Gusto: 6 Notes on Prose Style

Have you ever read something so impetuous that by comparison your own sentences seemed to drag, to limp along? I’m not talking about good grammar or correct usage: I’m talking about gusto.

The 19th century British essayist Hazlitt wrote that “gusto in art is power or passion defining any object.” And then he pretty much immediately offered a second definition: “[Gusto is] giving [the] truth of character from the truth of feeling.” In other words your writing has gusto if it makes readers feel strongly about things by expressing them passionately.

So much for a general definition. But how do you do it? How do you write with gusto?

I’ve been wondering that for months. It’s a curiosity born of desperate hunger, because to write well is the thing I want most in this world, and I think the best writing sweeps you up, shatters your complacency, and carries you along: it has gusto.

I know only two ways to change how I write. The first is to weed out ugliness, to ban myself from tics. The second is to discover patterns worth imitating in the prose of writers I admire and to try them for myself. (The bestiary and grimoire are attempts to do that.) In what follows, I’m going to share six patterns, or techniques, or tricks (call them what you want) that I’ve gleaned from studying writers who write with gusto, and from taking note of the rare occasions when my own prose achieves it.

On looking over this list, I see that most of the items on it are ways of achieving sentence-level concision and paragraph-level vividness. It so happens that these are my watchwords for good writing in general. So perhaps gusto is just good writing? Nonetheless, thinking about good writing under the aspect of gusto produced the following new (to me) principles.

1. Build every sentence around a succinct base clause.

I got this formulation straight out a marvelous book by Virginia Tufte called Syntax As Style. As I began to study gusto, I noticed that writers who clearly possessed it abided by the rule religiously. Tufte wrote:

Prepositional glut occurs if no attempt is made to set up short independent base clauses. The worst offenders in this overloading of patterns are the long noun phrase and nested prepositional phrases, often collaborating in clumsiness and verbal deadweight.

Creating a succinct base clause—a short sentence around which a long one is built—is a technique every writer needs to know.

To show what she means, I’ll take a negative example from the same book. This is a sentence Tufte quotes to show the horror that comes of neglecting her advice:

Neglect of this rich mine of information is due in part to the difficulty one faces in attempting to establish a suitable model in this area for modern quantification techniques that have contributed immeasurably to the formulation of historical generalizations in such areas as economic history and voting patterns.

Yeesh. Can we fix it? Yes, by compacting the disastrous middle into a succinct base clause (and by cutting some of the fat and trading the passive voice for the active).

We neglect this rich mine of information because it’s hard to quantify, unlike economic history and voting patterns, about which quantification permits historical generalizations.

Here “because it’s hard to quantify” replaces all of “due in part to the difficulty one faces in attempting to establish a suitable model in this area for modern quantification techniques.”

What is a concise base clause? First, it’s a clause—the smallest unit of a sentence that expresses a whole proposition. Subject-verb, or subject-verb-object. Second, it’s concise. There is minimal space between the subject and the verb and the object.

For the purposes of gusto, the best thing about a concise base clause is how you can add to it. You can write very long but perfectly comprehensible sentences through independent clauses that freely modify the base:

She ran, ducking under clothes lines, swinging crazily around corners, hurdling fire hydrants, zig-zagging across the highway, hopscotching through the outdoor displays of fruit in front of the Asian market, clipping unwary pedestrians who didn’t get out of her way fast enough, slipping between the clouds of smokers, burning up tarmac like humanity’s answer to the cheetah.

OK, that’s just a silly example, but despite being just as long as the bad example above, it’s perfectly clear. A concise base—like “she ran”—makes possible the real potential of cascading clauses: gusto.

2. Drop relative pronouns.

By relative pronouns mostly I mean “that,” which,” and “who/whom.” Sometimes they’re necessary to express your meaning; often they’re just dispensable roadblocks, screwing up your gusto, making you sound as if you’re thinking about grammar rather than the matter at hand.

Here is a list of sentences I got from the first page when I googled “relative pronoun.” After each quotation I’ve tried to show how it could become snappier by dropping the pronoun.

This is the book that everyone is talking about.

Instead: “This is the book everyone is talking about.” A small but definite improvement.

She wrote to the person whom she had met last month.

Instead: “She wrote to the person she met last month.” Definitely better!

We didn’t bring the receipt, which was a big mistake.

