The Statement and the Paragraph

“At first sight, the statement appears as an ultimate, undecomposable element … An atom of discourse.” (Michel Foucault)

“The phrase ‘At first sight’ implies that the idea is introduced only to ensure its elimination.” (David Webb)

“…the paragraph can be described very roughly as an autochthonous pattern in prose discourse…” (Paul Rodgers)

It is my view that scholarly discourse divides into paragraphs. I don’t mean that scholars always talk in tightly composed paragraphs, only that what they say — when they speak as scholars — can be restated within the form of a paragraph: a composition of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words that say one thing and support, elaborate or defend it. A paragraph makes a statement for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. Everything a scholar knows can be be articulated in such statements, and, while Foucault is right to question its undecomposability, Rodgers is no less right to say that the pattern seems to have “sprung from the soil it inhabits”. Would it strain the metaphor to say that when statements are discarded they return to that soil as a kind of compost? Discourse is the soil out of which paragraphs are composed and into which they decompose.

The important thing about the paragraph is that it states a claim along with its basis. It expresses a belief along with the author’s reasons to think it is true. This lets the reader, not merely believe or disbelieve the claim, but consider it carefully; it lets us discuss it.  The claim may be true but the reasons bad, in which case the statement will not hold up under scrutiny, even if the claim will later emerge in discourse again, this time supported by better reasons. Or the reasons may be good but the claim nonetheless false, for reasons not yet discovered and not yet articulated in the discourse. One day they will be, and they will appear in paragraphs making the counter-statement.

For my part, I want to help students and scholars become better at composing paragraphs in their writing, and decomposing them in their reading. If we all committed to the idea that “knowledge”, at least in academic settings, is the ability to compose a coherent prose paragraph about something, and we all worked to keep our prose healthy — to support the emergence of these native patterns, and  hasten their return to the earth when their work is done — then I think our discourse, too, would be more vibrant, more joyful. Scholars are organized by “discipline” and this is not at all incidental. I’m not just playing on words when I say it takes discipline to write a paragraph. The form of the statement, the pattern that we recognize in the paragraph that makes it, is shaped by the traditions of a community of scholars. We work hard to acquire that form, to get into shape.

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