What are you good at?

Many philosophy papers have a similar structure. That is quite helpful, since you know your way around quickly. It’s like walking through a pedestrian zone: even if you are in a completely strange town, you immediately know where you find the kinds of shops you’re looking for. But apart from the macro-structure, this often also is true of the micro-structure: the way the sentences are phrased, the vocabulary is employed, the rhythm of the paragraphs. “I shall argue” in every introduction.

I don’t mean this as a criticism. I attempt to write like that myself, and I also try to teach it. Our writing is formulaic, and that’s fine. But what I would like to suggest is that we try to teach and use more ingredients in that framework. I vividly remember these moments when a fellow student or colleague got up and, instead of stringing yet another eloquent sentence together, drew something on the blackboard or attempted to impose order by presenting some crucial concepts in a table. For some strange reason, these ways of presenting a thought or some material rarely find their ways into our papers. Why not?

I think of these and other means as styles of thinking. Visualising thoughts, for instance, is something that I’m not very good at myself. But that’s precisely why I learn so much from them. And even if I can’t draw, I can attempt to describe the visualisations. Describing a visualisation (or a sound or taste) is quite different from stringing arguments together. You might extend this point to all the other arts: literature, music, what have you!

Trying to think of language as one sense-modality amongst others might help to think differently about certain questions. Visit your phenomenologist! On the one hand, you can use such styles as aids in a toolkit that will not replace but enrich your ways of producing evidence or conveying an idea. On the other hand, they might actually enrich the understanding of an issue itself. In any case, such styles should be encouraged and find their way into our papers and books more prominently.

As I said, I’m not good at visualising, but it helps me enormously if someone else does it. Assuming that we all have somewhat different talents, I often ask students: “What are you good at?” Whatever the answer is, there is always something that will lend itself to promoting a certain style of thinking, ready to be exploited in the next paper to be written.

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