Reader Request Week 2010 #3: How I Think

DeCadmus asks:

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.

38 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2010 #3: How I Think”

  1. “t’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. ”

    Maybe not, but you totally should. Or say it out loud. With a cape on! (or a capon, if that’s your thing.) and then saunter into the kitchen after a hard 5 minutes typing to pour yourself a well earned cup of coffee and wait for your daughter to deflate your ego. ‘Cause thats what daughters are for.

  2. To quote Pratchett: The plural of Philosopher is argument. As a philosophy grad myself, I loved his take on Philosophers in Pyramids and Small Gods.

    I’ve often wondered why we don’t learn a bit more philosophy at school. Then I realized that training everyone from a young age to know how to ask hard questions and analyze arguments would have an … interesting … impact on our society. ;-)

  3. If I had to do it all over again, I’d have taken a philosophy degree at Akron U when I was 18.

    Since I totally mangled my financial aid back then and went on to become a community college dropout at 30, I’m going for an IT/business degree instead in my middle age. (The masters degree will be depends on my agent and my writing output.)

    However, I sit on a floor at work with a lot of wingnuts. Responding “How do you know?” to them usually elicits the response of “Duh, isn’t it obvious?” usually powered by anger and confusion.

    (Answer: No, I don’t listen to AM talk radio, except maybe ESPN or The Eddie and Tracy Show.)

  4. I am fortunate enough to be able to rely on the sheer force of my awesomeness.

    I must have a few more points of awesomeness than you. Plus my glasses grant me +15 Awesomeness.

  5. You do a very good job explaining your arguments. You do a far better job than most liberals (and most conservatives for that matter) in making your arguments. Most political debate is weak and silly. However, you explain arguments very well. I may not agree with all of them, but I respect your ability to make the argument.

    You don’t just throw out silly little political slogans like most liberals and most conservatives. You are one of the few people I have seen consistently make intelligent arguments.

  6. Fascinating. I love hearing about how people think. Thanks for the peek into your skull, John. I think I shall find myself a copy of the Austin book.

    Orin @ 2:

    I’ve often wondered why we don’t learn a bit more philosophy at school. Then I realized that training everyone from a young age to know how to ask hard questions and analyze arguments would have an … interesting … impact on our society. ;-)

    I don’t have children, but I love quoting something I once heard said by a parent. “The most difficult thing about teaching kids to think for themselves is when it works.”

    If I was at all qualified — and if there was any demand for it — I suspect I would love teaching a high school course on critical thinking skills. I know lots of people have their favorite “this should be a required topic”; this one is mine.

  7. Therefore it makes sense to pay attention to the worlds people are attempting to create in their words.

    I have to bring this back around to politics, unfortunately. I have often pondered what kind of world conservatives think they live in. It’s a scary world, one filled with bad guys and moochers and people out to get you and fuck you over. Everyone is out to destroy America (even other Americans), and the only things stopping them are conservatives and conservatism. It’s not their fault they think they live in that kind of world. They’re just listening to their leadership, which paints it in such a way.

  8. Interesting. I’ve noticed that I think a lot like you do, not in that I agree with everything you say (but mostly I do), in the sense that we seem to think in many of the same ways.

    My impetus for learning to think clearly came from my childhood. Attending a fundamentalist independent baptist Christian school, I spend my formative years drowning in a see of bad thinking and poor reasoning. I can smell a bad argument and a logical fallacy a mile away because that’s all I was exposed to for 10 years.

    My undergrad degree is in computer engineering, but I took philosophy and logic as electives whenever possible. I’ve continued my philosophy education to the present with books and audio/video courses from the Teaching Company. Love Austin myself, BTW, and I’d give a hat tip to Wittengstein too.

    A question I’ve been pondering recently: Is it that most people choose not to think well, or are they incapable of doing so? Critical thinking is a skill that can be learned, but are some people just constitutionally incapable of learning it? I’d like to think that anyone can learn to think well, but my experience tells me that such is, sadly, not the case.

  9. I kind of find that “How do you know?” thing a little irritating. Isn’t such a greeting intended as a blessing? You know, a shortened for of “I hope you’re having a…” or “I hope you have a…”, not a declarative statement?

    Seems just like sophistry, to me.

  10. ” 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.”

    I JUST wrote the same gist on my blog last week. There’s that nasty collective conscience at work again.

    I’m very dependent upon using writing to help me think. I’m only recently learning that road goes both ways, and the more often it goes the other way, the better.

