrating) productivity and sensuality, industry and creativity. It is the opposite of the vicious indulgence in sensual pleasures — the pursuit of false pleasure, we might say. Quality is a true pleasure; it is the sensuality of work. We are not just ‘producers’, we are makers.

It is precisely in the development of a craft, after all, that it is important to see yourself as someone who makes something, not a merely particular kind of being. It is true that becoming a scholar will change you as a person, but it is your activities that will change you, not some act of will, and certainly not some state of mind.

I have found, for example, that many students, and even young faculty members, need to become much more assertive, much more confident about what they have to say. Some of them think they are following the example of the self-deprecating scholar who always reminds you how little they know, how new this topic is to them, how difficult it is even for them to understand. The students who witness this performance forget that it is an exercise in irony. The pose of the searching, uncertain scholar is grounded in an underlying confidence in their ability to speak intelligently on a range of subjects (those that define their field). Don’t think that if a famous scholar admits to being uncertain then your uncertainty, and your willingness to admit it, is a sure sign that you’ve got a future in scholarship. Look at what scholars do, not what they say they are, and ask yourself whether you can do it too.

And ask yourself whether you like it — indeed, whether you love it. Learn of the green world whether scholarship is the right place for you. “Pull down thy vanity,” as Ezra Pound put it, “what thou lovest well will not be reft from thee.” That passage seems to have inspired both Leonard Cohen and his mentor, Irving Layton.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Debauché, 1896,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Poets, especially those working in the tradition of the troubadours, have long insisted on the continuity of the art of poetry with the craft of love. They approached it as one integrated skill. “What thou lovest well remains,” says Pound, “the rest is dross.” Taking that as his title, Cohen meets an old acquaintance in a hotel room and blushes at the “hope and habits in the craft.” Ultimately, he finds himself happy that “we own our own skins”.

The “deliquesence”, as Pound might say, of both arts — of love and of poetry — can be traced to the deformations of capitalism, which Pound identified first as usury and later as simple avarice — or, more precisely, to the enticement to leave the workshop for more lucrative avenues of pleasure. The lust for easy profit inspires “the indefinite wobble” of language, the deterioration of craftsmanship, “the diffidence that falters.”

We must pull down our vanity. Pound finally attributed his “errors and wrecks” to the “mean[ness of his] hate”. “Love,” shouts Layton, “find me, spinning around in error. . . . Then strike, witless bitch, blind me.” Looking for love, he had “scooped up his hands with air”, perhaps unwittingly the same air from which Pound had “gathered a live tradition.” Cohen invokes “the perfect inflammatory word”. It’s the mot juste, I suppose, that we’re all looking for: some small sign that “it coheres all right/ even if my notes do not cohere,” as Pound puts it (Canto CXVI).

What I am searching for in this post is the sense of craftsmanship that keeps literary quality alive in the face of industry and entertainment, the obligations of the factory and the enticements dance hall, the equally empty threat of loveless work and promise of loveless pleasure. “If love be not in the house there is nothing,” said Pound. The workshop is where work is done with love still there. Ever imperfect in our inflammations, we try to keep it together, to find our composure, to pour our words into some stable vessel, to “make a gift of necessity”. But in the end it must cohere.

The rest is dross.


*This post brings together (and gently reworks) two old posts of mine. One is from 2005, back in the early days of the “poetry blogosphere”. The other is from 2011 at my now-retired blog about academic writing. I’m pleased to note the constancy of my obsessions, and embarrassed about how long I’ve been promising to write a book.

English Empiricism

Sometimes I think the education we dispense is better suited to a fifty-year-old who feels he missed the point the first time around. Too many abstract ideas. Eternal verities left and right. You’d be better served looking at your shoe and naming the parts.

Father Paulus (in Don DeLillo’s Underworld)

As adults approaching a foreign language we sometimes forget how easily children learn languages. We forget how easily we speak our first language. I wrote this post over fifteen years ago in response to a comment Jim Collier made to one of the first posts at my previous blog, Research as a Second Language, about the “intellectual style” of academic writing. Roey Elnathan’s column in Nature, “English is the language of science,” reminded me of it, and, rereading it today as a fifty-year-old who sometimes thinks he might have missed a point or two, I was surprised to find that I completely agree with my younger self. I even like the cut of his style! See what you think:

Abstract ideas are an unavoidable component of academic writing. One way to draw the line between empiricist and rationalist attitudes to abstraction is to distinguish the sorts of writing that count as “mastery” of the ideas in question. A rationalist will grant that you understand a given set of abstractions if you are able to correctly deduce other abstractions from them. An empiricist will generally expect you to be able to describe concrete particulars that fall under or are subsumed by the abstraction.

One of the reasons that academic English can be difficult to master is that academic discourse is largely a rational enterprise. That is, academics are expected to combine words and phrases in especially orthodox ways more often than they are expected to describe a particular matter of fact. This is not in itself a problem. I don’t want to suggest that one has to be an empiricist in order to write good English, nor that there is something fundamentally wrong with academic writing. I am simply trying to indicate a form of exercise that can be useful in developing one’s style, and which may even be pleasurable in its own right.

