The Philosophy Tutor: Good Writing is a Hard Road to Travel

Posted by Enoch Lambert on 12/9/13 8:28 AM

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"I like the desert," said Lawrence. "It's clean."

Let’s just admit it: good philosophical writing is hard to find, and bad philosophical writing is everywhere.  This isn’t because “philosopher” is actually ancient Greek slang for “lousy writer,” but rather because someone trying to learn to write philosophically is in a bit of a bind.  It demands the combination of certain virtues from both typically humanistic and typically scientific writing.  On the other hand, learning to find the right combination of such virtues also requires relinquishing certain other trademark characteristics of both scientific and humanistic writing.  The result can often be a style of writing that, well, mostly only other philosophers really appreciate--and as a philosophy tutor, I frequently come up against one inevitable question: How can someone learn to write well in such a peculiar style?

Let me begin by unpacking some of what I just said.  For starters, philosophical writing retains the personal style of much humanistic writing.  The use of first-personal pronouns (“I” and “we”), while forbidden in most formal scientific writing, is perfectly acceptable, and even expected, in philosophy.  Yet the content of sentences with first-personal pronouns is generally much less expressive of affect, or elaborate in construction.  In a nod toward scientific writing, the use of heavy-handed polemical rhetoric has become increasingly taboo (in fact, I think today one is likely to encounter more such rhetoric in books [rather than papers] by scientists aimed at informed laypersons).  One is to let one’s arguments speak for themselves.  To appropriate something that the 20th Century philosopher, W.V.O. Quine, said in another context, much that is good philosophical writing today demands “a taste for desert landscapes”.  

Yet, as those intimate with desert landscapes know, austerity need not in the least exclude beauty.  (Anyone familiar with the works and style of Cormac McCarthy should be keenly aware of the possibilities for beauty in literature written in a highly austere style).  Many have thought that the aforementioned Quine’s philosophical writing was a model of such combination.  A guiding ideal common to both science and philosophy that I think drives austerity and economy in both is that someone eventually find the truth (and then we are all enlightened) rather than that I be right.  Thus, both strive for elimination of possibilities for misunderstanding and for transparency in argumentation.  The demand for the latter is even more severe in philosophy than in science.  Scientists are primarily concerned with obtaining empirical data and then, in communication, making sure that others can replicate their data (hence the ideal of preventing misunderstanding).  Arguments are philosophers’ data, and they are as meticulous with them as a field biologist is with her specimens.  Arguments (are supposed to) consist of a series of steps of inferences from one claim to another, eventually culminating in the primary claim of the philosopher.  The demand for complete transparency of each step, along with the many kinds of consideration that go into evaluating whether they are warranted, drives much philosophical writing in a way that even many scientists find overly tedious.  

In contrast to scientific writing, however, and more akin to something like the personal essay, there is no standard format for a philosophy paper.  This, then, is the way in which arguments are not the data of philosophers: there are many kinds of arguments, ways of presenting arguments, setting up the problem that requires a particular argument, etc. Insofar as philosophers seek out and call into question more implicit assumptions that we never really knew we shared, they also find the need for innovation in ways of teasing them out, expressing them, and demonstrating the need to question them.  This is one way in which a certain kind of creativity essential to humanistic disciplines also remains central to philosophy. 

I suggested I would have some words of advice for how to achieve success in philosophical writing, and I do.  One of the best pieces of advice that one of my philosophy professors ever gave me was to sit down and simply copy out passages from great philosophical writers.  Humans learn much of what they do through processes that include a lot of imitation.  Philosophical writing should be no different.  And I recommend the same to you.  In fact, I’ll give you a homework assignment of just this sort.  The American pragmatist, William James, is widely considered one of the great modern philosophical stylists, and his essay, “The Sentiment of Rationality” is one of his best.  An excellent exercise would be to read it through and pick two paragraphs to copy out yourself.  One should be the paragraph that strikes you as the most aesthetically pleasing stylistically.  And the other should be the one that seems to best express the main point of the essay (if the two are the same for you, then also copy out your second favorite paragraph, stylistically speaking).  

Per usual, several warnings and caveats apply.  It should go without saying that this is not an exercise in plagiarism: I’m not suggesting you copy someone else’s writing and pass it off as your own.  Ever.  For any reason.  Next, be aware that William James’ style is much less austere than even most good philosophical stylists today.  Academic philosophy has changing norms and standards for style.  To succeed in the academy today, one needs to learn contemporary norms and standards (and so doing the same exercise with contemporary writers is also a good idea).  But, one also needs to find and establish one’s own distinctive philosophical voice (another way in which philosophical writing is more humanistic than scientific) and so needs to learn from alternative styles of times past.  Third, the point of learning via imitation is never to become exactly like the imitated.  Such is neither desirable nor possible.  So do not get stuck imitating one favorite writer.  One should repeat the above exercise with several good philosophical writers.  In this way, one’s mind begins to survey the full range of the possibility space for writing styles and can start carving out one’s own path in that space.  

Tags: philosophy, expository writing