The Prose of the World (1)*

The Prose of the World is the title of a posthumously published book by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (who borrowed the phrase from Hegel) and the title of the second chapter of Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things. “Prosaic writing,” said Merleau-Ponty, “limits itself to using, through accepted signs, the meanings already accepted in a given culture.” He distinguishes both “great prose” and poetry from such ordinary prose writing and says that prose it’s what you get “when a writer is no longer capable of … founding a new universality and of taking the risk of communicating”. Well, I would argue that academic prose is also incapable of “founding a new universality” (though it should risk communicating), and this is really for the better. Academic writing is very much an attempt to use the language within the limits of accepted usage. There is a whole world of prose: the universe of which it is always already possible to speak.

It is possible to read Foucault as an argument for the contingency of this prosaic world. “Don Quixote is the negative of the Renaissance world,” he tells us; “writing has ceased to be the prose of the world.” And it is of course true that Merleau-Ponty’s “new universalities” do emerge, that the conditions of (prosaically) meaningful communication do change. For him, poetic language was the means by which such changes occurred. Again, I want to emphasize the virtues of prose, of ordinary usage, of writing that does not imply institutional change or the dissolution of what Foucault called the “alliance” of “resemblances and signs”. It is in ordinary, academic prose that we make and support knowledge claims — an expose them to critique. Somebody has got to do it.

And not nearly enough of us do, I think. Many academics struggle with the language in the manner of Don Quixote, who “wanders off on his own,” as Foucault put it. We “no longer read nature and books alike as part of a single text”, in terms of their similitude. But why not? Why don’t we acknowledge the simple utility of producing a description of the facts, or articulating them in prose? Why have we become so skeptical of this basic function of writing? My answer is simply that we are out of practice, and therefore a bit out of shape. We’re in poor form.

Students and, too often, scholars do not make writing a regular part of their studies, of their life of inquiry. In relative terms, they do “read a lot”, but they read even ostensibly factual prose as though it were the accounts of adventures of madmen, “without content, without resemblance to fill their emptiness … no longer the marks of things … sleeping … covered in dust” (Foucault, op. cit.). Maybe we will never recover of our form. All it would take, of course, is a bit of regular work. We would need to sit down, for an hour or two every day and record what we know as claims that have support. And when we read the work of others, we would read them as making claims and offering support in turn.

Instead, it often seems, we have, like Foucault, come to see such activities as tantamount to a belief in magic. All writing has become fiction. We appreciate each other’s writing in the manner of literature rather than simply and straightforwardly “taking issue” with what is said. We suspend disbelief, we might say. We don’t assume that the words we are using are meaningful in the ordinary prosaic way and may therefore be compared to, i.e., “read against”, the world of facts that make our utterances true or false. Ironically (which is to say, appropriately), this little rant in favor of the representational function of language will be considered by many to be the ravings of a madman who has read, with a certain romance, too many books (written by logical positivists!) and his brain has dried up. Perhaps I am tilting at windmills?

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*This was originally published in 2011 on my old blog. Lightly edited here.

Fact and Image*

“To whom then am I addressed? To the imagination.”

“The jump between fact and the imaginative reality” (William Carlos Williams, Spring and All, p. 3, 70)

It is the task of research to “determine the facts” and it is the task of research writing to articulate those facts in coherent prose paragraphs. But there is no automatic way to get from the fact in the world to the paragraph in an article. The facts do not make themselves known, and they certainly don’t write themselves down. Wittgenstein rightly said that “We make ourselves pictures of the facts.” That is, we have to imagine them.

I worry that this “jump” is being forgotten in academic writing today, certainly within the social sciences. What C. Wright Mills called “the sociological imagination” has been gradually replaced (as Mills himself complained when he developed the notion) with a kind of unreflective sociological “confidence” or, better, arrogance. (And this of course leads to all kinds of feelings of insecurity in the individual scholar who is trying to write.) It is a faith in (and orthodoxy about) the ability of theory and method to establish an, if you will, “official” relationship between facts and our statements about them.

