Monthly Archives: January 2020

The Gradual Formation of Knowledge in Discourse*

There is another interesting issue of translation in Kleist’s essay “Über die Allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden”. “Reden” is here usually translated as “speech” or “speaking”, but the standard translation of Heidegger’s Being and Time renders it as “discourse”. Kleist is, of course, very focused on actual speech situations, i.e., talking, but we can extend the idea to written contexts as well. Somewhat trivially, for example, the process Kleist proposes could presumably be initiated also by writing a letter to a good friend that tries to explain the idea.

From here it is a short distance to a “discursive” conception of knowledge, as famously articulated by Foucault in his Archaeology of Knowledge. He talked about “discursive formations”, which comprised the formation of particular objects, concepts, “enunciative modalities”**, and strategies.

The individual scholar thinks something and perfects that thought in conversation with peers (including students). The scholarly community, meanwhile, collectively shapes the objects and concepts of their knowledge in discourse. Kleist says that “it is not we who know. It is a certain state of us that knows.” As I never tire of saying, knowledge is indeed a “state of mind”, i.e., “justified, true belief”, but that state should also always be thought of as a “stance”, a practical orientation in a social context. When we know something we are in a state of readiness to converse about it and write about it.

It’s important to keep in mind that discourse is made up of gradual, ongoing processes. And they are supported by a whole array of practices, from the very local practices of the college classroom, to the very global practices of the published literature.

It is ironic, if you ask me, that our increasing awareness of the embeddedness of universal, theoretical knowledge in particular, practical contexts, which Heidegger emphasized already in 1927 (in his description of “the existential conception science”), and which really took off with post-Kuhnian and post-Foucauldian “science studies” in the 1980s and 1990s, seems to have motivated initiatives that have largely eroded precisely those sites (the classroom and the literature) that were supposed provide occasions for the careful formation, and indeed “perfection”, of our thoughts.

We seem to have grown impatient with thinking. We might also say that we have too much blind trust in science. We no longer try to get our minds around difficult ideas. Instead, we imagine that “the facts are known” and that an expert somewhere knows those facts. All we have to do is listen and believe. It is the role of the scientist to confidently assert, not to “think out loud”. We’re unwilling to entertain a tentative formulation.

Fortunately, there is increasing awareness that the mere “communication” of research results in scholarly journals and their subsequent “popularization” in the media has very little to do with the growth of knowledge or the perfection of thought. In the language of TED talks, it’s merely about “spreading ideas”. On this view, it sometimes seems to me, we’re expected to believe things even if we don’t understand them. As long as the claims are supported by “science”, i.e., by a study conducted according to an accepted method and framed by a recognized theory, the “fact” is said to be established. We then let the Malcolm Gladwells of the world “get the word out”. It is considered “educated” to be receptive to them. To propose to subject a fact to further “thinking” (“after the fact,” as it were) is considered either quaint or rude, and in some cases outright dangerous.

Once again, it is important to let Kleist remind us that the spirit moves slowly. Just as importantly: it moves (gradually, gradually) towards perfection only when we are talking to each other, whether in speech or writing. And this is why it is so important to write as participants in a conversation about imperfect notions, not as public speakers of incorrigible truths. Peer review should not try to determine whether or not the result a paper presents is valid, but, rather, whether or not the result has been presented in a way that makes it possible to discuss it. To use Foucault’s language, it must be formed as a statement in a discourse, ready to be questioned.


*This is a lightly edited version of a post I wrote in 2013 on my old blog with updated links. In the comments to the old post, there is an interesting exchange between Thomas Presskorn and me about the difference between “mental states” and intellectual stances that you might find interesting. I took the issue up in a subsequent post.

**He seems to use this phrase to avoid the loaded terms “subjects” and “styles”, both of which would perhaps be too easily understood, i.e., misunderstood. Specifically, just as he uses “discursive formation” to avoid the philosophical baggage of the term “theory”, I think he uses “enunciative modality” to avoid the baggage of “subject”. He’ll sometimes talk about the “position of subjectivity” (of a statement) essentially synonymously, however, and I usually read him as providing us with an account of “theories” that emphasizes the historical contingency of their objects, concepts, subjects, and themes.

