Academic Discourse, Folk Psychology, and Intelligent Cat Pictures

“English Academic Discourse has always presented itself as a neutral vehicle of objective fact.” (Karen Bennett)

“I have, as it happens, a strikingly intelligent cat.” (Jerry Fodor)

Julia Molinari asks an important question in a recent post at the DoctoralWriting SIG blog: “What makes our writing ‘academic’?” She serenely disdains to answer it, of course. But she does provide a list of commonly suggested answers:

When you ask anyone this question—be they initiated or not—their answers will roughly cluster around the following features: its formality, linearity, clarity, lexical density, grammatical complexity, micro-macro structure (i.e., from paragraphs to whole-text organisation), intertextuality and citation, objectivity, meta-discursivity.

One of her sources for this list is Karen Bennett, who published a useful survey of academic style manuals in 2009, following it up in 2015 with a “deconstruction” of the putative “objectivity” of academic writing. The first quote in my epigraph is the first sentence of the abstract of the latter of those papers. The second quote is from Fodor’s Psychosemantics–a sentence that, for I hope obvious reasons, has stuck in my mind since I first read it. (Okay, I confess, that’s not true. I did not first read it. It was spoken to me by a very beautiful classmate on a sunlit campus hill on a fall day when I was an undergraduate philosophy student. She was impressed with how witty a way that was to begin a book and she expressed her admiration for philosophers who write like this. I, of course, immediately resolved to develop my style accordingly.)

It came to mind after reading Bennett’s claim. Was Jerry Fodor really “presenting” his text as a “neutral vehicle of objective fact”? Should he not have said, for example, “Cats display remarkable intelligence,” if that is what he was trying to do? Fodor continues as follows:

In the morning , at his usual feeding time, Greycat prowls the area of the kitchen near his food bowl . When breakfast appears, he positions himself with respect to the bowl in a manner that facilitates ingestion.
When the house is cold, Greycat often sleeps before the fireplace. But he does this only if there’s a fire on the hearth, and he never gets close enough to singe his hair.
When his foot encounters a sharp object, Greycat withdraws it. In similar spirit , he maintains an appreciable distance between himself and the nearest aggressive dog.
He occasionally traps and disembowels small rodents.

Surely, if he is here deploying “formality”, “objectivity” and “neutrality”, he is doing so in a light-hearted, ironic way? If he were really trying to participate in English Academic Discourse, wouldn’t he, again, just talk about the observable behavior of any cat. Why implicate himself in all this? Why, we might ask, does he write so well? Isn’t he supposed to be an academic?

Just to assuage any doubt, let me say that the book was written in 1989 and published by MIT Press, so it is neither particularly recent (recall Bennett’s “has always presented itself “) nor lacking an academic imprimatur. Moreover, Fodor is by no means some postmodern deconstructionist trying to highlight “the play of the signifier” or “the death of the subject”. He’s just an ordinary “analytic” philosopher having a little fun with his style. I would argue that such writing is entirely commonplace in academia. Think of Stanley Cavell. Think of Richard Rorty. [Update: I should acknowledge that Rorty has somewhere made an argument similar to mine, in that case, as I recall, aimed at Derrida.]

Okay, you might say, but those are philosophers! Not only that, they are white males. Not only that, one of them is dead. But that’s in many ways only better for my argument. If anyone is supposed to subscribe to English Academic Discourse, surely it’s a white male philosopher writing in America at the end of the Reagan era. Surely Fodor is a licensed driver of “the hegemonic vehicle of knowledge in the modern world.” And even his style is all over the rhetorical road!

In fact, I don’t think it’s misplaced at all to use a philosopher’s style as a counterexample to Bennett’s claim that (English) academic writing is hegemonicly “neutral” and “objective” and needs to be “deconstructed”, to become more comfortable with “overt rhetoric”.  After all, Bennett’s argument is overtly philosophical and almost entirely humorless. In her conclusion she says:

Clearly, then, the empiricist principles upon which EAD is based are deeply flawed. We cannot affirm with any certainty that there exists an objective extralingual reality that appears in same way to all and is gradually revealed through linear and communal process of discovery. Objectivity is a linguistic construct, achieved largely through use of nominalizations and impersonal verbs, and reinforced by devices such as epistemic modality which carefully distinguish between what is considered to be ‘fact’ and the author’s subjective opinion.

