Friday 28 September 2018

Simplicity in writing and thinking

I’ve been having a short email discussion of writing with a correspondent from East Molesey. I had suggested that, when reading fiction, I do not positively enjoy good style. Rather, I merely dislike bad style, which sticks out and is obtrusive.

(Cf: Again, our eye passes over printed lines differently from the way it passes over arbitrary pothooks and squiggles. (But I am not speaking here of what can be found out by observing the movement of the eyes of a reader.) The glance slides, one would like to say, entirely unimpeded, without becoming snagged, and yet it doesn’t skid. [Wittgenstein 1953 §168])

Good prose, I suggested, is invisible. And hence, one mistake I had made in one co-authored philosophy piece was picking a co-author who had substantial style aims. I, I suggested (obviously naively), had had none except to render myself invisible.

East Molesey replied “Odd that you think you don’t / should not show in your writing. Perhaps you view what you are doing as letting the ideas and arguments do the work and not your words and your thinking - curious if so!”

Putting this response aside I then stumbled across an article from a week ago in the Guardian on ‘How to write a great sentence?’.

The article raises, and flags some complications in, the issue of why one might aim for a simple writing style.

One very natural way to think of all this is as writing or language as a code for prior thought. One thinks the thought and then finds the right and simplest words with which to express it. Wittgenstein comments about a French politician who thought that French was unique as the only language in which the word order is the same as the order of concepts in thought.

This case is similar to the one in which someone imagines that one could not think a sentence with the curious word order of German or Latin just as it stands. One first has to think it, and then one arranges the words in that strange order. (A French politician once wrote that it was a peculiarity of the French language that in it words occur in the order in which one thinks them.) [Wittgenstein 1953 §336]

Wittgenstein suggests some exercises of saying a sentence while thinking the thought, saying one without thinking the other and thinking the other without saying the first. His suggestion seems to be that the thought is in the words not prior to them. He also draws an analogy with the interdependence of notes and their expression in music.

But if so, what of the strange sentence discussed in the Guardian article attributed to Kate Moss: "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels"? Suppose one thinks that the way those words are used is odd. The article provides a reason to think so. It says:

Skinny, usually an adjective, is here turned into an abstract noun, paired with another abstract noun, nothing. And yet skinny is also quasi-concrete, because where it lies in the sentence suggests that it can actually be felt, just as food has a taste. But feels also retains its non-sensuous sense of intuiting or experiencing something: skinny feels good. As the sentence ends with the snap of a stressed syllable, our perspective has been altered in a way that feels true, even if we don’t share the sentiment. Reality has shifted a little and then clicked back into place.

If the words are used in some strained (by contrast with normal), novel and non-standard context, then what thought was expressed - oddly - by those words in this non-standard way? What would be the underlying thought stripped of the odd way of putting it? (If that sentence is not weird enough, one can always ask it of one that more obviously is.)

Following the line of thought in John McDowell's account of Davidsonian truth theories, I think the only way to state the thought expressed with words oddly used is with the very same words used in the same odd way. The sentence "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels" states that / means / is true iff nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.

One has to have ears to hear the second part of that long sentence in the right way. Truths about meaning require the right audience. So I'd say, in response to the question my correspondent asked: the ideas and arguments should/do indeed do the work as expressed in the words and thoughts. Preferences about style are preferences about thinking and thoughts.

The Guardian article goes on to note the way that linking words are much less used to carry implications from one sentence to the next now compared to the past.

Sentences have become less shackled to each other. Those written a few hundred years ago typically began with a whereof or a howsobeit, to resume an unfinished thought. And they used lots of conjunctive adverbs, those connecting words like moreover, namely and indeed. Such adverbs are in historical retreat. The use of indeed peaked in print in the 18th century and has been declining ever since. The number of howevers and moreovers has been falling since the 1840s.

That raises a nice related example. Imagine we had a two sentences or thoughts:
  • Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.
  • Don't eat that Yorkshire pudding! 
(It doesn't matter that this is an injunction. One might say: no one should eat the Yorkshire pudding. But an injunction makes the normative nature of the inference more explicit.)

