Advice

Scholars Talk Writing: Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Why a philosopher applies Kantian ethics to writing

October 06, 2015

Editor’s note: In previous months this continuing series on writing and scholarship featured interviews with Anthony Grafton and Sam Wineburg.

Not long after I graduated from college as an English major with a jones for philosophy and a love of Iris Murdoch, Milan Kundera, and Robertson Davies, I found a novel called The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein. When I opened it and read the first line, I was hooked: "I’m often asked what it’s like to be married to a genius." The novel not only was funny and smart, but also tackled Big Ideas. Here was an author I wanted to be friends with. No, I wanted to be her. Three decades later, I got to tell Rebecca Goldstein about my girl crush and ask her some questions about writing.

She is the author of 10 books, the latest of which is Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. She’s had her share of prizes and fellowships, including a MacArthur "genius grant," and is now a visiting professor of philosophy at the New College of the Humanities in London, and in 2016 she will be a visiting professor of English, cross-listed with philosophy, at New York University.

In September of this year you received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama at a ceremony at the White House, along with nine other people. The citation reads "for bringing philosophy into conversation with culture. In scholarship Dr. Goldstein has elucidated the ideas of Spinoza and Goedel, while in fiction, she deploys wit and drama to help us understand the great human conflict between thought and feeling." Other than (I assume) whooping for joy at getting to meet POTUS, how did you feel about that?

Goldstein: It made me feel that I hadn’t made a mistake in publishing fiction, which made my life as a philosopher difficult.

How so? What was the problem with writing fiction?

Scholars Talk Writing

In a continuing series, Rachel Toor talks with noted scholars about the joys and pains of writing.

 Goldstein: The tradition in which I was trained, and with which I identify, is analytic philosophy, valuing rigor and precision. But I couldn’t possibly be an analytic philosopher, could I, if I’d published a novel? And, what was worse, that novel played up a feminine sensibility, which — careful as I was to keep from "tainting" my philosophical work — had been exposed to be lurking within me, right? I was young, the belittling attitude was painful, I stopped hanging out with philosophers. And that’s a real problem for a philosopher. You need the challenging responses from others trained in the field.

So do you think of yourself as a writer?

Goldstein: I’m not sure what it means to think of yourself as a writer. I primarily communicate through writing, that’s true. And I’ve always been acutely sensitive to the aesthetics of the written word. As a kid I’d copy out sentences, whole passages, that I thought were great, trying to assimilate them into my core. Individual words, too. We had few books in my home; we weren’t wealthy enough to buy them, especially since there was a decent public library in town.

But at a certain point, a used copy of Roget’s Thesaurus was acquired, and I went mad for it. I used it for bedtime reading. Those streams of words, all the nuances between them, worked on me like poetry. I also spent time memorizing writing I loved, mostly poems, trying to internalize them. That sounds like the childhood of a writer.

How do you approach your writing projects?

Goldstein: It seems to me that every project I’ve ever undertaken requires me to rethink how to go about writing. It’s only by attending to the demands of the project on hand that I can figure out how to write. Each piece has to be treated as a kingdom of ends in itself; and if this sounds like Kantian ethics bizarrely applied to writing, that’s because it is Kantian ethics bizarrely applied to writing. If I attended to each person, on her own terms, as attentively as I do every writing project, I’d be what I am demonstrably not: a morally exemplary person.

I was less interested in wowing the experts than wooing the nonexperts.
Is there a way in which writing fiction helps you as a philosopher?

Goldstein: Both kinds of writing — fiction and nonfiction — require a vivid sense of other minds. You have to think about what you’ve written from the point of view of someone who isn’t you. You get used to this in writing fiction since you’re making it all up, and so you know that readers aren’t going to have a clue as to what’s going on in your head unless you lay it out for them.

You can’t lose sight of the reader in writing fiction, but it’s easy to do so in writing nonfiction, when you’re trying to convey knowledge. You have to vividly conjure up someone who doesn’t know what you know. That’s hard. It’s hard, once you’ve understood something, to remember what it’s like not to understand it. Your whole sense of what’s obvious shifts, and you come, over time, to forget that there ever was a shift, and you have difficulty recalling your pre-shift state of mind.

