Monthly Archives: November 2020

Conditions of Possibility (2)

What conditions need to be in place in order for you to know something? What makes it possible for you to know things? Philosophers look for very general, and therefore very abstract, answers that question. They want their conditions to apply to all cases of knowing, any object of knowledge. That’s understandable since they want to know what knowledge is. But researchers can be a bit more concrete because their question is how to know specific things. We can ask how their social and material environment must be organized to support their knowledge of particular facts.

Here, we should distinguish between the conditions needed to discover a fact and the conditions that are needed simply to know it. Most of us have access to conditions needed to know the age of the universe, for example; but few us are in a position to discover it for ourselves. We don’t have access to the necessary equipment and our theoretical understanding doesn’t indicate a proper place to start. What would we even be looking for? But if an astronomer with the proper credentials tells us the universe is around 13.8 billion years old, or about four times older than the Earth, we’re likely to believe her. We’ll even let her explain how she knows and let her recommend some books to read so that, after a little effort, we can be reasonably confident that we, too, know the age of the universe. We’ll have a justified, true belief about it. In this sense, it can be much easier to know a thing than it is to discover it.

You can do this with with your own research, or, if you’re a student, with your own subject. What sorts of things within your area of expertise are you qualified to produce new knowledge about, and what sorts of things are you merely in a position to know if someone else makes the discovery and tells you about it? This will go a long way towards identifying the sorts of things that can be communicated in a classroom setting, keeping them distinct from the sorts of things that will require original research, fieldwork, experimentation, etc. In fact, the classroom provides a set of conditions that are very similar for both teacher and student: this is where we learn things that can be taught. So both teachers and students have to be mindful of what their conditions allow. A great deal of frustration (on all sides) can arise from trying to teach (or demanding to learn) something in a course that simply doesn’t provide the relevant “conditions of possibility”.

Obviously, academia presumes that a great many things can be known by these means. One of the most important functions of the university is to conserve the knowledge that we have accumulated as a species by transmitting it to coming generations. It is not sufficient to write everything we know down in books and put them in libraries (or on the Internet) for everyone to access. Much of the knowledge we need is “tacitly” stored in the bodies of scholars and scientists and must be passed on through social interaction. (Yes, I do think this means that in-person, face-to-face, contact between faculty and students is important, but I’m not here making a topical point.) The university provides conditions under which the things that can be learned in books and lectures (and laboratory instruction) can be known. More generally, it provides conditions under which the things that are already known to some people can be known by others without having to find out for themselves.

To be continued…

Conditions of Possibility (1)

Scholars use writing to present what they know to other knowledgeable people. So it should almost go without saying that the things they talk about should be knowable. The actual, after all, is generally possible; if you actually know something then it is possible to know it. Philosophical platitudes aside, the idea becomes a bit more interesting when we consider the position of the reader. When scholars put something in writing, they are implying that you, dear reader, are capable of knowing what they’re talking about too. Ideally, you can come to know what the writer knows merely from reading their book. That is, the writer presumes that you are working under “conditions of possibility” that afford you means to know things about the subject of the book. I want to say a little bit about what that might mean.

It is easiest to see how this works in the highly technical papers of the natural sciences. Here a “result” is presented along with the procedure that produced it. The writer obviously presumes that the reader is capable of understanding how the experiment was done (after reading the methods section) and how the result bears on the current state of the theory. Indeed, the writer should presume that the reader is capable of replicating the experiment, i.e., carrying out the same procedure and arriving at a comparable result. In this way the reader could come to know the result as well as the writer. In practice, however, and on the assumption that there has been no fraud (i.e., that the writer does indeed know what they’re talking about), we usually grant that the reader “knows” the result after reading the paper, even without carrying out the experiment themselves. The assumption is simply that the paper is an honest presentation of what happened in the lab.

This doesn’t mean that we assume that the result is true. There are all sorts of things that can go wrong in an experiment and until many labs reproduce the result and extend the findings into other areas we will not consider the matter settled. The point is simply that there is no difference between the writer and the reader on this point. Whatever knowledge the experiment produced, with whatever degree of certainty, is now equally available to both researchers. After all, even the original researcher will do well to do a replication at some point in the future — and the result of a replication is never given in advance. The reader is in the same position. The reader knows as much as the writer on these questions.

This might seem a very strong position, especially when we consider the social sciences. Imagine a researcher who has spent three years doing an ethnography of a particular company. At some point they write a book on the subject. Surely, we want to say, they know much more about the company than the reader could ever hope to. But let’s think about this more carefully. The reader is defined by whatever book the researcher writes. The claim is not that all researchers know as much about everything as all the others. The claim is merely that the reader of a scholarly book has the capacity to know what the book says as well as the writer. The writer must provide the reader with enough information to support the specific claims made about the company that was studied. It is those claims, and only those claims, that the reader can hope to master as well as the writer.

