free spirit

Essay writing

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Hi!

I know that writing is an important epistemological tool, because there is logic, structure, concretization, and proof involved for starters.

I think it would be a good idea to write an essay on a topic that you want to clarify in your mind. (Mabye a form of reduction?)

Although, I have a question. Can't one reason through an idea and go through the necessary steps of reduction without writing? Or is writing necessary for everyone?

If not, why is writing good for some people but not necessary for others?

I personally find it very helpful to understand an idea when I write it out. And I know I've really understood the idea when I can re-iterate it in my own words without losing the original definition, along with many examples.

Thank you for your feedback!! :)

*~Carrie~*

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Can't one reason through an idea and go through the necessary steps of reduction without writing?  Or is writing necessary for everyone?

We deal with simple ideas all the time without writing them down, but writing makes it a lot EASIER for dealing with complex ideas. Because of the "Crow Epistemology," it is hard to hold more than a few ideas in your head at one time, let alone compare and contrast them.

It is similar to the way we can add 10 and 20 in our heads to get 30, but if we want to add 462 and 809 and 1176, it really helps to write it down.

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I think it depends on the person; I often treat writing as a form of thinking, and do my best reasoning while writing things down. Others will generally try to get things straight in their head before putting their thoughts onto paper.

I suspect this has implications for how people actually write. I think people like me will write an essay by producing a series of rough 'first drafts', all written/revised in a single sitting, and getting progressively better. People who like to 'think t out first' will write incrementally - a rough plan, then the actual essay produced over several days/weeks, paragraph by paragraph. This is just a theory though.

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I think it depends on the person; I often treat writing as a form of thinking, and do my best reasoning while writing things down. Others will generally try to get things straight in their head before putting their thoughts onto paper.

I suspect this has implications for how people actually write. I think people like me will write an essay by producing a series of rough 'first drafts', all written/revised in a single sitting, and getting progressively better. People who like to 'think t out first' will write incrementally - a rough plan, then the actual essay produced over several days/weeks, paragraph by paragraph. This is just a theory though.

Either way I feel it can be very helpful in helping oneself understand an idea - even in letting others know I understand it ( if I value their knowledge of me that much). My sister (who lives with me) wrote me an essay on why she should not lose her temper with me. While I didn't absolve her of wrongdoing it did show that she understood on some level the fault in her reasoning. :) I think it could be a great help to write yourself an essay on something complex enough that it's hard to hold in the mind or so important it should not be forgotten.

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I personally find it very helpful to understand an idea when I write it out. And I know I've really understood the idea when I can re-iterate it in my own words without losing the original definition, along with many examples.

Hi Carrie!

Are you on Jean Moroney's email list (she is Harry Binswanger's wife)? Her website is here.

Alex and I recently attended one of her 8 hour seminars on Tackling Hard Thinking. She gives lots of great tips, and I think you'd especially be interested in her ideas on "thinking on paper." She also gives book recommendations on her email list.

I agree that writing ideas out in your own words is the best way to know that you fully understand them. However, I don't think this necessarily needs to be in essay form. It can also be effective to just write your thoughts (in a goal-directed way) out for yourself in a private notebook. I personally find this practice very useful when I have something important on my mind that I need to come to a conclusion about but am having trouble focusing on.

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Hi Carrie!

Are you on Jean Moroney's email list (she is Harry Binswanger's wife)?  Her website is here.

Alex and I recently attended one of her 8 hour seminars on Tackling Hard Thinking. She gives lots of great tips, and I think you'd especially be interested in her ideas on "thinking on paper." She also gives book recommendations on her email list.

I agree that writing ideas out in your own words is the best way to know that you fully understand them. However, I don't think this necessarily needs to be in essay form.  It can also be effective to just write your thoughts (in a goal-directed way) out for yourself in a private notebook.  I personally find this practice very useful when I have something important on my mind that I need to come to a conclusion about but am having trouble focusing on.

Good point! An entire essay doesn't really seem a "must have" for every confusing topic.lol. :)

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Good point! An entire essay doesn't really seem a "must have" for every confusing topic.lol. :)

A good example of non-essay thought-writing is Journals of Ayn Rand.

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Good point! An entire essay doesn't really seem a "must have" for every confusing topic.

