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The ‘too difficult’ style

I was brought up short the other day while reading, of all things, the Cambridge alumni rag, Cam.  It was an article by Michael Hurley, a lecturer in English, on how literary language can sometimes communicate better than plain English.  His closing sentence is, “straight talk can be a prophylactic against mendacious or muddled thought, but as our greatest writers amply attest, the suggestive messiness of language may also provide new and rigorous ways for thinking, through style.”

This site is no stranger to mendacious or muddled thought and it’s interesting to hear that there is a role for literary style and messy language to combat it, but what really grabbed my interest was Hurley’s description of the difficulty Cardinal Newman had in describing (in his book Grammar of Assent) how we come to believe in whatever it is we do believe in.  According to Hurley, Newman’s thesis is that we do this, “not through logic, but intuitively,  out of ‘the cumulation of probabilities’ – probabilities that are themselves ‘too fine to avail separately, too subtle and circuitous to be convertible into syllogisms’.”  So Newman, “forsakes the stringency of deductive argument  in favour of ‘literary’ gesture and immediacy, making abstract notions concrete and vivid.”

Now I can’t pretend to understand all this properly.  Hurley’s article is illustrated with photographs of him standing in various picturesque locations clutching, Dylan-like, placards displaying literary quotations.  It wouldn’t be hard to consign him to Pseuds Corner or even to think that an outbreak of pretentious nonsense has crossed the Channel.  But there are two big ideas here.  Firstly that we can turn to literary style to communicate when things are too difficult for straight, crystal-mark English.  That’s an interesting get-out when we find it hard going to articulate risk accurately and rigorously.  Secondly this might in turn be tacitly communicating risk models, given the way they are so strongly evoked by the quotation about probabilities.  In a sense the second thought vitiates the first.  Maybe literary styles – to some extent at least – are underpinned by a type of risk thinking which restores the logic, the stringency, the deduction.  Maybe pursuing Newman’s ‘subtle and circuitous’ probabilities is indeed a feasible objective for the risk analyst.

Who knows, but it will certainly give me food for thought as I consider future posts on this site.

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