Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Theories of everything

This article on Shakespeare and education is interesting. Here's the bit that most stood out to me:
Because thinking and speaking well form the basis of existence in a community, rhetoric prepares you for every occasion that requires words.
That's quite a claim. (And some might expand the claim on the grounds that thinking and speaking need not involve only words.) Although I suppose 'prepares' and 'prepares completely' are not the same thing.

Here's more:
Fierce attention to clear and precise writing is the essential tool for you to foster independent judgment. That is rhetoric.
I don't know what to make of this. I'm all for clear and precise writing, but what exactly is its connection with judgment, let alone independent judgment? Clear expression should help clear understanding, but can one write clearly and precisely about a subject one does not understand? And isn't the meaning of clarity and precision something that varies from subject to subject or context to context? Yet knowing that hardly tells one what to say or write, or how to say or write it. So it doesn't prepare you for every occasion that requires words.

I don't have much more to say about this except that the claim made here on behalf of rhetoric seems excessive. And it reminds me of some claims made on behalf of economics, e.g. that it is the science of behavior (wasn't psychology meant to be that?), so that if you know economics then you know what people will do in this or that situation. Is that a helpful connection to make? It seems like a bad sign when any subject claims, or is claimed, to have an application as broad as this. But is it necessarily? And where does that leave philosophy?

7 comments:

  1. Dear Duncan,

    The sentence that struck me most was this one:

    "The joy of reading was too often reduced to extracting content without context, the joy of mathematics to arbitrary exercises, without the love of pattern-making that generates conjecture in the first place."

    Especially that first part, which I think also ties in with what the author wants to claim re rhetoric (what made you feel uncomfortable). It's a thorny issue.

    And I tend to agree with you that his phrasing (rhetoric) leaves much to be desired when it comes to clarity and precision, something I never much connected with rhetoric as an art anyway. Most of what Socrates has to say about thinking is, in a sense, a critique of rhetoric (tropes etc.) blindly/mechanically applied.

    There is good reason to group rhetoric with logic and grammar as the old-school heads did. One does not function properly without the other two. And the gradual "ascent" from grammar to logic to rhetoric also makes perfect sense (to me anyway). Wittgenstein’s shift of emphasis from logic to grammar is an attempt to correct some of the mistakes in thinking that a strict account of meaning (that fixed could surrounding a word/name) leads to (essentialism/idealism).

    By bringing words back to their everyday use (and without expounding a theory of language) he was trying to rid us of that conception, not by arguing against it but by (re)presenting words in their everyday context—by showing us that (our) grammar is at the basis of our logic, as the grammar of other cultures (forms of life) is at the basis of their logics. That is what meaning is use amounts to, really.

    To return to the second sentence you found wanting/confused:

    “Fierce attention to clear and precise writing is the essential tool for you to foster independent judgment. That is rhetoric.”

    What is missing here, in my view, is grammar and logic, without these rhetoric has nothing to build on, and of course, this makes judgment (is there anything other than independent judgment? If it were not independent, would we call it judgment?) possible. Maybe he just short-circuited the phrase in order to get to his point faster?

    As for invoking Shakespeare as an example of a clear and precise writing, and hence thinking, that is just argumentum ad populum and poor rhetoric.



    PS: Glad to have you back!

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    1. Thanks! I'm wondering about doing more stuff here. We'll see.

      The elimination of joy in education is a real problem, I think. Of course most people's experience of school is not one of joy, and I don't want to contrast the present with a mythical past golden age, but the way history is taught now (at least in the US) seems to have put my kids off it for life. And the way English is taught now seems to be doing the same to a lot of other people. I don't think this is because of a lack of attention to context but more because of the emphasis on testing and standardization. It's a great shame.

      If rhetoric is something like the study of how things are put then it seems as though it could be useful. Scientists might focus on discovering facts and philosophers (simplifying a bit) might focus on the logic of arguments, rhetoricians could look at how best to communicate to the public or how to persuade your opponent in a debate that you are right. One obvious problem with that is how to avoid dishonesty or manipulation. Another is how or whether someone who doesn't know the relevant science, e.g., could possibly know how best to communicate it. But perhaps there are some general principles for ethical and effective persuasion. Clarity and precision, for instance, are good things. I'm not sure what the study of clear and precise communication would be, though, other than a study of grammar and word-meanings. And that sounds more like either the old-fashioned study of language that no one wants to teach any more or else philosophy. It's not clear that there is room for some other subject here. (But I'm not asserting that there isn't.)

