Against allusions

What is the worst feature of my writing? I can’t say what it is these days; you tell me please! But looking back at what I worked hardest to overcome in writing I’d say it’s using allusions. I would write things such as “in the wake of the debate on semantic externalism” or “given the disputes over divine omnipotence bla bla” without explaining what precise debate I actually meant or what kind of semantic externalism or notions of the divine I had in mind. This way, I would refer to a context without explicating it. I guess such allusions were supposed to do two things: on the one hand, I used them to abbreviate the reference to a certain context or theory etc., on the other hand, I was hoping to display my knowledge of that context. To peers, it was meant to signal awareness of the appropriate references without actually getting too involved and, most importantly, without messing up. If you don’t explicate or explain, you can’t mess things up all that much. In short, I used allusions to make the right moves. So what’s wrong with making the right moves?

Let me begin by saying something general about allusions. Allusions, also known as “hand waving”, are meant to refer to something without explicitly stating it. Thus, they are good for remaining vague or ambiguous and can serve various ends in common conversation or literature. Most importantly, their successful use presupposes sufficient knowledge on part of the listener or reader who has to have the means to disambiguate a word or phrase. Funnily enough, such presuppositions are often accompanied by phrases insinuating the contrary. Typical phrases are: “as we all know”, “as is well known”, “famously”, “obviously”, “clearly”, “it goes without saying” etc.

Such presuppositions flourish and work greatly among friends. Here, they form a code that often doesn’t require any of the listed phrases or other markers. They rather work like friendly nods or winks. But while they might be entertaining among friends, they often exclude other listeners in scholarly contexts. Now you might hasten to think that those excluded simply don’t ‘get it’, because they lack the required knowledge. But that’s not true. Disambiguation requires knowledge, yes, but it also and crucially requires confidence (since you always might make a fool of yourself after all) and an interest in the matter. If you’re unsure whether you’re really interested, allusions used among scholars often closely resemble the tone of a couple of old blokes dominating a dinner party with old insider jokes. Who wants to sound like that in writing?

Apart from sounding like a bad party guest, there is a deeper problem with allusions in scholarly contexts. They rely on the status quo of canonical knowledge. Since the presuppositions remain unspoken, the listener has go by what he or she takes to be a commonly acceptable disambiguation. Of course, we have to take some things as given and we cannot explicate everything, but when it comes to important steps in our arguments or evidence, reliance on allusions is an appeal to the authority of the status quo rather than the signalling of scholarly virtue.

I began to notice this particularly in essays by students who were writing their essays mainly for their professors. Assuming that professors know (almost) everything, nothing seems to need unpacking. But since almost all concepts in philosophy are essentially contested, such allusions often don’t work. As long as I don’t know which precise version of an idea I’m supposed to assume, I might be just as lost as if I didn’t know the next thing about it. Thus the common advice to write for beginners or fellow students. Explain and unpack at least all the things you’re committed to argue for or use as evidence for a claim. Otherwise at least I often won’t get what’s going on.

The problem with that advice is that it remains unclear how much explanation is actually appropriate. Of course, we can’t do without presuppositions. And we cannot and should not write only for beginners. If allusions are a vice, endless explanations might fare no better. Aiming at avoiding every possible misunderstanding can result in an equally dull or unintelligible prose. So I guess we have to unpack some things and merely allude to others. But which ones do we explain in detail? It’s important to see that every paper or book has (or should have) a focus: this is the claim you ultimately want to argue for. At the same time, there will be many assumptions that you shouldn’t commit yourself to showing. I attempt to explain only those things that are part of the focus. That said, it sometimes really is tricky to figure out what that focus actually is. Unpacking allusions might help with finding it, though.

3 thoughts on “Against allusions

  1. Good post on the oft-difficult to find balance between explanation and assumption. Being only a PhD candidate, I admit it’s comforting to see that those further down the road still struggle with the same issues, though perhaps on a different level. This even more so when it’s written by a professor that actually helped me quite a decent amount with my own writing.

    Liked by 1 person

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