May 22, 2005

When you sit down to summarize an author's
arguments, it often gets hard to figure         There's a tenet of
out exactly what the point was they were        intellectual writing
trying to make...                               that you're supposed
                                                to anticipate possible
Sometimes it seems to me like a symptom of      counter-arguments and
cowardice: there was something simple they      deal with them in advance.
wanted to say, but they were afraid of it
for some reason -- it sounds too extreme,             In practice, this
it would be too easy to argue against,                produces some
clarity is not conducive to tenure, etc               extremely tangled
                                                      pieces of writing
So instead, they complicate the thesis,               from people who at
or worse, *pretend* to complicate the                 least claim to be
thesis, acting like they've dealt with                trying to be clear
a contrary position simply by mentioning              about something.
that it exists.

This suggests a critical strategy:

Address yourself to an                This would become a
imaginary position.                   "straw man" argument
                                      *only* if you pretend
Make up an abstract point             that the author is
of view that illustrates              identical with it.
the core features of the work
at hand, even though the author         Just make it clear
would deny being an adherent            that this isn't so:
of that point of view.
                                           "The pure Minimalist position
Listen to the work you're                   on this -- which is discussed
commenting on, but try to                   by the author, though not held
hear some other voices within               by him -- might be..."
the voice -- select the ones
singing a simpler, cleaner
song.                                       The point is that when
                                            you come right down to it
                                            there isn't a lot of reason
         Penrose does something             to care precisely about
         like this with his                 whether the author has
         "Shadows of the Mind",             screwed up on some point,
         laying out a series                the question is whether the
         of positions that he               viewpoints discussed are
         refers to as A, B, C               at all illuminating...
         and D (in cursive caps).

             (In passing he mentions
             that the actual authors
             writing in this field        NEOLOOGIES
             often adopt a position
             somewhere in between
             these four.)

And a similar strategy applies to
writing original works.  It might
seem that the right way to go about
it is to make up your mind about
what you believe and then write
about it.  But that can lead into
endless hang-ups... as you think          Almost as bad: authors who
further about a subject you might         obsesses about describing the
begin to get nervous that you've          reasons for their own changes of
backed the wrong candidate, and           heart over the years.  You are
worse you might start rigging the         not the most interesting thing
contest to make sure you can reach        about the subject.
the conclusion that you set out for...
                                              Though to be fair, when a
                                              subject is politicized,
      Much simpler than choosing              explaining your shifts in
      a true position is to pick              position may seem necessary to
      a plausible one, and then               cut off crys of "hypocrisy".
      see how good a case can be


         Don't be afraid
         to speak your minds.