The Gradual Perfection of Thought While Speaking

As you may have noticed, I’ve been revisiting my old blog this year and reposting them here in only lightly edited form. It’s interesting to compare my thinking back then against my views now. Actually, it’s sometimes a bit disturbing to see how little my thinking has changed. This is especially relevant in the case of today’s repost, which is about a little essay by Heinrich von Kleist: “Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden” (English translation here). I first wrote it back in 2013, as a lead-in to discussing the distinction between thinking and knowing. Instead of simply setting these two “states of mind” in opposition to each other, we can approach them as mutually supporting “mental processes”. Since first posting it, it looks like my thinking has in fact changed a little, perhaps under the pressures of the age. I’ll get to that at the end.

First, let me address some delicate (indeed, delicious) issues of translation. Consider the word “Verfertigung”. I’ve seen it rendered both as “formation” (PDF) and “construction” (PDF). I like Laura Martin’s translation of “Verfertigung” as “perfection”. After all, to “per-fect” something is to “do” (facere) it “completely” (per-), that is, to “finish” it. And “finish” is actually the root of the German word, namely, “fertig”. When Kleist speaks about the situation in which the mind is already “finished” with a thought (“wenn der Geist schon … mit dem Gedanken fertig ist”) he is using the same root. The only way to keep the association as explicitly in English would seem to be to translate “Verfertigung” as “formation” and then talk about about how a thought might be “already fully formed in the mind”. Or, like I say, we can render it, perhaps more implicitly, as “perfection” and “finished”.

Now to the importance of speaking as such. Kleist focuses on private conversation and almost denigrates public speaking in the traditional “prepared” sense. The kind of talk Kleist is encouraging us to engage in is the spontaneous, honest expression of our ideas, even if it is clumsy and halting, and certainly even though the thought is unfinished, half-formed, under construction. The gradualness of the process of perfecting a thought is important because it indicates its permanent incompleteness. That is, no thought is ever actually perfect; rather, it is undergoing a process that is directed towards perfection. A thought is never finished. To borrow that phrase from the U.S. constitution that Obama made famous in 2008, what we need is a context in which to develop our thinking towards an always finally imperfect but ever “more perfect” state.

The classroom ought to provide such a context, but it has largely stopped doing so because students (under the influence, perhaps, of either their parents or their future bosses) are demanding that teachers tell them not what they think, but what they know. They are expecting to learn the truth, not perfect their own thinking. They want to be able to believe what they are told. That is, teachers are expected to see classroom instruction as a kind of public speaking in which they deliver a prepared message in the most effective way possible. It is no longer proposed as an occasion upon which teachers might discover what they think by hearing what they say. And, by the same token, an occasion on which to discover that they are wrong by hearing what their students think.

Teachers are asked to pretend, we might say, to be perfect in their engagement with students, who are likely (indeed, they are trained by the culture of evaluation) to complain about the teacher’s performance, after holding them to an impossibly high standard: what we might call the “instant perfection of thought”. That is, the students are expecting instruction to introduce clear and distinct ideas into their minds that will require no further reworking by the students themselves. Students can, accordingly, be expected to confidently evaluate their teachers at the end of every semester. In practice this means that after every class the students are less likely to ask “What did I learn?” than “How was class?” That’s long before the process in which they are involved can be expected to yield definitive results. In fact, for many students, since both they and their teachers have misunderstood it, the process never begins.

I remain worried about the state of higher education—indeed, specifically, the state of university teaching. Even more specifically, I’m worried about the disconnect between what teachers actually know and what they talk about in classroom. It is impossible to learn what someone else knows without letting them say what they think. Back in 2013, I was thinking mainly about the positive pressure to express only “finished” thought to the students. Today, we’re increasingly conscious of the problem of keeping our classroom content within the bounds of good taste, of adhering to a certain “correctness” in our expression.

