Cole: I see dead people. Malcolm: In your dreams? [Cole shakes his head no] Malcolm: While you’re awake? [Cole nods] Malcolm: Dead people like, in graves? In coffins? Cole: Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.
All the other features of writing that can’t be as easily transferred, I call “style”. Readers may enjoy and admire the styles of things they read, but they can’t as easily add those styles to their own writing.
There have been many writers whose styles were very influential or even widely imitated. H. L. was a public intellectual with a host of imitators.
I agree (assuming plagiarism is ruled out). But the point at issue is whether when you say the "content" of Tao's writing, you are referring to the part of Tao's writing that is easily transferred. This doesn't mean easy to create / discover. Plots are easily transferred / summarized, so this predicts that we'd call plot the content of fiction - which seems true, and only now do I realize this is a problem for the "substantive empirical consequences" theory of content.
Earlier you said, "Nobody can write like Cormac McCarthy except Cormac McCarthy." It seems to me that "being able to write like Cormac McCarthy" is just like "being able to prove theorems like Terence Tao." Just that the former is about style and the latter is about substance.
We could actually make an even more direct comparison: "being able to write like Cormac McCarthy" vs. "being able to write like Terence Tao." It is difficult to write like Cormac McCarthy because of the style of McCarthy's writing, and it is difficult to write like Terence Tao because of the content of Terence Tao's writing.
I don't know which writers Hanson is specifically talking about, as he doesn't name names. I can only tell you who it makes me think of, when Hanson talks about writers who *think* they are specialized in content (and their fans think so too), but *really* they are specialized in style.
Tao's proofs have substance. To say that Tao's ability to prove theorems is a matter of substance seems metaphorical or meaningless. The style/content distinction is about text and speech, not people. Hanson wasn't claiming that ability transfers easily - just content.
I am not so sure Hanson's problem is with false, meaningless or unsupported content - at least in this post. I think it's more with intellectuals who may offer true but unoriginal content in great style. The "top intellectuals" he is referring to probably aren't continental philosophers but instead people like Steven Pinker and Tyler Cowen, who may receive status for doing little but repacking other people's insights in clear, conversational prose (that implicitly flatters the reader and so on). These people have an incentive to pretend not to be mere stylists - the implication would be offensive. At any rate this kind of "mere stylist" is much more common than the ones you are taking issue with.
My point wasn't that some styles are good - my point was that your definition of style might be too narrow to cover choices of the kind I mentioned, because style isn't just a varnish applied over content. Since Hanson has reviewed the book I've mentioned, he probably has a model like this partly in mind.
Some continental philosophers are obscurantists, but are they great stylists? I would say mostly not. Nietzsche was. If you hear "turgid continental obscurantism" when you hear "impressive style", something has gone wrong.
Tao's ability to prove theorems is a matter of substance, not style. Although it's not so easy to convey one's "ability to prove theorems" through a document - one instead conveys particular theorems and their proofs. Polya's "How to Solve It" is a more direct attempt to convey an ability to prove theorems.
Another way to put the substance/style distinction is to say that the substance of a document is the cross-cultural part of it, the part that can be translated to other languages and other cultures. Even alien or computer cultures. If there is something in your document that could be communicated even to a sapient slime mold from Alpha Centauri, then we can safely say that this part of your document is the content. This is somewhat like Hanson's problematic definition, but different in that we are talking specifically about cross-cultural transfer.
Sure, some styles are "good," depending on your audience. Brevity and clarity are important. But there is also a disease of excess style, where an author is ostensibly respected for what they have said, but in fact they have said nothing very interesting of substance, they have just said it in an impressive style. And often this impressive style is the exact opposite of brevity and clarity, embellishing and disguising the content. I'm thinking here of Finnegan's Wake and certain continental philosophers. The real problem is when what an author has said is regarded as true, simply because of the impressive style, even when the actual content is false, meaningless, or unsupported. I think this is what Hanson is talking about in the post, which I agree with.
Few writers embrace the label "popularizer".
I think being able to write like McCarthy is like being able to prove theorems like Tao, not knowing the stuff Tao knows, and this explains why science progresses and literature barely.
That's a fair definition. There's many "styles" e.g. "style" it is ceteris paribus better to have more than less of, "a style" as in a genre or school, etc. Your definition covers a third neutral usage, which is good.
That said, I think there are other aspects of style - one can write about the same subject with broadly the same aim, but choose better examples and so forth. And determining which points can be asserted and which points require argument, when to be detailed and when to be concise, how to treat your reader as an intellectual peer (if this is your goal), whether you want be seen thinking out loud or conceal your work, etc. That's part of the less mechanical side of style covered in "Clear and Simple as the Truth." It's unclear if your definition allows that this could be style, whereas Prof Hanson's seems to. They give this sentence as an example of excellent "classic prose":
"Unusual among songbirds shrikes prey on small birds and rodents, catching them with the bill and sometimes impaling on spikes or barbed wire for storage."
You can predict that that the next line isn't going to be something like "I was deeply disturbed - just how much I can't even convey - when I learned this and spent the next month ruminating on the evils of nature" or "We must protect these precious animals", and the claim is that's because you know the rules of classic vs romantic vs oratorical style implicitly, to SOME degree. You know it's OK to say "people are rarely as happy or as unhappy as they think" (observation) but not "look before you leap" (moralizing.) And so forth. You could write about the horror of the shrike in many different styles, but your "content" wouldn't be entirely invariant.
Many examples here: https://classicprose.com/cs...
"I find the following observation especially telling. Many writers see themselves as specializing in content, and thus feel eager to team with writers who specialize more in style, to together make writings great in both content and style. But very few writers see themselves as style specialists, eager to team with content specialists. Almost all writers instead see themselves as having access to good enough content, thank you very much."