That’s what qualifies the reader to be a critic of the writer’s work. The reader doesn’t have to just believe everything the writer says. Even though the book is reporting on field experiences that the reader doesn’t have, the claims that the writer is making have to make sense to someone who understands how field work is done and what sorts of claims it can support. The reader (who is a peer) can imagine going into some other organization, observing similar behavior, and drawing similar conclusions. Or not. Or the reader can perhaps remember an organization where exactly the same behavior did not imply exactly those conclusions. The writer cannot simply dismiss this counterveiling experience or imagination by saying “I was there!” To defend the original claim, to deal with the objection, the writer must present more evidence. The critic, then, is criticizing the absence of that evidence in the book.

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant proposed to delineate “the conditions of the possibility of our knowledge of objects”. How must the world be, and how must we be, if we are to know things? How must experience be constituted? His analysis was “transcendental” and these days, I suppose, mainly of interest to philosophers. But we’ve come a long way since Kant’s “a priori” conditions and we can now talk about how our “discourse” must be organized, how readers must be related to writers, so that the “order of things” can be known. (Yes, I’m alluding to Foucault’s “historical a priori”.) The important thing in academic or scholarly writing is that these conditions are shared by the reader and the writer. Scholars do not have privileged positions among other scholars from which to stake their knowledge claims. Their peers are qualified to tell them they are wrong.

To be continued…

Aptness to Purpose

The other day I was asked directly for my opinion. “It’s hard when you feel compelled to make every email a prose masterpiece,” tweeted David Hoinski. “Just think of it as a couple of tweets,” replied Evan Knäppenberger, paying David a nice compliment on his tweeting. “What do you think[, Thomas]?” he added, and I was happy to oblige. “One definition of beauty is: aptness to purpose,” I quoted Ezra Pound (ABC of Reading, p. 64). I can respect the compulsion to use good prose even in your emails, but the effort must be proportionate to one’s purpose. On this measure, “Let’s meet for coffee at 10:30,” may well be a “masterpiece” all on its own. In some contexts, it’s impossible to imagine a better way of putting it.

On Twitter, I tried out an analogy that I’m still quite pleased with. “Some people make a truly great cup of coffee every morning,” I said. “They don’t labor at it much longer than those who make an ordinary one.” It isn’t actually hard to make a good cup of coffee; you just have know what you’re doing (and, indeed, how you like your coffee.) So their secret isn’t very hard to understand, though their example may not be easy to emulate.

Every morning, year in and year out, they simply cared how their coffee turned out. They tried various things (choice of beans, fineness of grind, water temperature) until the result satisfied their standard of beauty. But on the mornings when it didn’t come out right, they didn’t (except in extreme cases) throw out the pot and start over or make do with no coffee at all. And even the most compulsive perfectionist can’t spend much more than 15 minutes brewing coffee — most of which is spent waiting for the water to boil and the coffee to brew or for the machine to do whatever your machine does. The few things you have to do just have to be done right, with care. After years of careful attention to the process, every morning produces a little masterpiece. Or that’s how I imagine it anyway.

A similar kind of care can be taken with your emails. You can resolve to pay attention to what you’re doing when you’re writing them. Sit up straight; read the mail you’re answering slowly; compose your response in a relaxed and deliberate fashion; read it through once or twice at the end; check the address and subject line before sending. That sort of thing. You won’t write an error-free mail every time, but over time you will develop a natural feel for the medium. You will learn to pay a proportionate amount of attention to the task. You will learn to reliably produce mails that are apt to their purpose. And it will be good for your prose.

It’s important to maintain that sense of proportion. The perfectionist doesn’t put off their morning coffee until evening because they’re working on a masterpiece. When the time for coffee arrives the requisite effort is simply made, a few careful minutes of deliberate attention are devoted to the task. Likewise, it may take a few minutes longer for you to compose your mails like little masterpieces, but it shouldn’t make the task impossible or your life harder. At the end of the day, you’re giving yourself the time to enjoy the craft. If you keep this in mind, it’s altogether reasonable to pursue mastery of a limited function like email.

Happiness, ca. 2011*

“Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” (Ernest Hemingway)

To know that tomorrow I will write is happiness. I don’t mean that thinking, or hoping, or wishing to write tomorrow is happiness. I mean really knowing that I will write. And to know that you will write you must know both what you will write and when you will write. To vaguely intend to write something, sometime tomorrow is not to know that you will write tomorrow. Knowing means knowing when you will start writing, on which paper, in defense of which claims, and when you will stop writing.

It’s a writer’s happiness, of course. But, then again, your happiness as a writer is periodically the greatest happiness that is available to you. There are periods when your unhappiness as a writer is the foundation of your mood in all things. A writer is someone who needs to write; and a scholar is sometimes more acutely a writer, whether writing or not, than any other thing. There are also periods when your writing has little to do with your happiness, when you are happy or unhappy regardless of whether you are writing. But those periods are not what I’m talking about this morning.