I want to suggest that your language can be more or less empirically sensitive. Your native tongue has, if you will, a broad palate. Through it, you can describe very ordinary, very personal situations and very exceptional, very impersonal ones. And you will be able to describe a whole range of situations in between. But if you are working with English primarily as a research idiom, there will be a region of insensitivity somewhere between your ability to buy a train ticket and your ability to articulate the consequences of deconstruction for management studies.

Roughly speaking, this is the region occupied by illustrative examples of abstract ideas.

The way to make this part of your English more sensitive to the things you learn is to use it. In the course of your research you will have a variety of experiences about which you will discover yourself to be more or less articulate. You will discover this by experiment. You will find yourself having to tell a story, to describe a scene, to name the parts of a given object.

In academic life we too often confine our expression to a relatively small set of abstract gestures, indifferent to the detailed state of particular affairs. Native speakers suffer less for this because they have their empiricism always on hand in their daily routine. It is, as it were, ambient. To get by at a basic level, and, more interestingly, in that intellectual mezzanine of the academy provided by the classroom, they engage in story-telling and description and naming with the enthusiasm of children. This, I would argue, is generally good for their style.

Non-native speakers will have to work at it more consciously. Faced with a set of abstract notions, you do well to describe concrete situations to which those notions may be applied. You do well to write anecdotes that illustrate your ideas, and to write detailed descriptions of objects that can be subsumed under them. Faced with concrete experiences you likewise do well to set them down in writing in such a way that you might recognize them later.

A good exercise here is to describe a “text book case” of your favourite abstraction in concrete terms (using no abstract terminology). Then show it to one of your colleagues and see if they “get it”. Throughout this process be on the lookout for lacunae (holes) in your language. Whenever you are at a loss for words, make an attempt to find them. Go looking for the phrases and constructions you need to illustrate your ideas. These will become elements of your style. It is a matter of building up a language that is able to articulate the rich texture of the research experience, not merely to trace the rough outline of its results.

A Sense of Accomplishment

Schematic of a Galilean telescope. Source: Wikipedia.

Data are “facts given or granted”. They can be distinguished from the facts that have to be established by your analysis. But we mustn’t forget that the data were themselves by no means easy to gather. Once we have our data, we can take them for granted in our analysis, but they first had to be wrung from experience through our procedures. We explain those procedures in our methods section so that our reader may come to trust us.

Many years ago, as a young philosopher learning about the social sciences, I was speaking to a fellow doctoral student about his research. I don’t remember what his research question was, except that it had something to do with “knowledge management” and that he was approaching it as an empirical problem. What I remember very clearly is how he talked about the survey questionnaire he had designed; he called it a “measuring instrument”. He had taken something that, for me, was an abstract and subtle phenomenon (knowledge) and turned it into something that could be measured. The answers to the questions on his survey (whether yes/no or on a scale) would give him data points for analysis. These data points would become facts he could take for granted, and on their basis he would establish his conclusions.

“Some Huxley or Haldane,” said Ezra Pound, “has remarked that in inventing the telescope Galileo had to commit a definite technical victory over materials.” He had to design and construct a “measuring instrument” to make his observations. But as has been pointed out by philosophers and historians of science for some time, his data were not immediately trusted by his fellow astronomers. He had to explain how the instrument worked before they would believe that what they were seeing through it were really, say, the phases of Venus as it circled the sun, not the Earth. He had to get them to understand how his equipment worked before they would grant him his facts. He had to commit a rhetorical victory too, we might say.

In your discipline, the methods you are using are probably well-established. You are using semi-structured interviews, or participant observation, or survey questionnaires, or archival documents, or you’re pulling data from trusted databases. (Need I emphasize that it’s called a data-base? A source of facts that can be taken for granted.) Your readers understand what you are talking about when you describe what you did. They will have a good sense of what sort of material you were working with in your analysis after you tell them that you conducted, recorded, and transcribed 27 two-hour semi-structured interviews. They’ve done this sort of work themselves so they know what you were looking at when you were “coding” them, just as an astronomer knows what it’s like to look through a telescope.

Of course, your peers also know what can go wrong. They know that even very good scientists can make mistakes, both in their collection of the data or in their analysis of it. So you have to demonstrate an awareness of the “sources of error”. You have to assure the reader that you did everything you could not to fall into traps that are familiar to them. These days, you may even have to persuade them that you did not abuse your “degrees of freedom”. The whole point of having data is that they can be taken for granted, so you don’t want there to be any doubt about how you came into possession of them. You want the reader to be able to trust you. The reader wants to be able to trust you.

It is precisely because you must be able to take your data for “given” that you can’t take your reader’s trust for granted. It’s hard work to make credible measurements and observations of a complicated reality. You must tell your reader that you did that work and that you understand its importance. A good method is no mean feat. Your methods section should be written with a sense of accomplishment.