But that’s the state of mind of your readers, and you have to work to make it vivid to yourself. And then, of course, after the hard work of conjuring other minds, you give your writing to actual other minds — intelligent readers who happen not to know what you know and whom you can trust to be forthright about what they don’t understand.

You write serious books for a trade readership. Did you have to learn to write in a different register than you would for colleagues in your discipline?

Goldstein: I wrote two of my nonfiction books for editors who told me that not only were they ignorant of philosophy, they were downright hostile to it. Or rather: They respected it but they didn’t get it, and their not getting it made them feel uncomfortable, as if maybe they were stupid.

For me, this was tremendously helpful. I constantly had them in my mind as I wrote, trying to make them feel comfortable in my world, to make all my moves seem as natural as possible, as continuous with "regular" thinking as possible. So maybe the writing I produced wouldn’t wow the experts in my field, but I was less interested in wowing the experts than wooing the nonexperts.

And then, of course, I got their feedback. Feedback from people in your field is, of course, essential; they’ll catch your mistakes, save you from embarrassments of various kinds, and challenge you as only fellow experts can do. But it’s essential to get feedback from people outside your field as well.

What advice do you have for academics who want to write?

Goldstein: The farther afield you can think yourself, the stronger the writing is. There was something about your subject that you loved even before you became the expert you now are. If something of that original motivating love remains alive in what you write — something that will make someone else catch the fire that brought you to your current state of expertise — that makes for stronger writing. That’s writing with a living soul in it.

Unfortunately, a lot of academic writing seems designed to discourage outsiders from entering. You read it and, if you weren’t already committed to the field, nothing about the writing would tempt you to enter. Signs that say "Insiders Only" are posted all over the premises (in both senses of the word).

What do you think goes wrong in academic prose?

Goldstein: When one is so concentrated on doing full justice to the ideas themselves, laying them out in their maximally logical order, one forgets about the reader, how to best lead her into the ideas and make her feel them as naturally as you do.

I think about this problem a great deal in trying to figure out the best structure of a piece, where to start, the entry point. The most elegant structure, from the point of view of the ideas, isn’t always the most effective one from the point of view of the reader. We love our ideas, or we wouldn’t dedicate so much of our lives to them. But we have to love our readers, too.

What is your process for revision?

Goldstein: I revise at every stage of the process and at every level. Sentences get endlessly rewritten, as do chapters, as does the whole book. I go easier on myself at the beginning of a project, when I’m finding my way in. I don’t agonize as much about getting every sentence right because I know that by the end of the book I’ll have discovered so much more about what the book is really about. Often this leads to a complete refashioning of the first chapter. And I’m ruthless about extirpating sentences that I deem no longer needed, even if the production of them had cost me hours. In fact, sometimes it’s my husband who argues with me to put certain sentences back in.

Has your marriage (to the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker) had an influence on your prose? Do you read each other’s drafts?

Goldstein: I moved in with Steve when I’d already written seven and a half books and many shorter pieces, so, for better or for worse, my writing habits were already established. But it turns out my habits are not that different from his, including the endless revision. For both of us, it’s a tricky business of balancing perfectionism with productivity.

We do read each other’s work while that work is still in production. Giving the work to each other, even at an early imperfect stage, helps to curb the perfectionism while also pushing us onward. What happens is that we get so excited about what the other is doing, and the excitement of the other is a strong motivator.

What advice do you give your students who care about writing well?

Goldstein: If they want to write well they have to love the good writing of others. That’s the only way I know to train as a writer. Find the writing you love, analyze what it is that draws you to it, and immerse yourself in the style until it becomes a part of you. You don’t want to consciously ape but rather to extract and internalize something of the sense of style so that it becomes yours by right, adapted so as to become a natural expression of the way you think.

I’ve absorbed many different beloved styles, everything from the bracing clarity of the classics of analytic philosophy to the sensuous metaphor-piled-on-metaphor lushness of Proust. Even if I don’t consciously think of these various styles when I write, they’re playing there in the background, grounding my sense of what’s right and wrong for the piece at hand. If someone who wants to write well doesn’t tingle in the presence of any writing at all, well that’s a problem that I don’t know how to solve, other than recommending Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her website is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.