Monthly Archives: September 2022

Propose, Converse, Compose

The Art of Learning series is off to a good start. My first talk, “How to Know Things,” went well, but looking at the notes from last year, I realized that I had forgotten to emphasize an elegant conceptual triad, or rhetorical triptych, so I thought I’d make up for it by writing a blogpost. The overarching message of the talk is that knowledge is a competence that supports a performance. Being knowledgeable (“for academic purposes”) about something means being able to think, talk, and write about it more effectively than someone who is not. Under the surface of these performances is a deep foundation of philosophical, rhetorical, and literary skills that allow us to make up minds, speak them, and write them down. “The dignity of the movement of an iceberg,” Hemingway reminds us, “lies in only one eighth of it being above water.” In an academic setting, it is our knowledge that gives dignity to our propositions, our conversations, and our paragraphs, which deploy but never completely exhaust our cognitive resources.

When we make up our minds we form beliefs. Philosophers describe beliefs as “propositional attitudes”, which, like hopes, fears, and desires have “propositional content”. We believe that something is the case, just as we might fear, hope, or wish that it is the case. The content of our belief is what we think is true and we call this what a “proposition”. The essential thing about a proposition, however, is not that it actually is true (if it’s something we fear then we hope it isn’t!) but that it could be true or false. Unlike individual words, as well as questions and commands, propositions have a “truth value”. They’re either true or false. In academic settings, we want much of our writing to express propositions because they’re the content of our knowledge, they capture what we know, one truth at a time. If you’ll permit a pun, academics must have a propositional attitude, they must comport themselves towards the world as something that can be articulated in propositions. They must see the world largely as a collection of facts that make propositions true or false.

These propositions then come up in conversation. To be knowledgeable in an academic setting is to be able to hold your own in a conversation with other knowledgeable people. You have to understand their questions, get their jokes, and respect their boundaries. You have to say what you think in such a way that others can and will keep talking to you about it. You have to understand how to contribute to their thinking, and how to let them contribute to yours. Kleist talked about “the gradual formation of thought while speaking,” and although it has been argued that he was perhaps not being wholly serious (more on that some other time), there is no question that scholars and students can only claim to know things if they are willing to discuss them. Scholars are expected to present their work at “colloquia”, i.e., meetings where they “speak together”. Students are sometimes required to take oral exams. A knowledgeable person should be able to demonstrate that they are “conversant” in their subject matter.

Academics, after all, do not deal in isolated propositions that are simply true or false. They hold their beliefs in “webs” that sustain them holistically. We can believe any one thing only because we believe many other things; and if we change our mind about some things we usually have to change our minds about others. That’s why scholars and students should be able to compose themselves in paragraphs such that some propositions support, elaborate, or defend other propositions. That’s one way we can make the relations between our beliefs perspicuous and help to keep track of the consequences we would face if we turned out to wrong. We recognize that some propositions are more difficult than others and our paragraphs are composed to use some propositions to make other proprositions easier to believe, understand, and agree with. (Belief is not the only thing that is hard about a proposition.) Composing paragraphs and putting them together in essays and papers, is the characteristic way that scholars commit their thoughts to a logical structure. They literally put their thinking in writing.

Think, talk, write! Make up your mind, speak your mind, write it down! Propositions, conversations, and compositions. Propose, converse, compose! Some people think rhetorical triptyches like this are trite and easy.* But they can serve as both heuristics and mnemonics for university students (and faculty!) who are trying to learn difficult material in a way that they’ll retain long after they finish their studies, long after they’ve gradually perfected their thoughts and graduated (do you see what I did there?). And if you want to sketch the outlines of an 8000-word paper in, say, under 1000 words, why not write five paragraphs that “conceptualize, analyze, and discuss” your object … one, two, three. Remember that Plato’s Academy was a garden. It’s easier to imagine in panels.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490–1510. Museo del Prado, Madrid
(Source: Wikipedia)

*You may have noticed that this really a nested 3 x 3 triptych. Propositions are (1) justified, (2) true (3) beliefs; conversations require (1) questions, (2) humor, and (3) boundaries; paragraphs (1) support, (2) elaborate, or (3) defend a knowledge claim. It’s all very neat and tidy.

Truth and Writing

“A writer’s problem does not change,” said Hemingway, addressing his fellow writers during the Spanish Civil War.* “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.” This really suggests two problems, of course. First, the writer must “find what is true”; next, they must make the reader “experience” it. As academics (students and scholars) we sometimes confuse the two, mistaking the difficulty of the material we are studying for the difficulty of writing about it, but it is important to keep them separate. In fact, from day to day, in an academic setting, this idea of “finding what is true” is not as important as “writing truly” what we think. Let me try to say a few words about that.

