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Writing Thoughtfully In Unthinking Times

By Claire Grant

If these are, as they seem, unthinking times, then what, if anything, can we do? I have an idea that writing can help thinking… if we write thoughtfully.

The truth of the claim that writing can help thinking has long been impugned. Consider Plato’s Phaedrus. Socrates is down on writing–he thinks it is the last thing we need. For him, it is a medium through which only superficial understanding may be attained. Learning from, or through, writing generates a mere appearance of wisdom. There are three main ways in which writing tricks us. Socrates says written words can’t speak for themselves to teach the truth to others. We also err in supposing that writing will guarantee intelligibility or certainty of meaning. Worse still, writing can only provide reminders of thought, not originate it. The learning that ensues is thus shallow, temporary, and stale. People never really know things from writing, having not actually thought about them.

That is quite an indictment. What should we make of it? A hasty dismissal as mere “phonocentrism” will not do, not in times like these. It is said that all too often we don’t think enough, or even at all. In the modern world, so the story goes, we are akin to Descartes’s brutes. Does writing really kill deep and original thinking?  This assertion merits scrutiny. In all this we should not spare ourselves. Philosophers, just by virtue of their vocation or trade, are not immune to the epoch in which they live. So the criticisms of writing matter, to all of us. What then to do? In my view, as is often the case, Plato provokes rather than vitiates. We might then pursue a moderate response wherein we address Plato’s concerns. This is to seek a philosophical way of writing able to accommodate the three objections put forth by Plato. These I shall call the argument, clarity, and originality objections.

The argument objection maintains that written words cannot speak for themselves. They are mute and so cannot reply to an objector to explain or defend themselves. This objection stings because philosophy isn’t punditry, in which one touts commentary or opinion. I don’t see this issue as fatal, however. Keeping to our moderate approach, we might render argumentation a desideratum of philosophical writing. Thoughtful philosophical writing would develop some sort of argument. It would thereby facilitate one’s internal dialogue and invite prospective readers to be interlocutors and objectors. Neither of these two forms of argument, with oneself and with others, are precluded by the medium of writing. Perhaps the point is to try for ways of writing that help argument flourish.

In the clarity objection Plato takes aim at an ostensible advantage of writing over speech. He insists that writing creates a false impression of clarity and actually muddles meanings. What though is “clarity”? Clear writing has been achieved when what is conveyed is unambiguously what the writer intends to convey. In philosophy I see this as a striving for meaning. This does not happen without deliberate effort. Success requires a conscious awareness of how the words are being used. A line by the Scottish poet W. S. Graham comes to mind here: “What is the Language Using Us For?”. Poets recognize that they are wordsmiths; philosophers should too. One misconception here is that a plain, “natural” sort of writing exists and that one need only discover it. In fact, this “natural” writing is a particular style with its own conventions, crafted to appear unobtrusive and direct. Beware this guile! The use of simple language and locutions may not in fact serve up clarity. There is no easy way, despite Bertrand Russell’s “never use a long word if a short word will do” and other such pithy advice. Moreover, what is plain to one may be clear as mud to others. It is an error, for instance, to rely on the “resonance” of the ideas. Imagine a work peppered with, say, baseball or opera references. Inevitably some readers would find this practice distractingly irritating or even alienating. What about a bit of drama? Stirring phrases could be meddlesome when we want argument. Yet we should pause here to consider the place of the sublime and the beautiful in philosophical writing. My foregoing comments might lead us to suppose that ugly and dull writing is the goal, when in fact striving for meaning is. One last question here: should we only say those things that we can say clearly? Perhaps not, if we are to make thought move… In any case, we could all reconsider what we are doing when we presume that we are writing clearly.

Finally we come to the originality objection, which raises the problem of thinking for oneself. Socrates warns that people will not become wise when they put their trust in writing, “produced by external characters which are no part of themselves.” What is at the bottom of his worry? For him, writing is too remote from the immediacy of mental experience for people to own the thoughts that writing merely represents. To meet this objection, philosophical writing must be a kind of writing thoughtfully, an extension of one’s own thinking rather than a mere record of thought. I have a suggestion: how about trying for a playful approach to writing? If thought is to be original, why not acknowledge that this sort of writing can be fun, with writer and reader enjoying trying out thoughts and throwing them about a bit? Iris Murdoch distinguished her philosophical from her literary writing on the basis that only the latter was fun. I see no basis for this draconian approach. It obscures the fun that we do see philosophers and their readers having. Perhaps a little levity can pave a way to wisdom after all.

In conclusion: in unthinking times perhaps writing can help thinking, if we write thoughtfully.

Claire Grant is a University of Cambridge don with a passion for thinking and writing. She hopes to bring more people, from all backgrounds, to the love of philosophy.

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For further inspiration, check out recent discussions on the blog about reading and writing philosophical fiction. There’s also a philosophy through fiction short story competition–check out details here

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2 thoughts on “Writing Thoughtfully In Unthinking Times

  1. Plato, of course, immortalizing Socrates’ thoughts in wonderful argumentative, clear, and probably original detail via the Dialogues — or we would have only fragments embedded in others’ writings.

    Thoughtfully presented, thank you!

  2. I have a mug for my tea from the U.S. Library of Congress with this quote on it from Francis Bacon:

    Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.

    Exactly.

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