Monthly Archives: February 2019

The Epistemology of the Paragraph*

“There are various problems as regards language.” (Bertrand Russell)

In his introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, Russell distinguishes between “the problem as to what is the relation subsisting between thoughts, words, or sentences, and that which they refer to or mean” and “the question: what relation must one fact (such as a sentence) have to another in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other?” He takes the latter to be the basic problem of logic, and the subject of the Tractatus, and he counts the former under the problems of epistemology, which is the subject of this post.

Wittgenstein focused on the logic of sentences. “Only in the context of a sentence does a word have meaning,” as Frege originally put it. Well, only in the context of a paragraph, I would argue, does a sentence convey knowledge. The error of logical positivism, we might say, was to reduce the problem of epistemology to a logical problem — they read the Tractatus as a philosophy of science rather than a philosophy of language. Following Wittgenstein, they took the (true) sentence as a the unit of analysis.

When Foucault encouraged us to look not at propositions but statements he was opposing precisely this reduction. The study of “the dispersion of statements” rather than “the interrelation of true propositions” (Heidegger’s phrase) improved our understanding of science greatly. But I wonder if it was very helpful to scientists themselves. The virtue of logical positivism was that it got scientists to think seriously about the individual truths they were expressing and the relationship between them. (The narrowness of their epistemology aside, one often hears that positivists are fantastic thesis supervisors. This doesn’t surprise me.) I want to propose a unit of epistemic analysis that lies between the sentence and the statement: the claim.

A claim doesn’t have to be true in any strict sense. And it doesn’t have to be a viable element of discourse. It only has to be supported by the writer’s knowledge and this support must be articulated in a prose paragraph around it. The paragraph, on this view, offers an excellent object of study for the epistemologist. We can see what is meant by “knowledge” in a particular field of research by looking at how published paragraphs are composed. What sort of support is offered for what sort of claim? “What,” as Russell put it, “is the relation subsisting between thoughts, words, or sentences, and that which they refer to or mean?”

If I am right about paragraphs, then each paragraph is merely the tip of the iceberg of the writer’s knowledge (much of which the writer shares with the reader because they are epistemic peers). The claim (expressed in the key sentence) is the apex of the tip of the iceberg. So, knowing where the peak of the tip is, as it were, we can extrapolate beneath the surface; we can take the “dignity of movement” of the paragraph as an indication of the depth of the knowledge that supports it.

But this support will be different in different kinds of text. A research article in the Administrative Science Quarterly is composed in a different way than a feature article in The New Yorker. Both may be thoroughly researched, and both writers may know a great deal about their subject matter. Still, how they know is different, and this difference ought to be apparent in the relative composure of the paragraphs that the article is made of.


*This post was originally published back in 2011 on my old blog.

Give Me a Minute

Sometimes we forget what a finite thing a text is. What a simple machine. One word follows another on a line, separated by spaces and sundry punctuation. At the right margin, the line “softly” returns to the left and otherwise continues. At the end of the paragraph the line ends abruptly; there’s a tab indent or blank line and a new line, a new paragraph, begins below. That is, in a certain sense, the sentences in a paragraph are all on the same “line”, the “soft returns” at the margins are arbitrary. Only the “hard return” at the end of the paragraph is significant. The line must end there, while all the other returns depend merely on the dimensions of the page or the viewing window. You decide where the paragraph ends. Your typesetter or browser decides when the line merely “wraps”.

Ideal readers of your text understand this and let each word in the paragraph pass through their minds at roughly the same speed, not bothered by the right margin. At the end of the paragraph, however, they may take a break and reflect. They will, if perhaps barely consciously and only for a second or two, try to decide what just happened to them. What did the preceding 143 words mean? What did the author just tell me? What was this experience about?

When you’re writing a paragraph you’re stringing words together that will occupy about one minute of the reader’s attention. You are in complete control of what will happen to your reader during that minute. You can assume the reader has protected herself from distractions. You are not responsible for accommodating her habit of multitasking in front of the television. Nor do you need to engage with the extraneous input from fellow train travelers or the children in the room upstairs or even the personal memories you unwittingly stir with the mention of a bicycle built for two. The reader has given you her attention and you don’t have to work to hold it. Just as you don’t have to worry about what happens at the margin, where the line gently wraps, you don’t have to worry about what happens beyond the margin, outside the text, where the tapestry of experience wefts and warps. Let the reader worry about all of that. At this moment, the main thing is happening on the page in front of her.

Even Proust has “lost” a reader or two in the middle of a paragraph. But the serious reader does not blame the author so long as the words seem deliberately chosen and carefully arranged. She just goes back and tries again. A good paragraph makes the reader feel that her time has been respected, that any difficulty was necessary. A serious reader will not stand for willful obfuscation or obvious insouciance. If she has to look up a word or two, so be it; but if it turns out that the same meaning could have been conveyed in simpler language she will wonder what the writer is trying to hide or how much he cares.

Imagine that for each paragraph, each line of no more than 200 words, your reader gives you one minute of their attention. How many minutes of work do you have to do to rightfully earn that minute of their time? My suggestion is twenty-seven. The reader should feel as though you’ve spent at least 27 times longer constructing the line than she spent letting it pass through her mind. It is understood that writing is hard because reading should be easy and this difficulty is respected by giving you all that time to write the paragraph, not to mention as many attempts as you like. Every time you put a paragraph before a reader you are saying, “Give me a minute, I promise you won’t regret it.” Do your very best to keep that promise.

Abstracts and Nutshells

“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space–were it not that I have bad dreams.” (Hamlet)

For some scholars, writing an abstract is a nightmare. For others, it causes nightmares later on when they try to write the paper that the abstract promised. But for you, after you have read this post, writing an abstract will be like ruling an infinite kingdom.

Let’s begin with why it is called an “abstract”. While laypeople find academic writing itself rather abstract, it’s important to keep in mind that the more words you have at your disposal the more concrete you can be. Every word you write specifies your meaning further and ties what you are saying to facts that can, hopefully, be verified or replicated by your reader. At one level you are saying that “organizational culture is supported by sensemaking”, but at another level, a much more concrete, you are describing the cognitive processes of particular managers in a particular organization. At a still more concrete level, you are describing what they said to you in an interview or what they did while you observed them. That is, you are describing an entirely finite, entirely bounded dataset that has been collected by a series of actions that you executed. These actions were as concrete as those of the people you studied.

So an abstract is “abstract” relative to the concreteness you are able to establish in the associated paper. Even a purely “theoretical” or “conceptual” paper is ultimately about the concrete sources (books and papers with authors and dates) that you draw on to frame and support your arguments. You don’t mean simply “capital” or “discourse”; you mean these words in the sense bounded by the tradition of Marxist and Foucauldian scholarship, for example. Or, alternatively, in the tradition of economic or linguistic science. And even these words — “Marxist”, “Foucauldian”, “economic”, “linguistic” — are abstract in a sense that can be made concrete by invoking particular sources, particular traditions.

Always approach your abstract as expressing something that can be made more concrete by saying more words. Remember to include a statement of your conclusion that carries both a general meaning and a specific truth. It should mean something to a reader before reading the whole paper, but its truth should be apparent only afterwards. The reader should need your paper before making up their mind about whether you are right. Remember also to include a clear statement of your methods and a summary of your data, all while accepting that this will immediately tell some readers of your abstract that they are not the intended reader of the paper. Your methods will not appeal to everyone, your data set may be too small for particular readers to take seriously. Finally, make sure there’s a sentence or two telling your reader what you believe the implications of your result are. Are they mainly theoretical or practical? How should the world or the science change in recognition of your result.

Imagine your reader. An abstract should give your reader information that will help them decide whether to read the paper or attend your conference session. Likewise, it should give your journal editor enough information to decide who should review your paper and your conference organizer enough information to decide whether and where your presentation fits into the program. Imagine a reader with these limited ambitions and don’t feel hemmed in by the space constraints. Remember that they are there precisely to save the reader time. If you respect that, you’ll be better able to decide how to spend your own time writing the abstract. Count yourself a king of infinite space even when you are bounded in a nutshell. Use your imagination.

Like Minds

In my last post, on writing for peers, I focused on student assignments. But I also said that the image of the reader that students form in their minds risks becoming a habit that stays with them as scholars even after they earn their tenure. I want to say a little more about that in this post.

Good students who have written with their teachers in mind and who have received good grades for their efforts often go on to graduate school and careers in academia. Even while they are getting their PhDs they are likely writing “upwards”, trying to demonstrate their ability to their supervisors and, as the deadline approaches, their committees. During this time, they may also be writing papers for journals and conferences, and here they have the natural authority of reviewers, editors and program committees to relate to. In all cases, just as it was back when they were undergraduates, they are writing in order to be judged. By the time they get their first tenure-track job, they can easily have spent ten or more years in this mood. It’s a deeply entrenched habit of mind.

There is another habit, one that I’m personally more familiar with, and which is just as bad. This is the habit of writing for posterity, for some future reader, not yet born, who will recognize that I am ahead of my time. In practice, it is probably more like writing for the past, namely, the tradition of “great” writers who came before us and who offer us the only real glimpse into what great minds are like. There is certainly a kind of judgment implicit in this way of writing but it is explicitly deferred to a time after the writer’s own death, so it’s a bit, let’s say, abstract. Whether or not you get appreciated for writing this way, or even published, is of little matter. Your aim is mainly to be on the right side of history.

