“There has to be a balance between the formal and the conversational.”
That’s one of many observations about writing philosophy that William “Bill” Lycan, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Connecticut, shares in an interview, below.
Professor Lycan is known for philosophical writing that is a pleasure to read, and it was with the hope of learning how he thinks about and approaches his writing that Nathan Ballantyne, associate professor of philosophy at Fordham University, decided to interview him. Professor Ballantyne works on questions about reasoning, bias, and epistemic humility, and he is the author of, among other things, Knowing Our Limits (2019). (He’s on Twitter as @nathanballan). The conversation the two of them have is, as they both agree at the end, instructive and fun.
The Art of Philosophical Writing: An Interview with William Lycan
by Nathan Ballantyne
William (“Bill”) Lycan received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1970 at the age of 25. He has taught at Ohio State University (1970–82), University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (1982–2016), and University of Connecticut, where he has been a Distinguished Visiting Professor since 2012. He resides with his wife Mary Lycan in a quiet town on Connecticut’s eastern shoreline. Outside of his academic job, he’s an actor on the Shakespearean stage. His bucket roles include The Chorus in Henry V, Baptista in The Taming of the Shrew, Gloucester in King Lear, Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and The Porter in Macbeth. A few years ago, he played John O’Gaunt in Richard II, a play rarely performed in the United States, and the experience was a thrill for him—“Nothing in philosophy could top that,” he told me.
Lycan’s work ranges widely over philosophical questions concerning mind, epistemology, perception, language, logic, and metaphysics. He has occasionally written on aesthetics, metaethics, and historical figures such as G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell. In an age of narrowly specialized philosophy, he has made a habit of roaming freely in the field.
Looking over his CV, I am struck by Lycan’s steady production as a writer. At present, he has published 189 articles, 24 book reviews, and nine books. The world has received no fewer than 4,554 typeset pages of Lycanesque prose. He is currently finishing a book on perception, so the page count continues.
We should not be impressed with mere output, of course. Academic philosophers these days occasionally generate shelves full of books and articles that appear to be written on a computer by a computer. Words, words, words. But Lycan turns out prose of high distinction. He assembles crisp, elegant sentences, even when probing technical issues; his works feature vivid examples, often drawn from literature or science. Readers who aren’t too serious or dour will be delighted by funny asides and one-liners.
What does Lycan have to say about philosophical writing? I tried to find out. I wanted to know his ideas about style, his models for writing, his writing habits, how he teaches writing to graduate students, and the like. We corresponded by email and spoke once over the telephone.
When I first proposed the idea, Lycan doubted he had much to say about writing—“I just do it.” He insisted that his philosophical writing flows out no differently than any other kind. But I persisted. How could somebody who has written so much fresh, engaging prose not have thoughts on how the writerly magic happens? To be sure, it’s never actually magic—the economy of good writing only recognizes the coin of insight, habit, and desk-bound hours. Even so, some of his writing still looks like magic to me, so I wanted to learn more, to know how the rabbit gets in the hat, non-magically. “I’m certainly willing to give the interview a try,” Lycan relented finally, “but I won’t be at all offended if you find what I say unrewarding and scrap it.”
Do you have any advice for younger philosophers or graduate students trying to write good prose?
I don’t have any views on philosophical writing; I just do it. Also, I write philosophy the way I write anything else including e-mails to the pet-sitter. (Anyone can spot me as an academic the minute a sentence comes out of my mouth. When I was 7 or 8 years old, my neighborhood friends nicknamed me “Professor,” which stuck at least through middle school.) Of course, I can correct graduate students’ bad writing habits, but that’s reactive, and I do it only when the flaws are pretty bad.
Oh, actually, here’s a rule that has massive empirical support: To write well, start reading when you are 4 or 5 years old, read incessantly from then on, and read mostly things that are well written. Not much use as practical advice to graduate students!
I doubt you have no views about writing. What’s the best writing advice you’ve learned and put into practice over the years?
It came from Theodore Baird (1901–96), the locally legendary Amherst College English prof who taught freshman writing. He was a cruel and slightly deranged human being; but after being pitilessly beaten up by him (Fall 1962) I live by his principles, the main one being, Never be even a little bit boring. That meant: absolutely no clichés, preferably no interesting phrases that have ever been used before; no pointless repetition; give examples whenever possible; and make the examples extra-imaginative, things that wouldn’t have occurred to most people. Of course we philosophers excel at thinking of things that wouldn’t have occurred to most people, that being our job.
And, I repeat pointlessly, you have to spend your life reading and reading and reading well-written works of all kinds.
OK, I do have an idea about philosophical writing, that I have thought about: I see there has to be a balance between the formal and the conversational. In school I was trained to write very formally. Theodore Baird punctured that because some aspects of formal writing are conventional and trite. He did not push us instead toward the conversational/colloquial—he wouldn’t have liked that either, because to him it would have sounded ingratiating—but that trend was about to start up in academic writing anyway, as all of American society in general got less formal starting in the 1960s. (I think “the ‘60s” happened in part because “the ‘50s” got very boring.) It was in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that first names began to be used! That had been unheard of in university classes, including graduate courses.
So, how conversational? Case in point: contractions. Some philosophers now breezily use them all the time, and I find that annoying. I myself would never use contractions in a book, but that’s for a somewhat orthogonal reason. I have just a few articles in which I allowed myself contractions, in each case for a reason. (So, OK, I did think about that in advance.)