This one’s fun. There are several ways you could drop the pronoun. Here are two of them: “We didn’t bring the receipt. Big mistake.” Or “We didn’t bring the receipt, a big mistake.” Either way, a limping sentence now leaps.

One more, but this time to show the risk of applying the principle too indiscriminately:

Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died. – Erma Bombeck

Now you might think, “Sorry, Erma, this has more gusto: ‘Never go to a doctor with dead office plants.'” But you’d be wrong. In your pursuit of gusto you would have fallen into the piranha infested waters of ambiguity. You would have made it sound like you shouldn’t visit a doctor while carrying dead office plants. So keep a sharp eye.

This gusto-producing technique also produces an effect of informality. They aren’t the same thing, informality and gusto. If informality is a problem, given a piece’s likely venue or whatever, perhaps there are better ways to get that gusto.

There’s nothing, grammatically speaking, wrong with relative pronouns. They can even be rhetorically useful for certain purposes. But they slow you down and often sound prissy; so if gusto is the effect you’re after, try dropping ’em.

I should also note that this whole relative pronoun extermination effort is but one skirmish in the war on bloat that constitutes an entire front of the campaign for… metaphor went off the rails there, instructively. I’m trying to say that gusto is often equal to concision, and extirpating relative pronouns is just another kind of concision.

3. For sonority, use parallelism instead of big words.

The fact is, many of us, when we feel the need for a little organ music in the midst of an essay, crank up the syllable-count. I don’t have a ready example of this gauche form of overreach, but I can create one for you. Here’s a mucked-up paragraph from a review I wrote a few years ago. It’s the sort of thing I might have written before I found better ways to seem profound!

Reinhold Niebuhr had not yet written a truly redoubtable tome. Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic was intriguing but inchoate; his political manifestoes suffered from his Protean commitments; his Gifford lectures were fustian bombast subtended by no erudition; and his collections of speeches, sermons, and essays signified fecundity and trenchancy, but not permanence.

And here’s what I actually wrote, with the parallelism highlighted.

Reinhold Niebuhr had not yet written a genuinely great book. Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic was quaint and intriguing, yet indecisive and unformed; his political manifestos were undermined by the changeability of his actual political positions; his Gifford lectures were two monstrous volumes of pseudo-scholarship; and his collections of speeches, sermons, and essays were signs of a fertile pen, collectively prepossessing, yet individually ephemeral.

You tell me: which attempt to sound profound has more gusto?

While parallelism—balancing rhythmically and syntactically similar clauses against one another—is an valuable technique, abusing it can result in the opposite of gusto. It can result in a swaying, lulling rhythm. From Aristotle onward, the golden rule of rhetoric has been repetition and variety. So use parallelism sparingly.

4. Summarize bluntly.

Nothing pops the ballooning dullness of a complicated paragraph like a sudden, reductive sentence. It also gives the impression that one is cutting through the bullshit. Here’s an example from Laurie Penny, a British journalist whose writing is often full of gusto. She’s talking about Game of Thrones:

Most fans of the show have idly wondered which warring noble house they’d want to be born into. Are you brave and upstanding like the Starks, an entitled aristocrat like the Lannisters, or a mad pirate bastard like the Greyjoys? Personally, I like to think that I’d be at home in Dorne, where knife-fighting and aggressive bisexuality are forms of greeting, but the truth is that I’d have been dead for at least two seasons by now and so would you. And not excitingly dead, either. Not beheaded-by-the-king dead, or burned-as-a-blood-sacrifice-to-the-god-of-fire-by-your-own-father dead. Statistically speaking, we’d be peasants. We probably wouldn’t even get names. We’d just be eating mud and waiting for the war to be over. You know it’s true.

The punch of the short sentences, in contrast to the long ones! Penny loves this technique. She really puts it through its paces, if you read her columns with any regularity, milking it for all its possible effects: cynicism, wryness, authenticity, anger.

In a way, I’m just emphasizing a part of the old chestnut that good writers vary the length of their sentences. But I’ve noticed that the writers to whom I would attribute gusto rely on this specific variation quite a bit: the sharp juxtaposition of long and extremely short. Try it.

