Knowledge and Academic Writing

On being bold and assertive yet modest, honest and humble

We (teachers of academic writing, at least in #tleap) tell students to write assertively and with confidence (in this paper I argue that or this shows that); to be tentative and modest (it could be concluded that or my suggestion is); to acknowledge the ideas of others (as so-and-so has shown), but mainly so that students can assert a bold position that cements their right to be writing in the first place (in conclusion, I have shown that).

Although I teach writing, I am also learning to write research, so this post is mainly a reflection on how I want to sound in my own writing: bold, assertive, modest, honest, humble? All and other? And prior to this, how am I to make sense of what I read.

Here’s an example of the kind of bold writing that I am talking about (underlined indicates the language of boldness):

What kind of entity is a committee, a book group, or a band? I argue that committees and other such social groups are concrete, composite particulars, having ordinary human beings among their parts. Thus, the committee members are literally parts of the committee. This mereological view of social groups was popular several decades ago but fell out of favor following influential objections from David-Hillel Ruben. Recent years have seen a tidal wave of work in metaphysics, including the metaphysics of parts and wholes. We now have the resources to rehabilitate the mereological view of social groups. I show how this can be done and why we should bother.

Academic writing hasn’t always been and isn’t always bold and confident like this. There was a time when it was more exploratory and tentative, in the French sense of ‘essayist’ (essayer), when Montaigne’s essays (1500s) were held up as paradigms of good academic writing, even in the sciences (early essays in the Philosophical Transactions, ca. 1600s, still had a personal, exploratory, discovery-oriented and descriptive quality about them rather than the methodologically assertive, controversial and factual/objective veneer of later articles).

My readings and notes

Two critical reading incidents have brought about this reflection. The first is that, when I read across my disciplines – Writing, Philosophy and Education/Sociology – I see many bold discipline-marking claims being made. Often these claims are borrowed from other disciplines, and when they make their way into their new disciplinary home, they are asserted with such factual aplomb that those then reading this knowledge secondhand take the claim for granted (for example, a student of Education who reads an educational paper that draws on Philosophy might think there is no problem with framing whatever ontologies they are concerned with as, say, family resemblances rather than as having unequivocally fixed referents).

Here is a more specific example. Sociologists, Educationalists and Applied Linguistists (and many others) borrow an awful lot of ideas from philosophy (I do, too): Wittgenstein’s Family Resemblances, Philosophy of Mind’s Emergence, Einstein-Schlick’s Relativity, Complexity Theory’s Dynamic Systems, and so the list goes on. But when all these theories find their way into disciplinary domains wherefrom they did not originate, they often get cherry-picked, watered down, mis-represented, re-cast and applied with a confidence that never seems to acknoweldge, let alone do justice to, the still unresolved disputes about their coherence in the original theories that spawned them.

Here is Keith Sawyer, a sociologist, who at least attempts to trace theories of Emergence back to the Philosophy of Mind, where they first ’emerged’. He does this to try and make sense of the Cartesian mind/body dualism that still haunts us and that crops up in many current approaches to knowledge. Sawyer highlights how sociologists have co-opted the concept of Emergence without acknowledging its inherent inconsistencies and problematic nature (page 552):

contemporary sociological uses of emergence are contradictory and unstable; two opposed sociological paradigms [methodological individualism and methodological collectivism] both invoke the concept of emergence and draw opposed conclusions. The problem arises in part because sociologists have not developed an adequate account of emergence. In this article, I make an initial attempt to develop a foundational account […]

I like the fact that Sawyer:

  • a) recognises the origins of the concept (the article is called Emergence in Sociology: Contemporary Philosophy of Mind and Some Implications for Sociological Theory);
  • b) acknowledges shortcomings in his own discipline (Sociology); and
  • c) has the humilty to say he is going to ‘attempt’ to develop what ’emergence’ might mean in his own discipline.

In other words, he is not lifting the term from philosophy, airbrushing the many problems it has with its referents and simply dropping it unproblematically into his own discipline (as Sokal has accused the postmodernists of doing). He is attempting to make sense of what Emergence might mean when used as an orientation towards the understanding of complex social phenomena, of reduction, emergence and supervenience. The fact that Emergence theories originated in Philosophy and Natural Philosophy (as Science was known pre-1800s) does not mean they cannot be used as heuristics or paradigms in other disciplinary fields. But their meaning and reach needs to be re-established when they are exported or transplanted into another discipline, such as Sociology. And, in this article, I think Sawyer shows us how one might go about doing this.

dementedThe second critical reading incident comes from being constantly reminded that there is so much we really do not understand. The history of science, and of ideas generally, is replete with examples of how we got it really wrong and of how much we still don’t know. Einstein himself was considered to be heretic and to have threatened the whole edifice of science with his purely theoretical and non-empirical claims (pages 48-9):

Planck’s idea, which restricted the ways that material objects could vibrate, was the first quantum hypothesis ever, and although it was surprising and hard to reconcile with previous laws, it did not seem profoundly threatening to the entire edifice of physics.

But to suggest that light had a particle nature [as well as wave] was definitely threatening. Thanks to James Clerk Maxwell’s great equations, published in the mid 1860s, and Heinrich Hertz’s great experimetns roughly twenty years later (and countless other pieces of evidence), anyone who knew anything about light was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that light was waves; indeed, that fact was an unshakable pillar on which huge amounts of the physics of the day rested. It was therefore a complete and radical break with virtually all of classical physics when Einstein proposed that light might consist of particles. This heresy really did threaten the entire edifice.

Since knowledge is so big and so dependent on how we frame it and how we use it, I sometimes wish there were less hubris in the way we write academically, even in the modes we choose to represent it, and more recognition that we are more than likely to be wrong, or at least only partially right.

Gustav Klimt’s Philosophy Mural, intended to depict ‘The Triumph of Light over Darkness’. Instead, he depicts humanity as “just a freakish fluke in a huge and utterly alien world” (page 69 of Exact Thinking in Demented Times)

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