Indeed. In the last lecture of Peikoff's course on "The Art of Thinking", he makes a strong case that thinking and writing for an audience are very different, and that trying to write for an audience is futile if you don't already thoroughly understand the topic on which you are writing. There are issues of structure, presentation and focus necessary when writing something for public consumption that do not apply when trying to think something through in a search for personal understanding.

That isn't to say that writing stuff down isn't a useful technique when trying to understand. But it's really better described as "thinking on paper", and the 'appropriate format' for doing so is deeply personal. It depends on how your individual mind works, and what your specific confusions are on the topic in question. It's easy to generate dozens or even hundreds of pages of notes while thrashing out some complex topic, virtually none of which will be of any interest to anybody but you.

I have this experience regularly when writing technical specifications in my job. This often involves thinking through a problem, considering its ramifications for other parts of the software system I am modifying, identifying functional corner cases, and figuring out how to design and implement the desired functionality within the time, architecture and resource constraints of the project. I regularly write lengthy stream-of-consciousness notes while researching such problems. They've got embedded questions stuck in the middle of paragraphs just because that's where I was when they occurred to me. The notes are usually totally incomprehensible to anyone but me. In the end a few sentences or paragraphs often wind up in the finished specifications, and the remainder gets deleted because it's no longer useful once the problem is fully understood.

This process works. But it only works because I am not writing an essay, or indeed a publishable document of any kind. The only formatting and structural constraints are imposed by my own personal cognitive requirements and preferences. The guiding principle is whatever is necessary to clarify my own confusion and ignorance. If I worried at all about how other people might interpret my notes, I'd be mentally paralyzed.

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I know that writing is an important epistemological tool [...]

1. I write notes in the books I read.

2. I write summaries of those notes, on my computer.

3. In a very informal and infrequent journal for each project, I write questions that arise, as they arise, as well as insights worth preserving but not worth pursuing at that moment.

4. I write a statement of purpose for each writing project I undertake.

5. I write an initial outline for each project.

6. I write a "data dump" when I am in the churning/swirling stage of trying to understand a complex new subject and I simply want to see what my subconscious now holds, because it is too much for me to consider all at once.

6. I write a draft of the final project, following the outline.

One lesson I have learned from realizing the points above: "Writing" can mean a lot of different individual activities that can but need not always lead up to producing a formal essay that others might read.

When asking whether writing aids understanding or whether understanding should precede writing, I would ask myself: Writing -- in what form and for what short-term or long-term purpose?

My answer then is that, yes, writing does help understanding -- if "writing" means such things as note-taking, outlining, and formulating on paper the words that capture (and test) one's thinking on a particular topic. My answer would be, no, writing should not precede understanding, if "writing" means the final, formal drafting of an essay designed for others to read.

In summary, the relationship between writing and understanding is not either-or, but both-and, at the right point and for the right reason.

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Hi Sarah!

Thanks for the suggestion. I've recently signed up to be on the e-mail list.

I agree that writing ideas out in your own words is the best way to know that you fully understand them. However, I don't think this necessarily needs to be in essay form. It can also be effective to just write your thoughts (in a goal-directed way) out for yourself in a private notebook.

I agree. I too have a personal journal that I like to put my thoughts, feelings and goals down on. In doing so, I reason out and clarify my thoughts and evaluations on specific situations in my life.

khaight,

That isn't to say that writing stuff down isn't a useful technique when trying to understand. But it's really better described as "thinking on paper", and the 'appropriate format' for doing so is deeply personal. It depends on how your individual mind works, and what your specific confusions are on the topic in question. It's easy to generate dozens or even hundreds of pages of notes while thrashing out some complex topic, virtually none of which will be of any interest to anybody but you.

Good point. This is the kind writing I do in my journal. Even though it isn't for publication, it is still structured, and that I think is the key. Even if it is for your own reading, it must be intelligible, if you want to go back one day, and analyze your reasoning on a topic.

Burgess,

I just want to say that I love reading your posts. they are so clear and precise. In the way you present it and how you word it. (Sectioning, point form, ect...)

I just wanted to clarify what you meant by this point:

6. I write a "data dump" when I am in the churning/swirling stage of trying to understand a complex new subject and I simply want to see what my subconscious now holds, because it is too much for me to consider all at once.