5. Use emotion-provoking comparisons.

When a writer is doing their thing with gusto, sparks fly, and those sparks are comparisons. John Scalzi—whose writing is always full of gusto—can barely get through a paragraph without coughing up a mind-worm. Here, for example, is the first line of one of his most popular blog posts:

I’ve been thinking of a way to explain to straight white men how life works for them, without invoking the dreaded word “privilege,” to which they react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon.

My principle here isn’t just “use similes and metaphors.” (Do, though. They rock.) It’s “use emotion-provoking similes and metaphors.”

That narrows it down a bit, because not many comparisons provoke heartfelt sorrow, for example, all on their own. “Like a candle in the wind” needs a funeral and music to wring a single salty tear from even the most emotionally labile among us. But “they react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon” is funny, all by itself. Another emotion metaphors are good for insta-producing is disgust. The acid pen drips metaphors. Turning to the same fertile source of invidious comparison, here are some of the choicest ways in which John Scalzi chose to describe Ted Cruz during the Republican primaries this year: an “ambulatory cloacal splotch,” a “gross and despicable avulsion that yet managed to sprout opposable thumbs.” Ouch.

These things can really liven up a piece of prose. They’re a bit like backflips though. I had a friend in highschool who learned how to do a backflip off a wall. Unfortunately, he decided to show off his new skill prematurely. When he landed flat on his back, his chances with the ladies collapsed like a housing bubble. If you don’t watch out, your audacious comparison could go over just as well.

6. Repeat ideas with rising intensity.

Milton has great gusto. He repeats his blow twice, grapples with and exhausts his subject. His imagination has a double relish of its objects, an inveterate attachment to the things he describes, and to the words describing them.

That’s Hazlitt, again, from the end of his essay on gusto. I, personally, don’t experience Milton as being very full of gusto—a failure I attribute to the flaccidity of my mental muscles, which have to stay pretty tense to comprehend the long, suspended sentences of Paradise Lost. But I think Hazlitt’s point is a good one, observable in contemporary writing as well as in Milton. Often, those who write with gusto will hit a key point several times, trying out several phrases to sum it up, like a brainstorming session at Stirling Cooper.

You know who writes with gusto? Dan O’Sullivan. Here is a riveting example from his piece in Jacobin on the terrifying denouement of 2016:

Trump didn’t think he was going to win — not him, not his cracked, wincing campaign manager, not the sozzled Nazi werewolf chairing his presidential bid, not the jackal pack advising him, not the rival camp, not the media. Trump, that demented circus peanut, knew that he had lost every debate, that he had failed to appeal to the mystical moderate voters who determine elections, that he had trailed in most every poll.

This entire paragraph is the repetition of a single idea. It follows a simple pattern. The whole idea is in the first words, “Trump didn’t think he was going to win,” and the first string of entertaining clauses is an expansion of the subject — Trump — into those others who didn’t think he was going to win, while the the second sentence is an expansion of the predicate — “didn’t think he was going to win” — into the many ways he didn’t think it. We might say about this writer, with Hazlitt, that “his imagination has a double relish of its objects, an inveterate attachment to the things he describes, and to the words describing them.” Even though strong emotion clearly undergirds O’Sullivan’s piece, he can’t resist the opportunity to write with gusto by mining every bit of ore from the shaft of each paragraph.

That’s all I got folks. Use it wisely.

A writer’s equivalent to the sketchbook

A few weeks ago, wandering London’s Hampstead Heath for the first time, I watched Rachel record her impressions — not just the appearance of objects, like a camera, but her impressions, her looking itself — in a sketchbook, and I wished, not for the first time, that I, too, could lay claim to a sketchbook. Rachel is a potter, but that gives her the generic artist’s right to make little drawings everywhere she goes. I do not have that right. I’ve tried to carry a sketchbook, but it makes me feel like I’m cheating on my marriage to literature. What’s needed is a writer’s equivalent. All artists, not just the visual ones, should be able to feast on the world anywhere and carry boredom’s kryptonite in their pockets.

Writing represents just like drawing. But due to the extraordinary power of writing’s medium, it can represent sensory and intellectual and emotional experience. You’d think this would make writing even more portable and ubiquitous than drawing, a perfect pasttime at the park and in the gallery, on lunch breaks and after dinner. But they don’t teach writers to carry notebooks like they teach artists to carry sketchbooks. In all the classes on writing I took in college, no one ever assigned me that basic exercise of drawing class: “Here’s a blank book. Fill it everywhere you go.”

