Thursday, June 6, 2013

Self-inducing far-mode: Approaches to preliminary outlining

Since writing is an inherently near-mode activity compared to reading, the effective author will self-induce a far-mode mindset, and since you can outline in different modes, one approach is far-mode outlining. The outlining methods corresponding to modes are constructing logical hierarchies and abstraction hierarchies, and while many outlines use both methods, to self-induce a far-mode mindset you should stress abstraction level.

In a logical hierarchy, child topics imply parent topics (or the reverse) by strict deductive logic; the relationship between mathematical concepts (polygon: square) or between causes of action and their elements (defendant is liable for contract breach: defendant formed a contract) form logical hierarchies. Despite the generality of parent topics, logical relationships are near-mode: high construal (alternately, far-mode or abstract construal) denotes abstraction, not necessarily logical generality. (The distinction is a common obstacle when critics complain of construal-level-theory’s ambiguity.)

An abstraction hierarchy runs from abstract parents to concrete children, where concepts that are more abstract are those achieved by greater cognitive elaboration. (See Ulric Neisser (1967) Cognitive psychology [analysis-by-synthesis].) Abstract concepts are further removed from direct perception than concrete concepts, and it takes more intuition to apply abstract concepts than to apply concrete concepts. As the root entry on construal-level theory discussed, the death of Julius Caesar can be described at different levels of abstractness: an outline depicting them would run kill: stab: knife [verb sense]. Kill is the most abstract because sensory information about the event is removed and a conceptual framework of organisms (which can live or die) introduced; knife is the most concrete because it includes the implement.

Another contrast between a logical and abstraction hierarchies is the strict directionality the logical hierarchy alone exhibits, making it simply false to say square is polygon’s parent. Although abstraction hierarchies often have an inherent direction, purpose or context can reverse it. Stab could be made the parent of kill and wound (alternative results of stabbing), imposing a far-mode perspective on your thinking about stab.

In legal briefs, imposing far-mode can be illustrated by the relationship between issues and cases. An abstraction-level outline might include the name of an important case as the child of a parent stating an issue, but if your task were to analyze the case, the issue could be a child. Cases are inherently more near-mode than legal issues, since they’re impregnated with incidental facts, and lawyers focus excessively on cases compared to issues when they emerge from their research stuck in near-mode due to temptation by logical hierarchies. Logical hierarchies include the case-analysis protocols taught for law-school exams: holding, parties, procedural posture, facts, issues, result—lawyers stuck in near-mode overparticularize. To impose far-mode on your thinking about a concrete case, persevere in abstraction-level outlining, and treat abstract concepts pertaining to the case—such as analogies to the matter you’re briefing—as more concrete than the case itself.

Other choices influence the kind of hierarchies constructed; one is the distinction between a “mindmap” and a linear outline, and the other between topic and full-sentence outlines. A mindmap is a graphical outline radiating from a center point: the visual cues de-emphasize both hierarchy and sequence, making mindmaps more conducive to abstraction-level outlining; topic outlines are also more conducive to abstraction-level outlining, since full-sentence outlines make logical entailment more prominent.

To induce far-mode by preliminary outlining:
1. Favor abstraction-level hierarchies over logical hierarchies. 
2. Impose far-mode if your subject matter is concrete. 
3. Try "mindmapping" software.
4. Favor topic outlines over full-sentence outlines.