Burgess Laughlin

How to write in a tight space -- objectively

13 posts in this topic

The most egregious part of this statement is that it is unsupported by any evidence or argumentation. Dr. Peikoff frames the context by asserting that [...]. He then finishes with the unsupported statement [...]

Paul's comment led me to think again about the problems writers -- in any subject field -- often face when they need to make a very brief statement about their view of a subject. A classic example is the political candidate who is asked -- perhaps by the League of Women Voters, for instance -- to explain his "philosophy of life" or his "position on abortion" or his strategy for defending the U. S. against terrorism -- and the space allowed will accomodate maybe 50 or even fewer words.

PROBLEM: How much support can a writer give to his statements? and what form should that support take?

Further, is it possible to make every statement -- or, for that matter, any statement -- "bullet proof," so that no rational reader will end up with questions or objections or possible misunderstandings?

[Please, if you want to debate the content of Paul's statement, do so in another topic in another forum.]

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Paul's comment led me to think again about the problems writers -- in any subject field -- often face when they need to make a very brief statement about their view of a subject. A classic example is the political candidate who is asked -- perhaps by the League of Women Voters, for instance -- to explain his "philosophy of life" or his "position on abortion" or his strategy for defending the U. S. against terrorism -- and the space allowed will accomodate maybe 50 or even fewer words.

PROBLEM: How much support can a writer give to his statements? and what form should that support take?

Further, is it possible to make every statement -- or, for that matter, any statement -- "bullet proof," so that no rational reader will end up with questions or objections or possible misunderstandings?

[Please, if you want to debate the content of Paul's statement, do so in another topic in another forum.]

I think that some statements, not every statement, can be unmistakable as to meaning, given that the readers are rational adults; especially some simple, true, declarative statements e.g. "My name is Burgess Laughlin." But even such a simple statement can never preclude any possible rational question or objection, like: "Is that your full name?" Or, "Oh, not Burger Laughlin?" [sorry -- if someone had previously heard the name incorrectly, and remembered it that way.]

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Context matters. Ayn Rand once summarized her philosophy while standing on one foot, but such a summary was not (and wasn't intended to be) a full, thorough proof. And one aspect of keeping the context when one writes is keeping straight what is to be proven by the piece, and what may be assumed, and what is out of scope.

For instance, it is not necessary in a letter to the editor defending the second amendment to discuss the axioms of metaphysics, or freewill or reason or epistemology.

Let me add another point: no piece of writing is "bullet proof" in the sense of "no rational reader will end up with questions or objections or possible misunderstandings." Such are always possible, and I think it would be a mistake to try to formulate one's writing with such a goal in mind. If you wanted to address every possible objection and question, you would never finish writing. (If you want to see this, try this exercise: take a position on any topic, simple or complex, and come up with as many questions or objections as you can. You'll find that there's no end to them, because reality is a whole and all knowledge is related.)

Instead, aim to be clear in your mind what point(s) you want to make, and what is required for sufficient justification. The standard for how thorough to be varies and is contextual; there is no acontextual, omniscient standard.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

If you wanted to address every possible objection and question, you would never finish writing.

Ed, I agree with all your points. The one above is especially pertinent for my interests. It is what I call the pitfall of omniscribence, the writing equivalent of omniscience. Omniscribence is the expectation that a writer -- oneself or another person -- should cover "everything." It can't be done, as you have explained.

I would add one point, by extension, to your post. In one sense, the only statement in a piece of writing that must have support, if the piece is meant to be persuasive, is the theme statement. How much support I give it is determined by a variety of factors, but there must be some support, to some level, of the point of the piece. When I say "to some level," I mean validation of a point need not be taken step by step back to sense-perception. A writer, in some circumstances, may take the process back only one step -- to the point he assumes his readers already agree with.

If all my readers know all men are mortal and that Socrates is a man, then persusading my readers that Socrates is mortal won't take a long argument.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Ed, I agree with all your points. The one above is especially pertinent for my interests. It is what I call the pitfall of omniscribence, the writing equivalent of omniscience. Omniscribence is the expectation that a writer -- oneself or another person -- should cover "everything."

I like that term. That is what I had in mind. Did you create the term, or pick it up somewhere?
In one sense, the only statement in a piece of writing that must have support, if the piece is meant to be persuasive, is the theme statement.
I think I see your point, but would formulate it differently. For the intended audience, any point that you can't assume to be understood already, must be supported. At a minimum, the theme of the piece must be supported. The extent of the support depends on the cognitive distance between the audience and your theme, as well as the level of abstraction and the number of underlying points that need to be made.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Did you create the term, or pick it up somewhere?

