How to read (part three). Reading for academic writing

While reading needs to be learned and practised for itself (see part one of this series), it also helps with the practice of writing. The more you read, the better you write. But what should you read, especially as an academic writer? One way of approaching this issue is to look back and check which works helped you in overcoming difficulties in writing. In what follows, I’d like to list and very briefly comment on some works that helped me greatly in solving problems as a writer. Please bear in mind that this list is decidedly not a “best of”, but emerged from my personal study path. This is also why I don’t include the work of colleagues at my current department. At some point, I realised that certain authors inspiried me in a special way. Be it in solving certain problems of writing or in how to handle different genres, i.e. book-length studies, typical papers, commentaries, and blog posts. The same will be true for you, but the authors in question will be different. However, what is worth figuring out is in what way exactly their work might inspire you. Anywere, here goes:

Dialogical style of reasoning. – There are two complementary problems I see in my own writing: I don’t want to sincerely state anything that’s untrue. And I can’t write everything that needs to be said at once. Sometimes not saying everything at once just sounds like writing untruths. (More on this issue in this video.) Reading Dominik Perler’s work, especially his Theorien der Intentionaltät im Mittelalter, taught me how to get around this. You state a position; then question it, then give a refined version, and repeat. This dialogical approach settles such issues most elegantly. Martin Kusch’s writing, especially his Knowledge by Agreement, taught me similar virtues. He also manages to get a grip on the most complicated theories, making them seem easy without simplifying. Someone who manages to push this style to the limits is Michael Della Rocca. Check out his introduction to Spinoza. A book which also shows that even introductions can be philosophically original.

Making examples work properly. – Examples do a lot of work, not least in the analytic tradition. In the often peacemeal way of approaching problems, Ruth Millikan’s work stands out for me as being highly systematic, a bit like Leibniz. But what I took home from her as a writer is how she constructs and works through examples. Especially in Varieties of Meaning, her examples and the way she explained them helped me understand the metaphysics, epistemology and various applications of teleosemantics. Much the same goes for the work of Donald Davidson, especially his paper “Rational Animals”. And, of course, for all of Wittgenstein. In the history of philosophy, crafting examples for theorising along is equally important. Check out Susan James‘ work, especially her Spinoza on Learning to Live Together.

Capturing relations in debates and thoughts. – As a historian of philosophy, you’ll often try and express how ideas and positions relate to one another. While much popularising work will reduce such relations to simple oppositions or agreements, it’s actually hard work to capture similarities within oppositions and to make sense of thoughts without simplistically actualising them. How do you relate thinkers or ideas to one another instructively without giving up on nuances? How do you chose words for that? Anik Waldow’s work is a great resource for me to rethink how I capture such relations, not least her first book David Hume and the Problem of Other Minds. Similar virtues are inspired by the papers of Jennifer Ashworth, check out her “Can I speak more clearly than I understand?”, and the works of John Marenbon, check out his Abelard in Four Dimensions.

Writing commentaries. – Commentaries on (primary) texts are well known in the medieval tradition as well as in the context of modern critical editions of texts. We would be better off, if we taught how to write commentaries to students again. In comparison to the now ubiquitous papers, commentaries are guided by the texts themselves. However, that doesn’t mean you cannot “think for yourself” in a commentary. How this art is combined with original philosophical thinking can be seen, for instance, in Robert Pasnau’s Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature. Something similar might be said of Kurt Flasch’s Was ist Zeit? Sometimes the virtues of the commentary approach are more deeply ingrained in studies that do not present themselves as commentaries. Something that can be learned by reading Ursula Renz, check out her The Explainability of Experience. That one can map whole philosophical debates and developments in this way can be seen in Katherine Tachau’s Vision and Certitude in the Age of Ockham. The same is true of Paul Spade’s Thoughts, Words, and Things, which was composed as teaching material but served the work of many researchers.

Research on terminology. – Perhaps it’s me, but I find few studies on terminology these days. Studying terminology and how it changes within debates and across time is crucial for understanding philosophy. It’s also a great way to arrange one’s writing. Besides the famous flagship project, the Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, there are a number of great studies guided by research on terminology. Among my personal favourites are Gabriel NuchelmansTheories of the Proposition and Stephan Meier-Oeser’s Spur des Zeichens.

Scholarly blogging. – Blogging did not just affect philosophical exchanges but also has an enormous impact on my writing. Besides blog posts aiming perhaps at quick interactions, I also find blogs and posts that are scholarly in that they employ this somewhat more free form for scholarly reflections. Among those that continue to inspire me are the writings of Agnes Callard, Eric Schliesser, Justin E. H. Smith, and Eric Schwitzgebel. I guess you know how to find their writings.

Looking at this list, I guess I am more of a book person. Anyway. more could be said about how exactly particular passages can affect one’s writing. So this is just a first stab.

Here is part four of this series.

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