Thursday, February 7, 2008

A Sense of Purpose (2)

Yesterday I got on the track of thinking about sense of purpose because of a book on academic writing I've been looking at (or "at which I've been looking" for you sticklers). I ended up writing about a large and personal sense of purpose--the sense of purpose that might have brought you into the academic world; a sense of purpose that might be considered a cause; something topically specific. But there are other senses of purpose.

The book, "Academic Writing" by Janet Giltrow, says things about writing that...well, they're insightful, in their own way, but I also think they're impoverished in other ways. The book has a strong bent along the lines of post-modern theory, where meaning, knowledge, etc. are social artifacts. I tend to agree with this idea, to an extent. Meaning, knowledge, ideas and the rest are not just social artifacts. There are intensely and internally personal aspects to ideas.

Giltrow opens her book arguing that "style is meaningful" (p.9), a claim I agree with. But meaningful in what way? It appears to me that Giltrow, like many who are concerned with post-modern theory, seems to put aside or ignore the possibility that there is something beneath the social conventions. I may be misrepresenting Giltrow here, but my point is not to critique her work, but rather to talk about a sense of purpose. At one point Giltrow writes "academic readers are familiar with...features of style...they use these features in their own writing; they expect to see them in other people's scholarly writing" (p.94). But is there a reason that we use features of style other than that people expect them? Of course, we do use style so that we can reach the audience we want, but at the same time is that the only reason that we use style? I would argue that it is not. I would argue, in fact, that the expectations of others are only secondary to very specific intentions behind scholarly activity.

Scholarly activity, I would argue, is ultimately aimed at improving the world around us. The search for knowledge is not just an abstract search for truth; indeed, if you believe that truth is a socio-political construct, as argued by many, then the search for knowledge must be motivated by something other than finding Truth (with a capital "T" as William James would write it when discussing pragmatist philosophy). We write scholarly works, I would argue, because we believe that scholarly knowledge is ultimately useful. Our scholarly writing styles are related to this aim. In particular they're developed so that scholarly readers can decide whether the argument presented is one that they want to accept and use in their own scholarly work, which, at some point down the line, can be applied in a productive manner.

In the passage I quoted, Giltrow is talking about reporting the speech (and ideas) of others. We don't just report the ideas of others because other scholars expect us to, but rather because those other scholars provide the foundation on which our own work is built, or they provide the starting point from which we take off, or they provide a foil to our own work. We don't just use the work of other scholars because that makes us sound scholarly; we use the work of other scholars because they shaped the way we think, and because we want to make our work believable and those other scholars help provide the foundation for why we accept the idea. Take Marxist theory. A Marxist can write things based on the premises that Marx used, such as the class dialectic, and we don't expect that particular theorist to prove that the class dialectic operates. Whether or not we believe Marx's theories, those theories certainly provide a responsible scholarly starting point. But more to the point: the Marxist doesn't rely on Marx's reasoning because of expectations, but because of a personal sense that Marx is right, a personal and internal belief that Marx's theories are important. You could replace Marx as the exemplar with any philosopher or other theoretical school and the content of that argument would remain the same.

As a dissertation writer you may have to write a literature review chapter (especially if you're writing a standard five-chapter empirical study). If you write the literature review because your chair and faculty committee expect you to, that's an impoverished sense of purpose. You should write the literature review because you have an idea of what you are doing and why you are doing it that is dependent on some sources. The literature review provides the intellectual framework in which you are doing your own work.

In order to set up a solid study that advances our understanding of the world, we want a foundation--a logical foundation that makes our ideas coherent within themselves. One way to do this is to do it on our own--to make specific assertions about the premises on which we work and to test and then demonstrate the validity and strength of these premises. Another way to do this is to start from premises defined by others and use them as a working point. And this is where using the ideas of others come in. As has been noted, we stand on the shoulders of giants. The use of the giants is not to satisfy some social expectation about how we talk/write; the use of the giants is for our own intellectual grounding.

If you believe that you're reporting on the work of others simply to please some reader, then you're working from an intellectually impoverished foundation--a random assortment of ideas wired together without rhyme or reason in hopes they might support us. Instead we should use ideas with purpose. We want to have an intellectually sound foundation because it helps us see better; the works we cite are the ones that shape that foundation. This is personal and internal; this is about developing a sense of purpose about what our intellectual and philosophical beliefs and questions are.

If you talk about the work of, for example, Michel Foucault, because you think others will expect that, that's one sense of purpose for your use of his ideas. But if you talk about Michel Foucault because his theories shape and guide the research you're doing, that's a very different sort of sense of purpose.

Yes, I agree that knowledge is socially constructed, but I also believe that we are all internally driven by a sense of our own truth (the "experiential truth" that George Lakoff and Mark Johnson speak of in "Philosophy in the Flesh"). If we can follow this internal sense of truth, then we have a sense of purpose. If we are merely following what we think are social norms, that's a very different thing.

This little essay turned out to be somewhat more than I wished and somewhat less. More, because I couldn't find a way to boil the ideas down into fewer words. Less because I think the logic of the argument isn't as well developed as it could be.

The problem here is that, on one level, the argument is about the very nature of knowledge. Giltrow's position is in alignment with a large body of scholarly thought. I don't agree with that body of thought (largely because of my reliance on a different body of thought--especially the influence of Lakoff and Johnson). To try to resolve the debate between these schools of thought is far outside the scope of this work. I have tremendous respect for thinkers whose work use such theories, and heavily relied on insights from my reading of philosophers like Foucault and Derrida.

But, if you're feeling lost in your own work, if you're feeling that your literature review is only there to satisfy the expectations of others, I urge you to reconsider this position. How is your literature review an expression of your sense of academic purpose? Look inside yourself to try to find a role for the ideas of others--did they inspire you? offend you? Do you agree? disagree? In what ways? If you have a sense of purpose, a sense of building a careful foundation for your ideas, that sense of purpose can help you as a writer because you write with direction provided by your own intellect rather than writing with direction provided by your attempt to please another person.

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