Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Some writing skills can undermine thought. THE UNITY OF LANGUAGE AND THOUGHT. Part 3.

Earlier entries in The Unity of Language and Thought series:
Part 1. Can bad writers be good thinkers?
Part 2. Are good writers good thinkers?

The skills improving persuasiveness contribute unequally to thought; some may even detract: while good writing renders ideas more precise and manipulable, that’s not all it does. Distinguishing the thought-promoting aspects of persuasion prevents beguilement by rhetorical flair.

Ornamentation and convention contribute little if any to thoughtful quality. Ornamentation (which will consume most of our attention) increases a document’s emotional appeal. Euphony, dependent on surface qualities of expression—those which rarely survive translation—falls in this category. Alliteration, assonance, and consonance bear little relation to the quality of thought.

Also playing on affect are the rhetorical figures (excluding simile and metaphor, because they can make an important contribution to Clarity, a Writing Virtue). Law Professor Ward Farnsworth’s new book Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric abundantly illustrates the rhetorical figures, which invoke three types of pattern: repetition of words and phrases; structure, such as parallelism; and dramatic devices, such as rhetorical questions. Repetition serves adornment most single-mindedly; contrast with parallel structure, obligatory when the elements are logically parallel, as in lists and correlated conjuncts.

The distinction between clarifying and purely rhetorical devices is the difference between a simplicity due to efficient compression of information—as accomplished by any good theory—and simplicity for presentation’s sake. An example of the latter is Republican Presidential–candidate Herman Cain’s 9–9–9 tax plan, a proposal chosen for its sheer simplicity, unbolstered by reasons for taxing the three components identically. The difference is between scientific elegance and marketing catchiness.

This is not to say that the rhetorical figures are unimportant in legal writing. To the contrary, instruction is remiss in its neglect of rhetoric, since legal-brief writing, above all, is persuasive. The point is rather that the rhetorical-figures’ persuasiveness is irrational when it rests on the general qualitative correspondence between writing and thought. But factors besides the quality of thought help persuade judges; and judges, all too human, aren’t entirely rational.

This analysis of rhetoric’s somewhat unreasonable role provides another explanation for legalese, based on its function. Insofar as rhetoric is a means to persuasiveness neither reflecting the writer’s quality of thought nor enhancing the reader’s rationality of judgment, a legal system priding itself on procedural egalitarianism may seek to banish it. While identifying rhetoric by black-letter rule might be impossible, the “system” could approximate its goal by fostering a rhetorically unartful legal-writing style. At the same time, this style incorporates, as “substitute gratification,” formulaic rhetoric, such as trite doublets and triplets. (Notice the analogy between how the law staunches pomposity by supplying pompous forms that don’t make the lawyer look pompous and how it suppresses rhetoric by supplying rhetorical forms with an antirhetorical effect.)

Following arbitrary conventions is another major way (after ornamentation) to improve as writer without necessarily improving as thinker. An excellent speller can be an incompetent thinker. The same goes for other arbitrary conventions, such as capitalization and font choice.

Font choice brings us to the second reason for distinguishing those literary aspects enhancing thought from those favoring persuasiveness by other means. Over-valuing one’s own ideas is a pitfall when seeking objectivity and rationality. We’ve seen how writers—by sheer exposure—fall in love with their own style, but exposure also endears their self-produced content to writers’ hearts. Writers striving to think clearly and deeply can benefit from less persuasiveness in their private writing. This is perhaps part of the benefit of handwritten drafts and other formal variations decreasing documents' cognitive fluency, thereby increasing writers' self-criticalness—improving their logical rigor, representational accuracy, and intellectual honesty. Reviewing one’s writing cast in a more disfluent typography, such as 8-point fonts, produces the same effect. Varying the medium—screen or paper—also can contribute to a more critical attitude toward one’s work. These variations benefit private thought for the same reason they sabotage public persuasion.

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