In the past (if the history in the article is correct), we might have written or said, with a suitable connection:
  • Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. So, don't eat that Yorkshire pudding!
Despite the word 'so', the reader still needs to see the force of the connection from the previous sentence to the new next one (So, don't eat that Yorkshire pudding!). We might worry about this and decide to flag the connection. "So, don't eat that Yorkshire pudding!" follows from the previous sentence. The whole thought involves a movement from the first sentence through to the end of the second.). What better to flag this than the word 'so'?! Hence:
  • Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. So, so don't eat that Yorkshire pudding!
But now the following thought should come just as naturally. Despite the word 'so' appearing at the start of the second sentence, the reader still needs to see the force of the connection from the previous sentence to the new next one. What better to flag this than the word 'so'?!


Just as we might need eyes to see or ears to hear the words used as they are in Kate Moss' sentence, so we need eyes to see or ears to hear how one sentence is a reason for the next, to grasp the whole thought expressed. The style and the thought say, and need to say, the same.

Monday 17 September 2018

Launch of wikiVBP: the Values-based Practice Reference Library

"Launch of wikiVBP: the Values-based Practice Reference Library

We are delighted to announce the launch of this new resource for values-based practice

Our thanks to everyone who has contributed to the library thus far and in particular to the VBP Librarian Michael Loughlin for all his hard work on the project

The library is a wikiVBP library because we depend on your contributions to make it work

For further details including How to Use the library and How to Contribute to the Library please CLICK HERE

The Collaborating Centre for Values-based Practice in Health and Social Care
St Catherine's College
Manor Road Oxford,
United Kingdom"

Saturday 8 September 2018

Postscript on the bare presence of artistic intention

Wandering round the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art today there were some large bold abstract images by Roberto Juarez. The curatorial blurb, however, revealed that the abstract images were partly based on found objects and images. Further, the larger painted works were based on smaller designs which themselves had super-imposed grid lines to enable the construction of the larger works. These smaller designs, which were also on display, comprised collages including - it seemed - images from magazines and objects.

Putting this through the Scruton machinery, the existence of a feature in the larger painting was determined by a corresponding element in the smaller ‘scrap book’ as then carefully and apparently faithfully rendered in paint. Its being there was a combination of direct authorial intention in the application of brush strokes - though even here I’m sure such subsidiary elements were merely left to sub-personal motor-intentional capacities - and what had happened to present itself in magazine pages that morning (let’s assume). If on Scruton’s account, the only art in photography is the theatrical arrangement of elements, then in Juarez’ case, most of the art is in good scrap-booking.

I found that I preferred to forget all about this origin story and pretend that the finished works had fallen fully formed from Juarez’s imagination.

Tuesday 4 September 2018

Holiday thoughts of life-style upgrades

I’ve never understood why but, while on holiday, I’m often drawn to thinking about how it would be possible to make the rest of my life rather better: to achieve a ‘life-style upgrade’. This is such a trope of holiday thinking that it’s hard to unpack it, to think about its conditions of possibility. But I think I can see one element this time.

There has never been much point in life-style upgrade thinking while, say, backpacking. Then, I just want to stop having to carry the rucksack or to sleep on the ground. Or, while in particularly stifling 40C temperatures in Thailand, I told Lois, crossly, that, if I ever said I had enjoyed that trip, she should remind me of how, exactly, I’d felt in *this* moment. Life-style upgrade as mere return to ordinary comfort.

So the trope attaches to a particular kind of holiday. And today it seems obvious. I holiday as an attempt to realise the Platonic ideal of an enjoyable life, which is merely poorly approached in the rest of my life. That’s the reason why a holiday might be thought - perhaps mistakenly - to speak to ordinary dwelling. It’s the reason why the holiday experience might seem so much as relevant to anything more general but also why it might have a kind of jurisdiction over the everyday, as opposed to being an irrelevant excursion from Kansas.

So here I am in Boulder, Colorado, to maximise: hiking up mountains, morning jogs along the creek, off-road running, the charms of a university city, good coffee, a ridiculous concentration of micro breweries. And in this milieu, it seems reasonable to ask: what of this should I take back to Blighty?

This thought, though, helps to clarify something about how such a thought even makes sense. I’m comparing the holiday lifestyle with the domestic. One might say that my home town Kendal is a partial and poor exemplification of the Platonic ideal that is - or is not so much beyond - Boulder. The norm of lifestyle assessment is the same: here and there. Both are towns just outside the mountains. Both have growing coffee, beer, artsy culture. It’s just that Boulder is rather better at it at the moment. But this helps rationalise something closer to home.