I don't think this claim is true. I think the category of writers called "popularizers" (eg. science popularizers) are those who specialize in style over content. They don't claim to have new ideas, but they do claim to repackage established ideas in a superior way. That sounds like a comparative advantange in style to me.
Or maybe you have a broader interpretation of the meaning of the word "content"?
Well, you recognized the classic x//x//x/ stress pattern, so clearly style can be copied by someone trying to pay attention to it. There are "write-like-Hemingway" competitions, and he's not the only author for which there are such competitions. The fact that people absorb other people's style is the only possible reason why people from similar places and times tend to have similar styles! How else do you explain the difference between the way Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries wrote, and the way Robin Hanson and his contemporaries write?
Style is not solely a literary concept. It can apply to things as simple as wearing the same type of hat, which is easily copied. If you look at that example alone, it is clear that "difficulty of copying" cannot be the defining feature of style.
Sure, some authors may have some elements of their style that are inimitable, but the same goes for the substantive content of some authors; I would love to absorb all the substance of papers written by Terence Tao, but there isn't a single chance of that happening. No one but Terence Tao knows everything Terence Tao knows.
If literary style is often or usually harder to copy than literary content - and I will grant you that - this does not mean that this is the defining characteristic that separates the two. The defining characteristic that separates the two is whether the author is making a definite claim about the world.
It is true - I will grant you - that substance is often also about signaling impressiveness. But substance is *also* about making a definite claim, which might be subject to later confirmation or refutation based on new evidence, where style is *just* about signaling impressiveness and affiliation. (Well, perhaps also ease of reading, but ease of reading signals affiliation too; it is easier to read text written in a style you are familiar with, which is to say a style you are affiliated with. And perhaps interest, too; but what better way to hold someone's interest than to seem to be an impressive member of an affiiliated tribe?) Style is where you bust a tricky dance move because it looks cool, without needing the dance move to relate to anything in the world.
Perhaps there are some gray areas where style does other things (arguably, and if you don't have a sufficiently pessimistic view of human nature). Perhaps it is best not to say what style *is*, but to say what it *isn't*. Style is every aspect of the text aside from the declarative content. The declarative content is the part of the text making definite claims about the world.
But perhaps that is a little too simple. What about questions, commands, jokes, or pleas? Those are part of the content of the text, but they aren't declarative, arguably.
Rather than account for each of those cases separately, we might take a view that the content is what the text is ostensibly supposed to be saying, and the style is the way in which it says it. It's a matter of form and function.
Consider the average person. Would he be more likely to notice (1) "a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing" in Ecclesiastes ends with the classic x//x//x/ stress pattern or (2) the claim being made? Would he be more likely to notice that "we are counted as sheep for the slaughter" ends with the same stress pattern or that "sometimes it is good to hug and other times it is not appropriate to hug" is making a similar claim? Would he realize that the x//x//x/ stress pattern reliably lends a line a gently conclusive ring?
It is much easier to paraphrase the Bible than to reproduce the prosody, and there are many such subtleties (sentence length variation, the appropriate use of passive voice, antithesis, isocolon, etc). And that's only the mechanical side of style - "Clear and Simple as the Truth" defines style as an attitude towards truth, presentation, audience, etc, which is even harder to notice and reproduce.
At an expert level, many biologists can tell you Darwin's views on the relevant subjects. Nobody can write like Cormac McCarthy except Cormac McCarthy, although many English majors would like to. It seems easier for most to learn everything contained in a highly technical engineering document; you don't need to be a genius to understand general relativity.
I assume style and substance are both about signaling impressiveness, generally, but style does so by being varied, surprised, exciting, sublime, etc. Signaling allegiances too, sure. However, I could give many examples of texts with unique stylistic vices that make them painful to read. I think style should be defined the way CaSatT defined it, OR as how easily a text sustains a reader's attention, interest and admiration, controlling for substance. Similar to yours but fairer to stylists, who aren't responsible for bad taste.
There's probably a witty quote out there about how people who think they're above style are often blind to the limitations, deceptions and vices of their own favoured style. But probably that's true of nearly everyone.
Richard Dawkins too. Both style and content.
Well, what makes me read and reread the writers I like best is their style, more than their content, whether or not I agree with their point of view. Examples that come to mind are H. L. Mencken, Winston Churchill, Mark Twain. U. S. Grant's autobiography, though mostly a recounting of things that happened, is widely praised for his style. And (by free association with this last) how about Lincoln's Gettysburg Address?
I might or might not agree with the content, but it's the style that makes it stick.
In scientific writing, Einstein and Freud are often praised for the beauty of their German style. (I've never heard Marx praised for his.) Darwin wrote beautifully, too.
It's a great point that I one hundred percent agree with and that has always bothered me. Too many thinkers are revered for saying deep things, when in fact they have only managed to say fairly obvious things with the right cultural allegiances in a sufficiently impressive way.
You got one thing wrong, though: your definition of "style" as the part of a text that is not easily transferred. This is very far off the mark. In fact most of what people do to fit in is copy each other's styles, whether we're talking about writing, style of dress, manners, opinions, etc. How easily transferred some information is, has nothing to do with whether it is style or substance.
A better way to draw the line, is to say that substantive claims have clear empirical consequences if they are true versus if they are false. Whereas matters of style are more about signaling impressiveness and tribal allegiance of the speaker.
Substantive claims are often not easily transferred at all! For example, a highly technical engineering or physics document may be a real challenge to understand, for anyone outside the field.
For writing, do you feel that logos should by default be valued higher than either ethos or pathos?