Saturday, March 18, 2017

Style Matters: Intellectual Style

This is another repost from The Valve (check out the discussion), lightly revised. The difference between Continental and Anglo-American philosophy is, in part, sylistic in the sense of this post, which is about how an individual thinker likes to think. I originally posted this to New Savanna in June of 2012 and I'm bumping it to the top in view of my recent discussion of critical cognitivism (See second addendum).
March 18, 2017: And yet again. These matters are much on my mind these days, cf. my recent post on Derrida and Writerly Criticism.
When, some 35 years ago, I turned toward the cognitive sciences and away from structuralism and post-structuralism, deconstruction, and the rest, the turn was driven as much by intellectual style as by epistemological conviction. No, I didn’t have much affection for the predicate calculus, which I learned in a course in symbolic logic (it fulfilled my math requirement), but I did like the intellectual style I found in linguistics books, the sense of rigor and explicit order. I also liked the diagrams. A lot.

There were large sections in my dissertation—"Cognitive Science and Literary Theory"—where the major burden of the argument was in the diagrams. I’d work out the diagrams first and then write prose commentary on them. That modus operandi pleases me a great deal. In the preface to Beethoven’s Anvil (the book had some diagrams, but not many) I refer to my thinking in that book as speculative engineering. I like that term: speculative engineering.

There are other intellectual styles, obviously. Some very different from my diagrammatic and speculative engineering style.

Take New Historicism (in literary criticism) for instance. I’ve not read much in that vein, but I’ve read some, and some of that I’ve found quite interesting and delightful. If New Historicism is, as I’ve been told, the closest thing literary studies currently has to a dominant methodological practice, I can’t help but thinking that is as much about intellectual style as about epistemological conviction.

It is, or can be, a very writerly style. One gathers a pile of stories, vignettes, and passages from various writers, literary and not, and arranges them more according to rhythm, surprise, and repose than for logical progression and finality — though such matters come into play as well. It is a style that can be a bit like literature itself, at least prose fiction, though one can sneak in some lyrical passages here and there, and maybe even a bit of insistent rhythm.

* * * * *

I’ve got two suspicions about style matters:

1.) In anyone’s intellectual ecology, style preferences are deeper and have more inertia than explicit epistemological beliefs.

2.) Some of the pigheadedness that often crops up in discussions about humanities vs. science is grounded in stylistic preference that gets rationalized as epistemological belief.

* * * * *

Diagrams (Addendum 2012)

On the importance of diagrams it is worth recalling a remark by the linguist Sydney Lamb about the importance of visual notation (Pathways of the Brain, 1999, p. 274): “. . . it is precisely because we are talking about ordinary language that we need to adopt a notation as different from ordinary language as possible, to keep us from getting lost in confusion between the object of description and the means of description.”

Note that Franco Moretti has made a similar remark with respect to "distant" reading, where one frequently deals with charts and diagrams.

Discursive Thought (Addendum 2015)

I believe that one reason that literary critics have been assimilating the newer psychologies in the way that they have, which is discursively, is that that is how they like to think. It's not merely that they haven't been trained in the experimental or computational conceptual ways of the newer psychologies, but that they have no real desire for such training because they don't particularly like those conceptual styles. They are thus between a rock and a hard place.

They went into literary studies because they liked to think discursively and had little or no interest in thinking in diagrams, computer simulations, or experimental design. Literary critics of an older generation didn't have that problem when the turned to psychoanalysis, Marxism, phenomenology, and so forth. Those are discursive disciplines. But these newer psychologies, NOT.


  1. "style preferences are deeper and have more inertia than explicit epistemological beliefs" Agree! I also know this in the practice of medicine;
    "the art of medicine", "the art of nursing." (And health care based on the distribution of services is misguidedly allocating the dollars and cents rather than creating a system wherein practitioners create the resources of presence and witness for care. A simplistic explanation, yes, and yet and yet. . . Why else do people want to choose their own doctor?)

  2. I think a further topical example may be Samual L. Jacksons remarks on Acting and British acting.

    Considerable tension between the method and classical styles. Yet the technique is the same. I suspect these stylistic tensions were bubbling under the surface of his words.

    Selling side of this activity does result in actors emphasising the Genius of their teachers. Reflected form of glory. Although he suggested that he had no understanding of why that should be in relation to British actors.

    I was disinclined to pay too much attention to the flow charts and diagrams used in teaching the anylisis of movement. But thats a case of altering learning style and adapting it to deal with a standard eductional issue, rather than altering technique.

    I find the experimental side of science and the observational side of psychology an easy sell I can buy into as I can relate them easily to old habits.

  3. P.s. I did pay attention (More than I was comfortable with, was lot of extra work) but I understood what the difficulty was. Understanding, an 'eductional issue' I had, rather than having issue with the basis of the information I was having to processes.