Monthly Archives: October 2018

How to Speak Your Mind

To be knowledgeable on a topic is to be able to make up your mind about it, to speak your mind about it, and to write it down. I want to look at the second of these competences today — the ability, if you will, to hold your own in a conversation with other knowledgeable people. As a scholar, you can’t be satisfied with just holding a great many “justified, true beliefs”; you have to be able to discuss them intelligently with people who are qualified to tell you that you are wrong. This openness to criticism is an essential part of being a good scholar, a holder of distinctly “academic” knowledge.

I’m sure you’ve been told at some point in your life that there’s “no such thing as a stupid question”. The person who told you this had the best of intentions, of course, but I’m sure you discovered long ago that they were, for lack of a better word, lying to you. There is very definitely such a thing as a stupid question; you’ve asked stupid questions, and you’ve been asked stupid questions. Indeed, what distinguishes a knowledgeable person from an ignorant one is, in part, the ability to distinguish between good and bad questions. Some questions come out of simple ignorance of the subject, while others are informed by the shared body of knowledge that guides work in a discipline. As a knowledgeable person, you want to be able to articulate and recognize good questions and deal with them appropriately.

You are not, of course, obligated to be able to answer every good question. “That’s a good question!” isn’t just an ironic dodge you use when you’re stumped. It is a recognition that, even given everything you know, even given everything we know, it is reasonable to have questions. The important thing is to be aware of the shared body of common knowledge that determines whether a question is good or bad, relevant or irrelevant. Also, do note calling someone stupid is obviously not a competent way of dealing with a question that seems to reveal ignorance of a field’s common stock of knowledge. Your conversational competence here will be displayed in your ability to politely guide the conversation onto more fertile ground, perhaps even discovering the kernel of wisdom that the question does contain. Just make sure that you and you interlocutors don’t waste too much time on matters that have long been settled.

Scholars also have a shared sense of humor. The members of a specialized knowledge community will find certain things amusing that others don’t. Knowledge, after all, plays a central role in establishing the boundary to “the absurd”. An Austrian economist’s reference to a “gale” can be witty in a way that someone unfamiliar with the work of Schumpeter might not detect at all. A sensemaking’s scholar’s allusion to your “map of the Alps” will not make sense to you if you aren’t familiar with Miroslav Holub’s anecdote and the role it plays in the work of Karl Weick. This familiarity with the comedic potential of the concepts and characters in a discipline of course also sets a relatively high standard. Some jokes are told and retold so often that telling them only reveals that you are new to the field. Some jokes ellicit no more than a groan.

On the other side of this boundary there is of course a series of subjects and claims that your peers will have little or no sense of humor about. These are the things that it is “not okay” to say, or what are sometimes called “politically incorrect” utterances. They do not expose your ignorance so much as your malevolence. To put it as plainly as possible, they identify you as a “bad” person. This is something that Thomas Kuhn pointed out half a century ago by suggesting that a scientific paradigm is organized, in part, around a shared set of values. Enforcing those values is a far from trivial part of the conversations that scholars must be able keep their footing in. Understanding the boundary of offensive speech in discourse is therefore an important part of being knowledgeable in an academic context.

Now, you may think I say that as a warning to stay away from offensive speech. But in fact I’m saying it to encourage you to learn how to manage provocations constructively. Just as you must learn to deal with the occasional “stupid” question politely, you will have to learn how to handle the occasional offensive remark. Indeed, just as an apparently stupid question may not, on closer inspection, be inappropriate after all, a remark that offends you may turn out to express an idea that the conversation needs to address in order to move forward. If we are always afraid of offending each other, or too quick to take offense ourselves, our conversations will not be able to tackle difficult subjects and help us learn (or teach) new truths. And one reason we may be afraid of controversy is simply that we lack the rhetorical skills to leverage it as part of a fruitful argument. We’re scared to engage because we feel weak or clumsy. We worry that we’ll get hurt or, worse, that we’ll hurt someone else. This worry is not conducive to interesting, intellectually challenging conversations.

