making that which is implicit, explicit

quick thought-stub —

Harold Bloom said that literary criticism was “the art of making what is implicit in the text as finely explicit as possible”. On a different sort of level, the same seems to ring true for (at least) moral philosophy, where I came to see that there is a lot of understanding to be gained from simply stating explicitly what is implicit in our moral behaviour, or the way we think and talk about morality. For example, we seem instinctively to know that there’s a difference between calling someone “a good cricketeer” and “a good man”, which doesn’t seem to reduce simply to the difference between “cricketeer” and “man”, but making this implicit difference explicit turns out to be a less straightforward task than one might think (whereupon it might transpire that one doesn’t really understand the difference after all).

And what about making that which is implicit, explicit — for history? I had a conversation with my supervisor once, in which we talked about one of the troubles of writing Malaysian history (though the case can probably be taken more generally). The trouble is this: Malaysian historians who write about Malaysia often leave out their local or tacit knowledge (or ‘implicit understanding’) of Malaysian culture and history from their historical analyses, perhaps because they take it for granted, or assume their audience knows it, or assume that it’s irrelevant. I’m reminded too, at this point, about how I met a PhD student from Antigua last year, who told me that he’s read many published histories of Antigua which have drawn all sorts of pear-shaped historical conclusions about the island and its colonial past. This came about, he says, because those historians had never been to Antigua, and had failed to note two basic geographical features, which all Antiguans know about implicitly: that Antiguan beaches have virtually no waves, and that the island has virtually no fresh water (no rivers or streams, and very few springs).

Perhaps, we concluded, there is a good deal to be gained from writing down all this implicit knowledge — the sort of information about one’s own country and culture which one thinks is blindingly obvious, but just isn’t so for everyone else, and which might just have a greater impact on one’s historical analysis than previously suspected.

(I think that in writing this, I have either made something implicit usefully explicit, or else have perhaps done the close-cousin thereof, i.e. Stated the Blindingly Obvious).


3 responses to “making that which is implicit, explicit

  • Tim

    Just to add a few more cars to your thought-train:

    Immanuel Kant wrote that the business of philosophers is to expose “the covert judgments of common reason” — which is a pretty good summary of what the three Critiques are all about. Heidegger, among others, loved this idea.

    Ludwig Wittgenstein put it this way: “Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.”

    I also find the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s notion of thick description (which he borrowed from philosopher Gilbert Ryle) useful in this context. Ryle’s example is a wink — what does a wink mean? It could be flirtatious, it could suggest “I’m kidding,” it could be the initiation into or acknowledgment of a conspiracy. In order to understand it — or more properly, to give a meaningful account of it, which is quite different — you need to understand/make explicit a whole range of implicit contexts, nuances, suggestions, that are known to the user but invisible to the analyst.

    This tries to solve an old anthropologist’s problem: you have to work with local sources to understand the inside-out aspects of a culture. But how can you understand what the local sources won’t tell you, either because they take it for granted, it’s not something they let outsiders in on, men don’t speak frankly with women and vice versa, etc.? So you have to be able to mediate between both an inside and an outside perspective, making the implicit explicit whether the implicit is the local nuance or the grand-historical law. Which is a cognitive act and a social one, but ultimately an act of imagination and writing.

  • Belle

    Oh YES!!! That’s what I’ve done with my own research: I do white elites and their innate sense of privilege and arrogance has always been simply accepted. So when I questioned it, and showed how it skewed their analyses… let’s say I startled some people.

    You go, girl.

  • Investigations of a Dog » The World Turned Upside Down

    […] The World Turned Upside Down is a very well-known pamphlet which crops up in many books about the English/British Civil War(s)/Revolution (”or whatever we are to call the blasted thing” – John Morrill). In fact it occurs so often that it’s a bit of a cliche. Despite/because of that, I’m going to use it in my forthcoming seminar paper on animals, authority and property rights. Although the image is very familiar, I didn’t know very much about the pamphlet until recently, and once I looked at it in detail it defied my expectations in some ways (this kind of relates to Rachel’s post about making the implicit explicit). […]

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