Moreover, ‘facts’ as such have no independent existence….

“Clearly”? Bennett here states as a categorical fact the non-existence of independent facts! It is true that philosophers have been arguing since the time of Socrates that we cannot be completely certain that reality exists as presented to our senses. Perhaps we are dreaming, or perhaps we are disembodied brains stimulated by electrodes, or perhaps we are simply simulations in a computer program, digital identities inhabiting digital worlds. But we can’t have “any certainty” that there are facts of the matter? Can we seriously doubt that Jerry Fodor ever had a cat named Greycat? (I admit the name stretches credulity.) Do we have to abandon our belief that he sometimes killed? I would argue that we can’t “with any certainty” deny the existence of facts that might be interesting to discover, discuss and write about. Nor that these facts might, in fact (!), settle some interesting disputes.

I hope Bennett doesn’t mind a little ribbing, but surely, linguistic constructivism, as it is presented in her text, is itself a linguistic construct, achieved largely through the use of nominalizations and impersonal verbs. Indeed, her deconstruction of objectivity leaves us with the impression that she thinks linguistic constructs are objective facts, and she achieves this through the deft deployment of an objective, neutral, “academic” discourse. I’m sure the irony is deliberate. But the point is that her own text is a much better example of the style she is suggesting we abandon than a great deal of perfectly mainstream academic writing.

I’m not just doing this to poke fun. Jerry Fodor’s psychosemantics was an attempt to overcome precisely something like the skepticism that seems to underpin Bennett’s deconstruction. He argued for a “folk psychology” to understand behavior. He suggested we should happily attribute beliefs and desires to people (and cats, of course) to explain why they do the things they do. Likewise, I think we should happily attribute facts and events to our experiences to explain why things appear to us as they do, largely stable, dependably “real” constituents of our life world.  They don’t have to “appear in the same way to all” but I do have some hope (if not “any certainty”) that they are “gradually revealed [to us] through linear and communal process of discovery.”

We call that process research. It’s a bit “academic” sometimes, perhaps, but it does get us a little closer to the truth. Without it, we’d probably just be circulating pictures of cats doing strikingly intelligent things on the Internet. Someone has to take those behaviors a bit more seriously. But that doesn’t mean they can’t write well and engagingly. It never has. English Academic Discourse is largely a linguistic construct achieved by writing instructors through a peculiar kind of “empirical research” (about which more later). It doesn’t actually govern academic writing; it holds no objective hegemonic power over us. That is, I don’t think we need to deconstruct our discourse as much Bennett thinks we do. I think we can begin (and let our students begin) with a sanguine common sense realism about, say, the existence of the works of Shakespeare and the reality of the industrial revolution. Then let’s discourse about them with all the sophistication (and wit) we can muster.

2 thoughts on “Academic Discourse, Folk Psychology, and Intelligent Cat Pictures

  1. Many thanks for this response, Thomas. For the record, I am a (critical) realist and I see multimodality as a more comprehensive, though not exhaustive, way to access to that reality. I also largely agree with your philosophical critique of Bennett, but in her defence, she is taking issue with and writing in response to the way EAP approaches academic writing …

    1. Anytime. It’s always good get prod to thinking.

      I think we’re pulling in the same direction. When I talk about “writing instruction” I probably mean something very close to EAP, but running the entire gamut of “freshman composition” to “academic literacies”. There is, indeed, something strange about the norms writing programs seem to be both trying to impose and (in the “critical” mode) deconstruct. My suspicion is that they come from an “empirical” (perhaps ironically, an “empiricist”) attitude to the subject. It’s like writing is some sort of unknown object for them, requiring a great deal of study before it can be understood. They seem to forget that it’s a competence they HAVE. I.e., they know it “from the inside”.

      I guess my issue with Bennett is that she thinks writing needs to be liberated from something. But maybe you’re right: it needs to be liberated from writing instructors. Hey! I’m one of those!

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