Sure, there’s the “writer’s notebook,” as classically described, for instance, by Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” She records fragments of conversation and the sartorial ensembles of people she sees. There are also many examples of notebooks like Henry James’s magnificent volumes of notes for his novels. In their own way, James’s notebooks are as astonishing and final a statement of creativity as Bach’s two- and three-part inventions. But neither of these books contains a single instance of the writerly equivalent of a sketch, a rough but complete record of an impression, suitable for study in its own right and not merely an accrual of material for later, larger, more premeditated work.

The writer’s notebook, as kept by James and Didion, is for accumulating raw material, but the sketchbook is for practice. The writer’s equivalent of the sketchbook should also be for practice. Perhaps that makes it unnecessary, since the performance of writing is an infinitely revisable one, while the painter, for instance, or potter, faces crucial moments, makes irrevocable gestures, and has a reason to practice the physical movements of art.

But I reject that disembodied view of literature. Perhaps not the glyphs, but certainly the words I use, do arise from gesture, mood, short-term memory, what I see, smell, how warm it is, whether I am watched or alone — from my body. If I haven’t written for a while, it’s hard to start. If I’m constrained to write for many reasons for many hours, my prose suffers. I can’t revise a piece properly immediately after I’ve written it. Writer’s bodies affect how they write, so surely their bodies can be trained to help them write better.

What would a real equivalent of the sketchbook be like, then? One could fill a notebook with evocations in words of sensory impressions, a direct correlate of the sketchbook, merely substituting words for lines. But that seems inadequate, as if an artist limited themselves to making rubbings of the textures of things, bark and leaves, gravestones and brick walls. An artist with merely tactile interests would be like a writer with merely visual ones, would be failing to employ the full range of their medium.

But writing about thoughts or emotions — those additional
aspects of the world available to the writer — is innately digressive. From the moment, I mean. Once the writer’s mind gets to work on a thought or an emotion, they — or I at any rate — tend to wander. To wander into the realm of dialectic, if thinking, or into the realm of therapy, if feeling. One of the most important functions of the sketchbook, on the other hand, and something I would like to capture in this hypothetical writer’s equivalent, is training the artist to attend to the moment.

It is the actual act of drawing that forces the artist to look at the object in front of him, to dissect it in his mind’s eye and put it together again; or, if he is drawing from memory, that forces him to dredge his own mind, to discover the content of his own store of past observations. (John Berger)

The writer’s equivalent of a sketchbook would therefore require an entirely new frame of mind. It would require a simultaneous use of and disengagement from the machinery of language, which seem of themselves to take the writer away from the moment.

(Perhaps that’s wrong. In the tradition I was born to, influenced by and stemming from the Bible, naming is creative, life-giving. “In the beginning was the Word.” The author sets things into independent motion with a word. Perhaps my difficulty in using the medium of language to accomplish the simple acts of recording that come so easily to lines and colors is the result of a psychically deep conviction that writing is more creation than representation. But then, in Buddhism for instance, to understand and name a thing is a way of dispelling it. If there’s anything to Buddhist mindfulness, perhaps this very act, right now, of noticing a potentially deep-seated illusion about language — that by using it I’m breathing the breath of life into it and therefore inevitably bifurcating the moment, the impression — is enough to overcome it.)

The closest I have come to this ideal equivalent of the sketchbook is when I go to art museums alone. When I do that, I like to pick a painting and sit in front of it for an hour or two, writing down what I see and think. I try to overcome the philistinism of a defective art education, not through a spurious connoisseurship, but by actually inhabiting an artist’s way of looking for a while.

Ironically, the closest I come to an artist’s sketchbook is in looking at art. I’d like to forego that crutch.

The Torture of Reading Yourself

Once upon a time, I genuinely enjoyed rereading myself. Homeschooled, unexposed to any serious literature fresher than the nineteenth century, I harbored a prose-crush on Nathaniel Hawthorne. The same labored syntax could be found in my sentences, the same archaic diction, the same reliance on periodicity, apostrophe, and the indefinite pronoun. By contrast to my anachronistic affectations, everything I read in newspapers and magazines seemed inferior, simplistic, discordant. For the brief years of my naivety, I really thought I might be something special as a writer.

Then I discovered the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Spent the next decade cleaning the cobwebs off my verbs and dusting my lines for commas. Learned not to sound like a breathless nymph from the era of corsets and hysteria who had picked up her diction from the Authorized Version. And I really read.