      I'll leave it there, but your points about judgment and Shakespeare are good.

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    2. Thinking about this some more I suspect there is room for a subject, or at least an area of inquiry, between philosophy, literature, and psychology, focusing on ethical and effective communication. My sense is that this is at least very close to what rhetoric claims to be, but I don't know how many rhetoricians have a good grasp of the relevant philosophy.

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  2. The claims you quoted have a comically narrow conception of what kinds of different "occasions that require words" there are in real life. For instance, in my job I translate a lot of technical documentation and manuals, which use jargon terms whose meaning is completely opaque from the surface (and which would inappropriately informal stylistically if just translated word for word; and which, if you try to Google them, will get you something like 28 hits, all from the client's own website).

    Or there are abbreviations with three or four plausible readings, none of which seems more obviously correct than the others, and none of which is more likely to be correct than incorrect.

    And when I query the client, I either get no response at all, or somebody who doesn't know themselves responds that I can translate it any way I like.

    These are some real-life "occasions that require words". Indeed, on these occasions I have to coin the required words from scratch and hope for the best. But to claim that "rhetoric prepares me", however partly, "for every occasion that requires words", including this one, is just head-shakingly insane.

    Clear expression should help clear understanding, but can one write clearly and precisely about a subject one does not understand?

    Well, it's what I do for a living. I've even translated some things for which I've had to get security clearance (e.g. the in-house memos of a nuclear power plant), but I've never had to demonstrate anything to anyone about my knowledge of the subject matter at hand. And yet there are obviously fairly clear criteria for what is a clear and precise translation of a text about a subject the translator does not understand and what is an unclear and imprecise one.

    And isn't the meaning of clarity and precision something that varies from subject to subject or context to context?

    Yes, it is (see the above).

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    1. But to claim that "rhetoric prepares me", however partly, "for every occasion that requires words", including this one, is just head-shakingly insane.

      Quite.

      there are obviously fairly clear criteria for what is a clear and precise translation of a text about a subject the translator does not understand and what is an unclear and imprecise one.

      Yes, a translation could be clear and precise, even if the translator knew nothing about the subject. But I would think there would be dangers of getting things wrong in such a case. And writing clearly and precisely from scratch, not translating someone else's words, about something you were ignorant of would surely be a difficult task.

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    2. And writing clearly and precisely from scratch, not translating someone else's words, about something you were ignorant of would surely be a difficult task.

      Well, what I do is at times almost indistinguishable from that, because engineers just can't write. There are exceptions (Wittgenstein – although he too was a terrible speller, for instance). But seriously, engineers routinely get away with stuff that first-graders still on the cusp of literacy are already being taught to avoid. And are liable to be genuinely surprised when called out on it. Hey, it's just language!

      Something I felt like mentioning, then decided against, and am now reversing my decision on, is the "physician, heal thyself" phenomenon. As a rule, high-blown equations of correct language with clear thinking and good judgement are not themselves examples of any exceptionally clear thinking or good judgement. (And vice versa: what the engineers who can't write want to write, for instance, is perfectly clear – to them. Indeed, it's often this that creates the illusion in them that it's as clear to the likes of me too.)

      You wrote at philpercs sometime last winter about how Orwell's recommendations in "Politics and the English Language" are hard to follow in practice; well, the fact is that "Politics and the English Language" itself doesn't follow them. It kicks off with a clich├ęd lament about "the collapse of civilization"; uses long words such as "anaesthetize" and "scrupulous" unnecessarily; cautions against the word eliminate after just having used it in the previous paragraph; and is in the passive voice more than 20% of the time, compared to the mere 5% to 10% of popular magazine or newspaper copy in English. Indeed, Orwell even uses the passive unnecessarily in the very complaint that "the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active"!

      Well, to his credit, Orwell at least writes: "Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against." Nothing of the sort in this convocation address, which would have made me get up and do a runner.

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    3. Yes, he does admit that he is at fault.

      As a rule, high-blown equations of correct language with clear thinking and good judgement are not themselves examples of any exceptionally clear thinking or good judgement.

      Correct language in the sense of correct grammar (and perhaps simple words) is no guarantee of clear thinking, that's very true. Orthodoxy and simplicity are not the same thing as clarity. Ideas should be expressed as simply as possible but no simpler.

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