The Long and the Short of It


One of my frustrations with some scholars is that they often take the tip of the iceberg for the whole thing, failing to see that there’s a lot of assumptions and debates below the surface of our claims — even seemingly mundane claims — that support the edifice that we usually see.

Of course we can’t go around continually putting all of our assumptions on the table every time we make a claim, always starting from first principles. Instead, we end up saying things about society, for example, or culture, and we posit both as causal agents that do things in the world. For the sake of just getting on with a conversation we develop this sort of handy shorthand, implicitly asking each other to grant us a whole series of unarticulated (and thus undefended) things, in order to say this or that about the world.

So making a claim about the world requires a wink, to others in the conversation, along with an unsaid, “Well, if you grant me…”

But, in doing so, we can run into two types of troubles: (1) if the person with whom we’re speaking won’t grant us one of those unspoken premises and (2) if we fail to recall that we’re conversing in a shorthand and, instead, take our claims as self-evident or factual — something we’re bound to realize that we’re doing if scenario1 presents itself, i.e., when someone replies, “Wait a second, what do you mean when you say…”

As scholars, we develop a shorthand no less than anyone else — social life and communication demand it. (case in point, what is this thing “social life”? And as for “communication”…?) But it strikes me as our job, inasmuch as we call ourselves scholars, not only to keep ever-present in our minds that a lot of hypotheses and conjectures underlie any claim that we make (even the most routine — requiring a lot of generosity on the parts of others), but also that we ought to be prepared to entertain our shorthand being questioned — and thereby be ready to offer the longhand version, starting with first principles.

Anyone who feels that they work outside the mainstream will already know this, of course — those who don’t have the luxury (and thus ease) of working in the lingua franca, since they start from a very different place than do others.

So the shorthand is a necessity but also a luxury —  one that we likely ought not to take for granted.

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