The empiricist-idealist divide in composition studies (and the role of realists)

I’ve been thinking about this big picture disciplinary issues primarily in terms of my Teaching Practicum, but maybe it is useful to share this here as well. Manuel DeLanda has a helpful brief piece on “Ontological Commitments” (PDF) in which he identifies three familiar categories of philosophical positions on ontology: idealism, empiricism, and realism. I don’t see these as absolute categories but rather as historical ones that work most closely with modern Western traditions. As he summarizes:

For the idealist philosopher there are no entities that exist independently of the human mind; for the empiricist entities that can be directly observed can be said to be mind-independent, but everything else (electrons, viruses, causal capacities etc.) is a mere theoretical construct that is helpful in making sense of that which can be directly observed; for the realist, finally, there are many types of entities that exist autonomously even if they are not directly given to our senses.

The long history of rhetorical philosophy shares with most of the humanities a commitment to an idealist ontology. This is what is sometimes termed the correlationist perspective: the idea that we can only know the world as we relate to it; we can only know what we think, and perhaps not even that entirely. In the framework, rhetoricians study symbolic action and representation. However, composition studies begins with a fair amount of empirical research into cognitive and writing processes. In part this comes out of historical connections with education departments and perhaps the social scientific side of rhetoric (mostly in communications departments). When the post-process moment comes in the late eighties, one ends up with an idealist side (which would primarily include cultural studies pedagogies) and an empiricist side (with a variety of practices including CHAT, technical communication, and cognitive rhetoric). In most respects the former are more comfortable in English departments since literary studies is almost entirely idealist. (One possible exception there are digital humanities methods, which at least some might view as empirical.)

From the perspective of first-year composition programs one ends up mostly with idealist curricula which focus on subjectivity, culture, representation, and ideology and view “the writing process” in those terms (i.e as something we think rather than something real that we observe). Because things like ideology and culture are not directly observable, empirical approaches to composition tend to focus on a smaller scale, perhaps genre for example, which is not to say that they also do not assert theoretical constructs like ideology. Empiricism allows for both, as we see with CHAT which combines Marixan philosophy with empirical methods.

So what about realism? Realism as DeLanda defines it sit opposed to idealism and empiricism on a fundamental question. Idealists and empiricist both decide a priori what makes up the world. It is either “appearances (entities as they appear to the human mind) or directly observable things and events.” Realists, however, do not know a priori what the contents of the world may be for the world may contain beings that cannot be observed. As such, realists must speculate. Now from here DeLanda goes into his particular version of speculative realism. As it happens I think his approach is especially useful for considering the role realism might play in composition studies, specifically by his claim that “knowledge is produced not only by representations but by interventions.”

What does this mean? Basically, in DeLanda’s realist philosophy what is real is not a priori, transcendental, or essential. It is emergent in the relations among things. As such, we can know things not simply by representing some transcendental truth but by intervening, and thus making or constructing knowledge. This to me is very sympathetic with Latour. It also results in an epistemological division between “know that” (representation) and “know how” (making).  This has a clear pedagogical implication:

Unlike know-that, which may be transmitted by books or lectures, know-how is taught by example and learned by doing: the teacher must display the appropriate actions in front of the student and the student must then practice repeatedly until the skill is acquired. The two forms of knowledge are related: we need language to speak about skills and theorize about them. But we need skills to deploy language effectively: to argue coherently, to create appropriate representations, to compare and evaluate models. Indeed, the basic foundation of a literate society is formed by skills taught by example and learned by doing: knowing how to read and how to write.

DeLanda’s argument ultimately suggests that realists are better poised to deal with questions of know-how. We see a similar view in Latour and even in some of the object-oriented ontology interest in carpentry.

Conventionally in composition studies we encounter a problem of translation in trying to shift from idealist knowledge about rhetorical theory (e.g. logos, pathos, ethos) or empirical knowledge about process (e.g. we know that writers have these practices) to teaching how to write. Empiricists end up trying to argue that disciplinary representational knowledge about writing (i.e. knowing that writing works in certain ways) can be a useful tool in learning how to write in a particular situation. This is the writing about writing approach. Idealists similarly suggest that knowing that ideology and culture operate in particular ways in relation to discourse will make us better writers…. somehow. Realists, on the other hand, actually have a different set of ontological-epistemological options available to them. For the realist it isn’t about theory and knowledge on the one hand and practice on the other, with no reliable way to get across the divide. Instead, know-how has its own theories (of intervention), its own ways of determining significance (of what makes a difference). Know-how can be taught just as reliably as know-that.

So the realist compositionist might say rather that discovering and teaching the “know-that” of our discipline, can we teach the “know-how” of our discipline, which might be where the practice of rhetoric (as opposed to the idealist or empirical study of rhetoric) lies.


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