Taking Hemingway at face value, and putting it in somewhat philosophical language, we can say that he proposed that the writer must, first, form a justified, true belief about something and, then, present it in writing in such a way that the reader, too, comes to believe it. For Hemingway, it is the truth that is to be “projected” in the writing. But what if we’re not as confident about war, love, or lion hunting as Hemingway appears to have been? What if we’re writing more to try out our ideas than to persuade our readers that we’re right?

I want to suggest that good academic writing less about making the reader experience your truth and more about getting the reader to to consider whether what you’re saying is true. When we’re reading a good novel (and, arguably, a good piece of journalism) we don’t want to be constantly asking ourselves whether what is happening in the story is true. We want the events — what Hemingway called “the sequence of motion and fact” — to present themselves to our imaginations almost as if they were actually happening. We want to know what happens next, not whether it happened at all. (The so-called “unreliable narrator” poses a problem for this simplified view, but not one that, given another post, I couldn’t deal with.) But in a piece of scholarship each fact is presented, paragraph for paragraph, in such a way that we can ask the two questions in Wayne Booth’s ideal Oxford tutorial: What is the author saying? How does the author know?

That is, instead of worrying about whether you are persuading your reader that what you’re saying is true, and, indeed, instead of worrying about whether it is actually true, in the moment of writing, just project what you think in such way that the reader can carefully consider whether or not it is true. Indeed, your writing should compel your reader, not to believe it, but to think about it. The truth of the claims you are making should seem important to you. The question of their truth should impress itself on the reader as a relevant one.

Not all writing is like this. Leaving aside novels, we often read stories without caring very much whether it’s true, or simply taking for granted that it is. When reading a popul0ar science book, for example, we don’t seriously consider the possibility that the writer may be wrong. We see our job as readers to be mainly one of understanding the material that we’re presented with. In the media in general, we read many of the stories mainly as an indication of what “agenda setters” want us to think about today. We don’t expect them to have particularly good reasons for for believing its true, but some strong incentives for suggesting the idea to us. Advertising is a good example of this sort of thing, too. Like propaganda, it’s a kind of rhetoric we know how to engage with, but our main concern is not whether or not it is “true”.

Academic writing is not so much the art of writing what is true as the art of presenting something in such a way that its truth may be discussed. Once the reader understands what you’re saying, they should wonder how you know its true. Reading on, they should of course be enlightened about exactly that.

*I originally said he was addressing journalists. But the remark was made in a speech at the American Writers’ Congress in June of 1937. Published under the title “Fascism Is a Lie” in Conversations with Ernest Hemingway, Matthew J. Bruccoli, ed. (University Press of Mississippi, 1986).

The Process and the Moment

“Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return. With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain.” (Oscar Wilde)

“From the centre, the manager or staff of the institution are able to watch the inmates. [Jeremy] Bentham conceived the basic plan as being equally applicable to hospitals, schools, sanatoriums, and asylums, but he devoted most of his efforts to developing a design for a panopticon prison.” (Wikipedia)

Last year, near the end of the Art of Learning Series, I hit on a useful distinction that I want to begin with and build on this year. If I am right, I have discovered three useful triads around which to organise your experience of higher education. The series is pitched to students, but I think even seasoned academics can get something out of reflecting on their goals and, when they do so, to take their happiness seriously. While the fall series is aimed broadly at the learning process, in this post I want to talk specifically about writing. I think the point generalizes to reading and speaking, but it may be easier to understand if we focus on the business of putting words to paper. I want us to consider the difference between the writing moment and the writing process.

When Oscar Wilde said that “suffering is one very long moment” he was serving two year’s of hard labor in prison. Bentham’s utilitarian archictectures nowithstanding, it’s important to keep in mind that school is, not only not prison, it is the opposite of prison. “School” comes from the Greek word for “spare time, leisure, rest, ease; idleness.” Bentham’s intuitions may be vindicated a little, however, when we realise that it also involved “a holding back, a keeping clear,” and, indeed, that school sort of clears a space in our life for learning, provides, if you will, a “clearing” where learning can take place. A “here”. I want to stress that it is nothing like a prison, except that it walls us off, for a time, from the ordinary business of living. Wilde’s suffering was unbearable because his respite from this business was not chosen freely.

This is why I remind you not to resent the academic situation. Remember that you have chosen it and that it offers you, precisely, freedom to think and feel differently about life than you might otherwise be compelled to by your life circumstances. The trick is not to see your time at university as “one very long moment” but to “divide it by seasons”, by semesters, by weeks, and days and hours. Indeed, I recommend you divide it into half-hours for good measure. It is these little moments that you must learn to master and then organize into a kind of progress.

