Methodology: Arguments and Principles

addoneRegular readers of QL may have noticed that sometimes I post what amounts to a restatement of someone else’s work. These could be called summaries except they aren’t actually that short. If I were attacking or improving what I’m restating, you would call it a critique, but that isn’t really the goal, either. Nor am I solving any problems or deficiencies in the original, so I can’t claim to be building a second version on the old foundation.

Sometimes I have second thoughts when I’m about to post one of these restatements. It’s inevitable that some of my readers will assume they’re looking at a sprawling failure of a summary, an aimless failure of a critique, or a particularly talentless and pretentious attempt to improve the original.

Alas! I can’t please everyone. But I can explain the function of these “restatements”.

We all have different intellectual styles. I like to strip things down to nuts and bolts. When I read an essay and then I flay all the analogies and imagery and allusions and examples and literary flourishes off of the author’s ideas, I’m left with the bones of the argument.

An author typically present an idea fully-fleshed out, as a rich picture of how a certain part of the world works. Sometimes this complete worldview is also populated by details that the author thinks will make it easier for his readers to enjoy, understand, and/or accept the essay, as well as details that will raise his status. (Typically, if a trick works for the readers it raises the author’s status and vice-versa. It’s a type of signaling.) This isn’t just a stylistic choice; I don’t think there’s any other way to write an essay, or at least learning to write in other ways is very difficult (and probably requires a certain kind of audience with peculiar worldviews and status-hierarchies of their own).

But I like to have just the bones because the bones are what the author is actually arguing for, and when I’ve got them by themselves it’s easier for me to see what those bones would look like in other “bodies”, if they were fleshed out by the worldviews of other authors with other audiences. You can test the bones of the argument by sketching out how it would work in all sorts of other hypothetical situations, varying every possibility except for the core principles which constitute the argument itself. (And you can force them to compete with other sets of principles, to see what happens when you swap the bones around.) As a bonus, if you decide you like those principles you can then adopt them without bringing all of the ballast in the original essay on board. It can be frustrating to believe X, and instinctively understand that X is “part of” an important theory, T, only to belatedly remember after X has been falsified that X was just an illustrative example which was part of the presentation of T, not part of the theory itself.

When I deflesh someone else’s work for my own purposes, sometimes it seems like it might be useful for other people to have access to the same condensation. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t; but once I’ve already done the work, sharing it with you is only a matter of expanding my notes to myself into grammatically intelligible sentences.

(The context: I was thinking about Spandrell’s theory of status this morning, and now I’m at the point where I should decide whether to do the grammatical-sentences things. We will see. It’s a busy month and a busy year, and I want to finish the marriage series first. Spandrell’s theory also has an important logical connection to Conquest’s Second Law, so maybe I’ll discuss all of that together.)

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2 thoughts on “Methodology: Arguments and Principles

  1. Good abstracts and expositions of the thought of others are indispensable in the social sciences, and the best ones are sometimes read more often than the originals. It’s a component of the overall process of knowledge-production in its own independent right.

    Liked by 1 person

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