Writing Right with Dmitri: Watching People Think

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Tip of the Week: Instead of 'proofreading' by running your eye over a text you've just written and (of course) pronouncing it 'perfect', try this: Read it aloud to your dog or cat. While you're being amused at their quizzical expressions, you'll also, probably, notice sentences that sound rough or places where you'd like to add a bit of polish to your prose. The best part about dogs and cats as audiences is that, unlike your spouse, they are unlikely to interrupt with extraneous remarks such as, 'You based that character on the letter carrier, didn't you?'

Writing Right with Dmitri: Watching People Think

Editor at work.

In the TED Talk called 'Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents'', Professor (Emeritus, I think) James Flynn explains the difference between 'concrete' and 'abstract' thinking. He points out that around 1900, only 3% of working people had professions that required them to think abstractly and hypothetically, whereas today, around 35% do. His figures, not mine. I'm assuming he's done his homework. According to Dr Flynn, this circumstance has forced a change in our thinking patterns.

In the talk, which I hope you'll find time for, Flynn shares a couple of excellent examples of the clash between concrete and abstract thinking. As a young man, the speaker confronted his Irish-born father in a debate over civil rights issues. Flynn was born and grew up in the US. He's a moral philosopher by training. He asked his dad to imagine that he woke up one morning and found himself black in America. How would he feel?

Flynn's father dismissed this argument out of hand. 'Nobody has ever woken up with a different skin colour. That's the dumbest thing you've ever said.'

Flynn sighs as he says, 'Without the hypothetical, it's very difficult to get moral argument off the ground.'

He also discusses the work of Alexander Luria, a researcher who conducted interviews with people circa 1900 from a variety of backgrounds with a view to probing their understanding of hypothetical thinking. Many of his informants were strongly based in concrete experience and refused to entertain hypothetical possibilities. For example, there was a Russian from Central Asia who refused to participate in a logic exercise that began, 'There are no camels in Germany.' He couldn't imagine a world without camels, just as Luria's German informant couldn't imagine a world where bears could be white.

'You can't do science without proposing hypotheses,' complains Flynn. The professor is pointing out that 'science' isn't a set of beliefs: it's a method. We use that method to do a lot of our thinking these days because we live in a world that depends on experimental science for a lot of its progress.

Of course, we abandon that thinking totally when it comes to politics. Or our religion (or lack of it). Or our aesthetic choices. Or our relationships. That's why the world we live in is so messed up. The ability of human beings to hold inconsistent positions in their heads is both a blessing and a terrible curse. As Flynn says, 'Without the hypothetical, it's very difficult to get moral argument off the ground.' When you see people at loggerheads on social issues, stop to consider whether they're reasoning by seeking consistency in a hypothetical discussion, or whether they're set in the concrete.

Also, I advise you to run, not walk, in the opposite direction of anyone who tries to engage you in debate and then brings in his personal experience as evidence in an argument, claiming it as universal. Dollars to doughnuts, that person is stuck in the concrete. Your discussion will go absolutely nowhere. Don't waste your time or annoy others. Just go.

So What?

Why am I bringing this up? Just to give you a headache, no doubt. Not at all. I bring this up because it affects how we write. This is true whether we're writing prose or poetry, fact or fiction, or even a business letter. You need to ask yourself: how is my audience going to think about this subject? Will they insist on the concrete, or will they be able to follow me into the hypothetical? This will have a bearing on the way you present your material.

Even more to the point: you need to be aware of the kind of thinking engaged in by your 'characters'. I put 'characters' in quotes because the people you're writing about could be real or imaginary. Either way, you've got to figure out the methods and limits of their thinking before you can describe their actions. You may not spell it out for the reader – in fact, it's probably better if you don't – but you need to know it's there, and you need to know what is going on in the character's head. And yes, I've got a wonderful example.

'He can't be dead,' said Engelard doubtfully. 'I barely handled him at all. Nobody dies as easily as that!'

'This one did. And now what's to be done? I hadn't bargained for this.' He said it not complainingly, but as one pointing out that further urgent planning would now be necessary, and they had better keep their minds flexible.

Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter), A Morbid Taste for Bones

That's good old Brother Cadfael. I've been watching the TV series. I figured there must be a keen mind behind the original stories, and I found her: Edith Pargeter, writing as Ellis Peters. She's brilliant. Now I'm on a quest to read her books. I started with A Morbid Taste for Bones. It's the first Brother Cadfael story, and it's full of sometimes quite amusing doings as some 12th-century monks attempt to acquire the prestigious skeleton of St Winifred. I defy you to read the old monk's account of the death and resurrection of St Winifred without laughing aloud.

If we've a lick of sense, we care naught about the whodunnit part. The interesting part is watching Benedictine monks and their neighbours. By the way, I used to have Benedictines as colleagues when I taught at their college. Elective communities like that have their own dynamic. When Brother Cadfael confesses that sometimes, he'd like to kill Brother Jerome….let's just say I've heard similar from a very dear Brother in the late 20th Century. He didn't really mean it, either. She's got the Benedictine monks dead to rights. But Ellis Peter's greatest accomplishment is the invention of Brother Cadfael.

For the detective story part to work, you need a detective who can think in the hypothetical. Such a one is Cadfael. However, you need to explain why he thinks like this. Cadfael is a man of knowledge. He spent years as a soldier in the Holy Land. He travelled around the Mediterranean as a sailor. He knows herbs. We can see how he learned his lessons in thinking from his experience of the world.

The other people in the story? Not so much. The cloistered brothers, the ambitious secular clerics, the even more ambitious lords, are so bent on achieving whatever it is they've set themselves as a goal that there's no room for this kind of thinking. Cadfael not only has to figure things out, he has to persuade them to go along with his conclusions. That can be difficult. The farmers, tradesmen, and townspeople vary in their ability to think about these things. Peters shows them thinking. She shows us what Cadfael is up against. She also shows us every hypothesis and conclusion, where it came from and whither it led. Her writing is far more about thinking than is the usual crime novel.

Dr Flynn would like Brother Cadfael. His ability to think hypothetically also makes him the best moral philosopher in the Welsh marches. This is a useful skill for his author to have given him: her novels are set in the period of British history known as 'the Anarchy', when social norms are in danger of breaking down in the atmosphere of endless civil war and intrigue between two rival claimants to the throne, Stephen and Maud. (You've never heard of this? It's not a really popular topic in schools, I'll bet. Especially when you find out that the Empress Maud's other name was Mathilda.)

If you conclude from this essay that I would like you to watch the TED Talk Youtube and possibly read some Ellis Peters, you'd be right, but thinking concretely, as we all do. If you also concluded that there were possible applications of the foregoing analysis for your writing, you'd be allowing the hypothetical to influence your thinking.

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

18.03.19 Front Page

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