Pleasure is of the moment, the present. When you are writing you must give yourself conditions that allow you to enjoy the activity. Don’t imagine your teachers (or, if you are a scholar, your reviewers) already looking over your shoulder ready to pounce. Don’t worry about life’s tribulations and responsibilities, to which you will return after the writing is done. “The human brain,” said Cyril Connolly, “once it is fully functioning, as in the making of a poem, is outside time and place and immune from sorrow.” The same is true (if, quite literally, more prosaically) of the making of a paragraph. Give your brain a proper moment to function fully. Release yourself from time and space.

Of course, you can’t keep that up for long, as Wilde reminds us. Let every moment come to an end. Now look back at your process and find some satisfaction in the past, a series of deliberate moments that lie behind you. Remember what you accomplished there, not just how you suffered. If you have opened yourself to pleasure, you have, willy-nilly, opened yourself to pain, so don’t be surprised that not every moment was passed in pure bliss. You will have struggled and you will have learned. If you followed my rules, you will have a number of more or less coherent, indeed, increasingly coherent prose paragraphs to show for it. Look them over. Read them through, and out loud. Admire your handiwork. Take some satisfaction in it.

Pleasure in the present moment, satisfaction with the process that is past. What shall we say about the future? You want to face the future with confidence, and confidence somes from the progress you are making. Through a series of effective writing moments, organised into a reliable process, your prose is becoming stronger. Keep working from the centre of your strength, always seeking pleasure in the now and satisfaction in the then. This will give you confidence in what is to come. These three triads (moment/pleasure/present, process/satisfaction/past, progress/confidence/future) are what I want to explore this fall. You’re welcome to join me. Your comments along the way are more than welcome.

How to Write a Paper

First you must lay aside your sophomoric resentment of the task. I know you came by it honestly, no doubt as a sophomore, but your contempt for your reader will not make your paper easier to write. Writing a paper is a serious activity. It is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. A paper exposes your ideas to the criticism of people who are qualified to tell you that you are wrong; and, if that is what you are, you want to know. You respect your reader’s knowledge and intelligence because it is like your own. If you are an undergraduate, your reader is a serious student in your cohort; if you are a professor, your reader is a fellow scholar in your discipline. Whatever your station in life, when you are writing an academic paper, your reader is a peer.

A paper always presents the result of study. Sometimes the study is so well-defined that it deserves an article, sometimes it is merely the learning you did in the weeks or months before you wrote the paper. You may be reporting the results of years of fieldwork or weeks of classwork; the point is that the paper presents something you have learned deliberately. You may have formulated and answered an explicit research question, or you may merely have followed a reading list and attended classes. In any case, you set out to discover a set of truths and, after some definite effort, perhaps some actual suffering, you reached your goal, or at least got measurably closer to it. You are now in a position to tell the reader, not just what you think, but how you know. You can even tell the reader how well you know it, how certain you are. The paper is simply the most efficient possible way of doing this.

A paper is a series of paragraphs that each supports, elaborates, or defends one thing you know. Since a paragraph normally consists of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words, there are about two of them to the page. Some of them will introduce the paper, some will establish a backgound, some will theorize your object, some will present your methods, some will offer an analysis, some will discuss your results, some will conclude the paper. A five-page paper will have nine to eleven paragraphs. A ten-page paper will have about twenty, a twenty-page paper, about forty. You have to know one thing well to write each paragraph. The sooner you decide what the ten, twenty, or forty things you will claim to know in this paper are, the happier you will be as a writer.

Each paragraph occupies roughly one minute of your reader’s attention. You are arranging a series of one-minute experiences in the mind of your reader. Tell them about the world your research bears upon. Tell them about the science you have brought to bear upon it. Tell them what your research shows. Tell them how their minds should change in the clear light of what you’ve found. In an important sense, a paper always seeks the artful dissappointment of the reader’s expecations of your object. You are showing them something new and this will have consequences for what they thought was true. Should they rethink their expectations, their theories? Or should they now make some practical intervention in the world we share? Spend a few minutes of your readers’ time working through these issues.

Your kindness to your reader is measurable in your discipline. How much time did you spend on each paragraph? Did you demand, say, 27 minutes of yourself before you asked your reader to give you one? Did you spend some of that time making sure that the key sentence presented a discrete difficulty for the reader to consider? Did you compose further sentences with the explicit aim of making the key sentence easier to believe, understand, or agree with? Did you devote some time to arranging the sentences in an order that yielded a maximum of clarity and a minimun of boredom? Did you take the time to read your own paragraph out loud to make sure it works as it should? Did you seek some feedback on it? Your prose should be like a window on your mind. You are writing down what you know so that your peers can engage you in conversation about what you think is true. That is the substance of the craft.