December 3, 2023

Between the head and the paper |  daily mail

Between the head and the paper | daily mail

In his article “On Writing and Style” he finds Arthur Schopenhauer A vivid picture of writing difficulties. Ideas will follow the laws of gravity insofar as they “cover the head-to-paper path much more easily than the paper-to-head path”. As easy as some things are to write, they are hard to read. Therefore, thinking the way from the paper to the head “should help by all means at our disposal,” Schopenhauer concluded.

However, it is precisely science, which is concerned with the transmission of knowledge, that sometimes does not make it easy for ideas to find their way from paper (or screen) into the mind of the reader. In his essay, Schopenhauer argued against the vicissitudes of his era, and made linguistic diagnoses. For example, he criticizes the tendency to use box-sentences: a single verb should serve several sentences, “which one must read without understanding, as though groping in the dark, until the last word comes at the end and we shine a light on them.” He is also angry at the choice of words in academic style: “Darkness and vagueness of expression is always a very bad sign.”

Academic Terminology

The components of academic terminology are still the same today as they were in Schopenhauer’s time: foreign words, summaries, faded verbs (preferably in the passive) and hopelessly loaded sentence combinations. No one wants to read this, yet one encounters this approach again and again in scientific publications. When evaluating a thesis, “columnist style” is not usually intended as a compliment; It can lead to a grade deduction because it is considered unscientific.

Where does science’s penchant for jargon come from, especially in the humanities? There are three reasons for this, but only one of them has to do with science. Linguistic terms arise from the pursuit of objectivity. In the natural sciences, objectivity is not only possible, but a condition of knowledge: in a physical experiment, it does not matter who performs it, and the result must be reproducible. It is reproduced in language condensed to abstract content, with technical terms precisely defining its subject matter. The humanities tend to adopt the objectivity of the natural sciences, although they are not concerned with measuring the world, but with its interpretation. It seems that the terms are supposed to bring objectivity and thus scientific character.

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scientific voice

The second reason for the triumph of terminology has nothing to do with science, but with the social conditions of the academic world. Because the task of transferring content from head (A) to head (B) is a linguistic function only, where language also refers to the social group to which the individual belongs. Every occupational group has its own terminology, just like every cultural landscape and every social class, so scientific terms also serve as a social indicator. In the academic world, the social function of language can conflict with the transmission of ideas, as American writer David Foster Wallace notes: in academic texts, it is often more about “presenting one’s qualifications for admission to the group” than about imparting “content.”

The term sacrifices clarity and precision for the sake of a scientific sound – in these cases, this is a convention that one must adapt if one wants to join the science. However, demarcation also belongs to affiliation: therefore, science does not mind that its texts are not understood outside the academic community, on the contrary, it is evidence of a scientific nature. Linguistic terminology comes from the French ‘Gargoter’ which means ‘slide and hit to eat and drink’. So the terms simply mean gibberish. In science, it is often not those who speak incomprehensible that are suspected but those who do not understand what is incomprehensible.

Anything tangible is questionable

This mixed situation leads to a scientific language that finds it difficult to transfer its knowledge from head A to head B. Because terminology techniques systematically remove everything from the text that would help the thought cover the way from paper to head. Anything concrete and descriptive is questionable: anyone who cites examples in his thesis relies on unacceptable simplifications, and anyone who constantly replaces foreign words with equivalent German ones has to bear the accusation of generalization.

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You can neither feel nor dream of foreign words, says designer and foreign words hater Edward Engel in Deutsche Stilkunst (1911). Reading is a bodily act: as soon as we see, hear, feel something, we as readers are involved, but science doubts what activates texts: metaphors and emotions as well as the author who says ‘I’. Instead of honestly saying: “In my letter I deal with the role of the adjective in Thomas Mann,” say something like: “Deal with the letter.” Sometimes one reads: “Deal with this letter.” This is a grammatical error, but the cumbersome formula underscores the scholarly abode.

write so that no one understands

“Nothing is easier than writing in such a way that no one can understand,” Schopenhauer Malezis wrote. He complains about the content of the corrupt texts: it is “the indefatigable Geezalbadr, like a mill, drugged”, hiding under him “the most abject poverty of thought.” One can read in such texts for hours “without having any clear and definite idea”.

“It is much easier to say ordinary things in extraordinary words than the opposite.”
Arthur Schopenhauer

The cat is out of the bag: Especially in highly complex and abstract texts, sometimes there isn’t much. A third reason for these terms may be pressure to post. In the academic world, marked by intense competitive pressure, a rule applies: ‘Publish or die’. If you’re pursuing an academic career, you’re bound to post, even if you don’t have much to say.

To quote Schopenhauer again: It is much easier to say ordinary things in extraordinary words than the opposite. When it comes to covering up mental deficits, the complex set of terms and unclear sentence structure come in handy. Thus, the fact that ineffective writing is not only usually punished, but tolerated, and even encouraged, in science, makes perfect sense.

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Loss of credibility due to discussions about fake news

At least in the German-speaking region. Fortunately, the accessible tradition of writing in the English language shows that science can be done differently. Because the tendency toward the incomprehensible is certainly a problem for science: its alarming loss of credibility in the face of false news debates regarding coronavirus and climate change not only due to populism, but also as a result of linguistic alienation.

If science gets rid of its own jargon, it will return to a conversation with society. And not only that: texts in which ideas will not have to do any hard work on the way from paper to head will also be an asset to science.

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