Would you be able to give me an example of what you mean?

Thanks! ~Carrie~

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Would you be able to give me an example of what you mean?

In post 9, I said: "6. I write a 'data dump' when I am in the churning/swirling stage of trying to understand a complex new subject and I simply want to see what my subconscious now holds, because it is too much for me to consider all at once."

Here is an example you might have seen in reading murder mysteries. The detective interviews many individuals. He gets bits and pieces of information from a large number of people. Because most of it is merely testimony, he is not sure how solid each piece is, at this point in his investigation, but he is beginning to sense a pattern -- somewhere, though he can't put his finger on it. The whole mass of semi-information is like a kaleidoscope, with a seemingly ever-changing pattern as he tries to focus on one, then another item.

He sits in his office, thinking about this clue and that clue: "Well if this is true, then ... but on the other hand, there is this other item, but of course that assumes..." -- and so forth. This is the swirling stage, mentally.

Using a psycho-epistemological technique, he "concretizes" this cloud of disparate information by writing it down on a sheet of paper, perhaps in a simple list. (As an epistemological technique, "concretizing" would mean tracing each item to its sense-perceptible roots.) That is, he dumps the data -- the individual bits and pieces not yet integrated as a whole -- onto paper, in no particular order.

Once the many, seemingly disparate or even conflicting items are down on paper, the detective can look at them one at a time in relation to one or more other items, all there within his field of vision.

With all the "data" down on paper, he may immediately see a connection that integrates all or most of the items: an "aha!" moment. At the very least, he can relax -- that is, stop mentally juggling -- and examine the doubtful items one at a time.

This psycho-epistemological technique, where it is needed (which isn't always), is, in part, a way of getting around the "crow epistemology" (which Ayn Rand describes in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pp. 62-63).

If this example isn't clear, I can think of two other examples we could discuss:

- In the briefest summary, try identifying the nature of Kant's epistemology after reading his Critique of Pure Reason. Was it subjectivist, intrinsicist, or -- based on some of his statements taken at face value -- even objective, and if more than one of these, then in what combination?

-Try writing a paper on the cause(s) of the U. S. Civil War: Was it racial, economic, political, other, or some combination of all of these, and if so in what order of importance?

I have not yet met anyone who has considered either of these problems and didn't go through a "swirling" stage at some point. Doing a "data dump" can be helpful in such situations.

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I have not yet met anyone who has considered either of these problems and didn't go through a "swirling" stage at some point. Doing a "data dump" can be helpful in such situations.

I go through exactly this process when solving complicated software design problems. I call it the "fog". It's a period of seeming cognitive disorientation in which I have access to lots of facts but can't fit them together into a coherent solution. It usually lasts about a week. During this time I'm writing notes, asking questions of myself on paper, testing out small what-if scenarios, and programming my subconscious. Usually in about a week I have what you describe as the "aha" moment, and I come up with a model that ties together about 80-90% of the threads. I call this "breaking the spine of the problem". After that, the rest is details. (Much of the time the remaining unintegrated threads turn out to be unnecessary in the final solution.)

I also get a miniature version of this when I'm fixing bugs in software. The "aha" moment when I understand what's making the program misbehave is one of the high points of my job.

What this illustrates is that thinking is essentially the same process regardless of problem domain. Whether you're trying to grasp Kant, or U.S. history, or a problem in software engineering, there are certain steps that your mind has to go through and certain techniques that can help guide you through them.

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The author J.K. Rowling knows all about this issue, I am sure.

Consider that magical device called a pensieve, which she "invented". It is used by Dumbledore (the head wizard in the Harry Potter series) to pull a thought out of his busy head and store it there so that he can come back to it when he has more time. What a clever metaphor.

I bet that Rowling got the idea from her own experiences, because most writers do so much work on paper before they ever begin to write the final document, knowing all the while that much of that work will never be seen by the reader. If that's not a thinking process, then what is it?

Personally, I call that process "talking to myself", because pre-writing often feels like I am having a conversation between my conscious and subconscious elements. Moreover, I have found that I am simply not good at giving my subconscious a mental command and then waiting for a purely mental answer to pop out. A pencil and paper seems to place a demand on my mind to pay attention and get to work.

Duane

Portland, OR

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