After you’ve really read, you don’t think you’re special anymore. With Thomas Browne and Joan Didion and William Gass and Samuel Johnson and Samuel Delany and Elizabeth Browning and George Eliot and Henry James and Penelope Fitzgerald all living in your head, looking over your shoulder, sniffing at your choices — well, you know the truth.

Still, I never thought I’d get this deep into self-loathing. Lately it’s physically painful to read something a month old. I saw my last Open Letters essay featured in A&L Daily and instead of delight I felt a shudder of horror — I had almost accidentally clicked the link and put myself face to face with the gibbering abortions of my own brain. It’s bad. You don’t even realize.

Sometimes it’s worse than others. After a few pints or a single stiff drink, I can just about make it through something I’ve written in the last year without choking on my own bile. But in the full clarity of the morning, after my coffee, in peak mental form, I would rather drag steel wool across the jelly of my own eyes than face those limping phrases.

Aha! — Subjectivity, you say. But nope, that’s not it. I’ve tested this. The ends of Orwell’s essays and the beginnings of Austen’s novels are just as ego-meltingly wonderful in any state of mind. It’s only the palatability of my own sentences that varies with my appetite, temperature, hydration, and the dilation of my pupils.

Supposedly this sort of wretchedness is a good sign. Disliking your own words means you haven’t reached the acme of your powers of expression. We can hope. But isn’t it also possible that ability and taste are out of joint? The strength of my disgust and admiration for the prose of others used to give me confidence that I possessed some kind of ear or ghostly sense, rare of its kind, for proportion and euphony, line and color. I can hear meter easily and my teachers always praised my scansion and I can appreciate le mot juste. But the repeated disappointments of my own writing make me increasingly nervous that fineness of perception does not endow skill as a matter of course.

But there’s no giving up. Mere failure can’t stop a man besotted with Calliope. You just keep studying the masonry of syntax, the husbandry of diction, the dance steps of style; you just keep learning how to trawl for metaphors and plant those parallels fathoms-deep, unobtrusive, and resonant. And you read. And you suffer in the name of unachievable perfection.

Me, having just been forced to read myself.
Me, having just been forced to read myself.

Two Kinds of Minimalism

A social disease?

This summer an editorial in the New York Times announced that minimalism is a social disease:

The fetishized austerity and performative asceticism of minimalism is a kind of ongoing cultural sickness. We misinterpret material renunciation, austere aesthetics and blank, emptied spaces as symbols of capitalist absolution, when these trends really just provide us with further ways to serve our impulse to consume more, not less.

This annoyed me for two reasons. First because it preempted a piece I’d been meaning to write myself, a big social critique of minimalist self-help writers. I shelved my essay in order not to appear derivative. But I was also annoyed because it seemed to completely miss the point of the kind of minimalism I’m most familiar with — the kind I practice.

My minimalism

I don’t maintain a Pinterest account specially for pictures of my livingroom whitespace and monochromatic outfits, nor does my minimalism amount to certain brand choices within an otherwise generic consumerism. But I do practice a sort of voluntary asceticism.

I have two pairs of pants, two pairs of shoes, one coat, and so on. Even though I read all the time, I don’t permit myself to own more than 100 books. Knicknacks and clutter annoy me. I schedule my life to give myself long periods to focus on doing one thing at a time. Each day, I budget internet time — no more than an hour, for everything from email to news-gathering to social media. I do not own a car, and I hope never to do so. And I eat a very simple diet, often just Soylent (which, despite its many and often justified detractors, has the great benefit in my case that it’s the one food which has never, ever triggered a migraine).

Minimalism is expensive

Another NYT editorial rightly points out that this kind of minimalism is a privilege of the well-off. To make do with few clothes, for example, you have to buy durable ones, which are more expensive. The elements of my compact workspace, my phone and computer and ebook reader, represent a considerable investment. Poverty would debar me from these forms of minimalism. One ought not take any kind of moral high-ground about a minimalism of things — there are material preconditions for this efficiency. Nor should one moralize about time-minimalism. The freedom to focus is also a privilege. Simplicity is a kind of wealth, unequally and unjustly distributed. The poor often live among clutter and in terrible, stultifying distraction.