It can be terrific when philosophers mix “high” and “low”. That’s one way to humanize a text that would otherwise seem inaccessible. But we’ve got to do the mixing carefully, without bothering or distracting the reader. It has to come across as credible, too. Jerry Fodor occasionally sounds overly cute and even sort of gimmicky to me, though I know some people love his faux-folk stylings—and I certainly enjoy some of it. Do you know what I mean?
I agree about Jerry. He did get a little too cute and gimmicky. But on the whole his conversationalness was for the good. He got the ideas across very forcefully.
(I think people now underestimate him as an intellect and polymath, because as of 1975, with The Language of Thought, he went full-time in philosophy. But in the ‘60s he’d been a real linguist, not just a dabbler, and he had participated and co-authored in some real cog psych experiments (Fodor, Bever & Garrett).)
I find conversationalness in your writing, too. Do you admire any philosophical writers in particular?
Quine claimed he didn’t read much.¹ Should he have?
Hmm. I don’t remember that. He certainly read a lot of stuff about geography and about pre-linguistics history and theory of language and, I think, general history of one kind and another. I’d go back and consult his autobiography if I didn’t already know it’s useless. (Harry Stanton sent me a slightly pre-publication copy of The Time of My Life, and at one point I’d left it on the living room sofa. My wife saw it and picked it up—she knew Quine²—and after reading for 5–10 minutes, she said, wonderingly, “This is terrible!”)
What do you find attractive about Russell’s style? Did you find yourself drawn to Russell’s and Quine’s writing right out of the gate, or only after spending time at your desk and seeing how difficult it is to do what they do?
Right out of the gate, for sure; as always I don’t think about writing style unless something about it happens to strike me. It’s hard to say what I particularly like. But the word that now comes to my mind is “vivid.” Each of them expresses things extremely well. (But then, so does Wittgenstein, whose writing style is extremely striking and effective but doesn’t attract me at all.)
I admire Russellian prose. It strikes me as vivid, too. Russell had tremendous range as a writer—no shortage of interesting tricks and, in some of his writing, powerful emotional effects. He could write about philosophy in a way that gets you feeling something. He had a knack for dramatizing philosophers’ positions.
Yes, you’ve put it better than I could have.
Any other writers who’ve influenced you?
My most-loved fiction authors are people like Kingsley Amis, George Macdonald Fraser and Robertson Davies. And I have read a good bit of Amis’ nonfiction on writing. For dramatic writing, Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare.
Whence your admiration for the Bard of Avon?
Having another life as a Shakespearean actor helps. I hardly ever write anything that I haven’t spoken aloud or in my head, and it has to have the right spoken cadence.
You mentioned the importance of early reading. Are there any authors who influenced you in childhood?
Walter R. Brooks! Author of the “Freddy the Pig” books. Genius. Wonderful writing style, literate and thoughtful but slightly colloquial to just the right degree. Great balance of action with comic relief and rumination both by the main character (Freddy) and the author. Very funny. Illustrates just what I was getting at earlier in talking of balance between the formal and the conversational. And a direct influence on my own writing, no doubt at all.
Now I’m planning to read some Freddy to my eight-year-old daughter. What about family influence? Was reading and writing encouraged by your parents?
My mother in her 20s was a college drama teacher and a concert pianist. As an adult her reading was only entertainment reading. My father was a biochemist by profession, but did read history and some literature—at any rate, his study shelves were packed with those books and not with science books. In his later years, he did a lot of writing, of memoirs and such, and a fair amount of public speaking. He had a whimsical sense of humor, and I sometimes find myself saying things he might have said and putting things the way he would have put them.
Neither parent particularly encouraged me to read; they just took reading for granted. Reading good books, that is. Oh: Like many parents of the ‘50s, they disapproved of comic books, and they rationed me to one per week. I especially loved Little Lulu, by “Marge,” whose writing of dialogue was up there with the greats. I still use conversational turns of (the character) Tubby’s.
My parents did love my becoming an academic, especially when for a year or two they lived in fear that I might try to make it as a music theorist and composer.
The comic book influence isn’t a surprise—there’s often punchiness in your informal turns of phrase. So, how do you craft opening sentences? The first bit of your writing I ever read, back in graduate school, was the first sentence from your Philosophy of Language textbook. One day a copy was being passed around in the graduate student office; my peers were jolted by laughter. Here’s the sentence:
Not many people know that, in 1931, Adolf Hitler made a visit to the United States, in the course of which he did some sightseeing, had a brief affair with a lady named Maxine in Keokuk, Iowa, tried peyote (which caused him to hallucinate hordes of frogs and toads wearing little boots and singing the Horst Wessel Lied), infiltrated a munitions plant near Detroit, met secretly with Vice-President Curtis regarding sealskin futures, and invented the electric can opener.
I admit I’m proud of that opening sentence, for a textbook; I’d like to think it’s immortal, but we won’t know that for a while yet. The text continues following a paragraph break:
There is a good reason why not many people know all that: none of it is true. But the remarkable thing is that…
There was a point to the sentence’s running on that long: it was about our miraculous ability to understand long novel sentences without even noticing the achievement.
I often begin a paper with a sentence that will capture attention. In medias res is good. Or a narrative one. I don’t always craft the opening sentence; sometimes it’s not appropriate, and also there is such a thing as being too cute. We’ve all seen that.
Do you have a standard routine for developing a new piece of writing?
