Nonfiction and Narrative Popular Philosophy (guest post by Barry Lam)

“The design features that make for good academic philosophy might make for terrible public philosophy…”

The following guest post* is by Barry Lam, associate professor and chair of philosophy at Vassar College, and the creator and host of the Slate philosophy podcast Hi-Phi Nation (@HiPhiNation).

This post is the seventh installment in the “Philosophy of Popular Philosophy” series, edited by Aaron James Wendland (@ajwendland), a philosopher at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

[Jason Anderson, “Platform”]

Nonfiction and Narrative Popular Philosophy
by Barry Lam

After my friend CH got his first tenure-track job in philosophy, he found himself with a “bourgeois longing” for a nice hi-fidelity stereo system. He didn’t want to listen to music any longer on a cheap boombox. So, he went to the nicer local electronics store and asked the clerk to walk him through various amplifiers, speakers, CD and record players, and so forth. Toward the end of the purchase, in what was sure to be a hefty bill, the one item that bothered CH was the price of the speaker wire.

“Is it really necessary for me to pay $50 for speaker wire?” CH asked the clerk.
“Well”, the clerk said, “I have this $5 speaker wire I could sell to you. Let me change the wires out and you can see if you hear a difference.”
The clerk proceeded to insert the cheaper wire into banana clips and ran it from the same model amplifier to the same model speakers for a side-by-side comparison with the thick-gauge, $50 copper wires.
“I don’t hear any difference,” CH reported.
“Okay, let’s stop it. We’ll go from one to the other again. We’ll try different songs, voice, different ranges of music and see if you can tell the difference.”
After many minutes of close listening among a range of other options, CH confirmed that he could hear no difference whatsoever between the $5 and $50 speaker wire.
“All right that settles it then,” said the clerk.
“Right of course,” said CH, “I’ll take the $50 speaker wire.”

I’ve told this story to my students and colleagues many times, because it’s a great story. I even asked CH to record it on tape, and I plan to use it one day on the right episode of my philosophy-through-storytelling podcast: Hi-Phi Nation.

CH’s story is a great story not because it is exciting, or dramatic, or even funny. The stakes in the story are not at all high, it is a matter of saving $45. The conflict is not particularly exciting; will he buy one or the other speaker wire? Still, I love the story because it exhibits the power of storytelling. Once you start on it, you want to know what happens next, even with a low stakes conflict. And once I present CH’s decision, the surprise of it generates a desire to know why.

Yet before I explain the reasoning behind CH’s decision, let me present to you a different way I could have started this column. You’re going to have to pretend you are coming to this article with fresh eyes, having not read any of the story I just presented.

There is a long-held assumption that perceptual indiscriminability is intransitive, such that for any series of objects o1, o2,….on and any qualitative feature Q, such as color or pitch, any adjacent pair on, on+1 is indiscriminable with respect to Q for a subject S, but on, on+2 is discriminable. The intransitivity of indiscriminability is thought to generate the sorites paradox for a class of features Q. In this essay, I will argue that…

This is a very compact and effective opening to a paper about perceptual indiscriminability and the sorites paradox. In fact, I adapted it from Diana Raffman’s paper “Is Perceptual Indiscriminability Nontransitive?” It is sure to take in a philosopher working on vagueness. And since Raffman’s paper was published around the time CH was shopping for his stereo, it was Raffman-style thinking about perceptual indiscriminability and the sorites paradox that led him to purchase the $50 speaker wire.

You see, CH immediately worried about being victim to sorites-like reasoning. The fact that he couldn’t tell the difference between $5 and $50 speaker wire did not speak to the fact that there was no qualitative difference between the two. If he were to purchase the $5 speaker wire, what principle would prevent him from purchasing the slightly cheaper speakers that sounded the same to him? And then also the slightly cheaper amplifier, and then the even cheaper amplifier, and eventually he would be forced to admit that his $35 boombox was good enough all along! No, the bourgeois longings were calling, and he would not be denied a nice hi-fidelity stereo system on account of fallacious thinking arising from perceptual indiscriminability.

So here we have two openings raising the same philosophical issue, one written in story-form, the other written in academic-form. One of these openings targets a public audience, the other targets peer researchers. The peer-facing piece seeks to describe an issue with full generality, and therefore makes liberal uses of variables and subscripts. The public-facing piece presents an anecdote and a sequence of events that happened in the world with a surprising twist, a twist that raises an expectation and desire to know, a desire for a resolution. Both openings are about the same issue, but curate the experience of thinking about that issue differently. They are, in effect, different genres of nonfiction engineered for different purposes but nonetheless on the same topic.

It isn’t typical to characterize philosophical writing and speaking as a genre of nonfiction, but it is. And as a genre, it is not only characterized by its topic, choice, and writing style, but also its design. Style refers to the particular choice of word or sentence structure, the use of plain versus technical language, the introduction of drama, humor, or figurative language, and other subtleties we may use to distinguish “good writers” from “bad writers.” Design, on the other hand, means the basic engineering of a philosophical piece, what the writer would like the piece to do.

