The Ends of Writing, and the Purpose of this Blog

In blog-post reflection on blogging Elliot Milco considers blogging mostly insofar as it is communication with others:

The purposes of communication are: to convey the truth, to express one’s will, and to delight.  These are respectively the virtuous, useful, and pleasant goods of speaking.

But when I think about why I began this blog it seems to me that my main purpose was not so much to teach, sway, or delight my readers, but rather to clarify my own thoughts. In a recent post on Jacob Klein and Charles De Koninck I discussed the idea of philosophy, and therefore of philosophical writing, as a clarification of what is contained in a confused way in the first movements of the mind. Peter Kalkavage, an SJC tutor very much in the tradition of Klein, has a wonderful little essay “Writing to Learn,” in which he writes:

writing — the sort of writing that pertains to us as human beings rather than as professionals — is primarily for oneself and only secondarily, if importantly, for others. Why write? Not primarily to communicate but rather to inquire, that is, to grasp a thought with greater clarity and depth. The true beginning of such writing is the desire to know…

That is the kind of writing for which I started this blog. Of course, a blog is not a private notebook; people sometimes actually read what I write here, and this affects my writing in all sorts of ways. James Chastek, whose blog is my beau ideal of this sort of blogging, writes something about his readers that I would like to apply to my own:

I’m very thankful for those who read the things I write here. I would have abandoned a mere private diary or a blog with no readers after two entries, and so each of you had an essential role to play in the project.

And then of course once there are readers some posts are written for the sake of persuading or delighting them. But I think that this leads to a different kind of writing, with its own ends—namely those that Milco enumerated: teaching, or moving to action, or delighting.

Milco writes, “One should not desire an audience for its own sake,” and “the audience is the incidental recipient.” But I think that this is more true of the kind of writing that one does for one’s own learning. In the kind of writing that is ordered to communication the readers are often not incidental. If, for example, I am writing about the immorality of marijuana smoking in order to clarify my own thoughts about the matter, then the readers are incidental, if however I am writing because I want to persuade my countrymen that they should not legalize marijuana then I ought to find a medium which will be read by many influential people of the sort likely to be persuadable by my sort of argument.

Milco’s post was occasioned by the first post of modestinus’s new blog. Modestinus writes that he had been considering abandoning blogging for the sake of writing in web-magazines such as Ethika Politika or print media such the The Remnant. If Modestinus is primarily interested in didactic, rhetorical, or poetic writing—that is, writing that is primarily for its readers—then he probably should have done so, but if he is interested in “writing to learn,” a personal blog is an excellent medium for that purpose.

13 thoughts on “The Ends of Writing, and the Purpose of this Blog

  1. How funny that you mention Peter Kalkavage. My husband knows him and when we visited Annapolis we had the pleasure of sitting in on a class with him. He spoke only one sentence the whole time, much to my surprise! I’m sure that sentence was a question.

    The blog is a perfect way to get out small musings and clarify thoughts, especially when you have a trusted set of followers to correct you. What irks me is when people post their theses in a single blog post and expect people to comment. Very important to recognize the form and medium in which you are writing! It’s still important to consider your audience, even when you’re writing to find truth for yourself.

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    • “It’s still important to consider your audience, even when you’re writing to find truth for yourself.” I think that’s very true, and it is one of the reasons why a blog is so much more helpful to me than a private notebook—it forces me to give my thoughts a form. (Not that I succeed very well—a lot of my posts have ended up way too long for a blog).

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      • I’ve only just begun this whole blogging business, but I’m finding already that it takes a lot of self-restraint. A good thing for me to learn. I’m trying to avoid words like ‘ontology’ to keep things light, without emptying or trivializing the content.

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  2. I once did a one-year blog of the clarify-my-own-thoughts type (http://yearwithratzinger.wordpress.com/). Later I found out that a philosopher devoted a paper at a major philosophy conference to refuting one of my blog posts, referring to me by name. The man had never contacted me, but someone at the conference happened to know me and dropped me a note. I suppose the blog audience never does feel itself to be incidental!

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  3. In the post quoted, I said: “One should not desire an audience for its own sake. One desires to communicate the truth, or to delight, or to manifest one’s will, and the audience is the incidental recipient of these acts.”

    The point here was that one never (reasonably) desires simply to be heard. One speaks to people so that people may hear what is said. Who is listening may determine the manner in which it is said, and will often shape the content of what is said, but to desire an audience for its own sake is just another kind of greed: lust for potency without ordination to any particular end.

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  4. I have never yet written anything, long or short, that did not surprise me. That is, for me at least, the greatest worth of writing, which is only incidentally a way of telling others what you think. Its first use is for the making of what you think, for the discovery of understanding, an act that happens only in language. (Richard Mitchell)

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  5. I’m curious as to your connection to SJC, which you’ve mentioned twice recently. It’s just come to my attention and seems to be a very intriguing place. How did you come into contact with it?

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    • I don’t have any direct connection to SJC, but I’m indirectly connected to it through TAC, which is in some ways modeled on SJC, but has a very different spirit, stemming from a different understanding of the relation of faith and reason.

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