I’d say there are three different kinds of papers. (1) Those that come directly out of teaching. In graduate courses and some undergraduate ones I produce great volumes of handouts on some of the topics and issues covered. Then papers I write on those topics and issues are written up out of the handouts, without much effort except having to check things in the related literature and maybe add a section or two that occur to me in the process. (2) Papers I just get in my head pretty much entire. Those I just sit down and write, very fast, and send ‘em off without significant revision. (3) Papers I’ve agreed to write on topics that aren’t already completely familiar. There I have to do some reading, and also I may not already know what the paper’s going to say; sometimes I’m not even sure what the paper’s really about.
For a given paper or chapter I keep a single computer file and scribble notes in it and shuffle pieces around. My new paper on the sense of touch was like that, and took the entire month of October 2020, and was somewhat painful. Because I didn’t already know the literature, the topic is hideously difficult, and I didn’t have a distinctive thesis until one morning it fell into place while I was out running (whew).
Books are in category (1). Some of my books, like most professional philosophy “books” of the past 60-odd years, are just glorified collections of essays anyway, but the few of mine that aren’t, that were conceived as books from the beginning, are still category (1).
You have co-authored many times over the years. Has collaborative writing differed from your solo efforts in any interesting ways?
That’s a very good question that had never occurred to me. The usual procedure for co-authoring is that each author writes their assigned sections, we stick them together, and then each author goes over the other’s sections and revises the writing, either to improve it or to take out any bits that are too cute or too individualistic in style.
So, predictably, joint papers are going to be blander in style than solo ones.
One exception to the no-working-up generalization: Bar-On, Horisk & Lycan (2000). The paper was really Claire Horisk’s. But Dorit has a distinctive voice and a strong personality. (She is, or used to be, an Israeli army officer who could break your arm by looking at it.) And I wanted to insist on a few things. So there was a fair amount of discussion and a lot of rewriting. And then the first time it got reprinted we had to (because we were asked to) add individual afterwords, in which we recorded our disagreements with each other.
One of your most widely eyeballed pieces is on Pascal’s Wager with your late UNC colleague George Schlesinger; it has been reprinted in many college textbooks over the years.
Oh, yeah, I’ve lost track of the reprints—my CV trails off. The paper actually first appeared in Joel Feinberg’s Intro anthology, which at that time was used everywhere. Joel had somehow got hold of the paper and asked us if he could use it.
How did that little chapter come about? I don’t think you wrote another paper with Schlesinger.
There is a story. George and I had instituted an in-house UNC tradition of debates with each other on semi-silly subjects/issues/questions, put on for the Graduate club. For that one we put up the poster, but then when the occasion began we announced that it would be a debate between Lycan and Schlesinger, presenting jointly, and (vs.) the audience, ha ha surprise. We started off by pointing out that (as is so often true in philosophy) the standard objections on the topic were feeble and easily rebutted.
George was always full of lore and anecdotes and cultural tropes and jokes. He could just start pouring out such and go on indefinitely. Among philosophers, he was the best raconteur I’ve ever known.
In your APA memorial notice for Schlesinger, you describe him vividly and also mention the fun UNC debates. By the way, when I just read the Wager chapter, I couldn’t detect any “seams”. If it was composed in pieces by two authors and then stitched together, the stitches were well hidden. It appeared to me that you and George just sat down and wrote together.
No, I did do nearly all the writing on that one. I also take credit for the title (“You Bet Your Life”). I forget now why we decided it should be written up; our locally famous debates weren’t meant as more than just the one-time gag events. George himself wrote other things on the Wager.
When do you write? During a semester when you’re teaching, have you tried to write pretty much daily?
During a normal teaching term I guess I just write when I don’t have other specific demands on my time. I don’t schedule writing time, except when I have a deadline coming up and I know I have to leave enough writing time to get that thing done by the due date.
Do you write quickly?
When I was young (!) I could sit down in a 10-minute gap between classes and knock out two pages of whatever I was working on. Nowadays, all I can do in that 10 minutes is run a mile.
How do you balance reading time and writing time? Do you keep notes on what you read? Do you read on a computer screen?
My notes on philosophy, linguistics and other professional reading are all in the margins on the printed page. I rarely read things onscreen unless I’m merely checking something in them. I don’t keep notes on nonprofessional reading unless something strikes me and I put it in the Word file of the relevant paper or chapter, or start a new Word file for a future paper/chapter.
The late Red Watson used to have a system for writing book reviews: He’d sit at the computer with the book on his lap and quasi-write the review as he read along. He said it was more efficient to do that than to, in effect, read the book twice. Not for me, though: I want to read the book and then decide what to say in the review.
Red Watson’s book-review technique reminds me of a quip from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, the German aphorist: “Among the greatest discoveries human reason has made in recent times is, in my opinion, the art of reviewing books without having read them.” But let’s shift gears: How did the personal computer change your writing?
That’s a great topic in general, but it’s hard to remember after all these decades and hard to generalize. I do remember doing more mid-sentence and mid-paragraph editing as I went along, so I guess my finished style must have improved some. And the ease of moving paragraphs around probably made papers better organized. I think maybe papers got a little more repetitive because one could paste so easily. Certainly the great thing about PCs was that you could revise, even do big revisions, as you go.
Reminiscing a bit: When I was a graduate student, shortly after the end of the War Between the States, I handwrote my papers in pencil, and did all my revisions and finished the papers including the reference lists, and then did the mere chore of typing them on a manual typewriter. (Electric typewriters were coming in just then, and I got one, but all they added was speed.) When I got my first tenure-track job, I had to stop handwriting and start drafting things on the typewriter, because I didn’t have time to produce course handouts in stages. Revisions were composed both by typing and by hand; I guess there was still a typing-finished-paper stage.