    Orin @2 and Bearpaw, you’re exactly right. I’m currently raising a “thinker” and, well, let’s put it this way. He’s going to make an amazing adult, someday. But it’s no picnic now.

  11. Bearpaw@7, quoting: “The most difficult thing about teaching kids to think for themselves is when it works.”

    I’ll vouch for that. But the most rewarding part of having taught your kids to think for themselves is watching them do it, and knowing you don’t have to worry about them any more.

  12. I’ve already started on my 7 year old – Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder is fairly good to read to them. You could try getting them to read it, but the first half is very dry and most kids wouldn’t have the patience for it until older.

  13. Er, this blog is too confusing. I can’t quite tell the difference between John Scalzi’s writings and John Scalvi’s blatherations. Flipping of Liberty Silver Dollar. Heads. Okay. This must be Scalzi’s POV. The American Gods are always right. Or perhaps he’s purposely messing with my heads. Screw it! Back to Starcraft II: Beta.

  14. Thanks for this deconstruction of how you came by your communication skills. It’s relatively recently that I learned of the close connection between philosophy and language in academia. It was such a relief to know that all those years I’d been asking people to “define (such and such terminology)” so as to understand their argument, I was on the right track! I was on the hunt in my local library for something else entirely when I came upon a book entitled “Language in Thought and Action” (Hayakawa) and it was the proverbial lightbulb over my head.

    Confession time: I’ve actually never read any of your fiction, but I’m a huge fan of the type of writing you do here at Whatever. Now I understand why.

  15. That makes me think of two of my favorite quotes from your work:

    “So many”… mirrored various times to good effect in “The Last Colony”


    “I am but a reflection of My Lord. Where I am imperfect, He is perfectly so.”… which also says a lot about how we relate with people.

    So many little things stick with you, and they’re usually the small quotes which resonate and which spark discussion.

  16. It’s interesting that you cite Austin as a main influence, you young whippersnapper; I would have pegged you for relying on Quine or even Wittgenstein, at least based on the OMW books. But then, I come at the issue from a much more literary/figurative/non-Indo-European viewpoint than do most, and Austin was in one of his “not a fashionable choice” periods when I was formally studying linguistics. (Leaving aside, too, the inter-institutional rivalries Over There that made Austin a disfavoured citation… and the later influence of legal training.)

  17. I wish I had studied what I was interested in while in college instead of caving to parental pressure and majoring in “something to make a living at”. Turns out after the degree and two years in that profession I didn’t want to do it any more.

    I’m still not doing what I want to, but now life has caught up and financial pressures requires that I have a job to pay the mortgage and all the bills. I’d love to go back to school, but life makes it difficult.

    I envy anyone who has the cojones to study whatever they were interested in in college and pursue a life long career from that. If I had told my parents I was majoring in Philosophy (your choice, not mine) I think they would have had my head examined. And then they’d stop helping me out finincially with tuition.

    My dad wanted to major in Photography but he had just started a family and that wasn’t going to pay the bills. Just before he retired he took it up again and then went full force once he retired. He told me once that he didn’t regret providing a good life for his family but that he regretted having to put what really interested him on hold until he retired. I hope I don’t end up doing that.

  18. I took a few philosophy classes in college. I still can’t construct an argument anything like you can. Plus, I’m one of those people who hate to argue. I’m married to a person who thinks he’s always right. That kind of sucks in a way.

    When I’m having trouble making that argument, you always seem to be asking some of the same questions. So I direct people over to your blog and say “See, that’s what I mean” because sometimes the words just don’t form completely in my head. Thanks for the follow up post on healthcare the other day. You wrote down exactly what I was thinking. I guess I just need more practice.

  19. John, did you participate in debate or forensics when you were in high school/college?

    I’ve gotten more philosophy from working with the high school forensics league than I got from 4-5 college philosophy classes (granted, they were Philosophy of Communications and Philosophy of Journalism sorts of classes) and learned more about argument from the debaters.

    As for college, I’m in the “college is to prepare you for a job” mode. I have a teenager who wants to switch to sculpture from engineering. Yes, funds will be cut off. Yes, I’m mean. But he can learn to do his art on his own dime, preferably earned by working as an engineer or some other lucrative job that will support him. The cost of colleges, even with his scholarships, is too great to not come out with a chance at a job that will repay loans and still make enough money to support himself.

    Philosophy can be learned when you’re 50 – I’m doing it.

  20. As someone who works at a University, I would have been greatly aided if you had gone into what distinguishes a “college conservative” from an “asshole”. I’ve never learned to tell the difference.

