Monthly Archives: March 2017


“Quantity, intelligently managed, produces quality.” (Jonathan Mayhew)

Here are some quantitative measures that can be used to understand what we mean by “quality” in a prose text. A scholarly prose paragraph can

  1. be written in 27 minutes,
  2. sustain 9 minutes of direct criticism
  3. be read in 1 minute.

That is: Spending 27 minutes attending to the composition of a prose paragraph is a meaningful use of your time in scholarship. Moreover, after writing it, you are able to listen to a peer critique it for nine minutes, learning from this critique and improving the paragraph. When finished, a reader is able to extract the intended meaning from it in one minute (even if the reader is not persuaded by it, the meaning should be clear). The paragraph should look like something that was written during 27 minutes of deliberate effort (not dashed off in five) and has survived (or benefited) from 9 minutes of knowledgeable peer criticism, aimed directly at it.

Why we so often tolerate writing, in our students and in our colleagues, that doesn’t even pretend to live up to this standard is beyond me. Obviously, I’m not talking about blog posts and tweets. I’m not saying all our communication should happen through carefully crafted prose. I’m saying that our core claims to know things should be thus composed, somewhere in “the literature”. And I say this in full recognition that I, too, have been negligent in putting my knowledge out there in this form. Occasions, I want to say, conspired against me until now. I’m starting to feel free enough to get this done.

See also: “Seconds, Minutes, and Hours”

Knowledge as Competence

I got an interesting and very precise question from a student in class today. “You say you have to believe what you know. But isn’t belief totally subjective?”

There are two ways to respond. One is to stick to one’s philosophical guns and say that knowledge isn’t “merely” belief but a special kind of belief, namely, “justified, true belief”. Belief can be acknowledged as a the subjective or “mental” component of knowledge, i.e., the part that has to be “in the mind”, without saying that knowledge is entirely subjective. Belief is a necessary but sufficient attribute of knowledge.

But in the class I had been pursuing another line. I hadn’t actually said, “Knowledge is justified, true belief.” I had said “Knowledge is the ability to form justified, true beliefs.” When faced with a particular situation, I had said, knowledge is your competence to make up your mind about it. “Competence” here implies that you’re going to form not just any old belief but a “good” one. And goodness in the way of belief is what we call “truth”. The requirement of justification prevents us from counting as “knowledge” the sort of prejudices that allow snap judgments, even when they happen to hit on the truth. We have to be able to provide a reasonable account of why we believe something if we are going to claim to know it.

I think this strategy of treating knowledge, not as a kind of belief, but as a basis for (or “way of holding” or “way of forming”) beliefs might be fruitful, but I’m not sure how well it holds up to philosophical critique. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it’s been discussed to death among philosophers. Comments are welcome.

The Prose Effect

People sometimes discern an almost religious fervor in my writing advice. It is true that I believe in better living through better writing. Indeed, I think better prose makes the world a better place. I don’t mean this quite in the sense of the so-called Maharishi Effect, i.e., in the sense that better prose might have some direct influence on the state of the world, but I do believe it in the sense that is probably the real basis for belief in such an effect.

The Maharishi Effect is usually described as a paranormal one: if 1% of the people living in a certain area practice transcendental meditation then this will have some positive effect on the surrounding environment. I suspect that if there is any measurable effect then it stems from the pleasantness that the meditators spread throughout the community, not on some occult force.

I believe that the same thing is true of conscientious writers. People who “sit down” every day to write carefully formed prose paragraphs about things they know don’t have a direct, magical effect on the state of discourse. But their writing and their reading will be “stronger” than it might otherwise be and will therefore pull discourse in the direction of rigor and clarity. You don’t need everyone to articulate their ideas in paragraphs of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words, composed 27 minutes at a time. But I think it is worrisome to imagine a world in which no one does it–a world in which everyone throws together their ideas in tweets and quickly written Facebook posts, always as a reaction to some current event, not on the basis of some well-established fact.

Those reactions, what are sometimes called “hot takes”, do of course have a place in discourse. But that place is granted precisely within the context of more permanent expressions of stable fact. If we really do live in a “post-factual” society, it is because our hot takes never run into anything but other hot takes. They don’t encounter the cool azure of reason.

To return to my analogy: if 1% of a population is meditating, then they bring a particular calmness with them into the hustle and bustle of the day-to-day. When emotions run “hot”, they encounter these people and are soothed. Likewise, outraged Tweets need to run into the moderating force of a well-crafted paragraph. This will make everyone think and feel more clearly about the matter.

Just a Minute

Here’s a simple way of thinking about your competence as a scholarly writer. Each paragraph should require no more than a minute to convey an idea to a properly trained reader, i.e., a competent peer. Obviously, it is a minute within a particular context. So, when you are writing a paragraph for the middle of your paper, you are trying to convey an idea in one minute, but in the context of, say, nineteen ideas that have already been conveyed in the preceding nineteen minutes. It remains useful for you to think of each paragraph as as attempt to accomplish something in your reader’s mind using a single minute of the reader’s attention.