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March 05, 2009


One way to be more truthful might be a brief disclaimer referencing this book, or this post, something like:

"In this essay, I will be using what Thomas and Turner call 'classic style'. [reference]"

It's not an elegant solution, but it might be a first step.

By the way, this is an awesome post.

I would have thought, that this style could be readily confused with arrogance. I would also expect resistance by the many who do not feel flattered and who cannot "collude" with the speaker or the truth. Its modesty being only enjoyed by the few. In other words an acceptance of its impotence and an apology for one's arrogance would greatly reduce its lie.

Johnicholas, how about just a generic disclaimer "Don't interpret anything I say as reflecting badly on me if another interpretation is possible."?

Marshall, what specific writings in this style have struck you as arrogant?

When the "vices" of the classic style are being discussed, this text, written in the classic style, is (probably deliberately) criticizing itself through indirect self-reference. What has it left unsaid?


"What has it left unsaid?"

When Robin asks how he can "lie less," what he leaves unsaid - even though we here all know it - is the fact that deception and self-deception are crucial to monkey success.

The tension here is that the less Robin "lies" through the kinds of behind-the-scenes selection the post describes, the less successful his seemingly unPersuasive writing might be.

The classic style perhaps is the ultimate in social proof, and its comforting voice of neutral authority is sought after by a society in need of feelings of safety, the appearance of expertise, and control.

Robin: I wasn't really thinking of texts - more social interactions, where if you don't pay lip-service to the audience and only collude with the truth you will be misunderstood. The audience/group requires first and foremost loyalty to itself which is signalled by misrepresenting (slightly or greatly) the truth. Cool detachment is an insult. A textual examle could be Eli's sometimes rambling texts which create more followers than your compact texts.

frelkins, yes other styles may make me seem less impressive, but they can also just be slow and awkward.

Marshall, I was talking about writing, not general social interactions.

Well, there's my own approach of deliberately signaling non-authority by sticking out my tongue, often in some direct proportion to how much I feel that my own writings don't deserve to be treated as authoritative. I have little hesitation about writing in classic style about known science which I trust (although if I'm not worried about being taken seriously, that also creates more opportunity for fun). Conversely, if I'm worried about my arguments not being taken seriously enough - especially if I'm talking to an unfamiliar audience not already inclined to defer to me - then I may try to write in more classic style, on the theory that it will merely balance the apparent "silliness" of the subject matter.

Not saying it's the only approach, just that it's the one I seem to have ended up taking.

@Robin The essay says that classic style "makes its hard choices silently [...] all of which may be wrong". You could take a sequence of disclaimers, such as: Despite appearances in this essay, I have other motives than disinterested truth. Despite appearances in this essay, I am not an unquestioned authority on this subject. Despite appearances in this essay, I do not have complete confidence in these claims. Et cetera.

I was trying to compress that sequence of disclaimers into a shorter disclaimer "I will be using classic style."

Does the disclaimer "Don't interpret anything I say as reflecting badly on me if another interpretation is possible." expand out to the same sequence? I can't tell that it does.

In some situations you are pretty much forced to write in classic style, such as an academic paper. But for blog postings, you could adopt a more warm, humanistic approach. Include anecdotes, talk about how you came to consider a topic. Discuss the uncertainties and confusions that you went through as you came to your conclusions.

A mathematical proof is completely different from a description of how one came to discover the proof. In some contexts the latter is far more interesting and useful.

In software there is a not-much-used technique invented by Donald Knuth called literate programming. It tries to move away from the program as a static object, with its constrained sequences of variables, data structures, functions and algorithms. It allows a more discursive and roundabout way of presenting the program, one which exposes the author's reasoning and something of the sequence of thoughts he went through to develop the program. Basically, the writer can intersperse program code with commentary, in somewhat arbitrary order, and then there are tools that can go through, extract and re-order the software fragments, and assemble a classical program. Other tools can produce outputs focusing more on commentary or documentation. While these techniques are not perfect in terms of presenting the act of creation of software (they don't seem to facilitate backtracking and recording mistakes) they do offer an interesting alternative way to look at software creation.

The postmodern style takes the opposite tack: Assume everything is ambiguous; instead of refusing to acknowledge doubt, refuse to acknowledge certainty; instead of transparency, attempt to draw attention to the style; instead of communicating truth, communicate that there is no truth.

Yet it has the same function. It "is flattering to the writer, flattering to the reader, and intellectually collusive. It takes the stand that there is no external pressure on the writer and certainly nothing that the writer is trying to beat out of the reader... The writer is unquestionably competent, absolutely interesting, entirely disinterested, at leisure, and articulate."

Interesting. Especially interesting in the context that the classic style is basically derived from Cicero's writing style in Latin. Cicero was probably the first writer who crafted his political and legal arguments precisely to convince the judge or the voter that his "purpose is purely the presentation of the truth. Neither writer nor reader has a job to do. The writer writes and the reader reads not for the sake of some external task--solving a problem, making money, winning a case, getting a rebate, selling insurance, fixing a machine--but rather for the sake of the subject--in this case, the birds--and for the sake of being united in recognizing the truth of this subject." But of course inherent in the classical style is that this purely fact-based, utterly rational manner is in fact the most persuasive of all, which is why Cicero's style became the mainstay for rhetorical argument over the centures.

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