Ha, another memory: When I was at Sydney in the mid-‘80s, and PCs and word processing had just arrived there, my colleagues, who’d been raised in the British tradition, still handwrote their papers and revised them and finished them by hand, only then giving them to the department secretary to type into the computer. Gentlemen, they assumed, did not type. I thought that was hilarious.
Do you think computers helped you write more words on average per year?
I think they must have. They save a lot of time. But I notice that in some ways digitalization increases time spent. I edit my own e-mails in a way I wouldn’t ever edit a quick snailmail note. Also, the internet and computer games and more time-wasters are right there at your fingertips for spontaneous breaks. We philosophers need spontaneous breaks while writing.
An incident from the National Humanities Center, 1998–99: I, a Fellow, was in my study, in the process of writing something. In a spontaneous break I was playing Minesweeper on the screen. The historian Bert Wyatt-Brown dropped by to say or ask something. He saw what I was doing, and he was appalled and let me know it. No historian would do such a thing, at least not on government time.
Of course, historians don’t like philosophers anyway. Another trope from the National Humanities Center is that every single year, about two weeks elapse before the other humanists hate the philosophers. A main reason is that the philosophers spend time conversing with each other in the Center’s public spaces. Conversing, i.e. [sic] chatting, shooting the shit, wasting time. Appalling again. You’re supposed to be in your study, by yourself, working. What the other humanists don’t know is that the philosophers’ conversation was serious or at least worthwhile discussion, which has to happen because philosophy is intrinsically dialectical. Tom Hill always said what profited him most from his year at the Center was his conversations with Lance Stell, Carl Wellman and Laurence Thomas. (“I talked most with Stell, as we stood and talked by the coffee pot for hours about autonomy.”) He and they were openly criticized by other Fellows for sitting around in the public spaces…
Are you a gamer? (I’m not, but my sense is that lots of younger philosophers are. You’d be the most senior gamer I’ve ever heard of!)
Not in the least. (Though when computer games became available for PCs, on disks, and my daughter was 6–7 years old, we had a lot of fun, especially with Zork and another game, Wizardry, that came after and had very rudimentary graphics and let you form teams of characters. I’d still enjoy playing those. And in 2008 she married a real, obsessive, gamer. To this day we occasionally make Zork jokes.)
What are the best games for spontaneous breaks?
I just played Minesweeper and Solitaire, absent-mindedly, because they came with the Microsoft setup. When Microsoft stopped supplying them I got them online out of habit.
Do you ever end up directly making progress on a philosophical issue while playing a game? Maybe it’s a bit like waking from sleep and knowing the answer to a question you had been puzzled by earlier.
I’d never rule that out, but I don’t remember it ever happening. Sleep’s different; like everyone else, I’ve awakened in the morning with the answer to some question that had been bothering me. For some years, having the habit of taking a shower immediately upon waking up, I actually thought that standing in the shower was great philosophical therapy.
Heraclitus’s therapy was standing in a river. For whatever reason, I’m reminded of Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House shower preferences. There are different accounts, but apparently Johnson pushed a poor plumber to have a nervous breakdown over demands for more and more pressure in the shower. Later on, Richard Nixon claimed that the nozzles were so powerful they almost blasted him right out of the shower stall. Time to call a plumber!
Hahaa, now how do you know that much about Watergate?
I’m not sure I know enough about it, honestly.
Your comment about the plumber is funny to someone who knows about Watergate. Following the disclosure of the “Pentagon Papers” in 1971, Nixon established a “Plumbers’ Unit,” a special investigations team tasked with preventing further media leaks. Famously, they burglarized the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. Later they planned, or helped to plan, the Watergate Hotel break-in itself.
I have an old man’s vivid memories of things I lived through 45–50 years ago, as opposed to my hazy and unreliable memories of last week.
How does your self-editing process work? It sounds like your sentences come out in good shape, and that you don’t have to agonize during their conception and birth. How do you polish first efforts?
Yeah, I don’t even think of it as a process. There’s no pondering, much less agonizing. Nor do I consciously do anything I’d call “polishing.” I just write it. (I don’t mean I don’t ever reword or fix something; of course I do. But there’s no stage of doing it.)
You describe some papers as starting with course handouts. How do you transition from handouts to the first draft of an article?
Well, since I write handouts the same way I write anything else, there’s little rewriting to do. I just change the local and in-house references to more general ones, and take out pedagogy that’s there only for these particular students. Also, as I’ve said, I don’t usually think in terms of a “first draft” of an article, though in some cases there’s some reason why there has to be a draft. – Oh, of course editors sometimes make you revise in light of referee comments, so in that sense there’s a draft that gets revised.
Now that I think about it, my published work is probably better for being written up from course handouts, because it’s built-in that I have to explain the ideas as I go, and give examples. Also, an article should have a clear rational structure that could be pictured in an outline or talk handout.
I used to think of Michael Dummett as an impenetrable writer. Every ten years or so when I’m forced to read some Dummett, I’m always surprised to see that he isn’t like that at all—sentence by sentence, it’s quite clearly written; it’s fine. It just isn’t organized. Dummett himself says he just looks at an issue from different sides and goes back and forth on it. What’s opaque about his writing is that there’s no signposting.
Other examples of impenetrable writers?