Kendal’s biggest recent political dispute has been the removal of long-standing informal free parking on a scruffy bit of land by the river and its replacement with an extra bit of green grass and the joining up of a cycle lane. Those supporting the retention of the carpark forced a ballot and, fearing that they would be organised and others would not be, I emailed local friends to tell them about it, simply assuming everyone would share my views on losing the ugly carpark and establishing the cycle path. Fortunately for me, the ballot proposers lost badly. But one of my friends expressed thanks afterwards for the reminder saying that had she been around at the time she would have loved to vote because it had been such a useful carpark. I replied with some practical alternatives but I realised that I could not guarantee that she would never suffer occasionally having to pay to park in Kendal.

I realised, however, that this bit of rational friction gave me an insight I’d failed to have. I wasn’t voting on practicalities at all. Rather, I was voting as a piece of groundless aspiration. I don’t know how inconvenient even for me the loss of a car park will be, nor how helpful a bit of extra cycle path might be, especially given that truly local Kendalians, as opposed to offcomers, have not really taken to cycling. The existing cycle paths are embarrassingly empty. But my correspondent was making a judgement that would seem right for any other North Western post-industrial town. One might dispute the value of carparks over parks and vote practically for a ‘really useful’ carpark. Whereas, whatever the practical utility, I want my adopted hometown to approach a Platonic ideal of a good place to live. I want it to be a Boulder while my correspondent assumes (not falsely) that it’s more of a Burnley.

The bare presence of artistic intention

The chance juxtaposition of two art galleries next door in Denver: the remarkably fine Clifford Still gallery and the modern art gallery showing an exhibition of landscape photography, forced me again to rethink photography.

So the Clifford Still gallery is a testament to the artist’s confidence in his own importance and, strangely, I came away thinking he was probably right. The confidence lay in his reluctance to sell his own work and his resistance to being included in exhibitions merely as one among many. His view was that only in single artist exhibitions was there a way to understand the art, the unifying vision etc. And hence in a strange description of his working practice on one of the gallery walls was, as a final step, that the work was rolled up for storage. Not packed off to a gallery or a private buyer. But hence there was an enormous body of work ready to be presented to any city willing to establish a gallery devoted solely to him (hence Denver).

More substantially, however, was the gallery’s case for his key role in the establishment of a distinctive form of American Abstract Expressionism. Helpful placing showed the gradual removal of realism while retaining increasingly abstract elements originally derived from, say, the human form or the sun or moon. For my point here, the key leitmotif was that everything was deliberate. Clifford Still knew what he was doing.

After a beer and now in the landscape photography exhibition of the adjacent gallery and I was baffled as to what game was being played. In one series of pictures, landscape photographs had been developed onto material (lace and burlap) and then buried in then ground for some months to decay and the results displayed. In another, radioactive soil from Fukuyama had been placed on photographic paper. In a third, ancient photographic paper had been dipped in developer in such a way as to give an impression of hills. None of this began to engage me but what seemed more embarrassing was that I seized on a large photograph of a breaking wave, frozen in time, as having something worth staying for. How mortifying to be entranced by something apparently simple in conception even if hugely difficult to achieve: photographic realism.

Roger Scruton (not a philosopher I ever otherwise cite) argues that photography isn’t art because it is not true that the reason for the presence of elements in a photograph is primarily dictated by the photographer’s intention. Elements in the picture are there primarily because they were there in the scene photographed. Hence the only art, according to Scruton, is the art of theatre in arranging or selecting the tableau to be pictured. My qualm about the experimental use of photographic material and methods seemed to be not that this freed the artists from Scruton’s criticism by injecting non-realist intention. Rather, it threw away the guidance of any vision in the process. The ethos seemed instead to be a random experiment to see what happened when, for example, photographs were buried in the ground. But who cares? The result seems to render pointless any attempt to think through the pictures akin to how I’d react if I knew the poem on a lecturer’s board simply replicated Stanley Fish’s famous aesthetic experiment.

It turns out that I cannot escape the lure of a kind of Myth of Presence, in this case, of the artist’s intention. It seems I am reassured to know that there’s something going on for a reason. I feel somewhat ashamed of this but there it is. How very pre-post-modern.