Monday, October 22, 2012

Propositions and Statements

I've promised to discuss scholarly writing "as such" for a few weeks. As a way into this subject, this morning I'm going to be a bit philosophical, perhaps in the pejorative sense of "too abstract to be useful". It can't be helped. Tomorrow, I'll translate these ideas into more practical terms.

Propositions are the spectral entities in the universe that are true or false. They do not quite "exist", like the furniture in your home exists or you yourself exist. If there is a vase on your coffee table then there is a proposition that articulates this fact and that proposition is true. No one has to say it or even think it. All around you there is evidence of propositions because all around you there are facts and these facts make propositions true. Even before you considered the fact that your stereo had been left on, the proposition that it was so was true. It became true the moment your stereo should have been turned off but wasn't. In not turning off the stereo (in leaving it on), then, you made a proposition true. But you didn't make a proposition. That happened all by itself.

Propositions, said Gilles Deleuze, don't exist, they insist, which is a nice way of putting it. There are propositions in so far as we insist on them. Our insistence does not bring propositions into existence; rather, we are insisting that the proposition (the articulable truth) is already there. Nor is a proposition a sentence. A sentence may express a proposition, but so too may a plain and simple fact, or a gesture, or a facial expression. And the same proposition may be expressed in any number of sentences, in any number of languages. Propositions are not man-made.

Statements, by contrast, are made. There are no statements except in so far as we consciously undertake to say something. While statements can be made in all sorts of media, our interest here is the way scholars make statements in writing. A scholar sits down and composes a number of sentences, each of which expresses a proposition (or sometimes several) and this asserting of a proposition as true is a statement. It will normally take several sentences, indeed, a whole paragraph, to make a proper scholarly statement. As we will see tomorrow, there is a difference between composing six sentences that express propositions, and making a scholarly statement. We have to intend to say something to someone.


Loveress said...

Hey Tom, I want to use one of your articles in my research but I don't know how to refer to you. Any ideas. i don't think a weblog is a good reference for my PhD representation yet I really enjoy your articles and find them scientifically useful.

Thomas said...

That's the irony inherent in the medium. Blogs aren't generally good sources to use in academic work but, and precisely for that reason sometimes, they offer fresh and useful perspectives. I have published a few papers, so depending which of my ideas you want to cite, you might find them there, but keep in mind that one of the reasons that these ideas are on a blog and not in a scholarly journal is that they don't really contribute anything new to the scholarly conversation. They are just thoughts that have occurred to me while working with scholars and their writing. They are intended as reminders about what scholarship is, what every scholar ought to know about scholarship.

As a PhD student, then, it's not surprising that you're learning something by reading this blog. And I'm very happy to hear that I'm helping. But these ideas may not be ones that need to go into your dissertation. They should just make the ideas you do put in there more clear. And hopefully make the whole process more enriching and enjoyable.

Thanks for you feedback, and good luck with your writing!