As a species of academic writing, much of philosophy is characterized as a genre engineered for epistemic justification, not for engagement, entertainment, and most certainly not for the task of holding the attention of an arbitrary reader. As Michael Lewis writes, the author of an academic paper is trying to survive its readers, not bring them joy. Surviving the reader means that every matter of misrepresentation, uncharitable reading, or objection, must be anticipated and alleviated. The biggest flaw of a piece of peer-facing philosophy is that its key idea is poorly supported.

Of course, all nonfiction aims to communicate some kind of idea, and by virtue of it being nonfiction it does so by using language in a way that is primarily literal and representative of something in the world. Yet in contrast to academic nonfiction designed around epistemic support, there are other forms whose design is nothing of the sort.

Narrative nonfiction, for instance, is not engineered primarily to survive the epistemic scrutiny of its readers, but rather to engage them and hold their attention for a duration of time in order to tell them a story whose character, plot, conflict, and resolution gives them some insight into something, whether it is the human condition, the reality of certain scientific postulations, or the supernatural. Given these constitutive aims, the design features that make for good academic philosophy might make for terrible public philosophy. Justifying a point against a knowledgeable but hostile audience demands all matters of things, objections to objections to objections, multiplying labels for positions in logical space, and so on. Needless to say, these academic devices may be antithetical to the primary public goal of sustaining attention over time for those who are not antecedently invested in the topic.

When it comes to public philosophy, we should look to the design principles of essentially temporal forms of expression, like music. In music, you sustain attention over time by raising tension to set up the mind to desire a resolution, and eventually to provide it at the end. Cognitive scientists call this “need to know”, something that can be generalized as “need to resolve.” C major to F major to G7 sets up tension requiring a resolution to C.  In narrative storytelling, ruling out the butler and the cook sets up the professor as the murderer, creating a tension as to the confrontation that must happen in the next act. This is why so many people stay tuned until after the commercial break.

Philosophy designed for such purposes will take engagement, attention-holding, tension-creation, and resolution as central to its construction, with epistemic justification of secondary importance. Unlike in academic writing, narrative writing does not anticipate that its reader starts with disbelief and requires persuading, but rather suspends disbelief with faith that you are taking her to a place worth going.

Moreover, when you write in the narrative style, the journey along the way to the ultimate philosophical insight is one the reader feels compelled to take with you, as you continually generate a need to know, or a desire for resolution. For example, in Season 2 of Hi-Phi Nation, I found Barbro Karlen, who told me the story of her childhood memories of having been the reincarnation of Anne Frank, only to one day as an adult face Frank’s only living cousin and trustee of The Anne Frank Foundation. Rather than excoriate her for being an imposter, the cousin verified to her that she had to be Anne Frank reborn. I didn’t raise Barbro’s story as a target for belief or disbelief, making a case for the truth or falsity of an afterlife. Instead, the story served to raise and sustain attention for a philosophical discussion about the role of memories in the persistence of the self and the prospects for mind-body dualism.

Philosophy as narrative storytelling for public engagement is why I would start an episode on perceptual discriminability with CH’s story, and not with an opening like Raffman’s, even a less technical version of it, whether by sorites paradox or otherwise. Philosophy as narrative storytelling taps into tension and resolution rather than truth and justification.

The pursuit of truth and the pursuit of a good quality story should not be as conflicted as it is presented, with academics skewering journalists with charges of butchering their research in the interest of selling books and magazines, and journalists charging academics with preoccupations so subtle and nuanced that they become arcane, with no one but their 20 peers understanding or caring about their work.

With that said, I think academics are in a better position than journalists for producing good public-facing philosophy. It is a lot easier for us to learn about the design-principles that make for great non-fiction writing than for them to acquire our subject-matter expertise. When academics take control of the narrative, and learn to curate the experience of their work for engagement rather than simply argue their way to professional success, we have the opportunity to create a whole new genre of nonfiction for print, audio, and video that will propel our visibility in the public sphere.

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Shelley Lynn Tremain
3 years ago

This post reminded me of an excellent article by Tina Fernandes Botts:

Kenny Easwaran
3 years ago

This seems to me like a really helpful way of thinking about a lot of these issues! But I would dispute the claim that good public facing work is different from academic philosophy in being engineered for “engagement, entertainment, and … the task of holding the attention of an arbitrary reader”. At least, it depends a lot on what sort of work the word “arbitrary” is doing here.

I don’t think the story here does a good job of targeting an *arbitrary* reader – it assumes a lot of familiarity with middle class values (those people who have those “bourgeois longings”!) and with the fact that there are audiophiles who sometimes spend too much money on things that don’t actually improve their auditory experience. This is great for something that is aimed at contemporary middle class Americans, but might have a harder time engaging certain non-American audiences. And it will almost certainly fall flat with audiences a century or two from now that aren’t versed in late 20th century historical culture.

