We are all, quite naturally, implicated in a continual process of selecting words in our conversations and thoughts. Sometimes the selection is between two similar words, and at other times, perhaps between two different approaches. These two descriptions of choice are merely two in a rather vast ocean of possibilities of selection. There are many languages, words, fora, conversations and participants. This problem of how our words and thoughts could have many meanings is something we are both “aware of” and also “ignore” as we live our lives.
However, just because it is routine, it does not mean that we remain immune from problems. We use all sorts of conceptions and ideas – for instance that one’s eyes are the windows to one’s soul – as means by which we think about how to prioritize one meaning over others. This raises questions on how we observe meaning itself, how we carry it, and how we communicate it.
Naturally, ideas are then thought to be useful when they are clear and concrete. At the same time, to have some level of clarity and concreteness, we must abandon the fact that the ideas themselves were observed, communicated and accepted in rather muddled processes. The important point is that for some words we settle on a meaning and for others we allow and even thrive on the hermeneutic debate. This settled meaning is different for a scientist, a lawyer, an economist, a theologist, and for that matter, any human being on the planet.
For the “academic writer” there is a more problematic significance. Quite routinely, I find myself editing out words which I “know” describe my conviction about something, and yet, at the same time I am aware that it brings no added clarity to the investigation. I often discard these sentences.
This erasure of the author’s (my) sentiment is something that is routine in academic practice. Academic contributions should be about reliable judgment and not simply what someone feels personally or carries as a sentiment. In many ways, it is healthy, and brings focus to academic conversations. Yet a permanent silence about all these hidden convictions brings about the presupposition of intellectual clarity in the words as they “settle”. A presupposition that is useful “if true” and possibly dangerous “if false”. It also removes the possibility of discussing convictions which may play a significant part in how ‘meanings’ themselves are gleaned from their muddled origins in human discourses.
There isn’t an overwhelming technique, I have found, which can solve this problem. The benefit in finding a new way to interpret a word for which everyone else has accepted a settled meaning is one that is difficult to ascertain. The benefit differs when one has a vast audience interested in what one has to say or if one is thinking through concepts and thus is one’s own audience. Clearly, one must be willing to accept that rigour – in general terms – is not only beneficial but often necessary. At the same time to realise that erasure of one’s convictions from text – to some less visible degree – has a role in steering what rigour means in academic practice. I think, a complete silence of personal sentiments might only mean that these sentiments ‘play out’ in less rigorous fora, which may be altogether more significant.
I guess one of the best ways to highlight my point would be to provide an example of what I’ve just discarded. The paper I am working on discusses how scholars think about “interdisciplinarity” within “international discourses”. Glean what you will from the discarded text.
“Admittedly, our vocabularies are limited. However, I still think that it is worthwhile to avoid thinking that questions regarding the individuals’ or collectives’ faith can be used to make claims about the nature of the universe. Most of “everything” has nothing to do with “humanity”. We may like to answer this supposed “everything” with Sartre’s nothingness or with religious gods. But we should not have any confidence in those answers. “Answers” that induce us to think that they are worth defending in blood and that they could found absolute authority in this world – for any individual or any society.”
On the aside, a great piece of advice I recently received was from a colleague who reminded me of the style guide “kill your darlings”. Happy to oblige.