A reader sent us an e-mail asking for theory-writing tips, and they liked my reply, so I’m sharing a slightly edited version of it in case it is of use to others.
Let’s say that when it comes to theory there are at least 3 levels:
You don’t engage with theory at all. Those claiming they’re “not philosophers” are almost by definition bad philosophers. There’s no shame in this, of course. But if there’s no effort at all there’s no gain, and no surprise there.
You engage with theory. In other words, you read. Perhaps you read lots — piles and piles of books, everything written by Marx, everything written by Lenin, etc. That said, all the information only goes one way: Books → Mind. In this way, one becomes a kind of puffer-fish, always absorbing and inflating but never releasing. Time was sure spent flipping pages, but how could we prove that what our eyes scanned really was understood?
You do stuff with the theory you read. At this level it’s clear that we weren’t merely exposed to knowledge, because we somehow “tested” it. Ideally this “test” is some kind of project-building, and its success testifies to the learning. However, there’s other humbler ways. Reality is the ultimate test for what counts as good theory and what doesn’t — concreteness is how someone really demonstrates they’ve moved beyond the stage where they’re acquainted with both Good and Bad theory but incapable of judging between them.
It can be painful to realize time or sympathy was spent on something disappointing, but the flip-side is that what remains has gone through a trial by fire, and this is the basis for having confidence in it. Additionally, when read theory is analyzed properly, even what ends up finally discarded can render interesting insights: here a good observation in spite of a dubious conclusion, there something fully objectionable ends up serving as a powerful cautionary tale.
Outside of mass political projects, how can we “test” our understanding? One way is by reading together. It makes a world of difference to not just read a book by yourself, but to read a book with a group. Reading together offers many opportunities to challenge interpretations from diverse perspectives (“That didn’t make sense to me. Am I reading it wrong? Or is the author wrong?”). Such collaboration is a source of constant learning. Many of the essays people appreciate have come about from our entire group coming to a consensus: “We think we understand what this author is saying, and it’s not right. Perhaps one of us should try to intervene here.”
Alongside this general type of advice, I want to also bring up something more specific: Translations. Translations are interesting because they’re not just a service to others, but in fact constitute a very exacting test of reading comprehension. Translation implicitly involves at least two people: the original writer and the translator. Translation forces you to go beyond settling for the mere “gist of it,” and you instead have to dwell on virtually every single word choice. If you don’t understand the writer, you cannot translate them coherently.
Good writing is a process, and as a process it is composed of at least two different episodes:
- Coming up with a good idea.
- Expressing said good idea.
Both are important, but they by no means go hand-in-hand. Some people have brilliant ideas and sadly can’t express them in an appealing way at all, whereas others have terrible ideas but express them beautifully (Nietzsche comes to mind).
Translation allows a person to focus on drilling exclusively their ability to express ideas in a given language. It offers an interesting scenario where, if you’re already comfortable with an author’s ideas, rather than split your effort evenly, you can spend nearly all of it on the expressive part. If your “writerly” craft is well-honed, the day an interesting idea comes around you can devote a larger portion of your effort to developing it rather than struggle with merely expressing it.
So, there we have it: reading, discussing, understanding, acting, translating. Those are, in brief, some activities that augment writing, and which writing augments in turn.