Philosophy and Academic Writing (a personal catharsis and riposte)

Why teachers of academic writing need philosophy

This post has been triggered by my reading of ‘Why Teachers Need Philosophy’ and by some recent negative feedback from the Journal of Applied Linguistics on my views relating to this:

Clark, C. 1989, Journal of Philosophy of Education 23 (2): 241-252

Clark acknowledges that many consider philosophy to be ‘irrelevant clutter so far as practical people are concerned’ (p.244). In a nutshell, this is exactly what the highly-esteemed Journal of Applied Linguistics implied it its feedback! Granted, I may not elucidate as well as Clark does in his article, nor am I always adept at distilling, supporting or making explicit my argumentative steps, but I have nonetheless been riled by the accusation that my arguments are “unhelpful”, “unclear”, “gratuitous”, “unrelated”, “confused”, “naive”, and “insincere”!


Clark’s argument is essentially this: philosophy is relevant to teachers (aka practitioners/applied people!) because it allows them to think about their subject matter in ways that don’t beg or presuppose already existing knowledge (or shared conceptual understandings) of that subject-matter. He uses mathematics as an example: in order to teach a child what the number ‘2’ is, the teacher has to rely on concepts that don’t presuppose the child’s understanding of what ‘two’ means (‘2’ is not something you can ostensively point at: you point at objects that come in pairs, and later you form an analytical concept of ‘2’ that no longer requires empirical (synthetic) evidence*). When the teacher moves on to arithmetic, it is because she has safely assumed that the child now understands the concept of ‘2’ (analytically) and can use it in other contexts.

What Clark argues is that the descriptions that we give to our subject-matter in turn affect/influence/have implications for the way we teach that subject. In the example above, if the teacher already assumes that the child has an analytic (or mental) understanding of the number ‘2’ when the child does not, then the child will react in ways that may not be conducive to learning about mathematics.

Only higher-order thinking (eg philosophy) can determine the specificity of the subject-matter thus making explicit what the definitional boundaries are at any given point of the teaching event:

where teachers have no higher-order conception of their subject matter, they remain lower-order practitioners (248)

My research seeks to identify the specificity (or specificities) of academic writing and to demarcate definitional boundaries (it is disingenuous to suggest that we don’t need definitions. We do. That is how our language becomes public and therefore socially meaningful). I, therefore, cannot always or necessarily or reliably trust the assumptions and definitions of what academic writing is as determined by the extensive literature on the subject of academic writing. If I did, all kinds of things might count as ‘academic writing’, including the IELTS written tasks (one of my pet hates!).

As a practitioner, an applied person (sic!), I have been told inter alia that academic writing is all of the following things (please add to this list! I need data!):

  • a skill
  • a social practice
  • a product
  • a process
  • a genre (goal-oriented)
  • a representation of thought
  • a representation of speech

All of the above are descriptions of concepts, just like saying that ‘2’ is a number (it could also be described as a grapheme, a pair, a bus, or a poo!). The way we describe the concepts that we teach influences both our (re)actions in the class and how students engage with the subject-matter. This is because, as a teacher (an applied person sic!), I can’t unequivocally point to any given piece of (academic) writing and describe it uncritically by using any of the labels above. Yet, depending on which concept of writing I bring to my class, my teaching of it will be affected which will have implications for my learners.

If my concept of writing is that it is a skill (product) that can be mastered (the assumption being that a ‘skill’ does not need much of a context for it to be acquired), then my lesson will look very different to a lesson in which I describe writing as a social practice (process) that needs acculturation (the assumption being that social practices need huge quantities of context and time).

It would therefore be incoherent if I were to describe academic writing as a social practice and then go into class and teach it as a set of skills. Moreover, in making such a claim, I am assuming that the labels ‘skills’ and ‘social practice’ refer to two different concepts: they must do, otherwise they wouldn’t have two different names. The question is what exactly do we mean by ‘skills’ and ‘social practices’? What exactly are we teaching when we describe academic writing as such?

Philosophising about our practice can help us clarify which concepts we are bringing to the applied classroom environment. Many teachers probably do that already (whether consciously or not) and philosophy is in no way sufficient or unique in developing higher-order thinking. But it is necessary, IMHO.

*cf. Kant’s synthetic a priori conception of maths which claims that our understanding of numbers is both synthetic and analytic because we wouldn’t understand the empirical evidence of numbers (synthetic) were it not for the analytic (a priori) structures of our understanding

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