The Experience of Knowing

Ernest Hemingway concluded the preface to his First Forty-Nine Stories with a remark that I’ve always found strangely simple yet illuminating. “I would like to live long enough to write three more novels and twenty-five more stories,” he says. “I know some pretty good ones.” What strikes about this way of putting it is that, although Hemingway is talking about fiction, he asks us to imagine these stories, not as the products of some future act of creativity, but as parts of a knowledge he already possesses. He hopes to live long enough to write them down, not long enough to make them up.

This view of writing is not universally held. Even where one would think it held most sway, in academia, I get the sense that it’s the minority view. A recent example of this was brought to my attention by Eric Hayot, who himself rejects the conception of “writing as putting down thoughts you already have.” Hayot recommends we read Jan Mieszkowski’s “In Praise of ‘Bad’ Academic Writing” in the Chronicle Review, and it is, indeed, well worth the read. Not only is it not bad; it’s not even ‘bad’. That is, it doesn’t deserve it’s own praises. It’s a perfectly good piece of writing about writing, and clearly expresses views already known to its author. Nonetheless, he argues that “a text is academic precisely when it is not informed by a dogmatic assumption about what a true statement looks like.” This certainly complements Hayot’s view (which I’ve written about before): “you cannot know what your ideas are, mean, or do until you set them down in sentences, whether on paper or on screen,” he tells us; you are always working at “the intersection of an intention and an audience.” That is, our ideas emerge in the process of writing for an imagined audience, it is not merely, say Hayot and Mieszkowksi, the presentation of ideas already held.

Mieszkowski devotes much of his piece to a critique of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. Pinker’s view is that good writing begins with a good, clear idea in mind, and that it presents that idea as though it’s something that is already a firmly established truth. Academic writing should present itself as knowledgeable, but not because the “truths” it expresses are beyond discussion. On the contrary, by claiming a statement is true, and by presuming the reader is capable of deciding whether it’s true, the text opens itself to critique from peers. It does not deflect such criticism by shifting the terms of discourse, imagining or inventing some entirely new reader in some future community of scholars. Pinker’s view here is very much in line with “classic style”, which he invokes explicitly. “In classic style,” Thomas and Turner tell us, “the motive is truth, the purpose is presentation, the reader and writer are intellectual equals, and the occasion is informal.” For the record, it’s the third characteristic that I would put at the center of any definition of academic writing: it is writing for peers.

Overall, and while I find the conversation important, I have to side with Pinker. In fact, I would argue that the scholarly essay, like a scientific paper, offers (for humanists and social scientists respectively) almost ideal conditions to be knowledgeable, i.e., to experience their knowledge as competence — the authority to speak. To write academically is to write down the things you have established for yourself as truths — the stories you know. You write them down along with the reasons you have for holding them true, with the implication that, given those reasons, your reader, who is that “intellectual equal” we’re talking about, a peer, will hold them true too. Though you know that you might fail, as Mieszkowski reminds us we may, you do this confidently and directly so that your reader has an occasion to critique your thinking. You try to succeed precisely in order to make any possible failure meaningful. If the text is too “experimental” in its style or too tentative in its conclusions, it’s hard to know what to do with the ideas it evokes. It becomes a sustained performance of uncertainty, and ultimately deflects criticism instead of inviting it. That’s what Pinker believes makes it “bad”.

While the reader‘s experience is important here, we should keep in mind that writing an essay is an experience too. Done right, it could be the experience of actually knowing things, not a painful struggle with your doubts about them. Since your aim is to present your ideas for criticism from your peers you should approach them as though you know them, and if this feels very uncomfortable, or otherwise “off”, you should consider whether you know what you’re talking about after all. Instead of hoping to shift the ground of the debate after your intention intersects with your audience, as Hayot suggests, why not just change your footing, shift your weight a little, and write from the center of your epistemic strength? Open your thinking to the strongest arguments that your reader may have, rather than leaving yourself an opening through which to slip away. But do note that I’m not suggesting you should do this to please Steven Pinker, or even your peers. I’m saying that you might enjoy the experience of knowing things, and the composition of a good essay affords you exactly that experience.

Note: I’ve been having an interesting exchange on Twitter with Theresa Truax-Gischler about these issues. I’ll follow up on this post with my reflections on it soon.

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