All three conversational skills — a feel for the good question, a sense of humor, and a sensitivity to offense — are acquired by scholars through years of practice. Just as you can’t learn French merely by watching French movies, you don’t master a discourse merely by attending lectures. You have to speak up. You have to risk asking a stupid question, telling a bad joke, or offending the person you are speaking to. The academic system of schooling is generally forgiving of new entrants to a field in this regard, and being a student should, ideally, provide a context in which to make and learn from your mistakes. Like some others, however, I’m watching the developments on university campuses these days with some concern, and I would understand if you told me you were a bit anxious about speaking your mind. Still, it is very important that we learn how to do this. At a university, people who don’t know how to speak their minds can’t, properly speaking, consider themselves knowledgeable.

Paragraph 39

Since a standard journal article has 40 paragraphs I’ve long been in the habit, when talking to my authors, of referring matter-of-factly to “paragraph thirty-nine”, i.e., the penultimate paragraph of the paper. It is also the first paragraph of the conclusion. It serves a very special function in the paper and is worth giving extra consideration.

You construct the key sentence of paragraph 39 by a simple procedure. Take the key sentence of paragraph 3, the one that begins, “This paper shows that…”, and simply remove those first four words. That is, if the key sentence of paragraph 3 is “This paper shows that the financial crisis was caused by the performative effects of organization theory” then the key sentence of paragraph 39 is “The financial crisis was caused by the performative effects of organization theory.” Notice that despite their similarities, these two sentences make very different claims. The second (§39) tells us something about the financial crisis; the first (§3) tells us something about your paper. Paragraph 3 will therefore provide a description of your paper to support your claim that it will show us something. Paragraph 39, however, will provide a description of the financial crisis to support the claim that it was caused by organization theory.

Like any other paragraph in the paper, you have around six sentences and no more than 200 words at your disposal. Remember your reader. At this point your reader has listened to everything you have said (for about 38 minutes). Your reader knows what your key terms are and has read your entire analysis. Your reader knows what methods you have used to gather your data. Your reader has also been informed about relevant background details. Your reader even knows what implications you have drawn. That means you can expect a great deal of your reader in making sense of this paragraph. You can give it to the reader straight.

Paragraph 39 is not an abstract. An abstract merely describes an argument, and therefore looks more like paragraph 3 than paragraph 39. Paragraph 39 actually makes the argument. It is the part of the paper that expresses your major claim and adduces the strongest evidence you have for it. The strength of that evidence, of course, depends on the strength of the rest of your paper—mainly, the analysis section—but that’s the thing I’m trying to emphasize: Your reader has already read the rest of your paper. You are therefore entitled to presume that your argument is strong. This is the paragraph where you state your conclusion and tell the reader, without blushing, why you think it is true.

For perhaps obvious reasons you do well to rewrite this paragraph several times. It is the statement of your ideas that the rest of the paper is putting you in a position to make. Getting clear about what it will say will therefore also help you write the rest of the paper.

How to Keep it Simple and Real

“It’s better to do something simple which is real … It’s something you can build on because you know what you’re doing.” (Bill Evans)

Back at the end of 2014, Jonathan Mayhew drew my attention to The Universal Mind of Bill Evans. Here’s one of the things Evans said about developing a talent:

People tend to approximate the product rather than attacking it in a realistic, true way at any elementary level — regardless of how elementary — but it must be entirely true and entirely real and entirely accurate. They would rather approximate the entire problem than to take a small part of it and be real and true about it. To approximate the whole thing in a vague way gives you a feeling that you’ve more or less touched the thing, but in this way you just lead yourself toward confusion and ultimately you’re going to get so confused that you’ll never find your way out.

When I say you should take a specific moment to write down a particular thing you know, I’m suggesting something similar. When writing, don’t try to “approximate the entire problem”; instead, “take a small part of it and be real and true about it”. A paper consists of roughly 40 paragraphs, of, roughly, eight different kinds. Each of these forty parts can be “attacked” at an “elementary level”. If you keep in mind that you are, ultimately, saying something that is true, you can set yourself the problem of representing that truth in prose.

Appreciate the finitude of the problem. You have to write at least six sentences and at most 200 words in exactly 27 minutes. Together they should support or elaborate one thing you know. That’s what you want to become good at. And if you write each of these paragraphs as simply and truly as you can, then you will have something to build on, both in terms of finishing a paper and in terms of the developing your writing skills.

