“So what is it I’m trying to say exactly?”: Iteration and Articulation

Earlier today I was writing a paper for the International Association for Critical Realism conference next week. It was intended as a final statement of what my PhD is about, drawing the threads together and getting some feedback before I finish writing up over the next month or two. I’ve struggled endlessly to ‘frame’ my PhD over the last few years, while nonetheless being quite clear practically about what I’m doing and rarely being short of ideas about why I’m doing it. It left me thinking about the role of iteration in coming to understand what it is you are trying to say.

My experience is of repeatedly trying to express an idea and, through doing so, gradually coming to feel I have much more of a grip on what it is I’m trying to express. The clarity with which you understand what it is you’re trying to do emerges through simply trying to do it. Hence the value of writing as much as possible while censoring as little as you are able. I tend to think of this process in terms of what Taylor calls articulation:

Much of our motivation – our desires, aspirations, evaluation – is not simply given. We give it a formulation in words or images. Indeed, by the fact that we are linguistic animals our desires and aspirations cannot but be articulated in one way or another […] these articulations are not simply descriptions, if we mean by this characterisations of a fully independent object, that is, an object which is altered neither in what it is, nor in the degree or manner of its evidence to us by the description.

In this way my characterisation of this table as brown, or this line of mountains as jagged, is a simple description. On the contrary, articulations are attempts to formulate what is initially inchoate, or confused, or badly formulated. But this kind of formation or reformulation does not leave its object unchanged. To give a certain articulation is to shape our sense of what we desire or what we hold important in a certain way.

– Charles Taylor, Philosophical Papers Vol 1, 36

Writing isn’t simply a matter of externalising something which exists pre-linguistically within your mind. The very act of trying to ‘externalise’ transforms what exists embryonically and this is why writing works best when it is iterative. Perhaps this also points towards a way to understand creativity as non-linear:

Another example in a very specific area is given by a client in a follow-up interview as he explains the different quality that has come about in his creative work. It used to be that he tried to be orderly. “You begin at the beginning and you progress regularly through to the end.” Now he is aware that the process in himself is different. “When I’m working on an idea, the whole idea develops like the latent image coming out when you develop a photograph. It doesn’t start at one edge and fill in over to the other. It comes in all over. At first all you see is the hazy outine, and you wonder what it’s going to be; and then gradually something fits here and something fits there, and pretty soon it all becomes clear – all at once.”

Carl Rogers – On Becoming a Person Pg 152

3 thoughts on ““So what is it I’m trying to say exactly?”: Iteration and Articulation

  1. What you describe brings to mind the interaction between the subject and object aspects of self as shown in her paper on reflexivity at:

    Click to access Reflexivity.pdf

    Relatedly, perhaps, I often find that in trying to affirm not(A) in relation to some ‘proposition’ A, I sometimes end up turning what I initially took to be a ‘competitive contradiction’ into a ‘constraining contradiction’, or vice versa, using the terms employed by Archer in Culture and Agency (p. 270).

  2. can’t get that link to work – could you retry or give me the name of the paper?

    i’m really interested in that idea – one thing i hoped my phd would do (though it really hasn’t) is help develop a more extensive account of how culture is mediated at the level of the individual – there’s perhaps the germ of an entirely new understanding of social cognition in the ideas from Culture & Agency allied to her recent work.

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