Now the example of—haha—Sellars comes to mind! His writing was notoriously obscure and off-putting (try “Time and the World Order” or “Metaphysics and the Concept of a Person”). But anyone from Pittsburgh during the Sellars era will tell you that in person he wasn’t at all like that. Not only did he talk and teach as accessibly as nearly any philosopher, but he was known even to undergraduates as an especially illuminating and helpful lecturer.
Many a non-Pittsburgh Sellars reader has had this experience: “Wilfrid, I’ve pored and pored over paragraph X in article Y. Let me take a first stab, and you can tell me if I’m on the right track and maybe explain it a bit further. How about this?: P” [P is something pretty simple and straightforward]. Sellars replies cheerfully, “That’s it.” – “That’s it?!?”
I’ve polled a few Sellars students, but they don’t entirely agree with each other on the explanation of his strange writing style. He certainly was not writing for an audience who needed things explained to them. He was writing for the permanent record (one informant says “for the ages”), and he went through many drafts, making each more involuted (his own word) than the last. Some say he felt his father, Roy Wood Sellars, looking over his shoulder. But writing in a special high and mannered and difficult tone hurt him, didn’t it? He is now known mainly through the works of his students, and he often does not get credit for ideas that came directly from him, such as the “‘Theory’ theory” of mental ascriptions and the “language of thought” view of propositional attitudes.
And now I’ll explain why I don’t use contractions in books: let’s not say writing for the ages, but because books have a kind of permanence and stature that articles don’t. – That’s probably just me being stuffy and a bit conceited.
Your aversion to contractions is not conceited, I’d say. Here is a mini, two-sentence story from the perceptive writer Lydia Davis (“Can’t and Won’t”):
I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance I would not write out in full the words cannot or will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t.
Maybe your no-contraction rule is stuffy and non-lazy.
I don’t quite get the laziness charge. It takes no more time or energy to write “cannot” than to write “can’t.” To me, using a lot of contractions sounds chummy in a mannered, self-conscious way. But that may be generational. Younger philosophers may be like me in writing for publication much as they would write personal letters or e-mails.
How about rejections? Academic writers must deal with those.
It’s a lot harder to get a submitted paper accepted now than it was 35–40 years ago. Everyone gets rejections. Much or most of the time, one’s paper is rejected, not on grounds of quality, but just because it loses out in the final selection that was made on grounds of topical balance or statistical concerns or whatever.
When I was Co-Editor of Noûs (1991–2002), nearly every paper submitted to us was publishable in quality. I think that’s because we didn’t have the word “philosophy” in the title; you wouldn’t submit to Noûs unless you knew what it was and roughly what the standards were. The editors’ regulative-ideal question was, is this a paper that will still be talked about and cited 10 years from now? – We didn’t always meet that standard. But my most common rejection letter said, this is a nice paper and we liked it; it just lost out in the competition. (And we always gave comments. Form letters were used only for the odd inappropriate submission such as a discussion note or a paper that was about one of the editors.)
Very occasionally I’ve had a paper rejected for a good reason, meaning a specific reason that was a matter of quality. Looking at the referee report, I could see the paper had been ill-conceived or had taken a wrong turn.
Not too long ago I had a paper simply rejected by form letter without comment. That annoyed me.
Yeah, waiting a long time for a form-letter rejection does not feel good. This can be especially tough for people trying to navigate early-career hoops. I am aware of too many horror stories. Have you ever had trouble finding a home for a paper?
I have two papers that I’ve submitted to many journals and have been rejected everywhere for reasons I can’t fathom.
One of the two is a little semi-scholarly piece on Russell, a case where one argument of his, if sound, refutes another (contemporaneous) position of his. It has been sent to some referees who are obviously real Russell people, and they just hate it—where by “just” I mean merely and for no good reason. The symptom is that their written reports are sort of fake—the criticisms are made-up, off point, in one case containing references that were specious; really the referees were just put off by the paper. I have no idea what it is about the paper that annoys or puts off real Russell people. It’s in no way disrespectful to Russell, and actually gives him a fair length of rope.
How do you teach writing to graduate students? Do you talk about expectations and skills, or just assume they already know the drill? You note in your Dewey Lecture that most PhD students today started as philosophy majors. If you met a student who was eager to improve prose production chops, what’s your advice?
That’s never come up, and I don’t take teaching writing to be part of my job; also I figure if they don’t have it by now it’s basically too late. UConn has a good and generous Writing Center that I can refer people to at need.
Now, that said, if I see that a graduate student has a writing problem, that actually gets in the way of philosophical exposition and argument, I’ll give strong advice. But that’s not about good writing in the refined sense you and I have been discussing; it’s about the organization of thinking.
Some of the organizational and structural nuts and bolts are part of good style. They’re a precondition to getting there, anyway.
Right, they’re a precondition.
Imagine I show up in your grad seminar and produce a philosophically insightful argument, but I write it up in the style of Wilfrid Sellars. What then?
Now, there’s a weird fantasy! But that would be obscure writing, not just not-good writing, a squarely philosophical defect, and of course we correct that!
I suddenly remember that in one of his acerbic and merciless books, David Stove wrote a little set of parodies of some then current philosophers’ styles. He started with the ordinary sentence “Cook discovered Cook’s Strait,” and rendered it variously according to the philosopher he was satirizing. The Feyerabend version opened with, “The constipated and boneheaded Cook…”
I owned the book but now some former graduate student has it or has sold it on eBay.
