It’s been a busy few days in my other job, so for relaxation I’ve been reading Darwin The Writer by George Levine. Its argument is that Darwin’s On The Origin of Species of 1859 is the most important work of English literature of the 19th century. I’m easily persuaded it’s one of the most important books of its day, less so about its standing in the world of literature compared to, say, Middlemarch or Jane Eyre. If anything, I’d nominate The Voyage of the Beagle for the literature category; it’s a terrific read.
However, it is a very interesting read about the part Darwin’s clarity of prose and typical style of argument played in making the intellectual case, setting out the characteristic pattern of a description of some puzzle or extraordinary feature of nature or geology, a detailed explanation of the chain of causation, and a reaffirmation of the wondrous intricacy of the phenomenon. The ultimate message is that it is our mind, not nature, that creates order. Nature is, in Dennett’s description, a mindless algorithm.
I do have a complaint about the book, which is that it is written in the kind of florid academic style that tends to obscure rather than clarify meaning – one sentence that I struggled with ran over ten lines – somewhat ironic given the subject matter. However, the question of the part rhetoric per se plays in making an argument or creating an intellectual framework is fascinating. I’ve always firmly believed that the ability to write clearly about something is a test of whether you truly understand it. But clarity of writing is only one aspect of an extended argument; the structure of the argument, the linking of one thought to another, is just as important. Deirdre McCloskey has skewered conventional economic modes of argument in The Rhetoric of Economics. Economists typically combine academic style with a strong inclination to use jargon, although the spread of blog-writing is improving matters.