To the extent that the critique of minimalism is a critique of smugness or superiority, I endorse it. But there is a larger, erroneous critique having to do with the emotional, practical, and, dare I say, spiritual outcome of minimalism. It argues that at the end of minimalism lies boredom, depression, and nihilistic emptiness.

No, not necessarily.

The two minimalisms

Minimalism is a means. Essentially it’s the act of releasing unnecessary things. I think the editorial’s fundamental critique of minimalism only works insofar as that means is taken to be an end in itself. There are two minimalisms. There is the releasing of unnecessary things because this means itself is taken to beautiful, good, or satisfying; and there is the releasing of unnecessary things because they allow one to focus more completely on fewer and more rewarding things.

An example:

Earlier in the election cycle (a time, despite its aggravations, which I now look back upon with nostalgia for its innocence), I was consuming a lot of samey, quick hit political journalism. I got around my internet time-limits by sending too many articles every day to my Kindle. (To read them offline, see.) But at some point I realized it was eating into my ability to focus on other things. Each little hit of “x said y today,” was another tiny piranha nibbling on the things that matter.

So I cut news-cycle politics entirely out of my reading diet. I refused to read anything but longform and longue dureé essays about the political and world situation. As a result I ended up looking further abroad for the kind of reading matter that satisfied my new conditions. Now I get my news not just from local, US sources but from Japan and India, Germany and Spain, Argentina and China. It’s just about the only good thing to have come out of this election, as far as I’m concerned.

For minimalism to yield this kind of reward, I must link it to a fairly comprehensive set of personal goods. There’s no virtue in itself in ignoring the blow-by-blow of daily news. For some people — let’s say political organizers or the editors of political journals — it would in fact be a foolish and detrimental restriction. But for me, because I prioritize my vocation to write, this act of minimalizing was deeply enriching.

Most of the elements of my “minimalist lifestyle” were chosen this way, as discrete means to enhance my ability to write and to do the thinking and reading necessary to write well. I wouldn’t necessarily advocate any individual instance of my minimalizing as a universal good. But I can and do think that considering the blooming buzzing whole of one’s life, and determining where one’s energies would best be spent, and where those energies would be wasted, would benefit nearly anyone. If that’s minimalism, I’ll gladly defend it.

There is, of course, a second minimalism, the proper target of the NYT editorial. This minimalism elevates a means to a panacea-like end and moralizes at those who dissent. It is the minimalism of the disruptor, whose vision of social progress is the unnecessary streamlining and capitalization of some new, unsuspecting facet of daily life. This kind of minimalism is the reason a lot of people I respect despise Soylent. They perceive it to be an unnecessary “creative destruction” of eating. I get it (while, as stated above, dissenting for medical reasons of my own).

In that long-abandoned essay I was going to write about minimalism, I planned to point out that simplicity, clutter-free spaces, and empty schedules can often take the form of a narrow-minded rejection of the personal consequences of capitalism, which amounts to leveraging the distress of others to seize one’s own peace. There we have a minimalism not just empty and dissatisfying, but actively noxious.

All I ask is that we distinguish between the unassuming, meaningful simplicities of the one minimalism, and the narcissistic, grandstanding aridities of the other.

On Philosophy: What Is It?

Since I am not teaching this year, I had assumed the large-scale questions about philosophy’s nature and significance, the ones that obsessed me as the lecturer in an undergraduate intro class, would subside (for me) for a while. Instead, my organism misses the act of lecturing. And, yes, the act of worrying about philosophy. I’m still thinking about it. To exorcise this distraction, I want to set out very simply, without a whole lot of technical detail or defense of minutiae, what I believe about the nature, method, and importance of philosophy. I’ll do so in three blog posts.

Clarifying the Question

First, what is philosophy? It’s a question answered so many times in such contradictory ways that venturing one’s own answer might seem both impertinent and pointless. But I think some of the apparent intractability comes from ambiguity. Is the question asking, what has philosophy been for its classic exponents? Is it asking, what does it mean to love wisdom (as the etymology of the word “philosophy” might lead you to expect)? Is it asking, what is the dominant view of the academic discipline of philosophy according to its own practitioners? Is it asking, what unites the genre of writing classified as philosophical? Is it asking, what does it mean to live the contemplative life?