Oh, I had not seen Stove’s parodies, which appear in his Popper and After in a section called “Helps to Young Authors”. The idea was to show youngster philosophers what not to do, I guess? The Feyerabend imitation is too good not to quote:
Long before the constipated and boneheaded Cook, whose knowledge of the optics of his telescopes was minimal, rationally imposed, by means of tricks, jokes, and non-sequiturs, the myth of Cook Strait on the ‘educated’ world, Maori scientists not only ‘knew’ of the existence of the Strait but often crossed it by turning themselves into birds. Now, however, not only this ability but the very knowledge of the ‘existence’ of the Strait has been lost forever. This is owing to the malignant influence exercised on education by authoritarian scientists and philosophers, especially the LSE critical rationalists, who have not accepted my criticisms and should be sacked. “No doubt this financial criticism of ideas will be more effective than […] intellectual criticism and it should be used”. (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. LVIII, 1978, p. 144).
There’s some magical realism for you.
Now, Stove was a uniformly wonderful writer! How could his name not have leapt to mind sooner? I’m remembering that the year I visited at Pitt (1989) I was sitting alone in my office reading a new Stove work and chuckling and murmuring with joy. Nick Rescher came by and wondered what the hell was going on.³
I’m still a bit surprised you don’t say at least a little to your grad students about writing. I certainly understand your reluctance to talk about writing. In my teaching, I’ve sometimes outsourced writing advice to an article by Jonathan Bennett and Samuel Gorovitz (“Improving Academic Writing” ). They propose “kindness” toward readers as an ideal. That’s a lesson our profession has not found effective ways to impart to students. My own sense, anyway, is that professional training tends to bias philosophical writers against kindness.
I had not seen or until now heard of the Bennett and Gorovitz. But why do you think our field biases authors against kindness to the reader? It’s obviously in our interest to be kind.
Sure, it is in our interest to be kind—as family members, as neighbours, as teachers. But how about our narrow interests as academic writers? Those interests don’t push us toward kindness to readers often enough. Bennett and Gorovitz say that “in writing well one is being kind to one’s readers” and they list a few examples: avoiding annoying repetition, clarifying a shift in terminology, simplifying a long and boring paragraph. Basically, the kindly author works hard so the reader doesn’t have to. Kindness transfers a burden to me that you would otherwise be forced to bear.
Right. But why would philosophers be biased against that??
Well, I’ve noticed that philosophers gripe about each other’s dull, difficult writing. There seems to be less kindness or courtesy behind our academical prose than readers would desire. It can be a chore to read this stuff—but not merely because philosophical ideas are demanding. What else is going on?
Some of the trouble traces back to forms of education and specialization. Think about training in many disciplines, setting aside fields like journalism or creative writing. When you begin as a doe-eyed upstart, your teachers are paid to read your prose. It’s in their job description to affix their eyeballs to your sentences and paragraphs, at least in upper-division courses at decent colleges or universities. That arrangement continues in grad school. Faculty members who know the topics you write on read your seminar papers and dissertation chapters.
Here’s what this seems to do to you. (1) Your presumptive audience gets locked in: the people who are paid to read your prose. These readers know the rules of the discourse, the literature you cite, the scholars whom you name-check, the technical terms you don’t stop to define. You are writing for the small circle. And (2) you don’t prepare for the time after graduation when there are no captive, paid readers. Learning techniques to reel in distractible, finicky readers is not part of the program. And then (3) there’s the fact we learn to write by copying and emulating. If our models don’t show kindness to us, and we don’t have means to break the cycle, we will repeat their unkindness.
My point is that certain kinds of social and institutional arrangements don’t help students sort out questions about audience, tone, and form. They absorb implicit answers from their training.
Yes, it is worth trying to combat that.
It might not be too hard. What if students were sometimes instructed to write for the subdisciplinary outsider, not just the insider? What if they were encouraged to reflect on their audience’s probable ignorance about their topic? What if they’re now and again challenged to write for advanced undergraduate majors? What if they received lessons on the nature of writerly kindness?
Our practices for training philosopher-writers create a sort of developmental curve. As an up-and-coming academic, you try to leap through hoops. You are trained to put down serviceable academic sentences for the paid readership. You keep doing that, unless you happen to deviate from the standard style, pushed by a persuasive teacher or pulled by your personal designs. (But watch out—the paid readers may not like your deviations from the rules.) Soon, you fling yourself in the vicinity of the job-market hoop and tenure hoop. If you land safely, you’ll have probably been thinking about the quantity of your writing much more than its quality. How can you publish in your field’s prominent outlets? How can you crank out enough papers to secure tenure or promotion, or maybe catapult your star into the firmament of your subfield?
You tell me!
Write for an audience of philosophers who are like the philosophers you were trained to become, the philosophers who were paid to read your prose. Write for the small circle.
But writing for them doesn’t require being unkind to other readers, even ones who are initially uninterested in your topic.
Agreed. I just don’t see how contemporary training, incentives, and professional culture encourage kindness. I mean, I don’t see how it benefits would-be academic philosophers to think carefully about subtle questions of writing when the only foreseeable readers are our subfield’s guild members. We likely won’t be kind to readers on the subfield’s edges, let alone curious readers from other disciplines entirely. And if we think too much about producing pages, we probably aren’t thinking enough about kindness to the insiders either.
I’ll stop now—diatribes are not kind.
Wow. An essay! Yes, I think you’re right about the educational process’ effects. Except for the part about hyperspecialization, I hadn’t at least consciously thought of all that.
