More bad writing

by Brian on November 29, 2003

Let me second Chris’s recommendation of John Holbo’s posts (one two) on bad writing. Despite their brilliance, I don’t want to take up the thankless task John offers me. In part that’s because at this time of year I have quite enough thankless tasks on my plate. And in part it’s for an amusing theoretical reason.

The task, if a labour of Hercules can be called a task, John sets is to count the errors in a particularly error-ridden passage. The problem is that the number of errors a passage contains is not obviously determinate. For example, assume the passage contained the following argument.

All philosophers are positivists
So, all philosophers are bad people

At first glance it looks easy to say how many errors that contains. Two. False premise and invalid reasoning, right? But that’s not obviously charitable. It’s often wrong to regard arguments that are invalid on their face as thereby defective, for they may be enthymemes. The question then becomes what the hidden premises might be. Perhaps the following two premises are intended to be the hidden premises.

Being a positivist is a mark of bad character
Anyone who has a bad character in one respect is a bad person

Now the argument is valid, so one of the errors is gone. But now the argument contains three errors, not two, for all three premises are false. But maybe that’s uncharitable, for the hidden premise might instead have been

Being a positivist is a mark of bad character and anyone who has a bad character in one respect is a bad person

And now we’re back to two mistakes. But even that might be excessive, because maybe the hidden premise was intended to be

Either some philosophers are not positivists, or all philosophers are bad people

And now the argument is valid and only has one false premise. So it only contains one mistake. So heaven knows how many mistakes it really had.

Now for the special holiday touch. By a rather tendentious interpretation of Quine’s “No entity without identity” dogma, and the fact that mistakes in arguments do not have determinate identity conditions, I conclude there are no mistakes in arguments. And if there are no mistakes in arguments, there are no mistaken arguments.

If I was going for the post-Thanksgiving Day snark award I’d say this was the best bit of news blogger X had received all decade. But any award Brian Leiter can’t win is an award I don’t want.

Returning to John’s post, I think he’s at one point a little too charitable towards the bad writers. In general, I think he’s a little too accepting of the idea that difficult ideas will require difficult writing. I don’t think this is true. Indeed, I don’t really see much reason to believe it. To take an extreme case, some of the ideas involved in Godel’s incompleteness theorems are as difficult to grasp as anything in any branch of philosophy. But that doesn’t mean writing about them has to be difficult – indeed the discussion of the theorems in Godel, Escher, Bach, while by necessity somewhat incomplete, is splendidly clear. Now to be sure Hofstadter had a slightly easier task here than some because he was writing an exposition of Godel’s ideas (among other things) rather than writing the ideas out anew. But there is little reason I think that a first presentation must be more difficult than a later exposition.

(Maybe I’ve got the wrong idea of ‘difficult’ here, and difficult ideas are meant to be revolutionary in the political rather than the Kuhnian sense. Different example then. Whatever its faults, you can’t attack The Communist Manifesto for difficult writing.)

Finally, a little anecdote about Judith Butler, who is something of a target in these debates. (I do hope this isn’t meant to be confidential – in any case it isn’t meant to reflect badly on anyone.) Butler, famously, is remarkably clear in person despite being so obtuse in print. This is one reason why many people outside Theory have a higher opinion of Butler than her fellow-travellers. Anyway, since she is so clear in person, it seems she could easily be clear in print. All she’d have to do is talk for a while and release the transcript. (Isn’t that how most of Chomsky’s books for the last 25 years have been written?)

So Butler was asked recently why she didn’t just write like she talks, and she replied, reasonably enough, that very few people in any field do just that. Everyone, or at least almost everyone, has mannerisms they adopt in print. (She just has more of them than everyone else combined.) Which got me thinking, who does write like they talk? I seem to recall reading that Moore’s writing sounded a lot like he sounded in person.

Obviously no one writes just like they talk in ordinary settings. But I think some people do write a lot like they talk when, say, asking questions at colloquia. (Not coincidentally, these people tend to be among my preferred philosophical writers.) The examples that spring most immediately to mind are Frank Jackson and Ted Sider, but I’m sure there are plenty more.



c 11.29.03 at 7:27 pm

A favorite professor of mine, who studied at Harvard, says that Stanley Cavell’s writing style is very similar to his speaking style. I’ve only read a couple of books by Cavell, but, based on the style of those books, it strikes me as a plausible claim.


one of the many 11.30.03 at 3:09 am

Josh Cohen talks and writes remarkably clearly, whether in conversations, an audience or in prepared lectures. However he is a little more willing to joke in speech (all three sorts) than print.

Rumor has it that his near-namesake G.A. Cohen does as well – can any of you confirm this?

Nice to know that Butler can be clear, though, great story.


Thomas Dent 11.30.03 at 6:26 pm

Talking is talking; writing is writing. (And never the twain, etc…)

While time was when everything read would be read aloud (back in the Middle Ages I think) silent reading is now the norm. Which is why written discourse can and should be definitely different from spoken.

First, one can go back and look at a text once or several times, so the amount of repetition that gets your idea across in speech is pointless on paper.

Second, there’s less need for an academic writer to keep the attention of the audience moment by moment. In a book you can put in the unexciting but strictly necessary bits of the argument, safe in the knowledge that those liable to be bored will skim over them.

Of course, this doesn’t explain huge discrepancies between writing style and speaking style. But the psychology of the two are also very different.


Gary Farber 12.01.03 at 2:14 am

Um, this post isn’t about bad writing. Bad reasoning, maybe. Bad logic. Possibly bad thinking.

But it’s not about writing, at all. Which disappoints me, having troubled to open it, since, as someone with a lot of experience, the subject interests me. Wheras I have considerably less interest in technical questions of philosophy.

So, in other words, this post is an example of bad writing.


Tom Runnacles 12.06.03 at 1:00 pm

I can confirm that when he supervised some of my graduate work, Jerry Cohen spoke in complete, elegantly-turned paragraphs for most of the time, complete with nifty gags. In fact, he came straight to my mind as an example of someone who writes pretty much as he speaks, and how that can (sometimes) be very cool indeed.

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