(My point about the ambiguity of the question is a very philosophical one, by the way. One of Aristotle’s favorite observations about virtually any word or concept was, “it is said in many ways.” He would follow this observation with a virtuosic set of distinctions, often the most stimulating passages in his books.)

I mean the question “what is philosophy?” this way: assuming that philosophy is a form of inquiry, what sets it apart from others? This version of the question sets aside (perfectly reasonable) questions about what a philosophical lifestyle would look like, what academic departments of philosophy are for, and what self-styled philosophers have claimed for themselves. Those aren’t unimportant questions; they’re just not the one I’m interested in right now. By assuming that philosophy is a form of inquiry, I am assuming that it is a way of seeking to answer questions. That is not to disqualify other uses of the word, just to specify the use I am interested in exploring.

Take the commonly acknowledged core disciplines of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. What’s the difference between metaphysics and theology or cosmology? What’s the difference between epistemology and psychology? What’s the difference between ethics and legal thinking or ideological thinking? Not their objects, I think, which, often as not, are shared. “Does God exist?” is a question about which metaphysics, theology, and cosmology have had things to say, for example.

So, in my sense of the question, what is philosophy?

My Answer

Here’s my answer: I think philosophy is uniquely married to the way of thinking known as dialectic. I use this word, dialectic, in its ancient sense, as inquiry by dialogue, not in the interesting but more complicated senses that one can find in Hegel or Marx or other modern philosophers.

“What is philosophy?” “Philosophy is inquiry by dialogue.”

To reason by dialectic is to form an answer to a question, then to modify or defend it in response to alternative answers and strong objections. It’s inquiry by dialogue because it maps out the territory of answers to a question, disposing of facile ones and sharpening plausible ones and, often as not, inspiring new ones. It’s inquiry by dialogue because it’s basically an extrapolation of what happens when two or more reasonable and well-intentioned people try to answer a difficult question together. Even when you perform dialectic alone, it’s a dialogue. To do it by yourself, you have to imagine the alternatives and objections of someone else.

(This, by the way, is why Socrates is commonly treated as the fountainhead of philosophy. There were philosophers before him, and there are philosophers in traditions quite separate from him. But he is like an avatar of dialectic: what we are most certain about, in his case, is not the content of his beliefs, but the dialectical method by which he sought to answer questions.)

Philosophy’s closeness to dialectic explains why it’s the mother of so many other sciences. In the 17th century, for example, a whole slew of natural sciences peeled off of “natural philosophy.” Often their founders or first innovators thought of themselves as philosophers. This is because almost all sciences that have a method are a specification of dialectic.

For example, taxonomic inquiries are a pure form of dialectic in which objections take the form of pointing out instances of a thing which escape current definitions, and modifying or replacing those definitions with better ones. Even sciences of proof-making, as in many branches of mathematics and pure logic, are basically dialectical. When you make a proof, you construct an argument that shows how premises which have no plausible alternatives lead without contradiction to a certain conclusion. (Think back to the proofs you constructed in geometry class.) The plausibility of alternatives and the possibility of contradictions are the tests by which dialectic proceeds in all its forms.

Why define philosophy that way?

So why do I claim that dialectic distinguishes philosophy in particular, if I think virtually all forms of reasoning are specifications of it? Precisely because philosophy is the form of inquiry that employs dialectic without specification. The standards of evidence that specify other forms of inquiry set them apart as particular forms of inquiry. To inquire whether you have a broken arm, a doctor will manipulate the limb, ask for a subjective report of your feelings, and perhaps order an x-ray. These result of these tests are considered adequate to answer the question. Philosophy differs, I think, in that it has no such specifications, and therefore it really is, at root, about two or more well-intentioned and reasonable people trying to hash out the answers to a question together, by whatever means possible.

Some Consequences of My Answer

As a consequence, nothing’s ever settled in philosophy. Many people consider this a decisive objection to practicing it. I don’t: instead, I consider a sign of the inescapable role of philosophy in the ontogeny and phylogeny of human thinking. It’s a direct consequence of philosophy’s refusal to specify and standardize the kind of objections and alternatives that count in philosophical dialectic. To “settle” most inquiries requires that two or more people posit what kind of dialectical tests will count as decisive for both of them. In short, almost by definition (I think), special sciences are going to produce a lot more consensus than philosophy. That’s sort of the point of them.