I had been inoculated by the English prof, Baird, before I’d had any philosophy. Just my good luck. He hated triteness and formal conventionality or stiffness. But even he never put anything in terms of kindness to the reader. To speak as gently as it’s possible for a human being to speak, he was not a kind person.
Speaking of profs’ being paid to read your stuff, I’m thinking of another Amherst one: William Kennick (1923–2009). His year-long history of Western philosophy sequence was very well attended, like 50 students (that’s 50 out of 999 students at the college total). In a one-semester course he assigned five short papers and a term paper. He read every one carefully and gave detailed comments. He remembered what you’d said in earlier papers. He also held 3 hours of office hours every weekday afternoon, and they were jammed.
What a life. And that’s why people’s mommies and daddies paid all that money to send their child to a liberal arts college.
That sounds like a wonderful place to learn. The late American writer David Foster Wallace picked up some lifelong writing habits under Kennick’s tutelage. You already shared some advice for students: always give examples and make them vivid, and never be boring. And read lots of good prose. What else might help?
Free-associating on Baird and philosophers: David Armstrong and his second wife Jenny would occasionally play a little game, of trying to go a whole 2 days (? 3? week?) without ever uttering a cliché. I think they’d set up a penalty jar and put a shilling in when they slipped. Now, that is salutary! Try it. (I was thinking about that earlier today, and I inwardly used the phrase “without ever letting a cliché pass their lips”—CLANG!, oops, shilling in the jar.)
We philosophers are constantly recycling old phrases. (Just a little earlier, I used “right out of the gate”.) I would begin the no-cliché game by dumping a pocketful of shillings into the jar on the safe assumption that I’ll soon break the rule without even knowing it. I lose—you win! So, I’ve been wondering: Have you ever written on a topic really hoping to persuade your audience but that didn’t work out as planned?
Well, there are confusions and fallacies I and others have very clearly scouted and warned against but that keep getting made. (“It’s as if we’d never written anything,” I once said to Dan Dennett, and he seemed to be struck by that way of putting it.) In at least some of those cases I’ve just given up; I’m not going to say it all for a fourth or fifth time. It’s different if someone found what I said unconvincing, and objected; then, obviously, I’d answer the objection. – Of course, that’s philosophy, not about writing per se.
Any examples of cases you’ve dropped? Have you ever suspected that the failure of an argument to hit the audience right in the forehead was related to your way of putting things? And that you could, on a further try, put your argument just perfectly? I think about the persuasiveness of arguments as directly linked to writing.
The big examples (this is not about writing) come from some people’s blathering about “consciousness.” The point has been made over and over and over by many philosophers of mind, not just me or my friends, that the term has at least 8 or 9 importantly different senses, or if you like there are crucially different kinds of “consciousness,” and no one should use the word without specifying which sense they’re talking about. Modifiers or subscripts would take care of it easily. Yet to this day we get “My theory is a theory of consciousness,” and we get constant confusion between different senses or “kinds,” e.g., objections to theories that wantonly mistake the theory’s explanandum. But don’t get me started, or rather don’t let me continue.
Again, that’s not a matter of writing or of failing to put things just perfectly. I’m sure there are cases of the latter, but I can’t offhand think of one.
There’s a passage from G. E. Moore that I often think about. He says in Principia Ethica that his arguments could convince his audience “if only I can put them well.” The whole passage is worth quoting:
Philosophical questions are so difficult, the problems they raise are so complex, that no one can fairly expect, now, any more than in the past, to win more than a very limited assent. And yet I confess that the considerations which I am about to present appear to me to be absolutely convincing. I do think that they ought to convince, if only I can put them well. In any case, I can but try.
Oh, my! Moore’s own writing! Another case study of Sellarsian proportion. Here’s a point about him: One thing that distinguishes (I say) a great philosopher from a merely very, very good one is that you can teach one of their works fifty times and still, the fifty-first time, you suddenly see something you hadn’t realized was there. But if we count Moore as a great philosopher—which I’m inclined to do even though he’s not Russell or Wittgenstein or even Quine—he’s a blazing exception to my generalization. He’s boringly clear and explicit about everything. Which is particularly good in its own way, though positively painful to read. But now, why are his papers (not Principia Ethica) just random messes? A paragraph will have nothing to do with the one before it. Sudden hops to a different issue. Saying the same thing in different words when it isn’t the same thing at all. No signposting. The obvious hypothesis is that he just got up at the podium and started talking and for an hour said whatever came into his head. But, no: We’re told he wrote out every lecture in advance and just read from the typescript. A mystery!
Philosophy, they say, often ends with mystery, so why don’t we end there? Thank you, Bill—this has been instructive and fun.
Thank you, Nathan; instructive and fun for me too.
You get the final word!
OK, I’ll break the rule against repeating yourself: At a minimum, always give examples and make them vivid; never be boring; and be kind!
