Whether it’s student demonstrations or failed replications, academic discourse seems to be in a lot of trouble these days. My view is that it can be traced back to the 1960s and what is sometimes called “the crisis of representation”, or what Gilles Deleuze called “the indignity of speaking of others”. This has steadily eroded the institutions we needed to maintain our composure, if you will, in the face of conflicting claims. Though he meant it in a somewhat more technical sense, Wittgenstein was onto something when he said that “the civil status of a contradiction” is the philosophical problem. The crisis is that we don’t know how to react when someone (or someone’s data) contradicts us (or our theories). It terrifies us. Even an election result traumatizes us.
For some time now, my working hypothesis is that the quality of our discourse depends on the strength of our prose. We have to learn to approach experience as something that can be articulated in an orderly sequence of paragraphs, each stating and supporting a claim. In that form, opinions should not appear at all threatening (as they certainly might on a placard in an angry mob). I think we have failed to maintain our universities as sites of rigorously “prosaic” experience, places where even poetry is read, not to carry us off into ecstasies, but to bring about a reorganization of our emotions, a reordering of the prose of the world.
For a re-ordering to make sense, of course, there has to be some order to begin with. And this, it seems to me has been lost. I need to think some more about this. I think it is very important. We need to cultivate, once again, “the prose of world”, and this will require us to establish some decorum. Deleuze to the contrary, we need to learn how to speak for others with dignity. Otherwise, it seems, we can’t even speak with each other.
Next year, I want to hold a regular colloquium at the Library about the nature of scholarly or “academic” writing. I am of course referring to the kind of writing that researchers are supposed to “publish or perish”, but also, by extension, to the sort of writing that students are required to submit for examination. I believe that the first is a model for the second, that students are being taught in their studies how to do what scholars do for a living.
But what is so special about this kind of writing? What sets it apart from other kinds of writing (writing that is no less important) in life and business? What specific difficulty does “academic writing” imply?
My answer is that is academic writing is the presentation of what you know in such a way that other knowledgeable people can help you decide whether or not your really do. It opens your thinking criticism by qualified peers. While it is, in a certain sense, intended to persuade your reader of the truth of your claims, this rhetorical force is always tempered by keeping the text open to criticism. That usually means it has be written in a clear and coherent manner, so that defects in thinking are not concealed by defects in writing.
In an important sense, the text will not be persuasive to an academic audience if it is too obviously “rhetorical”, too eagerly trying to convince the reader of the truth or justice of its message. It must demonstrate a self-consciousness about the possibility of error. It contains an implicit declaration of “correct me if I’m wrong”. This makes demands of the style of the paper, of course; but it is also why academics are so “hung up” on references. It must be possible to check a claim against its sources.
Anyway, the colloquium I want to hold will be an open discussion among CBS faculty about how we can understand the adjective “academic” as the unity of student and scholarly writing. It’s the craft that the university conserves and transmits to future generations. The art of writing down what we know.
It’s one thing to imagine something. It’s another believe it, and yet another to know it. The first step is relatively straightforward: you go from merely picturing something to yourself to thinking that’s “how it is”. I can imagine a beer in my fridge. But it’s much nicer to think there’s a beer in my fridge. Ideally, of course, I would know it. How would I do that?
Well, first of all, while I can easily believe there’s a beer in my fridge without there actually being one there, in order to know it, there has to actually be one in the fridge. My belief, we might say, has to be true. But I also have to have a good reason to believe it. Merely very strong wishful thinking doesn’t count as knowledge, even when it happens to be true. And no amount of good reasons will do if what I’m thinking about isn’t actually the case.
Those three different mental operations are useful to distinguish: imagining, believing, knowing. They are all modes of thought, I suppose. But they are distinct modes. Each can be done well or not so well. I encourage you to practice all three.
A great many things are known to us, but how do we know them? What does it mean to be able to know? What does it take to know something?
There is, first, of course, the question of what it takes to learn something for the first time. But is there not also some skill or talent that is required to keep knowing? We sometimes talk about “maintaining” a position, as in, “I have always maintained that social life is predicated on recognition.” We can ask, “maintained” how? Maintained in the face of what forces that might render the position unserviceable?
The general answer, I would think is: in the face of criticism. So, the ability to know something is the ability to engage with criticism without losing belief, truth and justification. That seems about right. It merely traces the outlines of a competence, to be sure. But I think it’s import to think of knowing as an ability, not merely a state.
The university is supposed to be the institution in society where careful thinking is the norm. Ask yourself, therefore, how often you sit down and think carefully about something. Perhaps more importantly, instead of just assuming that this is something you do, try to describe what “careful thought” means for you in practice. What are activities does it typically involve? What does it feel like? How do you know that you’ve been thinking carefully for the past 10, 30 or 60 minutes?
Does it require equipment of any kind? Is it something that you associate with other activities like reading and writing? If so, why?
What occasions force you think carefully about something? How often do they arise?
Also, what are the typical consequences of careful thought? Does it generate ideas or beliefs? Does it undermine your previously held beliefs? Do you associate “thinking carefully” with “changing your mind” or with “coming up with something to say”?
Finally, does your position as an academic support your ability to think carefully? Turning this question back on yourself: have you made optimal use of your conditions to foster care in your thinking? Have you organized your work to allow you consider matters of concern to you and your peers in careful and thoughtful manner?
Lots of questions. I’ll take up some possible answers in subsequent posts.