Using Essays to Think

Why do college professors make students write essays?  Once you land that job after college, how many essays are you going to have to write, anyway?  If nurses, business leaders, carpenters, school teachers, bankers, even pastors are not writing essays as part of their professional responsibilities, why practice with them in college?  The answer – because they teach you how to think!  And its too bad–seriously!–that professions after college don’t engage their leaders and employees in essay writing on their own practices.

An essay is not a report, it’s not an advertisement, it’s not a sermon even; it’s an exercise in human wondering and thoughtfulness on experience.  In a recent NYT opinion piece, Phillip Lapote advocates the writing and reading of essays as an exercise in doubt, and asks us to consider how fruitful creative doubting can be.  A quick teaser from his article:

“Ever since Michel de Montaigne, the founder of the modern essay, gave as a motto his befuddled “What do I know?” and put forth a vision of humanity as mentally wavering and inconstant, the essay has become a meadow inviting contradiction, paradox, irresolution and self-doubt. The essay’s job is to track consciousness; if you are fully aware of your mind you will find your thoughts doubling back, registering little peeps of ambivalence or disbelief.

According to Theodor Adorno, the iron law of the essay is heresy. What is heresy if not the expression of contrarian doubt about communal pieties or orthodox positions? This is sometimes called “critical thinking,” an ostensible goal of education in a democracy. But since such thinking often rocks the boat, we may find it less than supported in school settings. Typically, the exercise of doubt is something an individual has to cultivate on his or her own, in private, before summoning the courage to air it, say, in an essay.”

Here’s the piece by Lapote:  “The Essay: An Exercise in Doubt”

To be fair, doubt has its risks, and not just for the faithful who are well acquainted with it.  For the risks of  doubt, I must reference one of my favorite essays on the subject from Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author Johannes Climacus.

D. Anthony Storm writes in his commentary on  Kierkegaard’s text Johannes Climacus:

“Kierkegaard questions why modern philosophy begins with doubt. Why is skepticism a superior method of knowledge acquisition? Would not an utter skepticism be self-contradictory, since it would doubt everything except the very process of skepticism? Moreover, skepticism cannot outrightly reject the absolute, since the presupposition to doubt everything is an absolute. A true doubter may come to reject the method of doubt at some point. Could there be a different basis for philosophizing? In his journals, Kierkegaard offered an alternative, and a criticism of the limitations of skepticism.

“What skeptics should really be caught in is the ethical. Since Descartes they have all thought that during the period in which they doubted they dared not to express anything definite with regard to knowledge, but on the other hand they dared to act, because in this respect they could be satisfied with probability. What an enormous contradiction! As if it were not far more dreadful to do something about which one is doubtful (thereby incurring responsibility) than to make a statement. Or was it because the ethical in itself is uncertain? But then there was something which doubt itself could not reach!”

[Humanity] is in the world and yet before God. All that he does and says comes under the rubric of the ethical. One cannot apply skepticism coherently in one’s daily living. True skepticism is speculative, hypothetical and decidedly non-existential.”

The task then, is to find in my own practices of writing the courage to live the ethical, and to encourage my students to do the same.

Source of Featured Image:  “Doubt”

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