Imagination and Paraphrase

One of my abiding preoccupations is the role of imagination  in scholarly writing. To be frank, I think too much writing in the social sciences is unimaginative–sometimes, in fact, resolutely so. That is, I think some writers make an active effort to marginalize the imagination in their articles. This makes them very difficult to read.

George Orwell famously said this many years ago. Too much ideological writing is done without any clear image in the mind of the reader and therefore without leaving one in the mind of the reader. But my touchstone here is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s pregnant sentence, “We make ourselves pictures of the facts,” i.e., we imagine them.

Facts don’t make themselves known. Most of the time they don’t even impress themselves upon us very strongly. We have to go looking for them, and then we have to show them to each other. It is this showing that requires imagination. More recently, I’ve been drawn to the American poet William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All, which is a passionate, almost desperate, plea for imaginative writing. (See this post on my other blog for more.)

In the world of scholarship, I encourage writers to think of the image they want to leave in the mind of the reader paragraph-by-paragraph. That is, give yourself a whole paragraph to leave a single, perhaps somewhat complex, image in the mind of the reader. Require of yourself that you can see it yourself. Obviously, it doesn’t have to be the image of a physical fact. Drawing it might mean producing  a diagram or a graph rather than a picture; or it might involve a series of pictures (as in the story board of a film). But you should not be content with a paragraph that corresponds to no image at all.

Think of it in terms of what it takes to demonstrate that someone has understood your words. If the only possible representation of your idea is the words themselves, then only a verbatim quotation would count as a representation of your text. That’s very unsatisfying. Scholarly ideas are the sorts of thing you should be able to paraphrase, and therefore able to imagine.

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