Although this point is not made explicit, it strikes me as an attempt to make do without imagination. It is an attempt to “address ourselves”, not to the visceral imagination of the reader, but to his or her disembodied intelligence. We think (hope) that we can communicate the facts “as such” to the reader without having to evoke anything as a poetic as imagery in their minds. We forget that our research community is made up of living persons, that it’s not just an impersonal institution that “knows”.

I’m not opposed to facts. I’m as amused (when I’m not horrified) about the factless “truthiness” of pundits and futurists. But, as Leonard Cohen once wrote, a good teacher “puts cartilage between the bony facts”. Elsewhere he declares: “I will not be held like a drunkard under the cold tap of facts. I refuse the universal alibi.” Social inquiry invokes the universal alibi of “those are the facts” too often, I think. We have to address ourselves again to the living imagination of our peers.

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*This is repost from my old blog. It came to mind recently when I was reading Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend’s preface to Paul Feyerabend’s Conquest of Abundance. “We need intermediaries,” she quotes Rumi. “A story is like water that you heat for your bath. It takes messages between the fire and your skin.”

Social Epistemology

(I wrote this post in March of 2014. And it is part of the “collective vision” of Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, which I am no longer part of, but do follow with interest. I will be revisiting these ideas this year, so I thought I’d post it here as well.)

When I call myself a social epistemologist I mean that I am a particular kind of philosopher. It’s not the name of a doctrine, mind you, like constructivism or realism, but an activity, like phenomenology. It’s a way of doing philosophy. Some social epistemologists might prefer to call themselves “sociologists” or “anthropologists” or just “intellectuals”. But for me it’s a specifically philosophical business.

As I practice it, social epistemology was invented by Steve Fuller. (He didn’t coin the phrase, but he made something very distinctive of it.) These past two weeks* I’ve been talking about two of his most important precursors, Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault, and I’ve said that they indicate two further precursors, namely, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger. This morning I want suggest three still older precursors.

It all begins with Kant. Here we find the classical formulation of the problem: what are “the conditions of the possibility of the experience of objects”, i.e., what makes human knowledge possible? In the mid-nineteenth century, two very different theologians took these questions up in very different ways: Bernard Bolzano and Søren Kierkegaard. Both were reacting to the overwhelming amount of knowledge that their age was producing. Bolzano proposed a system of rules by which all possible treatises could be written. Kierkegaard took a different approach: “what the world, confused simply by too much knowledge, needs is a Socrates.”

Now, Socrates’ philosophy famously reduces to the Delphic maxim “know thyself”. The founders of the so-called “strong program” in the sociology of scientific knowledge, Barry Barnes and David Bloor, used to talk about “existential” conditions of knowledge, meaning basically “social” conditions. I normally interpret this sense of “existential” to suggest that there is a profound connection between what we know and who we are. We have to become certain kinds of people in order to know certain kinds of things; and our knowledge of things necessarily transforms who we are. When Kant defined “enlightenment” with the slogan “dare to know”, he was saying we must have the courage to become whatever it is we have to be to know all the things science is telling us.

Foucault, in a sense, was telling us to consider the matter more carefully. Perhaps it is not simply cowardly to insist on not knowing things that would turn us into people we don’t want to be. This, to my mind, is the core of the project of social epistemology. Already in his first book, Social Epistemology, from 1988, Steve explained the project as the two-fold task of helping to design institutions that made certain forms of knowledge possible, i.e., institutions that shaped certain kinds of scientists, on the one hand, and helping policy-makers understand what kinds of knowledge we should expect to emerge from real or proposed institutional interventions, on the other.

For my part, I have been focusing on the identity of the scientific author, helping people take control of what Foucault called their “author function”, if you will. This is where the project, having proceeded from Kant to Kierkegaard (and then Heidegger, Foucault and Fuller) loops back around (through Kuhn and Wittgenstein) to Bolzano. What are the rules by which, if not whole treatises, then at least journal articles, may be written, so as to support the growth of knowledge? And this, then, takes us back to Kant: how does writing offer us a moment of apperception? And finally back to Socrates: how does writing an article help us to know ourselves? How does it shape us? The important thing, however, is to keep in mind that “the self” is always a social entity. The question is not so much who I am as who we are. What is science asking us to become?

