After an online exchange with Sara Uckemlan, Mark Thakkar, Magali Roques and Edward Buckner about bad academic writing, I scribbled down a few thoughts for The Reasoner about the infamous quaestio and the Scholastic style.
What’s Hot in … Medieval Reasoning
Cryptic writing is a cornerstone of a layperson’s perception of academia; however, there’s always a bit of truth in stereotypes. That academic writing is more often than not unnecessarily obscure, muddy, and pointlessly verbose isn’t merely a layman’s misconception, but a real issue about which most academics love to complain. Academic-ese is the stylistic equivalent of showing up to a formal tea party wearing white socks and sandals: it’s only comfortable for the one doing it. While some fields are more affected than others, at some point almost all of us have attended an utterly incomprehensible talk or stumbled upon an article that, while being in our own sub-subfield, was so sibylline that we felt like we had to possess some kind of paranormal divinatory skills just to get the gist of it. And even when a text is comprehensible, chances are that nonetheless it’s dreadfully boring despite a genuine interest in the topic or the soundness of its thesis. There are also funny and witty academic papers, but they are few and far between. Maybe academic-ese is a lot like the common cold that one catches on the bus to work when the flu is going around: if most people around you have it, no matter how careful you are, after a few days you are going to come home with a runny nose. No-one is immune. Whoever is without sin may cast the first stone… yet in academia we love casting stones – it’s our job – even though we are an undeniably sinful lot. But why does academic writing stink so much? That is the question. Among others, Steven Pinker tried to answer it in an excellent (and unusually well written) article, that you can find here. Pinker does an outstanding job of analysing some of the most common and obnoxious features of the academic style, while measuring it against the stylistic ideal for expository prose: that is, the classic style of 17th century French essayists. Academic-ese should aim for clarity and to be informative, however it often complicates things unnecessarily, using the kind of hyper-technical jargon that’s the author’s idiolect, indulging in excessive meta-discourse, and being overly apologetic, self-referential and abstract. The assumption that the reader knows exactly what the author knows is the academic writer’s original sin; incidentally, were things so, writing a paper would be completely pointless – and good riddance if the paper happens to be unreadable. On the other hand the classic style tries to keep it simple, even deceptively so: classic essayists go for a plain and smooth prose, preferring the concrete to the abstract; they present the facts and results of their research, leading their readers along respectfully, under the assumption that the readers are not omniscient but that they are intelligent enough to both know that these are complicated matters and to understand them if explained properly.
Now – you might wonder – what does this have to do with medieval reasoning? Quite a bit, actually: the only writing style with a worse reputation than academic-ese is the medieval Scholastic style. Humanist writers carried out a veritable defamatory campaign against Scholasticism and it was so effective that almost anyone (who doesn’t study the Middle Ages for a living) still associates “Scholastic” with pedantic, prolix and overly subtle hair-splitting. It’s not even a calumny, at least not entirely: Scholastic prose looks just as specialised and occasionally convoluted as any stereotypically bad academic paper. Not only is medieval philosophical Latin padded out with technical terms that are far too reminiscent of academic-ese jargon, but it is also a ways away from the polished and ornate Ciceronian prose (so dear to Scholastics’ Renaissance detractors) as anything can possibly be. Albeit just as artificial as its medieval counterpart, Renaissance Latin is undeniably prettier: the language of Scholastic philosophy is often just as bumbling and coarse as a good chunk of academic English; moreover, medieval Latin is a second language for everybody – so no witty and fancy native speakers there.
Nevertheless, not only is Scholastic style’s ill repute largely undeserved, but it also deserves to be granted a place next to the classic style as a model of neat expository prose. Scholasticism is, first and foremost, a method of enquiry, focused on the analysis of texts and philosophical issues – here “philosophical” is broadly intended to include theological matters, scientific problems and whatnot. Scholastics’ most infamous tool is, without a doubt, the quaestio (question), used extensively both as a teaching device and in writing. Around the second half of the 13th century the quaestio reaches its standard structure, which goes roughly as follows: (1) there is a whether-question (utrum) with two opposite possible answers; (2) the first possible answer is presented along with the arguments supporting it; (3) the second possible answer (sed contra) is presented along with the arguments supporting it; (4) a solution is reached (responsio) either by picking one of the two answers previously presented or by outlining a third conciliatory position; (5) all the previous arguments supporting the discharged answer are refuted one by one.
How is this is supposed to be obscure? It looks like a very sensible and linear method to me. Certainly, with its relentless sequences of proofs and refutations, the average quaestio is not as pretty of a read as a fine philosophical dialogue or a wittingly written classic essay, and very few would read it for literary enjoyment; but it is brutally efficient philosophy. The structure of a quaestio is a powerful tool, and for some aspects it complements the classic essay nicely: while classical essayists present their results and support them by avoiding self-reference and meta-discourses, Scholastic writers stage their reasoning process, showing their analysis of the issue at hand, the pros and cons of its possible solutions, and then finally reaching a supported conclusion. This is not to say that Scholastic quaestiones are always easy to follow and that their arguments are always evident and sound: as long as there has been philosophy, there have been bad philosophers as well – and even the bests sometimes require some effort in interpretation and reconstruction. On top of that, the technical terminology of medieval philosophy is indeed not obvious to a modern reader and not everything is always clearly spelled out, despite quaestio’s regimented and systematic structure.
However, many medieval theories and terms – that to us are just irksome and puzzling – would have been familiar and commonplace for the average freshmen in the 13th or 14th century; mutatis mutandis, the same cannot be said of our academic vernacular at its worst.
Overall, the strength of the Scholastic quaestio lies in its structure; it is there that we can pick up a few writing tips from our medieval colleagues: worst case scenario, we would have made a structured and systematic argument – and our reader would at least be aware of what our problem was and how we attempted to solve it. Even lacking the smoothness and polish of Renaissance prose, the quaestio gets the job done efficiently and, in a sense, elegantly: it might not be the prettiest gown at the party, but it’s still a step up from the white socks and sandals of bad academic writing. And besides, wearing an evening dress in the afternoon would be quite out of place and outrageously gauche.