Continued from: K.I.S.S.
Finally, a Cure
The next day Lady HP and I sat down in my office to go over the points I had prepared from the previous day’s mess (ie. the paragraph size points).
We had no reason for small talk at this point in our relationship. That was the kind of socialization that came much later in the evolution of our friendship.
“Have you done the points correctly this time, Perran?”
“I hope so. Although I must say that I still feel I am not telling…”
She held up her hand to stop me.
“This is not the place in the process to be telling anything, Perran. This is simply a small verbal sketch of your idea. Your principal idea is that Descartes has some flawed reasoning. Now I am asking you to commit to paper the five reasons you believe his ideas are flawed. Show me what you have, and I’ll see how you are getting on.”
I laid the paper in front of her on the table.
Descartes’ reasoning for cogito ergo sum is flawed for the following reasons:
1. Ability/inability are dubious criteria
2. Greater thinkers didn’t reach the same conclusion
3. Ergo animals/babies do not exist
4. Bodily function datum demonstrates existence
5. Skepticism vs. Affirmation driving thinking.
“But,” I protested, “I don’t feel like I am saying anything about my hypothesis.”
“And,” she countered, “you shouldn’t. We are going to build from these points, which are fine by the way.”
“Just fine?” I taunted her.
“That’s right. Get over it and let’s move on.”
I always knew when to stop myself before irritating the hell out of someone, but this time I actually I did it.
Lady HP continued, “When you are structuring an argument, you need to work from your weakest to your strongest point. That way the argument helps convert those who disagree with you little by little. By the time you get to the end of arguing your points you should have at the very least got the reader thinking about your ideas whether or not they agree with them or not. Your goal, of course, is to convince them of your ideas in a considered way and get them to agree with you – in a way that shows your logic. So, now I ask you, are you points ordered logically moving from your weakest point to your strongest?”
I took the paper in my hand from the tabletop and gave it a cursory look. “No, I would have to say that they need to be re-ordered to make the points ascend from the least to the most important.”
“So, do that for me now,” she said as I took another piece of paper and rearranged the list.
The new list looked like this:
1. Greater thinkers didn’t reach the same conclusion
2. Skepticism vs. Affirmation driving thinking
3. Ability/inability are dubious criteria
4. Ergo animals/ babies do not exist
5. Bodily functions are more demonstrative.
I laid the list back down on the table.
“I see you have made some changes,” she said viewing the paper. “Do you see,
now, how the list now builds your argument more effectively? You have changed the points of your reasoning so each builds on the next in a logical sequence. By doing this you have already improved on the essay you originally wrote.”
“I think I get it.”
“Good, then we can move on. Now, the way this is going to work is that you are going to write an opening paragraph. In the opening paragraph you will present your main idea and you will write your reasoning for the position you have taken, making one, and only one, sentence from each of the five points. The paragraph will open with your principal idea, outline your proof, and then the concluding sentence will sum up those five points again and almost mirror the first sentence. You will only use seven, or a maximum of eight sentences and not a word more. Understood?”
“Understood. Shouldn’t I explain what Descartes said, and why, before I begin, so that people understand why I believe it to be flawed?”
“No, cogito ergo sum, is well known. If someone is reading this paper, I think we can take it for granted that at some point they have heard of this famous phrase. When you are writing or making an argument you can rely on what is generally known to be true as a guideline for your audience’s level of knowledge.”
“How do you know how to estimate the knowledge of the audience then?”
“That’s a good question. It isn’t always clear, but you want to err on the side of caution. Now, this doesn’t mean the other students in the class will follow this specific argument, but this essay isn’t intended for a normal high school audience. For the sake of convenience I will assume you are writing this paper for me and not your fellow students so that is fine.”
“So, if I understand correctly… if this was being written for a less educated audience I might want to give more…” I put my hand up before her opening mouth interrupted me, “…simpler language, more details, and simple examples – even if Descartes himself did not?”
“Exactly, but you don’t want to go overboard with that either – again depending on how many words you have to work with, and your audience. An academic audience, like that of a professor at university, will expect detail to demonstrate your own understanding of the subject. You have to sculpt your argument within a certain set of criteria. The best thing to do when writing an essay is to first figure out what this criteria is, before you pick up a pen.”
“Let’s say I was writing this for my fellow students then I might want to give simplify the text and give more detail, is that correct?”
“Exactly, here take a piece of paper now, and write down what you think your class mates would need by way of explanation for them to understand the rest of your paper on Descartes.”
“Okay, I’ll give it a go.”
I took another sheet of paper and began:
Descartes’ premise was simply that if a person who sees is conscious that he sees, a person who hears is conscious that he hears, a person who walks is conscious that he walks, then similarly for all the other human activities – including thinking and doubting – the consciousness of these activities establishes existence: cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am.
“Now, I think you are truly getting somewhere. For tomorrow, I want to see the first paragraph written using a maximum of eight sentences… actually, I will give you a maximum of ten sentences. I can’t expect you to write healthily in one day, not after years of spewing verbal diarrhoea.”
“Cheers for that.”
She got up, picked up her purse and moved for the door. “See you tomorrow.”
“Yes, indeed, you will.”
Photos courtesy of My Lady Viscountess and Wikimedia Commons