The Causal Power of Ideas

I’ve always tended to write in a fragmented way. This post is incredibly rare in that I’ve started writing it at what seems, at least for now, to be the beginning. I’ll usually jump in with an idea, elaborate it until I get stuck and then move onto another. If I know what I’m trying to say but am struggling to say it, I’ll usually leave a note in the text e.g. “[explain why this is a bad idea]”. Eventually an order starts to emerge between the fragments. The endless notes to self, always in square brackets and always highlighted in yellow, gradually become more connective. Substantive purposes become structural and stylistic e.g. “[finish off this paragraph and link neatly to the next]”. I’ve often thought this is a strange way to write and occasionally worried that it represented some difficulty with producing novelty. Perhaps I just regurgitate other people’s ideas, stitching them together in new forms, rather than producing any of my own? The recognition of my tendency (being the sort of person who always writes in this way) has been a focal point for anxiety. Anxiety I pretty much immediately dismiss (“that’s impostor syndrome!”) which largely dissipates upon command but recurrent anxiety nonetheless.

I recently reread Howard Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists. I’m sure I read this early in my PhD (I’ve definitely owned it for years) and it didn’t make much of an impact on me. I suspect I was too early in the PhD process. Whereas this time I was struck by what a wonderful book it is. One particular thing stood out for me though: he writes in the same way that I do. He advocates it as an approach to writing which works to dispel anxieties, overcoming the common tendency to get ‘stuck’ on difficult bits by simply moving on to the next one. Whereas for me it was a behavioural tendency which provoked anxiety, given it didn’t feel like the ‘proper’ way to write. Suddenly, his view led to a transformation in my own – what’s going on here? What’s going on when I introspectively label something as ‘impostor syndrome’ and this works to dispel anxiety? What’s going on when someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction encounters the idea of asexuality for the first time and realizes “oh, I’m not so weird after all, there are other people just like me”?

These are all examples of the causal power of ideas. Take my mildly self-pathologizing interpretation of my approach to writing. I have a recurrent behaviour, self-recognition of its recurrence and an evaluation in light of this. When encountering Becker’s advocacy of this approach, I recognize my own behaviour in his description and re-evaluate it in light of this. This isn’t a volitional process: I don’t think “oh that’s interesting, should I reconsider my view on my own writing”, deliberate about it and then change my opinion. There’s an immediacy to the process which such a voluntaristic and cognitive reading fails to capture. I don’t choose to re-evaluate X in light of this alternative way of looking at X (though clearly this does happen in many other circumstances) but rather am changed by this encounter with the idea itself.

This is what I’d like to understand more than I do. The notion of ‘idea’ I’m using here is problematically fuzzy but I’m not sure what to replace it with. I guess my claim is fundamentally one about propositional content. I have a reflexive relation to my own behaviour which I can represent syllogistically:

  1. I recurrently find myself writing in a fragmented way
  2. Recurrently writing in a fragmented way suggests numerous personal characteristics (e.g. over reliance on other sources, inability to apply structure etc)
  3. Those personal characteristics are undesirable (e.g. I believe it is important to develop my own ideas etc)
  4. Therefore writing in a fragmented way is undesirable

The approach to writing found in Becker’s book can also be represented syllogistically. My point is not to suggest that I reason syllogistically when encountering the advocacy of fragmented writing found in Becker’s book – in fact this is exactly the opposite of the argument I’m making. But I do think cashing out the propositional content of what I’ve been haphazardly referring to as ‘ideas’ can help make the underlying process at work here much clearer than it otherwise is. For instance consider the intra-personal speech act of saying “that’s imposter syndrome” to myself if, as has sometimes happened, I start dwelling on this tendency I’ve identified in my writing. If considered in terms of the syllogism above, this speech act relates to (2) – rather than recognising undesirable personal traits on the basis of how I’m tending to write, I instead recognise my own act of recognition as an instance of a broader socio-cultural tendency (higher education provokes ‘imposter syndrome’ in people).

One instance of this process has been a particular fascination of mine for years. I’ve argued at length that the process of coming to identify as asexual involves substituting a normalising evaluation in relation to one’s own lack of sexual attraction (“there are other people just like me! there’s nothing wrong with being this way”) for a pathologizing evaluative self-relation (“everyone else is interested in sex. why am I different? there must be something wrong with me”). I would contend that the causal power at work here is fundamentally ideational, resting on an encounter with a proposition (asexuals are people who do not experience sexual attraction) with an implicit normative valance (it’s ok to be this way) that has a profound effect on how people who have tended to self-pathologise subsequently evaluate themselves.

This is one of those frustrating instances where I’ve not only failed to answer my question, I’m still not exactly sure what the question is. I guess my intuition is that those processes relating to identity and identification (with asexuality being an exemplar of a kind of process which I think is more widespread) are a particular instance of a broader modality through which social causation operates. Or in other words: something happens here which often gets overlooked. But I’m back at the question I started with: what is an ‘idea’ and how can it exercise causal power?

One response to “The Causal Power of Ideas”

  1. On another hand, one could wonder just What (quiditas) makes an idea in concourse with relevant elaborations persuasive, that ultimately lend Identity to Person, in all the multifaceted aspects of social consciousness, historical perspectives among disciplines, related or complimentary, and whatever wish-fulfillment arises in the reflections. One might rightly guess it to be Interest and some Value valence, instinctual or reasoned, spontaneous or determinative, gripping the reigns of volition…often more convincing by ‘what’ one senses to be original than by the familiar babble of fairly outworn observations, problematic or axiom bearing. Devil’s in the details, for sure.

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