However, the story *does* do a great job of targeting most middle class American audiences – certainly much better than the philosophy paper. But the philosophy paper is likely to do a lot better at engaging and holding the attention of a philosopher specifically seeking out papers about vagueness. Of course, there are better and worse ways to do that, particularly depending on *which* philosophical audience one is targeting. A different set up will do a better job of engaging and entertaining an audience of metaphysicians or an audience of philosophers of language, or an audience of epistemicists or an audience of supervaluationists. And since a lot of important philosophical work is written by one sort of person, aimed at an audience with a different background, that can be really difficult, and is often done poorly.

But I think we shouldn’t think these virtues of engagement, entertainment, and holding attention are in tension with traditional philosophical writing. We just have to think about how to engage, entertain, and hold the attention of a particular (set of) target audience(s).

And this most definitely applies to the temporal design principles of music that are mentioned! There’s a reason that philosophy papers tend to be around 20-25 pages, rather than 5-10 or 40-50, and it’s related to the reason why a classical symphony is around 20 minutes, a romantic symphony around an hour, and a punk song around 100 seconds. This is the amount of time that it takes to engage in a particular amount of development of an idea, and it has become a cultural convention that this is the amount of development of an idea that people engage with at one sitting. If you break from the conventions, you’ll lose a large fraction of the audience, even if it’s otherwise well done (though these conventions do gradually change as individuals play with the edges of them).

3 years ago

But y he not get da cheaper wire ??

David Wallace
3 years ago

I actually think it’s a very bad idea, most of the time, to launch an academic paper with abstraction rather than examples. Give some concrete cases first, to motivate and justify why the abstraction captures something concrete and why the thing it captures is worth paying attention to. (And as a consequence, I’m not convinced the gap between good academic writing and good public-facing writing is as large as the OP suggests.)

Brian Weatherson
Brian Weatherson
Reply to  David Wallace
3 years ago

Even if that’s so, I think there’s one big difference between good academic writing and good public facing writing.

Good academic writing should tell you very clearly from the start where you are getting. It shouldn’t be a mystery, or even much of a story. If it is a story, it should be like Romeo and Juliet – you tell the reader in the introduction what’s going to happen at the end.

It’s possible that once you’ve told the reader where you are going, the best way to get there is by using examples rather than abstraction. I certainly do that – my book has so many examples I included a separate index of them at the end.

But an academic paper that simply starts with a story like Barry’s would be bad. Academic readers don’t have time to wade through pages to get to the punchline, or to go back and reread the moves that were made in light of what the author turned out to want those moves to do. Now maybe good public writing is like that too – you need to signpost things for the reader. But I think you often can, as Barry does here, get away with having the main message obscured for a bit of a way into the piece.

Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

Great post, and a lot of respect for Lam’s work. Though the contrast between public facing and academic writing is off – and it covers over something important.

“So here we have two openings raising the same philosophical issue, one written in story-form, the other written in academic-form.” Actually, most academic philosophy papers don’t begin this way. Perhaps they do in some sub-disciplines, but not the overall norm. For most articles, it’s not that their form is not that of a story, but rather they are picking up the story mid way, and they _assume_ that the reader knows the back story. One might begin a paper on Dennett’s response to Jackson’s response to David Lewis’ view of the mind – the generality here is not that of non-story telling, but that of summarizing the story in broad strokes, to focus on a particular scene in greater detail. Those who can enjoy this process have a visceral sense of the story, of the characters involved, why it matters, where they want the story to go, etc. Those who see it just as an abstraction – as bloodless theories and abstract ideas – fail to appreciate the intellectual drama, and so feel…bored.

“As a species of academic writing, much of philosophy is characterized as a genre engineered for epistemic justification, not for engagement…” This is a funny contrast. After all, if there isn’t engagement, how can there be epistemic justification? The phenomenon that Lam is getting at might be put rather this way: academic writing begins with moves meant to show _who is not the audience_. It is a story telling among a particular subset of people. Doesn’t mean they are not searching for truth, the right reasons, etc., since story telling can involve all that. Rather, it is meant to show who counts as the main characters in the story and who aren’t – and what genre of story telling this is, and which moves are allowed.

Often the abstraction in philosophy papers becomes a way to hide its own story telling feature. It is a way of cheating – to say that what we are talking about here is relevant to _all people_, and that all people can participate if they want because of the abstraction. Story telling brings with it the issue of groups, biases, perspectives and _circles of power_. Often in philosophy abstraction is used as a way to hide, push under the rug, cover over the power structures of the debate – as if epistemic justification, being concerned with reasons, needs to have its own distinct language of reasons set apart from the language of power. A nice ideal, but too often bought too cheaply.

One reason public facing writing is important is not because it contrasts with academic writing, but because it forces into the light the story telling feature even of academic writing. It forces academics to be clear on what stories about their profession, their subjects, their heroes they take for granted, and to rethink those, and to see if different stories can be told. The faux language of abstraction in most academic philosophy (not speaking here of logic, parts of formal epistemology, etc.) is a pretend generality whose purpose is to cover the fact that story telling and justification are inseparably connected – and so that justification can’t be separated from the messy reality of human emotions, power structures and the changing economic and cultural realities.