I felt this writer’s happiness last night. I had not yet decided what this morning’s blog post would be about and I was acutely aware of having to make that decision. I was not happy. Being back on a schedule means that I am writing, that I’m a writer, that my happiness depends on whether or not I write. I knew when I would write, but not yet what I would write. So I was not yet happy. I got ready for bed and got under the covers with Book I, Part III, of Williams’ Paterson. It begins: “How strange you are, idiot!” And ends: “Earth, the chatterer, father of all/speech . . . . .” And it has some sharp words along the way for “the university”. A good tonic. And then I knew what I would write about.

I got up and sat at the table with my notebook, jotting down a long and clumsy version of what is now my opening sentence and a few loose thoughts. Then I went to bed and slept. From the moment I closed the notebook, to the moment I fell asleep, I was happy.

When do you feel this happiness? How often? For how long? Happiness is not writing but knowing that tomorrow you will write. You may know, while you are writing today, that you will also write tomorrow. Or you may know at the moment you stop writing that you’ll write again tomorrow. Then you will be happy for the rest of the day. You, the writer. (Like I say, there are times in your life when nothing can make you miserable if the writer in you is happy and nothing can make you happy if the writer is miserable.) Sometimes, however, you will finish your writing for the day and you will have to wait until later in the day to know that you will write again tomorrow. Or you will know that you won’t write tomorrow, because you have planned not to write tomorrow. Why did you rob yourself of this happiness?

On Friday afternoon, I should mention, “tomorrow” means Monday. Consider the implications: a little bit of planning, a little bit of determination can make you happy all day long for weeks. Every day, you make a decision about when and what you will write tomorrow. You make that decision merely by looking at your writing plan. And you always do what your plan tells you to do. Or you change the plan for tomorrow, at the latest today. That is, you know you will not change your mind tomorrow morning when you are supposed to write. The writer in you has learned to trust the rest of you. When the writing is finished for the day, the rest of you takes over, first making a promise to bring you back to the desk tomorrow.

And that, again, is happiness.


*I wrote this post back in 2011 on my old blog. This is a lightly edited repost.

On Knowing Comfortably

Pace Eric Hayot

“Write from the center of your strength,” I often say. This usually amounts to picking your audience and your argument in a way that makes it easy for you, as a speaker, to strike a “rhetorical balance” between them. You should know both what you are talking about and who you are talking to, and you should have something on your mind to tell them. Importantly, you should be interested in what they think of your views. You should be ready to adjust your stance to theirs when they make it known. So you should begin in a determined but relaxed posture, feet apart, shoulders down. Set up your writing moment so that you start out feeling comfortable with the situation.

Now, someone has probably told you that it’s important to move “out of your comfort zone” every now and then. Sometimes we’re more or less forced to. We feel pressure to write about a topic that we haven’t yet made up our minds about, or we feel pressured into speaking to a particular audience. These sorts of exigencies are quite normal in school when we’re given assignment by a teacher. In such situations we begin “off balance” and we sometimes think that that’s the point. Sometimes, our teachers tell us that that was the point! But remember that the point, ultimately, is to teach to you regain your balance, to find your center again. The point is not to be be uncomfortable for long periods of time.

In fact, a good assignment will only push the unprepared mind seriously out of balance. If you haven’t been keeping up with your reading and attending class then, yes, reading the prompt can be a jarring experience. You have a vague sense that you should know what is being asked of you, but you simply don’t know what the words mean, what you’re supposed to be doing. If you are familiar with the subject, on the other hand, the assignment simply sets you up for a series of moves that you’ve already practiced during your “training”, i.e., while reading, thinking, and talking about the subject of the course, and while working on your own prose. A well-designed assignment will immediately make all that preparation seem worthwhile. “Let’s see how we do,” you say say to yourself.

Whether you’re practicing or performing, the trick is to pull whatever challenges you face towards the place where you have resources to deal with them. When writing, always decide the day before what you will say, and don’t make this decision on the basis of some external pressure to say some specific thing, as if there’s a right answer, something you must say. Make the decision on the basis of how well you understand something. Choose something you know well enough to write at least six sentences about, i.e., a paragraph. I recommend you choose something you knew already last week. And then give yourself half an hour the next morning to write that paragraph, calmly and deliberately from the center of your strength. Show yourself what you’re capable of when you’re at your best.

Just looking at your key sentence the day before should be a comfortable experience. The prospect of composing the paragraph after a good night’s sleep should be a pleasant one. If it isn’t, you should choose something else to write about. The idea that writing should always be a groping forward in the darkness at the edge of your abilities is not helpful. Writing should be a time of relative comfort, of comfortably knowing how smart you are. At least a great deal of the time.