How We Write

Many of the old textbooks on grammar and writing were unabashed in their belief that the arts of language were essential to how clearly we think. Here’s a short passage from a work entitled Introduction to Theme-writing by Jefferson Fletcher and George Carpenter. The work was published in 1893:

We need perhaps to cultivate our imaginations, but we need above all to make sure of the guiding faculties of life—the reason and the understanding…. In acquiring habits of intelligent and coherent thought, nothing, we shall discover by experience, is more helpful than practice in written Exposition. For, unless we can express what we think, it is useless even to pretend that we know what we think. How little we really understand any given subject we never fully realize until we are obliged to speak or write connectedly about it.

Do we believe something like this anymore? Or if we do, do we believe it quite so unapologetically? Perhaps, or perhaps we did at least as late as 1959, when the historian Jacques Barzun published a work entitled The House of Intellect. His theme there is a subtle one, making a close distinction between intelligence and intellect, but he maintains essentially the same point as Fletcher and Carpenter did a half-century before him: intellect, Barzun says, “is intelligence stored up and made into habits of discipline, signs and symbols of meaning, chains of reasoning and spurs to emotion.” It should be all important to us, he asserts, because “what Intellect satisfies in us is the need for orderly and perspicuous expression, which may lead to common belief and concerted action.”

Common belief. If ever there were a time we needed that more. These writers come from a tradition (we could rightly call it classical) that understood language as the instrument of reason, and reason was, in turn, the peculiar, the unique faculty of human beings. Reason, that is to say, not only as the calculating, or rational, frame of mind, but reason as intelligibility, the belief that things ultimately make sense, and that our minds, well prepared, guide the way to discovering high meaning, not inventing it. In this tradition, language is an art, not a technology. Like all arts, language is a means of communicating ideas, and ideas move across its elements from mind to mind. If I have something I want you to know, then it is in both your interest and mine that I say it as I see it to be. That, in turn, requires that I understand how the art, the medium, of my language works, for if I don’t, then how am I to know you understand what I intend to mean? Human nature seems to be such that it must have meaning, and where it doesn’t find it, it will make it, the truth of things not standing in its way.

That is why these authors speak of “chains of reasoning” and of the obligation to “write connectedly” about a subject. And it is also why Fletcher and Carpenter in particular seem to put less stress on the imagination of the mind than its co-faculty of reason. That might betray the Western educator’s bias, but we can take the authors’ point well enough when we recall that we do, in fact, commonly speak of our imagination running wild, or of how difficult it can be to control our thoughts when we choose to sit quietly alone for a few minutes. These expressions point to something we know, surely, but do not often realize sufficiently, and this is the authors’ point: that our creativity—our imagination—needs reason as a ballast, something to steady its energy, concentrate it into purposeful action, and so discover the next true state of affairs. The art of expository prose, that art of language adapted to the work of reason in the world, is that ballast and stability. Without it, says Barzun, our “effusions are unmistakable—easy indignation, the throb of pity, portentous promises, and still more generally: vague words, loose thoughts.” When the emotional life that is our imagination is left untended, we want what we want because we want it, not because we have come to see that what we want accords with the facts at hand.

Do we believe all of this anymore? The tradition these three authors speak from would answer this way: whether you do agree or not with such a philosophy of language, you owe it to yourself to know why you do or do not, for as Barzun unapologetically concludes, “the state of the mother tongue is in fact the index of our control over destiny.”


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