Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Are good thinkers good writers? Part 2 of THE UNITY OF LANGUAGE AND THOUGHT

The Unity of Language and Thought Series. Part 2

The last entry upheld the indispensability of writing for thought. We now turn now to the indispensability of high-quality writing for deep thought. 

Taking stock empirically is the most direct approach, but perhaps recognized deep thinkers are good writers because writing promotes their recognition, instead of enhancing their cognition. My strategy is to focus on pairs of deep thinkers whose discoveries or inventions were simultaneous, briefly reviewing some relevant commentary and providing short samples of their styles. Promotional considerations are weaker on knowledge's cusp, this particularly true for the less credited thinker, who, after all, failed in his promotional endeavors. Selection by a predetermined criterion also prevents cherry picking samples.

We’ll look at the scientists responsible for two simultaneous discoveries or inventions: Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace (theory of organic evolution) and Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz (the calculus).

Darwin is regarded by scholars as a literary as well as scientific genius.

Darwin really was one of the great natural English prose stylists… This is Darwin's method: an apparently modest allegiance to mere fact gathering abruptly crystallizes into a whole world view. Compares his methods to those of Trollope and George Eliot… (http://tinyurl.com/4s8h2yw.)

Here’s a sample:

It may metaphorically be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, the slightest variations; rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the lapse of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long-past geological ages, that we see only that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were. (Darwin (1872) The Origin of Species.)

Note, for now, one remarkable feature: the 53-word average sentence length.

The co-discoverer of organic evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace, unlike Charles Darwin, isn’t a household name. Scholars regard Wallace as an extraordinary writer; what he lacked was Darwin’s intellectual courage.

… [Wallace’s] consummate writing style. Joseph Conrad kept Wallace’s classic "The Malay Archipelago" on his night table, drawing on it in several of his own books, most notably "Lord Jim." (http://tinyurl.com/5rwnm5a)

Yet you wonder whether Wallace’s intellectual timidity affected his writing style. A sample:

A belief so general, one would think, must rest on indisputable facts, and be a logical deduction from them. Yet I have come to the conclusion that not only is it very doubtful, but absolutely erroneous; that it not only deviates widely from the truth, but is in almost every particular exactly opposed to it. I believe, in short, that birds do not build their nests by instinct; that man does not construct his dwelling by reason; that birds do change and improve when affected by the same causes that make men do so; and that mankind neither alter nor improve when they exist under conditions similar to those which are almost universal among birds. (Alfred Russel Wallace (1870) Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection.)

Wallace sounds bolder than Darwin, but his writing isn’t quite as good because he uses writing flaws—excessive use of intensifiers, such as “very doubtful,” “absolutely erroneous,” and “exactly opposed"—to amplify the projected impression of boldness, a boldness that protests too much. For our purpose, the relevant observations are that Wallace is more than a competent writer, but his intellectual shortcomings produce writing flaws.

Newton’s writing isn’t celebrated, but his frequently quoted bon mots prove his literary capacity, as below:

I have not as yet been able to discover the reason for these properties of gravity from phenomena, and I do not feign hypotheses. For whatever is not deduced from the phenomena must be called a hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this philosophy particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena, and afterwards rendered general by induction. (Isaac Newton (1726). Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.)

"I do not feign hypotheses” lives on.
Leibnitz was an accomplished writer, whose concision is particularly remarkable—he wrote philosophy treatises in the space of pamphlets. Leibnitz’s work methods demonstrate the attention he paid to perfecting the written expression of his ideas as an integral part of their formation.
Leibniz thought on paper, and he even designed a special carriage which rode more smoothly over ruts and bumps, so that he could write while traveling… The way he wrote was as follows: He used folio paper, which was a little shorter and wider than the modern A3, folded in two to make four sides of foolscap, which is a bit narrower and longer than the modern A4. He wrote in the left-hand half of each side, leaving the right-hand half for corrections and additions, of which there were many. He then gave his almost illegible draft to his copyist, to write out a fair copy - usually beautifully written, with plenty of space between the lines. Leibniz would then correct the copy, and either have it sent off; or, if there were too many corrections, get the copyist to write it out again. (http://tinyurl.com/5rwnm5a.)

Leibnitz and Newton fought over priority for the calculus, but that wasn’t their only disagreement: Leibnitz took a different view of Newton's “feigning hypotheses.”

…we find some quality in a subject, we ought to believe that if we understood the nature of both the subject and the quality we would conceive how the quality could arise from it. So within the order of nature (miracles apart) it is not at God's arbitrary discretion to attach this or that quality haphazardly to substances. He will never give them any which are not natural to them, that is, which cannot arise from their nature as explicable modifications. So we may take it that matter will not naturally possess the attractive power referred to above, and that it will not of itself move in a curved path, because it is impossible to conceive how this could happen—that is, to explain it mechanically—whereas what is natural must be such as could become distinctly conceivable by anyone admitted into the secrets of things. (Gottfried Leibnitz (1996) New Essays on Human Understanding, Cambridge University Press.)

In modern terms, Newton and Leibnitz were debating physical action at a distance, posited by Newton’s theory of gravity. History’s verdict regarding this dispute—expressed in Einstein’s general relativity— is that Leibnitz’s positions were true, but Newton’s genius consisted in apprehending the most scientifically useful framework, ignoring even its logical incoherence. Perhaps these tendencies are evident in their writing styles: Newton’s attic and direct. Leibnitz’s writing does an excellent job expressing a dry philosophical question compellingly, bearing in mind he was espousing principles that were only vaguely understood. 

Objectivity demands attention to adverse evidence, and Socrates, who left no written works, stands out. Whether some sophisticated oral methods can play writing’s role in thought deserves exploration, but the reason for Socrates’s barrenness ambiguates its significance. As a matter of principle, Socrates opposed permanent records of ideas, denouncing them as vehicles for dogmatism. Consequently, we don’t know he was a bad writer: he eschewed writing as a means of communication rather than of thought.

Next entry will analyze the writing processes important for thought.

No comments:

Post a Comment