Academic Writing
January 24, 2018
What Should Be The Preface To Any Writing Guide

I have recently finished another iteration of my undergraduate writing guide. It started as a two-page document born out of rage and disappointment with recurring essay failures. It has now ballooned into a nine-page document written in a slightly more relaxed tone. Still, the guide doesn’t even come close to saying everything I have to say! (I could include pages of ranting about layout alone…) So I have found myself working on a follow-up guide, cautiously titled “Details of Good Writing”. The rough idea was to provide a more hands-on, detailed guide to writing—one that looked at details such as how to use the words “subjective” and “objective” in philosophical writing, or the proper use of the semicolon. Such a guide would accompany the general advice of the first guide which often seemed to me too generic (“be precise!”, “structure your essay well!”, etc.).

I quickly encountered a problem though: that second guide started to look incredibly pedantic. Now I am a pedant, and being overly pedantic with undergraduates can be a plausible pedagogical strategy. Still, the authoritative know-it-all tone of the guide made me feel uncomfortable. After all, the one piece that has influenced my writing the most is actually a piece of anti-advice: Geoffrey Pullum’s withering critique of Strunk and White’s famous The Elements of Style, aptly titled “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice”. Pullum has consistently attacked “zombie rules” in his and his co-authors’ excellent blog, Language Log. It is hard to read Pullum’s contributions without coming to think that almost all advice on writing is too dogmatically prescriptive. It insists on highly specific rules which are pointless at best, contradict the usage of even highly respect writers, are almost always simply made up, and sometimes even harmful to good writing.


January 23, 2017
Defining “fact”

Kellyanne Conway has termed a new, 1984-style neologism, that of “alternative facts”. That’s as silly as it is outrageous. But the response to Conway hasn’t been always intellectually up to par. Here’s Politico:

Merriam-Webster poked at the Trump administration through its Twitter feed, appearing to take senior adviser Kellyanne Conway to task for saying that press secretary Sean Spicer was offering up “alternative facts” about the crowd size at the inauguration.

“A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality,” the dictionary company said in a pinned tweet that linked to a Merriam-Webster posting about how lookups for the word “fact” spiked after Conway’s comment.

Unfortunately, “a piece of information presented as having objective reality” is an outright terrible definition of “fact”. Indeed, the claim that 1.5 million people attended Trump’s inauguration can well be a fact on this definition, as long as it is “presented as” having “objective reality”, which Trump’s press secretary might well have. And some things which are clearly facts—e.g., that I own a copy of Ulysses—fail to be facts on this definition, as they are not presented as anything to anyone. That’s because facts are facts: they just are, independent from whether they are presented in some context or not.

This is not an exception. I tell undergraduates over and over again not to use dictionaries for serious intellectual work. This is because dictionary definitions, while good for obscure words and teaching usage, are normally sloppy, often outright terrible at accuracy, at least the kind of accuracy needed for academic writing. Generally, dictionaries are poor guides to resolve intellectual disagreements; they are normally not even good guides to resolve disagreements over definitions. Bashing Conway & Co. is one thing—but at least you should get your facts (ahem) straight.

December 29, 2016
Judith Butler on Difficult Writing

Judith Butler is often held to be an icon of bad academic writing, and Martha Nussbaum’s withering critique of Butler is one of the most biting philosophical pieces I remember reading; where you come out on the Butler—Nussbaum row might well be a shibboleth for where you stand more widely regarding matters of style in philosophy. But I’ve only recently become aware that Butler hasn’t been silent on her own writing style, but has actually written in its defence. The most interesting part of Butler’s response is that she fully accepts that her writing is “difficult”, though of course she rejects that it is “bad”. Butler’s crucial defence is neatly contained in the following passage:

Herbert Marcuse once described the way philosophers who champion common sense scold those who propagate a more radical perspective: “The intellectual is called on the carpet. … Don’t you conceal something? You talk a language which is suspect. You don’t talk like the rest of us, like the man in the street, but rather like a foreigner who does not belong here. We have to cut you down to size, expose your tricks, purge you.”

The accused then responds that “if what he says could be said in terms of ordinary language he would probably have done so in the first place.” Understanding what the critical intellectual has to say, Marcuse goes on, “presupposes the collapse and invalidation of precisely that universe of discourse and behavior into which you want to translate it.”

Several ideas combine into one in this passage. First, demands for “clarity” should be seen as attempts to chastise radicals who deviate from the conventionally expected. Second, because radical writers mean to challenge and subvert the mainstream, form has to follow content: difficult writing is meant to shock placid readers out of their expectations. And third, perhaps it’s not even possible to formulate radical thought in “ordinary language”, as that language presupposes the “universe of discourse” the radical wishes to undermine.


November 26, 2016
Working in the Humanities if English isn’t your first language

I’ve spent six years in English-speaking academia now, and in many ways I’m thoroughly assimilated into it, culturally, philosophically, linguistically. As a German, the culture and language barriers are comparatively low, but there still are some. Whenever you write, talk or present yourself in English in the Humanities, there are many implicit assumptions as to how you should express yourself, how you should write, and most importantly, how you should sound. Failing to adhere to these norms is likely to activate various implicit biases: it will make your work appear less sophisticated and precise, more exotic and irrelevant, and so on. This will sometimes put you at a small, but noticeable disadvantage.

This topic is rarely discussed—perhaps because it justifiably pales in comparison to more pressing dividing lines, such as race and gender—but it is real nonetheless. (For some discussion, see an article by Sarah Ayala in the APA Newsletter, this article in Nous, the Blog “what is it like to be a foreigner in academia?”, Gabrielle Contessa’s blog, and discussion at the Philosophers’ Cocoon.) I hasten to add that being German has barely any significant disadvantages, at least none I’ve experienced; Germans are one of the big, accepted non-English groups in philosophy, and German is even associated  with philosophical profundity for historical reasons.

So I’m not interested here in tracing the political and social facets of the issue, though there are a couple of interesting questions to ask (are non-native speakers underrepresented in high-profile journals and jobs? what accommodations should audiences, journals and supervisors make for non-native speakers? what level of English can be demanded of everyone? etc.). Instead, I wish to focus on recounting my personal learning curve of doing philosophy in English, and give some practical advice. I’ve routinely taught German undergraduates at a German university in English, so I have a good feeling for the characteristic errors, especially of German speakers; lastly, I’ve been to various philosophy conferences “on the continent” where I have seen a variety of non-native speakers present. In short, I’ve seen a rich diversity of good and bad.


November 22, 2016
LaTeX or Word?

I have worked with LaTeX for a significant amount of time — most of my undergraduate, and some of my Master’s — and while I haven’t delved into its deepest recesses (though it did get to the point that I fiddled with the source code of a package), consider myself an advanced user. Many of my friends are adamant that LaTeX is superior, and recommend it to others, especially for academic writing. I have become convinced that LaTeX is overvalued, and that it offers few functions beyond Word which are useful to the average user; in fact, modern versions of Word do almost anything that LaTeX does, and often better and in a less cumbersome way.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that LaTeX is a terrible choice. If you have LaTeX set up and running for you, then you can skip this article, as I won’t try to convince you to change; and for those having the time, and who like to fiddle around, LaTeX can be a very satisfying choice. But for those who are constantly nagged by their friends that LaTeX is the superior choice, or who find themselves torn between both, I’ll argue that you shouldn’t make the mistake of investing time into learning LaTeX.

There are some tasks for which LaTeX is clearly superior, which is Math typesetting, and more generally, any kind of writing in the natural sciences or which otherwise includes lots of formal notation. LaTeX is more convenient to use in this respect, and usually better looking as well. But this point should not be overstated. If your average writing will contain at most a few formulas, or some light technical notation, Word can deal with those equally well, and its overall benefits still outweigh any math-related benefits LaTeX might have. And if you really think the LaTeX math fonts so beautiful, then you can just install them in modern versions of Word. Most recommendations of LaTeX, I think, come from people who use it as a great tool for some specific purposes, but then mistake it as a useful all-purpose means.

Some people have suggested to me that LaTeX is also better for longer documents, especially if you want to typeset a thesis or a book. It’s quite unclear to me what these advantages are supposed to be, and I have written both a Master’s and doctoral thesis in Word. Word has, if you just look closely enough, just the same functionality that LaTeX offers for longer documents (e.g., different page counts or page styles for different parts of a book).

A last word on OpenOffice. I have been using OpenOffice for several years as well on Linux, but I found it inferior in virtually all respects to both Word and LaTeX. OpenOffice has less functionality, is more cumbersome to use, and usually more buggy, than Word. At least compared to Word 2010 (which will be my main focus), OpenOffice lags several years behind.


July 21, 2016
What is the longest sentence in Kant?

I’m an avid Kant reader. But however much you love Kant, one has to admit that he isn’t always the best stylist. In particular, one thing even the casual reader notices is Kant’s tendency to produce very long sentences—what Germans amicably call Bandwurmsätze. So a question I asked myself is what the longest sentence in Kant’s published work might be. I’m not the first to ask this rather important question. Stephen Hicks has made a brief list of philosophers with long sentences, where Kant comes in at a disappointing third with a 174-word sentence, behind Aristotle and Locke. But surely, I thought, this does injustice to Kant. He must have a sentence longer than a measly 174 words. So the search for the longest sentence in Kant’s work began.