Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Beyond Reason

I was wondering what to write about tonight.
Lacking any particular subject, I decided to write about an old favorite of mine, an essay by Jorge Luis Borges titled "Avatars of the Tortoise." The whole essay is maybe six pages long. I have it in a collection titled Labyrinths, translated by James E. Irby.

Many writers get caught in a sort of perfectionist trap: "I don't know enough," they cry. And then they flee to the library, or to the safety of someone else's writing. It's easy to feel like we don't know enough. There will always be something new to learn. As writers and researchers we need to be able to acknowledge this, so that instead of looking for perfect, complete explanations, we can finish our work.

"There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others," opens the essay. "I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite." The famed paradox of Zeno of Elea of Achilles and the Tortoise provides the basis for the essay's name: Borges looks at various manifestations of paradoxes caused by the concept of infinity.

Of particular interest to academic writers is Borges's attention to Agrippa the skeptic, who "denies that anything can be proven, since every proof requires a previous proof," and "Sextus Empiricus [, who] argues in a parallel manner that definitions are in vain, since one will have to define each of the words used and then define the definition."
What does this say to the academic writer about wanting complete knowledge? It suggests that there is no utter certainty. We must start from something else. Bertrand Russell, recognizing this problem in his Philosophy of Logical Atomism says that we need to start our arguments from somewhere, and as we have no access to truth, we must start from something that is "undeniable." But, of course, in this day and age on what point of interest can we find no debate?

We must choose some place to start our argument. Ideally that is what we can use the literature review to do: we can position our fundamental premises in terms of the discourse of our field. What it means is that we make a choice of where to start rather than having some logical rule that determines where to start. And what this means is that if you, the author, face your blank page and say "I don't have enough knowledge to start," it is worth sitting back a moment and asking yourself "can the material I already have provide a strong foundation for my first draft?" If the answer is yes, start writing. The sooner you start writing, the sooner you will finish.

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