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*This was written almost six years ago. The posts I am referring to were written between March 10 and 21, 2014, on my retired blog Research as a Second Language. See the archive here.

Form and Wobble

I want to end the year with a return to woodworking as a metaphor for writing. It helps me to express my puzzlement at critiques of the five-paragraph essay. I recently read David Labaree’s contribution to this debate in Aeon from a couple of years ago. Here’s his description of what he calls “the five-paragraph fetish”.

The form becomes the product. Teachers teach the format as a tool; students use the tool to create five paragraphs that reflect the tool; teachers grade the papers on their degree of alignment with the tool. The form helps students to reproduce the form and get graded on this form. Content, meaning, style, originality and other such values are extraneous – nice but not necessary.

What puzzles me about this criticism is that it is presented as part of an outright rejection of the form rather than a measured critique of its fetishization. (This is a long-standing problem in my attempts to engage with anti-five-paragraph activism.) After all, it’s hard to see what could be wrong with teaching students to use a tool and then testing them on their ability to use it. What seems to be happening — what makes it a “fetish” — is that students are taught to merely invoke the tool, rather than to actually handle it skillfully. The five-paragraph essay becomes a ritual rather than a craft.

Consider the carpenter’s apprentice. When making a table, she will have to join four legs to a tabletop, perhaps by way of a box apron. The final product may contain nine individual pieces of wood, some glue, perhaps some screws or nails. But surely we will not give her a top grade simply for arranging nine pieces of wood in a table-like form? Competence will be revealed in everything from the choice of materials to the care that was taken in joining them together. The master will have many different ways to test the table beyond its mere conformity, i.e., its “reproduction of form”.

And this really is what I don’t understand about the argument against the five-paragraph essay. Surely, we can grade “content, meaning, style, originality,” and form? Surely, we can ask the students to write a formally correct essay and make a genuinely compelling argument? The fact that the apprentice submitted a 90 cm x 90 cm table with four legs should not cause us to overlook its wobble.


Last Week, Yesterday, Today

If you’re reading this blog you’re probably a knowledgeable person. I imagine that you’re a student or a scholar in an academic discipline, and you’re working on your craft, which is to say, you’ve already learned a great deal. You know more about your subject than most people — in fact, out of the billions of people who live on this planet, there are probably only a few thousand, perhaps only a few hundred, who know as much as you do about your subject, and this is especially true when we consider the content of your current project. Indeed, on matters relating to what you’re working on right now, you may only have a few dozen intellectual equals. It’s important that you begin with this awareness when you are working on your writing. Understand that you know a great deal about your subject and proceed on that basis. Write from the center of a formidable strength.

Now, keep in mind that all this knowledge didn’t come to you by some miracle this morning when you awoke. You’ve been accumulating knowledge for months and years and you will be drawing on this in your writing today. Last week, too, you were a very knowledgeable person; last week, too, if relatively speaking, you had very few equals on this planet. If your writing is only as smart as you were last week, it’s still going to be very smart. In fact, you’re not significantly smarter than you were last week — you’re literally only marginally smarter. You are almost as likely to have picked up a new dumb idea over the past few days as you are to have truly learned something new. And you’re almost as likely as that to have made no progress at all. How much will you know tomorrow? The answer is almost always going to be: about as much as you know today. And, since anything you write down today will be published, if ever, months from now, whether you write down what you know today, or what you knew yesterday, or what you knew last week, isn’t really going to make much a difference from the point of few of the novelty of your published work. You’re always going to be smarter than your publication list.

This is what my first two rules are about. What you are writing about is always in the past; who you are writing for is always in the future. Your reader is always receiving an “outdated” message, a report on your state of mind that is no longer current. But you want the reader to learn something about what you are actually thinking. So you have to find a way to make sure that the things you are writing about will remain relevant going forward. You want to write on a stable foundation of knowledge. And the best way to do that is choose, today, something you knew last week to write about tomorrow.