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.

1 thought on “English Empiricism

  1. I’m lucky enough to be a native speaker of English. But sometimes I think that when I give talks in French, it goes better because (a) I have to speak more slowly, and (b) in French, I can’t “cheat” and convey my meaning through connotation. In French, I need to be explicit about everything.

    I’m also pretty sure that French-speaking audiences prefer for me to speak English. These audiences are almost entirely composed of people whose English is much better than my French, and when I speak to them slowly in French I can see them squirming with annoyance: why don’t I just get to the point already! Still, I think they probably get more out of my talks when I deliver them in French.

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