I don't remember. I probably filched the term "omniscribence" from some historian writing about the medieval scholastics -- who were masters of rationalism and tried to cover everything in a cascade of deductions.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Coming soon from Rationalist Bookstore: "Omniscience through Omniscribence: a deductive guide to comprehensively proving reality". :)

(Sorry if this is off topic.)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I like that term. That is what I had in mind. Did you create the term, or pick it up somewhere?

I think I see your point, but would formulate it differently. For the intended audience, any point that you can't assume to be understood already, must be supported. At a minimum, the theme of the piece must be supported. The extent of the support depends on the cognitive distance between the audience and your theme, as well as the level of abstraction and the number of underlying points that need to be made.

I agree with Ed on this completely. Additional factors include how much time (for speeches) or space (for writing) is available for the depth of support. Also, regardless of the audience or the theme, if any controversial statements are made, or if personal opinions are included as part of the theme, then those statements need to be supported also with some evidence and argumentation, if only to indicate why the author is placing those statements within the theme of the presentation.

I don't think an audience should enter a discourse with the expectation that everything will be answered. The aim should be to understand what is the theme, how is it supported, can I agree with the theme.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

If an author doesn't have the space to fully argue his point, shouldn't he at least acknowledge the constraints and, perhaps, point the reader to a place where these things are argued more thoroughly?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

If an author doesn't have the space to fully argue his point, shouldn't he at least acknowledge the constraints and, perhaps, point the reader to a place where these things are argued more thoroughly?

My recommendation would be not to include the point. One has to delimit a presentation. However, supporting evidence can be referred to in many ways, including footnotes, links, parenthetical comments, etc.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
PROBLEM: How much support can a writer give to his statements? and what form should that support take?

When I teach a writing workshop, I always have my students identify a target reader for anything they write. I ask them to name one specific person they know who is typical of the type of person they are trying to communicate with or persuade and write the piece to him. This helps answer the question Burgess raised.

When you write to someone you know, you know his context of knowledge. That means you know what can be taken for granted and what needs to be supported, explained, or proved to him. You also know what his basic motivation and values are, and that helps you choose supporting examples and facts that are real and important to him.

When you have a target reader, your subconscious will integrate thousands of facts relevant to communicating with a real, complex person and automatically provide you with the supporting data, examples, and arguments you will need to win him over.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

If an author doesn't have the space to fully argue his point, shouldn't he at least acknowledge the constraints...

My response to the above is "not always"...

...and, perhaps, point the reader to a place where these things are argued more thoroughly?

...and "if possible."

If space is indeed tight enough that a given presentation of ideas must be significantly whittled down, then you wouldn't want to waste what little space you have explaining why you need more space. I think that context and medium go a long way to framing people's expectations. In other words, people generally understand the difference in standards of proof between a letter-to-the-editor and a journal article. Pointing someone to a follow-up source will usually be unsatisfying for people who are trying to pick a fight, but helpful and much appreciated by people who are honestly interested in the ideas at hand.

As for summarizing "where you are coming from," so to speak, you can tailor that based on who your target reader is and how closely their context matches yours. Betsy covered this point well. However, if you don't know who your target audience will consist of, then you have essentially no choice but to assume agreement up until a certain point and then start making your point from there. (Leonard Peikoff covers this in the opening few lectures of Understanding Objectivism, which I'm currently listening to as part of an OAC course.) For example, if you are dealing with a topic in the middle of ethics, you can say or write the equivalent of, "alright, look, I'm taking for granted reality, reason, and life as the standard of value. Now, here we go...."

When you do that, you are not leaving yourself open to objections in metaphysics or epistemology. Rather, you are stating the terms of your current discussion. So, if you are making a point about consumer choice under capitalism and someone says, "well, who cares about consumer choice; everybody knows consciousness is determined anyway," then you might as well stop the discussion on capitalism right there and start a new one on metaphysics. It doesn't mean that your previous discussion was incomplete, it just means it was the wrong discussion to be having with this particular person at this particular time. Writing for the sake of communication is not the same as writing a proof.

Maybe the above example isn't helpful in answering to Mr. Laughlin's original question since the conflict in hierarchy is so blatant. Choosing which objections to answer on a given hierarchical plane is obviously more difficult.

I struggle with this general topic of "how much detail to give" all the time in writing for The Lucidicus Project. Since the website is accessible by anyone and the target audience is medical students (particularly those who have never heard of a rational ethics or system of economics), I can't assume anything. Over the past year, I have probably refined the main page seventy times (this, given a self-imposed limit of four short paragraphs). I'm sure I will continue to do so.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
However, if you don't know who your target audience will consist of

Then I recommend picking any concrete typical person in the group you want to address -- Uncle Joe, yourself before you discovered Objectivism, or even a fictional character you can hold clearly in mind. When I want to write for rational non-Objectivists, my target reader is usually Hank Rearden.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites