You don’t ever write about things; you write about what people say

Seeing that I don’t write about things or topics but about what people say about things was one of the most important lessons I learned. I’ve said this a number of times, here and here, but a recent chat with a friend made me realise that it is perhaps worth highlighting again.

So, when you’re writing about stuff like justice, language, the supreme good or whatever, you don’t write about these things or phenomena, as it were. Rather you write about what people say about these phenomena. Or about what you yourself say (or think) about these phenomena. The point I’m trying to make is that what you’re targeting when you write is a piece of language: you’ll be writing about a claim or a passage, a specific argument, an example or a specific question.

Why is this worth noting? – Let’s begin with a pragmatic reason: As long as you think that you write about, say, freedom and necessity, you will be paralysed by the vast amount of things you could look at. Things provide no focus. A string of sentences by contrast gives you focus. Sentences pick out something; they leave open something else; and they deny something at least implicitly. In this way, they give you a dialectical field of positions and neglect. You can start immediately by picking on a word or phrase and ask what precisely it means. So instead of fretting where to begin you can start immediately by thinking about the phrases and what they evoke, by what they miss and by how you feel about them.

What you enter. – Once you realise that you’re not embarking on a boat tossed across the vast ocean of being, you will see that the idea of philosophy as a conversation is quite literally true. You are always dealing with someone’s (or you own) formulation. You will want to understand and thus ask for clarification, offering alternatives or counterexamples. The point is that the kind of skill you first and formost need is the skill of zooming in on the language.

Play with words. – Now of course this doesn’t mean that you can skip informing yourself about things. It just means that, in beginning to write (or talk) about these things, you will always target a formulation. You can begin with your own way of phrasing something and take it apart, one by one, or with someone elses and ask them about it. The skills that you can train for this are reading, reformulating (in other words, other terminologies, in other genres or examples or in formal language), translating, and, generally, playing with words. When you sit at your desk or in a talk wondering what is going on, don’t focus on the things, issues or phenomena. Rather focus on the words. That’s where you’ll enter.

So it begins. – So when you begin to plan and write your text or talk, I’d advise you to begin by quoting the paragraph or claim you want to focus on. And if it’s not someone elses point you want to focus on, then offer your best formulation. Write it down and begin to wander around it.

You think that this whole idea is odd? Perhaps I am just an old Kantian who thinks that the Ding an sich is not available to us.  


By the way, this month this blog is three years old. Thanks for bearing with me.

4 thoughts on “You don’t ever write about things; you write about what people say

  1. Not odd at all, has definitely a kantian/Critical ring to it, this was the first thing that popped in my mind while reading.

    But I would also venture to label what you get at here as having an “aesthetic” (in the sense of αἴσθησις) bent; that is, pertaining to affective relations (encounter w/ words qua extended objects) rather than “ideas” (abstract universals: justice, language).

    « Comme si les idées existaient pour elles-mêmes en dehors du support textuel où elles sont inscrites » – Macherey. This “textual support” should be widened to accommodate history, transindividual relations, etc.

    So, aesthetics as “method”, rather than “discipline”. Of course it gets more complicated than that.

    happy birthday (-: — s

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think this is an important insight! But does it apply only to a narrow band of discourse? When people write about bicycle repair, I think they talk about bicycle parts, not words. When people write in detail about the unjust policies of some particular administration, they are writing about legal actions, policy formation, communications, values – all of them crucially involving words, of course, but they’re not really writing about the words. I think it’s only in the highest ranks of abstract thought that (in the words of Tom Stoppard) it’s a matter of “Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.” This can be illuminating, but in such a relatively frictionless space, there is a strong possibility that the activity just becomes playing with words, to no real purpose. Ah, I seem to have turned into Wittgenstein!

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    1. Thanks! That’s a great question. First, let me clarify something: I don’t mean this distinction as one of semantics: When I write about freedom in “Freedom and Resentment”, my words still *refer* to freedom, not to Strawson’s words. I just mean that our *attention* is and should be directed at the words in certain cases. So my target consists mor in Strawsons formulations, but in doing this the reference remains untouched.
      That said, I’ll probably target Strawsonian senses (according to Fregean terminology) when writing about his notion of freedom.

      The second point of your question is more tricky to address: Is it only highly abstract realms that this attention on words happens or is helpful? I don’t know, but I think it depends on the purpose of the text produced. But yes, more needs to be said about this.

      Liked by 1 person

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