Let’s carefully distinguish between “philosophy never settles things” and “philosophers never settle things.” The latter claim is false. Many philosophers think they have settled things, and have a reasonable claim to it. The answers they espouse have fared well in the dialectical tests they have administered, in the debates they’ve participated in. The possibility of such temporary and contingent decisiveness is probably why philosophy isn’t actually demoralizing, but exciting and even fulfilling. But the grinding engine of philosophy as a whole tends to undermine the claims to settlement of even the most successful philosophers in their own day.

Philosophy’s refusal to specify dialectic makes it generative. A lot of the more special sciences, where the limits of dialectical conventions have enabled enormous progress in inquiry (the way putting your thumb over the end of the garden hose makes the water shoot out farther) grow out of the dialectical free-for-all of philosophy.

Why Philosophy in My Sense is Useful

I think, if I’m right about what philosophy is, that I can plausibly argue it’s a useful form of inquiry for anyone to learn about and attempt to practice. (I’m not arguing everybody should be a pro philosopher in their spare time, or even that philosophy classes should necessarily form the core of an undergraduate curriculum. I’m just saying pretty much anybody can benefit from it.):

(1) Philosophy will make you better at conversing intelligibly in everyday life. After all, it’s just an intensification, a formalization of two reasonable, well-intentioned people trying to answer a question together. And most of us find ourselves in that situation multiple times a day. Why not learn to do it better?

Aristotle wrote, in a book about dialectic called The Topics:

The possession of a plan of inquiry will enable us more easily to argue about the subject proposed. For purposes of casual encounters, it is useful because when we have counted up the opinions held by most people, we shall meet them on the ground not of other people’s convictions but of their own, while we shift the ground of any argument that they appear to us to state unsoundly.

(2) Philosophy will school you in intellectual humility. It does this in two ways: first by demonstrating, over and over again, that there’s more to be said after even the wisest or cleverest have had their say. Second, by highlighting the role of posture or attitude in the pursuit of truth. In more specified forms of dialectic—when you’re hunting for tardigrades, let’s say—the decidability wrought by conventional standards of evidence can induce the idea that inquiry is a mechanically applicable method. What philosophy’s open dialectic shows, over and over again, is that the best thinkers are the most self-critical ones, the ones who are best at imagining what a reasonable opponent would say. Literally no other study teaches the importance of learning to think against oneself in the way that philosophy does. And a refusal to think against oneself retards the progress of many special sciences and many powerful people: they could use some experience of dialectic.

In The Dawn of Day, Nietzsche writes:

Make it a rule never to withhold or conceal from yourself anything that may be thought against your own thoughts. Vow it! This is the essential requirement of honest thinking. You must undertake such a campaign against yourself every day. A victory and a conquered position are no longer your concern, but that of truth and your defeat also is no longer your concern.

(3) Philosophy makes it easier to take up more specific forms of inquiry. Because of its unspecified dialectic, philosophical discussions always pass through stages of disambiguation and definition, and end up working out careful, detailed distinctions. In short, practicing good philosophy makes you more precise, better at thinking about how your assertions sound to others, and avid for clarity and simplicity of expression. (This might surprise you if you’ve read the awful writing of a lot of academic philosophers: but more on that some other time.)

In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume writes:

[I]n every art or profession, even those which most concern life or action […] a spirit of accuracy, however acquired, carries all of them nearer their perfection, and renders them more subservient to the interests of society. And though a philosopher may live remote from business, the genius of philosophy, if carefully cultivated by several, must gradually diffuse itself throughout the whole society, and bestow a similar correctness on every art and calling. The politician will acquire greater foresight and subtility, in the subdividing and balancing of power; the lawyer more method and finer principles in his reasonings; and the general more regularity in his discipline, and more caution in his plans and operations. The stability of modern governments above the ancient, and the accuracy of modern philosophy, have improved, and probably will still improve, by similar gradations.

Everything I’ve just said about philosophy is highly contentious and scandalously simple. Being a graduate student in philosophy is like an indoctrination against the kind of bold generalizations I’ve just committed. Nonetheless, it’s more or less what I think, as I would explain it to someone who is not themselves knee deep in the morass of a graduate program in philosophy.

Next up, when I get to it, I’m going to explain how I think you—anyone, really—can do philosophy. (This is something I think a lot of undergraduate introductions to philosophy neglect in favor of presenting the history of philosophy.)