Tag Archives: thinking

Comparing Coleridge and Orwell on the relationship between clear thinking and clear writing

Writing 128 years apart, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and George Orwell had similar ideas about the relationship between clear thinking and clear writing.

Here’s the closing of Coleridge’s 1818 lecture on prose style (boldface added):

“And I cannot conclude this Lecture without insisting on the importance of accuracy of style as being near akin to veracity and truthful habits of mind; he who thinks loosely will write loosely, and, perhaps, there is some moral inconvenience in the common forms of our grammars which give children so many obscure terms for material distinctions. Let me also exhort you to careful examination of what you read, if it be worth any perusal at all; such examination will be a safeguard from fanaticism, the universal origin of which is in the contemplation of phenomena without investigation into their causes.”

Now here’s an excerpt from the second paragraph of Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language” (which picks up with the idea of cause and effect, although not strictly in the same sense in which Coleridge closed his lecture):

“But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” (Again, boldface added.)

My boldfaced sections point out one similarity: bad thinking leads to bad writing, and bad writing causes more bad thinking, in a kind of snowball effect.

But I think there might be another similar thread in the two excerpts, one that might be subtler. Coleridge urges his listeners “to careful examination” of what they read, and says “such examination will be a safeguard from fanaticism.” Could it be that Coleridge’s exhortation complements Orwell’s observation that Modern English “is full of bad habits which spread by imitation”?  In other words, could “bad habits which spread by imitation” also fuel fanaticism? Are there “contemplation[s] of phenomena without investigation[s] into their causes” built into some of those “bad habits which spread by imitation”?

I need to look for evidence of that in contemporary phrases. I call dibs on the potential academic paper.

Another similarity between the Coleridge lecture and the Orwell essay: they both believe prose should be clear, straightforward, direct. They want prose writers to say what they mean and mean what they say, in the simplest language possible.

Coleridge praises Jonathan Swift’s style as “simplicity in the true sense of the word,” while Orwell criticizes “lack of precision” and “pretentious diction.”

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Nothing Against Logicians! Promise!

A properly functioning mind can destroy itself. It can think itself, in a logical and rational pattern, into madness. But that’s really more about the motive than the mode. It’s not logic and rationality themselves that are the source of the problem. In that respect, my recent quotation of G.K. Chesterton might have been misleading in regards to my outlook. Chesterton wrote, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” But I don’t have anything against logicians! Promise! I have no campaign against logic or rationality. From classical Stoicism to contemporary psychological therapies like logotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and rational emotive behavior therapy, logical and rational thinking has been a sturdy pattern for healthiness. But logic and rationality also could be used in an unhealthy way. In quoting Chesterton there, my point was to identify a problem that was once explained by an evangelical psychologist, Larry Crabb. “There is an enormous difference between the joy of discovery and the passion to explain,” Crabb wrote. “The former gives life a sense of adventure. The latter makes us hate mystery.” And, I think, as Chesterton suggests, that passion to explain gets exhausting, overwhelming, and eventually, devastating. So his single metaphorical dichotomy provides me inexhaustible help: I’m not trying to get the heavens into my head; I’m just trying to get my head into the heavens. And by heavens, I’m thinking figuratively. I’m thinking about all the questions and all the data and all the good theories and all the history and all the apparent unknowns—better to sit within it all than to insist upon a perfectly systematic account for it all. The former is wonderful; the latter is exhausting. I think someone could simultaneously say discovery in any field is an amazing, exhilarating journey, and logical, rational methods help discovery on its way. Motivation makes the difference.

The small things mean everything: Luke 16:10 and Chesterton explain the real crisis

“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” — Luke 16:10, English Standard Version

“He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much.” — Luke 16:10, New American Standard Version

“If I am asked, as a purely intellectual question, why I believe in Christianity, I can only answer, ‘For the same reason than an intelligent agnostic disbelieves Christianity.’ I believe in it quite rationally upon the evidence. But the evidence in my case, as in that of the intelligent agnostic, is not really in this or that alleged demonstration, it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts. In fact the secularist is not to be blamed because his objections to Christianity are miscellaneous and even scrappy; it is precisely such scrappy evidence that does convince the mind. I mean that a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books than from one book, one battle, one landscape and one old friend. The very fact that the things are of different kinds increases the importance of the fact that they all point to one conclusion.” — G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy

One thing we can draw from these very different quotations is the realization that big things are built upon small things. To be responsible for much, first be responsible for a little. To understand faith or lack of faith, look at all the small details informing the point of view.

I think there’s a natural order to the way people think. In the courtroom, little pieces of evidence can add up to big murder convictions.

What happens when someone spends all his time trying to get the big things right but neglects the little things? The value of having the big things right probably won’t have any traction in the workaday world, which depends upon innumerable little things.

Here’s a similar point:

“Now, in the Bible, what we see are numerous discrepencies in lower-order arenas. For whatever reasons, the Biblical texts we have today do not always give a consistent picture of the facts of important events — events important enough, evangelicals and Reformed folks assume, to be part of God’s revelation. I think many, many people are not willing to believe the higher-order, theological and doctrinal, claims of the Bible because the lower-order issues are problematic. Again, many people will say, ‘If you can’t get your facts right, why should I listen to you about anything else?'” (this very blog, on April 9, 2012)

Better minds understand that higher-order concerns are built upon solid lower-order concerns. For example, listening to people more than talking at them, or exemplifying any number of values and manners that Christians don’t exemplify. Unfortunately, “…the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” — Luke 16:8, King James Version (Cambridge ed.)