  21. Slightly, well not really, off topic.

    I just remembered something from my childhood.

    Both my mother and father encouraged my younger brother and I to read. From about the age of six or so, we had an option when it was allowance day. We could have our allowance (1969, around $0.50) and do with it what we wanted or we could buys books and my mother would double our allowance.

    I remember the first couple of Fridays this “option” was on the table. I just went ahead and bought candy with my $.50. It was normally all gone within an hour or so. The next six days were really boring.

    Around week three or so, I started to buy books with my allowance. $1.00 back then got me two paperbacks from the pharmacy book rack. Needless to say, it kept me occupied for the next seven days until it was allowance day again.

    Without a doubt, this was the single greatest thing my parents ever did for my brother and I, in regards to education. To this day, after all the bills are paid and I’ve got food for the two weeks, I take my “allowance” and go buy a couple of books.

  22. Cool post John, thanks for sharing.

    >>”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 .. was an interesting thing for me to discover. ”

    How did you learn this – just by writing a lot? By sharing your writing with others? How long did it take to discover how your writing could affect others?

    And what *does* writing do for you? ;)

    Kenneth B @ 9:

    Nice post, I have the same background majoring in computers and taking as much philosophy as possible as a minor. It’s interesting that you and John had opposite upbringings – learning to think by arguing a lot vs learning to think by exposure to poor thinking – yet you arrived at the same style of reasoning.

    >>”Is it that most people choose not to think well, or are they incapable of doing so?”

    I would say that most people choose not to. Or rather, they don’t consciously *choose* not to think about things; it’s just often easier to let other people feed you an opinion that seems to make sense and then not worry about it. The question “should I think about this?” isn’t considered. Which is sad, but apathy is hard to fight sometimes.

  23. One thing I enjoy about the writing/persona here is the flippage between ‘zombie-killin’ time’ and thoughtful, elegant, tightly-packed thought provocation. Bespeaks a certain level of craftsmanship by itself.

  24. Ewan @ 24:

    The unexamined life is not worth living through the zombie apocalypse.

  25. I’m pleased and gratified and generally tickled vermillion that you’d take on this reader’s request. More so that you’d highlight specific and accessible resources (and I’d wager that How to Do Things With Words just got a lift on Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s web sites.)

    Thanks, very much.

  26. “Less formally, both my high school and my college were argumentative places, and I mean that Socratically…”

    I was lucky to attend a university (UIUC) with a thriving internal usenet culture. I made many friends through that medium, many of which I retain to this day. But the biggest impact it had was on my skills as a debater; I honed my rhetorical blades to razor-sharp edges while spending many hours a day arguing about anything at all on uiuc.general and uiuc.test. I was lucky to have been training with Spartans in that regard (and to have a job as a computer lab assistant, which entailed only sitting behind a PC and waiting for users to have questions).

    My blades got so sharp, in fact, that I found later in life that not everyone had the same expectations or skills in that area, and so it was not always appropriate to bring out the full complement of rhetorical weapons when someone was making a point that was totally wrong :) I’ve had to consciously let go of the urge to have the discussion be “correct”. Especially on a social mailing list for ravers and hippies, who I know for a fact mean well, but who might not have been blessed with the most ability to think rigorously and marshal their thoughts clearly.

    Still, those skills continue to serve me well. My last review at my job included remarks from some other departments with whom I’ve worked, praising my ability to distill concepts and proposals, and clearly articulate my position. “Opinionated without being a pain in the ass,” was one of the phrases used, which pleased my manager and me.

  27. “Critical thinking: Is it that people can’t, or that they won’t?”

    The distinction may have less to do with critical thinking per se and more to do with attitudes towards authority.

    People who are uncomfortable with authority tend to USE critical thinking more, because they want to test what they’re told. People who are more comfortable in a hierarchical structure tend to use critical thinking LESS because they trust what authority tells them – or might even actively avoid situations in which what the authority says comes into question.

  28. I’d have to say, three years of High School debate did more to help my research and argument skills then a B.A. in Philosophy would have. It also makes me increasingly frustrated with most politicians today, who are allowed to get away with making weak or completely specious arguments in front of a bunch of J-School graduates who don’t seem to be able to recognize this.

    On the other hand, I think the few that do recognize a weak or completely false argument are actively shunned by most officials, so it’s kind of a Catch-22.

    The other problem is that, in the real world, making the better argument doesn’t mean either that you’re right or that people will listen to you. It just means you’re good at making your point.

