Sentences and Paragraphs

On Friday, I want to say something about how my ideas about academic writing are rooted in both Wittgenstein’s take on “propositions” and Foucault’s theory of “statements”. On Monday, I will bring this back to Crispin Sartwell’s question about knowledge, true belief, and good reasons. But, today, I want to begin with more ordinary things, namely, the sentences and paragraphs that make up the bulk of our academic writing. Briefly put, a paragraph states a belief and offers reasons for it. A belief is a “propositional attitude” and may be true or false; reasons are rhetorical postures and may be good or bad. The paragraph is to the statement as the sentence is to the proposition.

By beginning with sentences and paragraphs I hope to keep the discussion concrete and relevant to your work as a writer. Whether you’re a student or a scholar (which aren’t really so different), you read and write a lot of prose, and scholarly prose consists of paragraphs that, in turn, consist of sentences. You know what it means to write a sentence and to compose a paragraph. You understand that this sentence appears in the second of paragraph of this post. There is no mystery about what the words “sentence” and “paragraph” mean — you know one when you see one — though a formal definition may not spring immediately to mind. I want to begin with that work-a-day sense of what we’re talking about.

Now, a sentence expresses a thought. You have something on your mind and you string words together that capture it. To write a sentence, your mind doesn’t have to be made up; you don’t have to decide whether or not a sentence is true in order to write it. You might write a declarative sentence and, deciding that you don’t know whether it is true, turn it into a question. Or you might think of a question and end with a sentence that provides the answer. The important thing is that the sentence corresponds to a thought that you have had and that you want your reader to have. You want to reader to consider it, at least for an instant. A sentence is an instance of thinking.

If a sentence expresses a thought, however, a paragraph represents a belief. This distinction between expression and representation is perhaps a little subtle but it is important. To express something is to “get it out”; the important thing is that you say what you think, that it corresponds with what you have on your mind. To represent something, by contrast, is to “set if before” someone (sometimes yourself) so that they can have a good look at it. Here the important thing is not to get your idea right but to get the object right and to shed some light on it. You’re not just expressing your opinion; you’re describing what would be the case if what you believe is true. It’s in this sense that a paragraph presents itself as an instance of knowing.

This idea that a paragraph is an instance of knowing ties in nicely with the notion of a “writing moment”. When we “reengineer” our writing process, we’re trying to break it into discrete tasks that can be carried out according to a plan. Thinking of the writing process as a series of moments that each represents an instance of knowing — which is to say, moments that produce written representations of things you know — is a good way to keep your mind properly focused. We are not just expressing a series of stray thoughts, we are composing them into a picture of the facts as we see them. We are saying what we think is true, what we believe is the case. We have our reasons and we present those too.

Frege taught Wittgenstein that “only in the context of a sentence does a word have meaning.” Well, at least in the case of scholarly writing, perhaps we could say that only in the context of a paragraph does a sentence have a use. Or, more precisely, a sentence only finds its academic purpose in a paragraph. Reading a sentence out of context, we may recognize the language and understand the words. We have some sense of what the sentence means, but we don’t yet know what purpose it serves. We don’t know what the write is up to. In a well-written scholarly paragraph, this should not be a problem. By the end of the paragraph we know not just what the sentence says but what the writer wants with us. As we’ll see on Friday, a paragraph arranges sentences as propositions that together make a statement.

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