I hope it’s obvious that I recommend against these two images of the reader, which suggest a crushing humility (and threaten humiliation) and are therefore no mood in which to write clear, coherent prose. I’m not alone. There are many who suggest simply turning this around: imagine a reader who is in no position to judge you and is eager to learn what you have to say. Write engaging, informative essays about your expertise with the aim of helping people to understand the things you have worked so hard to learn. This kind of writing can indeed be fun to take on every now and then, but it is what I would consider popular writing. Or it’s the sort of writing you might do for a textbook. You are imagining a reader whose mind is not as formed as yours is on the issues you are addressing; you are imagining a less informed reader. You’ve turned the tables on your reader and made yourself the authority.

None of theses images of your reader should become a habit. They should not shape your writing “posture” — looking up at your reader or looking down on your reader. In your scholarly writing, you should be writing for an intellectual peer. Your purpose is neither to educate nor to edify, nor is everything you write essentially a job application. You are telling someone who is qualified to tell you that you are wrong what you think. You sincerely want to know if you are wrong. You respect your reader’s opinion of your thinking because you have chosen your reader carefully: someone who understands your theories and your methods and is interested in the questions you have tried to answer. Like a fellow student, your reader has read the same body of literature and participated in the same sorts of conversations (now in seminars and at conferences). Your reader, in short, is much like you. You expect to be read the same way that you read them.  Don’t look up at your reader, friend, and don’t look down on your reader. Find a reader your own size and look them straight in the eye.

Other Minds

Lately I’ve been thinking about the reader. It seems to me that both scholars and students often have a needlessly abstract of image of who they’re talking to. The short, right answer, of course, is that your reader is always a peer, and the longer, richer answer really tells you everything you need to know about how to write your papers. The key is to think of your reader as an intellectual equal, a member of your own knowledge community.

Much of the anxiety of academic writing comes from the students’ habit of imagining they are writing for their teachers and the literally sophomoric illusion that they have something to contribute there. This habit persists even among tenured faculty, who continue to write for a superior intellect. A sufficiently superior reader is, of course, indistinguishable from a god, and I would argue that the putative humility of writing with such a being in mind is immediately belied by the audacity of even doing so. Always remember that you have something to say, if you do, to your peers, not to some higher authority. Keep it real.

To write for your peers is to have “the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, knowledge, etc.” to your reader more or less as easily as you attribute these things to yourself. In short, it is to have a “theory of mind”. A theory of mind is not, like I say, a theology of the reader. You are not to attribute omnipotence, omniscience or omnibenevolence to your reader. (Nor are you, in your despair, to imagine some malevolent demon as your reader, no matter how often such a figure appears to turn up among your reviewers.) Rather, based on your reading and on your conversations with your flesh and blood peers, you should imagine a mind much like yours, knowledgeable within specifiable limits, intelligent within reason — reasons that you understand. Do not make a monster of your reader, nor an ignoramus. The reader knows more or less what you know, neither much more nor much less, and it is to this mind that you are to make a contribution.

Perhaps this will be easier to understand by imagining the situation of the first-year business school student reading, say, Chester Barnard’s Function of the Executive for the first time. Let us imagine a “serious” student, of course–one who reads the chapter with real curiosity before attending the lecture, one who then in fact attends the lecture and perhaps asks an intelligent question and, most important, one who discusses the chapter with her fellow students outside of class, puzzling over the meaning of Barnard’s words. Now, suppose we give this student the following assignment.

What does Barnard mean by the “neutral or zero point” of the “willingness to serve”? Why is this important for executive decision-making? Write your answer as a five-paragraph essay.

This instruction will seem formal and abstract to some, but let me suggest that this is a misunderstanding that arises from ignoring the concrete circumstances under which it has been issued. To say, “write a five-paragraph essay” is simply to say, “Imagine that your reader is an intellectual equal (that’s what essays are classically for) and that you have five minutes of their full attention.” The task is to provide five one-minute reading experiences (paragraphs) that answer two questions. Importantly, since this is an “academic” writing tasks (a “school” assignment) the reader can also be imagined to have read the relevant chapter from Barnard’s book. Indeed, the reader can be imagined to have attended the same lecture and participated in the same discussions. There need not be any mystery about this communicative situation.

The writer will, of course, have to make up her mind about what Barnard’s “zero point” is and why it is important for executives to consider it. But the writer will also have to make up her mind about what the reader has in mind on the very same subject. Given the reader’s state of mind, then, is the main problem, in each paragraph, to get the reader to believe something, to understand something, or to agree with something? Or is it, perhaps, to get the reader as interested in this issue as the writer is? The writer may have 24 or 72 hours, or a week, to complete the task. Or perhaps a mere hour in class. No matter. The sooner the writer decides who the reader is, and what is on their mind, the better the writing will go. As Virginia Woolf put it, “To know whom to write for is to know how to write.” She also talked somewhere about the “loneliness that is the truth of things,” but let’s leave that for another time. In academic writing, it’s neither here nor there.