    Worse than this, most of the people on the Internet (especially the wingnuts) don’t seem to care about making an argument, or even to have a real discussion about what’s going on in the world, but only about reciting the talking points of the day. It’s like it’s a biological necessity for them to put this BS out there somewhere, then they can go back to whatever they were doing before they were prompted to spout their (weak and unoriginal) opinion.

  29. I started college in Systems Engineering (general systems, not computers), moved to CSCI and Theatre arts. Took lots of math and philosophy classes. Philosophy was fun, primarily because of the arguing.

    Most people don’t want to think. They’d rather fit in and do what they’re told. If pushed to it, I suspect that most of that most can think, but by the time they’re parents, they’ve made such a habit of not-thinking that it’s almost impossible for them to do so. They’re about (guessing) 90% of the adult population. There’s another, smaller group (again, guessing, 9%) who are willing to think if it means they can tell the others what to do. They are only interested in thinking as a means to their end, and hate having their thinkings challenged.

    That leaves about one percent, those who enjoy thinking. The fury of argument, the flash of inspiration, the joy of learning and understanding. I suspect that John has figured out that he’s one of us, and has kindly allowed us to gather here. Where he collaborates with other thinkers to sell us books with tasty ideas in them.

    Glad to meet you, all, and thank you, John and other authors!

  30. Critical Thinking…

    We teach critical thinking in high school these days, or at least we try to do so. Bloom’s revised taxonomy of critical thinking skills are posted on the classroom walls of every classroom at my stand-alone freshman only campus. Our 15 year olds see them every day. We strive to make our homework assignments mid-level application oriented. We try to test at the high-level interpretive-synthesis level.

    If only all the darlings would soak up all our attempts to teach them how to think critically. Sadly, a fair number resist learning anything at all. They come to socialize with their friends, not to learn. Sigh… But we try. John’s site here at Whatever has been a true blessing to read. Glad I found it due to my grown son passing on to me “Hate Mail Will Be Graded” a month or so back.

  31. @myName “I’d have to say, three years of High School debate did more to help my research and argument skills then a B.A. in Philosophy would have.”

    Ah, but how do you know this to be true? ;-)

    It isn’t the course or the reading that is the advantage to taking university level philosophy, it is the tutorials and access to philosophers that makes the difference. Debate is one form of argument, much like boxing is one form of martial art. In a competently taught philosophy course, not only will “the gloves come off” in arguments, but you’ll end up seriously doubting whether the gloves existed in the first place.

    In general the more philosophy one has studied, the more circumspect one is about making generalizations … oh … wait …

  32. As a writer, I’m struck by what you said about muscle memory and “when it come time for the typing”. It’s boggling when my hands type a sentence or two that have barely made it to the front of my brain, but there they are on the screen. And sometimes they’re much better than they might have been if I’d consciously thought about their construction.

    Muscle memory–the big grey muscle. Yeah.

  33. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”

  34. I am currently attending the U of C right now in the Divinity School, Philosophy of Religion. It really is a great place, they do make you think. And I certainly fit right in… people assume that since I’m in the Divinity School I must be religious, but I’m actually very much agnostic, much like you described in your Christianity post earlier this week. I’ve found myself very drawn to process theology, which few people seem to have heard of, a fact that continues to baffle me since it seems to make so much sense:

    Alos, there’s another great joke about the U of C I’m thinking of:

    A student from Harvard walks into a room and acts like he owns it.
    A student from Princeton walks into a room and *does* own it.
    A student from UChicago walks into a room and rearranges the furniture.


  35. @Orin:

    It’s not really provable. But my issue is that the field of philosophy is much larger than that of mere argument. Which means at some point I’d get to the point where I would have to learn the stuff as they’re teaching it and wouldn’t have the time to polish the argument portion of it.

    Also, there is the “sink or swim” aspect of Debate as a sport that is completely lacking in the classroom. You have to perform or you experience failure. It was like having a high pressure exam 3-5 times a day every weekend for a couple of months.

    Much of philosophy (from what I understand) is more contemplative. You are given a harder problems, but you don’t have any real time limit and are allowed to think about it. Also, the teachers are there to help you, while with debate, the goal is for the other team to try and punish you, and you learn that way.

    While the classroom is probably better suited to educating large numbers of students relatively efficiently, I do think there is something missing from this adversarial approach to education.

  36. I’d like to take a moment to point out how lucky I consider myself to have met you at exactly the right moment in your fiction writing exploits. ;)

%d bloggers like this: