Reader Request Week 2010 #3: How I Think
John, I’m consistently impressed with how you break topical issues of the day down into their constituent parts; how you reason and make your points (and take apart others’) in your comments. I see some of the same at play in your novels; your storytelling and character building.
I’d like to know how you think. Were you taught something particularly useful about reasoning in school? What tools do you leverage to build your citadel of considered opinion and wily discourse?
Schooling in fact does have something to do with it. In a formal sense, I’ve noted before that my degree from The University of Chicago is in Philosophy, and specifically it’s a degree in Philosophy with Allied Fields, with those allied field being linguistics and philosophy of language. What this means is that I spent a reasonably large amount of time in school (to the extent that I actually attended classes, which is another issue entirely) looking at the how and why of language. If you were to ask me my favorite philosophical treatise — that is the one I found most interesting in terms of waking up neurons in my brain and making them go “hmmm” — then I would point you in the direction of How to Do Things With Words, by J.L. Austin. My own brand of thinking is not precisely a direct line from Austin’s writings, but one very important takeaway I got from Austin, and a thing which crystallized that which to that point I had suspected but had not much thought about concretely, is that words themselves are action; they do not simply describe the world but in a very real sense make the world. Therefore it makes sense to pay attention to the worlds people are attempting to create in their words.
Less formally, both my high school and my college were argumentative places, and I mean that Socratically; in both places if you lobbed out an opinion during class (or, shit, just laying about in the dorm), you could expect to have to defend that argument. There’s an old joke that at the University of Chicago, when someone says “good morning,” the appropriate response is “how do you know?” Now, there are ways of doing this wrong; for a while my once and future college girlfriend was dating one of those college conservatives who liked to posit morally appalling things just to get a rise out of people, and would retreat to “I’m just playing devil’s advocate” after he pissed people off. I’m pretty sure he ended up being punched in the head, not for being a college conservative (of which Chicago had, oh, just a few), but because he was an asshole. But in a larger sense, if you spend years having your statements challenged by teachers, professors and your peers, over time you learn to argue, and you learn how to challenge and take apart poor arguments.
The gist of this is that by both education and by environment and independent of any particular native facility for words, I was sensitized to the power and value of language, reason, rhetoric and logic, and not only regarding how I used each myself, but how they were used on me, and especially when they were being used poorly.
Apart from all this, but something that could be used integrally with it, is the fact that both as a younger person and as an adult, I spent and do spend a lot of time observing people. This fact is not immediately obvious if your only interaction with me is here on Whatever, where rhetorically I am generally in “let me tell you what I think” mode, but as I’m fond of reminding people, my presentation here on Whatever is performance; it’s me, but it’s not all of me, just the parts best suited for what I want to do here. Out in the real world, I don’t spend all my time pontificating. I spend a fair amount of it watching people.
Without getting too much into the drama of it, part of this was due to early circumstance: When you’re a small, sensitive kid from a poor and often unstable home environment, you spend a lot of your time looking at who could be trouble and who could be an ally. But, you know, part of it is just me. I find people fascinating. I want to know who they are and why they are the way they are. That means you pay attention to them: how they act, how they react, how they interact, and how they do all of that in relation to you, including the words they use with you and on you.
Finally, added to all of this is the simple fact my brain is wired for communication, and writing is my best expression of this fact. I learned early on what writing does for me (both internally and externally) and what it allows me to do for and to others, and this, you can be assured, was an interesting thing for me to discover. Now, when I was younger, I was smug and thought the sheer force of my personal awesomeness would make everything I wrote brilliant and that everyone would love every bit of it, and this is why I’ve spent a fair amount of my adult life apologizing to friends from high school and college for foisting my writing on them at every opportunity. Age has taught me about humility and the desirability of editors, but perhaps more charitably it’s pointed out to me that paying attention to the rhetorical craft and particulars of my own writing is important if I want to engage and move people.
Having just vomited all that out on you, let me point out that it’s not like I wake up each morning and think “today I shall marshal all that I have learned of rhetoric and discourse in the service of justice” and then leap to the keyboard, fresh to the day’s fight. I’m nowhere that worked up about my writing. Like anything, if you do it long enough, you end up just doing it without having to think too much about it. At this point, a lot of it is muscle memory. I mean, I do think about my writing, the mechanics and effects thereof, quite a lot. But that’s a craftsman considering his tools (or what tools he needs to get and work with to get better), which is usually independent of actually getting in there and doing the work. When it comes time for the typing, what I’ve learned about how to communicate, argue and reason climbs into the back seat, and the actual act of writing gets into the driver’s seat. How I think gives way to what I write.