Most people just don’t realize the immensity of the problem and, either because they can’t conquer it immediately, think that they haven’t got the ability, or they’re so impatient to conquer it that they never do see it through. If you do understand the problem then you can enjoy your whole trip through.

This makes an important point that struck me forcefully a few years ago. Too many people don’t realize that they have to approach the problem of writing in a way that lets them enjoy it. My goal is to help people enjoy their writing, not just “get it done”.

How to Make Up Your Mind

If you’re knowledgeable about something you are able to make up your mind about it. Other people can too, of course, but you are able to do it more efficiently and with greater accuracy than people who don’t know as much. Within your area of expertise, when faced with a situation, you are able to make sense of it; when faced with a set of materials, you are able to discern their meaning. You simply understand such things better than ignorant people. Your knowledge allows you to quickly and precisely form a belief. And, when pressed, you can explain how you know this. You have justified, true beliefs and an ability to acquire more of them.

But how can you develop this ability to make up your mind? Well, how did you become knowledgeable about your subject? The very general answer is experience. Experience, after all, is not just a series of things that happen to you; experience is an ongoing process that teaches you how the world works. You’re only really having an experience if you are making judgments about what is going on, forming beliefs about it. These judgments will not always be correct. The beliefs you form will not always be true. But you go on, forming beliefs and discovering them to be right or wrong, and moving on to the next thing. What matters, however, is to reach some kind of decision, some kind of conclusion.

Students are prone to getting quite philosophical when you tell them they should be forming justified, true beliefs. “True?” they balk. “There’s no such thing as truth!” This is why I like to begin with the very ordinary experience of discovering that you were wrong. You meet someone and form an opinion about their trustworthiness, favorable or unfavorable. A few week’s later you have an occasion to act on the basis of this belief. You trust them, or you don’t, and things, let us say, go badly. Your belief has been tested, and you come away from the whole experience with a little more knowledge about the person in question. You also come away a little wiser: you’ve had another experience with falsity. You know a little more about what it means for a belief to be false and, therefore, what truth is. You don’t need to be more sophisticated than this “for academic purposes”. (Unless your field requires it, of course. Philosophy is an academic discipline too!)

What is perhaps much more important is your ability to justify your belief. Why do you think it is true? Can you provide a compelling account of your reasons for believing something to be the case? Does that account jibe with what else is known on the subject? Do you appeal to hunches or prejudices or personal authority when supporting your claims? Or do you leverage evidence, explanations, counter-arguments? Do you understand what must also be the case in order for your belief to hold up? Do you understand what would have to be the case for you belief to be true? You may believe it very firmly today. But can you describe conditions under which you’d abandon the belief tomorrow?

Notice that all of this suggests something you can do several times a day. Pick a subject. Or even just read a few pages from a book. Make up your mind about what is going on there. Form a belief about it. Then go on with your day as though your belief is true. When talking to people, assert it confidently (if you’ve made up your mind then you can be confident.) Watch how people react. Notice what happens when you take actions that presume it is true. Do those actions succeed? Does your belief make you experience more predictable? Or does it cause you to be constantly surprised and frustrated? Return to the basis of your belief. Examine the sources. Does your belief need to be revised? Like the man says, it’s a process.


Update 20/10/18: I just tweeted a pretty good summary of this post: Knowledgeable people are better able to make up their minds (about the things they know something about) than ignorant ones. “Better” here means both more efficiently and more accurately. Their intuitions are sound and their reticence is necessary.

That is, knowledgeable people are able to make snap judgments in pressing situations, and these judgments will be more reliable than those of ignorant people. (Both may be right or wrong; but one of them is merely guessing.) But a knowledgeabe person will also feel the pull of doubt more precisely than an ignorant person. So in situations where there is time for reflection, the knowledgeable person will suspend belief where an ignorant person may rush to judgment. Finally, the knowledgeable person will often err on the side of reason. The ignorant person is free to follow their passions. (Or perhaps more accurately: their passions are free to have their way with them.)

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 to 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.