And on this point I do think I’ve moved a little since 2013. It’s always with some trepidation that I raise this question with students in my talks about writing, for example. But I think I’ve developed a pretty good six-minute bit on it. After all, if knowledge is a conversation then we have to let each other struggle and even stumble through it, discovering what we think and what others think about our thoughts. We can’t let “correctness” become the name of an absolute, irrevocable judgment, rendered at the moment our words are uttered. Rather, it should be the always partial, ever gradual achievement of a social process by which we actively “correct” each other, make each other more perfect, if only slightly. We should be exposing our ideas to criticism, and thus letting ourselves stand corrected when we’re wrong. We should not be exposing ourselves immediately to instant censure of thoughts and feelings, on the assumption that our words always already perfectly reveal what’s in our hearts and minds. Indeed, we must hope that our hearts and minds can undergo change — what Kleist so evocatively calls a “gradual perfection”. Let’s keep talking.

The Prose of the World (2)*

Paul Cézanne, detail from Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (Soure:

In his Lectures on Fine Art, Hegel ties the “world of prose” to the “deficiency of natural beauty” and contrasts it to the pursuit of ideal beauty. This is also what Merleau-Ponty seems to have been after when he confronted “the prose of the world” with “a poetry of human relations”. As Aubrey Beardsley said to Ezra Pound, “beauty is difficult,” and, in a sense, then, prose articulates that difficulty.

In writing, prose emerges from the unavoidable partiality of our experience. A poem is arguably an expression of our own universality, and when we write prose we are, by contrast, implicitly admitting that we’re only getting some of the experience down on the page. As academic writers, however, we are also trying to be objective and universal—in a word, impartial. Again, “prose” comes to stand for a particular kind of difficulty, namely, our struggle with “the entire finitude of appearance …. the totality which is not actual within [us]” (147). We are, first and foremost, implicated in the ordinary, in the hustle and bustle of everyday living.

Even in our pursuit of “spiritual interests”—like knowledge, I presume—we do not get beyond prose. The life of the spirit, Hegel points out, depends upon satisfying also our “physical vital aims”. Even the most sincere and diligent (and even the most distracted) scholar will not completely extricate herself from practical contingencies. “[T]he individual as he appears in this world of prose and everyday is not active out of the entirety of his ownself and his resources, and he is intelligible not from himself, but from something else” (149). Maybe this is where Don DeLillo got his views on “the quotidian” — that “gorgeous Latinate word” which “suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace” (Underworld, p. 542). Hegel says: “Here is revealed the whole breadth of prose in human existence” (148).

Scholarship in general, and academic writing in particular, is deeply implicated in ordinary pursuits. When we express ourselves in prose we are implicitly engaging with these day-to-day contingencies. We are struggling, Hegel tells us, to keep our footing in a world of everyday “actions and events.” It is precisely because scholars express their views in a world of ordinary concerns that research must be approached as a conversation where other interests and concerns must be respected. In prose you write about things that you might be wrong about and you write prepared to listen to what others think of what you think. You are not “active out of the entirety of [your] own self”. What your words mean depends on what others make of them. The totality of that dependence, then, is what Hegel is talking about.

“This is the prose of the world … —a world of finitude and mutability, of entanglement in the relative, of the pressure of necessity from which the individual is in no position to withdraw” (150). But a community, I want to suggest, allows for a partial withdrawal, a smaller place within “the entire finitude of appearance”. A finite finitude, if you will. (I’m always harping about how academic writers must appreciate their finitude.) It is a way of simplifying (for a particular set of themes) your “entanglement in the relative”, a way of relieving “the pressure of necessity”. This is the community of scholarship that constitutes your field. A community of prose. It helps you to engage with the ordinary totality in ever more precise ways.


*This is a reworking of a post from my old blog.

The Prose of the World (1)*

The Prose of the World is the title of a posthumously published book by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (who borrowed the phrase from Hegel) and the title of the second chapter of Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things. “Prosaic writing,” said Merleau-Ponty, “limits itself to using, through accepted signs, the meanings already accepted in a given culture.” He distinguishes both “great prose” and poetry from such ordinary prose writing and says that the latter is what you get “when a writer is no longer capable of … founding a new universality and of taking the risk of communicating”. Well, I would argue that academic prose is also incapable of “founding a new universality” (though it should risk communicating), and this is really for the better. Academic writing is very much an attempt to use the language within the limits of accepted usage. There is a whole world of prose: the universe of which it is always already possible to speak.

It is possible to read Foucault as an argument for the contingency of this prosaic world. “Don Quixote is the negative of the Renaissance world,” he tells us; “writing has ceased to be the prose of the world.” And it is of course true that Merleau-Ponty’s “new universalities” do emerge, that the conditions of (prosaically) meaningful communication do change. For him, poetic language was the means by which such changes occurred. Again, I want to emphasize the virtues of prose, of ordinary usage, of writing that does not imply institutional change or the dissolution of what Foucault called the “alliance” of “resemblances and signs”. It is in ordinary, academic prose that we make and support knowledge claims — and expose them to critique. Somebody has got to do it.

And not nearly enough of us do, I think. Many academics struggle with the language in the manner of Don Quixote, who “wanders off on his own,” as Foucault put it. We “no longer read nature and books alike as part of a single text”, in terms of their similitude. But why not? Why don’t we acknowledge the simple utility of producing a description of the facts, or articulating them in prose? Why have we become so skeptical of this basic function of writing? My answer is simply that we are out of practice, and therefore a bit out of shape. We’re in poor form.

Students and, too often, scholars do not make writing a regular part of their studies, of their life of inquiry. In relative terms, they do “read a lot”, but they read even ostensibly factual prose as though it were the accounts of adventures of madmen, “without content, without resemblance to fill their emptiness … no longer the marks of things … sleeping … covered in dust” (Foucault, op. cit.). Maybe we will never recover of our form. All it would take, of course, is a bit of regular work. We would need to sit down, for an hour or two every day and record what we know as claims that have support. And when we read the work of others, we would read them as making claims and offering support in turn.

Instead, it often seems, we have, like Foucault, come to see such activities as tantamount to a belief in magic. All writing has become fiction. We appreciate each other’s writing in the manner of literature rather than simply and straightforwardly “taking issue” with what is said. We suspend disbelief, we might say. We don’t assume that the words we are using are meaningful in the ordinary prosaic way and may therefore be compared to, i.e., “read against”, the world of facts that make our utterances true or false. Ironically (which is to say, appropriately), this little rant in favor of the representational function of language will be considered by many to be the ravings of a madman who has read, with a certain romance, too many books (written by logical positivists!) and his brain has dried up. Perhaps I am tilting at windmills?


*This was originally published in 2011 on my old blog. Lightly edited here.

Fact and Image*

“To whom then am I addressed? To the imagination.”

“The jump between fact and the imaginative reality” (William Carlos Williams, Spring and All, p. 3, 70)

It is the task of research to “determine the facts” and it is the task of research writing to articulate those facts in coherent prose paragraphs. But there is no automatic way to get from the fact in the world to the paragraph in an article. The facts do not make themselves known, and they certainly don’t write themselves down. Wittgenstein rightly said that “We make ourselves pictures of the facts.” That is, we have to imagine them.

I worry that this “jump” is being forgotten in academic writing today, certainly within the social sciences. What C. Wright Mills called “the sociological imagination” has been gradually replaced (as Mills himself complained when he developed the notion) with a kind of unreflective sociological “confidence” or, better, arrogance. (And this of course leads to all kinds of feelings of insecurity in the individual scholar who is trying to write.) It is a faith in (and orthodoxy about) the ability of theory and method to establish an, if you will, “official” relationship between facts and our statements about them.

Although this point is not made explicit, it strikes me as an attempt to make do without imagination. It is an attempt to “address ourselves”, not to the visceral imagination of the reader, but to his or her disembodied intelligence. We think (hope) that we can communicate the facts “as such” to the reader without having to evoke anything as a poetic as imagery in their minds. We forget that our research community is made up of living persons, that it’s not just an impersonal institution that “knows”.

I’m not opposed to facts. I’m as amused (when I’m not horrified) about the factless “truthiness” of pundits and futurists. But, as Leonard Cohen once wrote, a good teacher “puts cartilage between the bony facts”. Elsewhere he declares: “I will not be held like a drunkard under the cold tap of facts. I refuse the universal alibi.” Social inquiry invokes the universal alibi of “those are the facts” too often, I think. We have to address ourselves again to the living imagination of our peers.


*This is repost from my old blog. It came to mind recently when I was reading Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend’s preface to Paul Feyerabend’s Conquest of Abundance. “We need intermediaries,” she quotes Rumi. “A story is like water that you heat for your bath. It takes messages between the fire and your skin.”