 The report about Quine’s reading habits came down to me from a couple philosophers with whom I studied years ago. When Lycan suggested a different idea during the interview, I contacted Joel Isaac, an intellectual historian at the University of Chicago. Isaac has spent time in Quine’s personal papers at Harvard and has written extensively on Quine in articles such as “W.V. Quine and the Origins of Analytic Philosophy in the United States” (2005) as well as his terrific book Working Knowledge. Isaac shared the following via email:
[M]y sense is that what your older colleagues tell you is correct. I don’t have it to hand, but I recall that in his memoir, The Time of My Life, Quine even boasts about not being interested in the professional literature, nor even in the canon. He would do crosswords on the Red Line on his way from Beacon Hill to teach. In his papers, he has some late notes on a kind of book club he started with a friend, and I recall his reactions to the books he read were surprisingly banal—it was clear he was not drawing on a deep well of knowledge about literature or history. Now, I suspect there is an element of disingenuousness here, as you suggest. As a younger man he was interested in poetry and literature (even penning a short story and composing doggerel now and then). And when he was forced to read in graduate school—I read his notes on Kant’s First Critique for C. I. Lewis and a paper on Leibniz—he showed himself to be a very acute reader. But in the end, I think, Quine was a mathematician at heart: his training in philosophy was relatively slight, and in his career he built his system from first principles much as a mathematician might fill out their own system without careful reference to the literature.
After hearing from Isaac, I was momentarily tempted to find a copy of Quine’s The Time of My Life and hunt down the remarks about reading. Then I recalled Mary Lycan’s review—(“This is terrible!”)—and thought better.
 Our discussion took a little sidetrack, included here for the curious reader’s interest:
Did Mary actually meet Quine, or did she just know him by reputation?
She knew him personally, from the great Summer Linguistics Institute at Irvine in 1971. He and I were in a dormitory poker group, along with Jim McGilvray (Canadian poker fiend), Marty Kalin, Haj Ross, Jack Nelson. Also, several times we went surfing at San Onofre, along with others of course. Not many living people left who’ve been surfing with WVQ. (Neither he nor I ever stood up on the board.)
As regards my wife, I feel bad about it now. There she was in our Irvine dorm room as a trailing spouse, for over two months. I’d thought, no problem, she’s on a university campus, her music-scholarly interests she can pursue anywhere, there are events, we’ll have occasional California outings, all fine. WRONG.
Sometimes professional events tend to be family-unfriendly, but I’m guessing things were even worse for academics with children and families back then. I hope Mary at least got to see a surfing Quine. Honestly, I’d be willing to trade serious boredom to see Quine ride the barrel and get pitted. Take a look at this video:
 Lycan named Russell and Quine as his two favourite late great philosophical writers. I asked him if he admired the prose of any living philosophers. He wasn’t sure how to answer at first. After David Stove’s writing came up, we returned to the issue. Lycan begins the discussion in midstream:
If I mention one living writer I should also mention at least one or two others, and that (a) might be a bit arbitrary and (b) would certainly piss off more than one or two whom I didn’t mention. Daniel Dennett comes to mind; he is as well known and well regarded as he is because he writes so vividly and accessibly and memorably.
Why is it easier to pick and choose favourites from among the dead? Are you just worried about hurt feelings among friends and colleagues? Or do you have more trouble judging the living, as opposed to the dead?
In general, the dead are in the canon and we all talk about them in that way and compare their writing styles, etc. The qualification “in general” is only because of Stove, whom I wanted to quote. No further metaphysical distinction (other than the obvious one) between dead and living!
The main thing about the living is that now they’re numerous. Starting in the ‘70s, because of the huge profusion of new universities that began in the late ‘50s, there have been more and more philosophers, and the profession has grown so large that I can’t keep them all in mind. And as of 2020–21 there are hundreds of good and pretty important philosophers that, at my age, I’ve never even heard of.
Yeah, the Cold War–era U.S. academy boomed, and the profession is much bigger now than it was in the 1940s and ‘50s. I wasn’t thinking the relevant distinction among living and dead authors was as much metaphysical as epistemological; I mean, it’s about our capacity to judge evenhandedly. Maybe when you judge a living writer who you know personally, you’re sort of judging them, not merely their writing.
Something to that. Is judging the writing more that way, than that when you judge their philosophical output you’re judging them? Maybe in a different way.
You single out Dennett for praise and he’s a natural choice for lots of folks. Who among your peers could read that choice and say, “Huh, Bill Lycan shoulda picked me over Dan Dennett!”?
Dennett’s the first who came to my mind. He really is a top writer; my problem is that (again due to my age) I may well be plain forgetting someone who is just as good, only because they didn’t happen to occur to me.
It is mainly worry about someone feeling snubbed, though also more abstractly about being fair.
What you say sounds sensible to me. I’m reminded of a passage from an essay by William Hazlitt (“On Reading Old Books”):
I have more confidence in the dead than the living. Contemporary writers may generally be divided into two classes—one’s friends or one’s foes. Of the first we are compelled to think too well, and of the last we are disposed to think too ill, to receive much genuine pleasure from the perusal, or to judge fairly of the merits of either. One candidate for literary fame, who happens to be of our acquaintance, writes finely, and like a man of genius; but unfortunately has a foolish face, which spoils a delicate passage:—another inspires us with the highest respect for his personal talents and character, but does not quite come up to our expectations in print. All these contradictions and petty details interrupt the calm current of our reflections. If you want to know what any of the authors were who lived before our time, and are still objects of anxious inquiry, you have only to look into their works. But the dust and smoke and noise of modern literature have nothing in common with the pure, silent air of immortality.
Have you read any Hazlitt? He wrote commentaries on Shakespeare, but it’s some of his essays I admire. He sometimes wrote with an explosive pen.
Wow, well pulled out! I’ve never read any Hazlitt so far as I can recall, not even WS criticism. (I actually try not to read any Shakespeare criticism ever. I do have a weakness for James Shapiro, notably 1599.)