Some thoughts on expressing and interpreting ideas in writing:

1) Writing to express ideas involves two tasks which are at least on some level independent:

  • A) Getting clear about the ideas you’re trying to express.
  • B) Finding the right language and written structure to express said ideas clearly.

Although I do thing they are on some level independent, they’re on another level very closely interrelated, and maybe even identical. I don’t know how coherent my idea is until I find the language for it. It feels to me as if expressing my idea in language tests its logical consistency, and exposes all its vulnerabilities. Despite this experience, I also feel compelled to grant that the language I choose will never really “correspond” to my idea or to the aspect of reality that it addresses.

2) Analysis of the structure of a text is necessary to both achieve an understanding of that text and enlarge your understanding of the world. Moreover, there’s a sort of inverse experience to writing when you read and analyze a text. You’re juggling two interrelated interpretive tasks:

  • A1: Digging through their prose style and terminology to understand what they’re saying.
  • B1: Grasping the ideas in themselves that the author is trying to express.

But there’s yet another wrench thrown into analyzing a text: as I’ve said you need to express ideas in language in order to make them coherent, and so the only way to build an understanding of a text is to write about it. This means that whereas to write your own ideas you just need to do A and B at once, to write about someone else you need to do A, B, A1, and B1, all at the same time.

3) In addition to this challenge with the relation of ideas with language, writing to express someone else’s ideas is challenging in that you have to settle the relationship between your ideas about the world and those of the author. Sometimes these two are completely incommensurable because of a root assumption the author makes that you don’t accept, or because you don’t understand something important about the background of ideas they’re responding to. To be faithful to the ideas of the author in writing then becomes very difficult. Not because it's hard to write things that you don't agree with, but because there are no real differences in values in philosophy, and so the only kind of disagreement you can have is over coherence. It's very hard to represent an argument that you think is incoherent, and it's all too easy to misrepresent an argument by not taking the time to grasp its coherence.

expressing and interpreting ideas in wr…