Musing – what is it?

But what exactly is ‘musing’ and what is its point? Why do it? What is its meaning, its outcome, its point?

Musing is mulling over something that you cannot get clear on, that you cannot pigeon-hole or slot into a definite place. Musing is thinking. Musing is being drawn back to turning something over and over in your mind trying to bring together all the different angles and dimensions so that it settles into a coherent unity. Musing is being caught up in a mystery, conflicting or contradictory intuitions or thoughts. Musing is circling round and round, like the proverbial moth, trying to find a point of rest or resolution.

It is important at this point to make clear that musing cannot be resolved by knowledge. Musing is not a search for knowledge; it is a search for coherence, for insight, illumination, for a metaphor. It is not a search for stricter concepts or more valid knowledge. Arendt makes a distinction between knowledge and understanding: knowledge concerns the causal relationships between things in the (material) world; understanding concerns the meanings that create non-causal relationships about—or, even better and more confronting, in—the world. Thinking and the meanings it puts into play gives the world we live in a different shape, brings some elements or tendencies into prominence and lets others recede.

Thinking is, thus, disclosing an intelligibility, a connection, between and in things—events, actions, ideas, feelings, emotions, institutions, histories, hopes, responsibilities. But the reason that thinking continually circles back on itself is that this ‘disclosure’ is not the revelation of something definite and stable or finalised. What is disclosed is elusive, fragile, always just out of grasp, always in the tip of your tongue, just out of reach—more felt or sensed than grasped or captured, more mood than concept.

What this means that putting thinking as musing into words, into writing, will not produce an evidence-based knowledge-based text. Insofar as the mode mirrors the thinking process, the writing will also continually circle back on itself, move in crab-wise steps, put in play elusive notions and connections. And the final product, the final text, if it stays faithful to the process will itself not construct or picture a definite, stable or finalised object. By definition, such writing will end inconclusively compared with the comforting sense of completeness of logical argument bent on fine-tuning strict concepts and chains of logical argument towards a compelling conclusion.

Whereas knowledge is bent on progressive improvement, thinking is focused on reflecting, on saying, “Wait! Before rushing on too quickly, we need to chew this over more. There seems to be more involved here than is captured by our current categories, approaches, paradigms, and methodologies.’

It is important to acknowledge that this kind of writing can be very annoying and frustration to read. As a reader you want to get the ‘the answer’ at the end of the article or book, yet this kind of writing seems determined to stop you from getting there easily or quickly. Instead of creating a flowing chain of propositions that flow nicely and painlessly together to transport the reader, like a passenger on a speeding fast train, gently and effortlessly to their destination and journey’s end, this kind of writing circles, hesitates, wanders down ancient paths, wanders down dead-ends, drifts down detours, stops for long digressive detours or … I myself have written about this frustration when attempting to read Cavell – quote

There are I think a few things going on here: first, there is the sense that only a slow wandering journey can reveal the conundrums of what is at stake (the aporetic motif); second, the writing is designed to provoke the reader – to wake them from their complacent slumber, to sake their world, to mobilise their deepest commitments (the pedagogic, ethical motif); thirdly, the writing is designed to be analogically transferred to the reader’s practical situation and life as a richer context for dealing with the conundrums of life and professional work such as education than evidence-based knowledge (the ethico-praxical motif); the writing is designed to demonstrate that the truth cannot be pinned down in absolute statements, concepts or theories (anti-reductionist motif).

According to Wittgenstein, the best way to get clearer about something is not to focus on its by itself and try to somehow bore deeper into its essence; instead Wittgenstein suggests that we use analogogical thinking in which we compare and contrast what we are trying to get clear about with other similar cases or matters—and noticing the subtle differences and similarities. Wittgenstein suggests that this approach will enable us to explore what we are trying to get clear on from all different angles and aspects, and in this way gain a “perspicity description’, a number of comparative snap shots and as it were short videos through which we can perceive the differences and particularities of the cases, situation or matters at issue without needing to bore in an try to put our finger on a singular hidden essence or definition or identity. Even though we may not be able to capture the specificity of what we are studying and puzzling over in a succinct sentence, definition, description or explanatory account, we have gained a ‘sense’ of the differences and particularities that are in play. Wittgenstein argues that one of the main things that misleads us, especially in the modern world, is our impatience to quickly pin things down into concepts, categories, causal networks, conventions, structures. He would rather that we be more ethnographic, that we do, as it were, field work on what we are thinking about, that we ‘hang out’ with it in its different moods and contexts (Gadamer’s ‘tarrying’), that we place it alongside other comparable matters and explore the many subtle differences and similarities between them.

This is the practical implications of Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘family resemblance’ where he argues that even when we intuitively see an identity between all the members of a family in their ‘look’, on more careful examination we will discover that this similarity is not based on a single feature, for example, the ‘McCormack nose’ or such like. Instead we will find that two siblings are similar in their gait, while one of them shares a similarity of posture with a parent, and a hesitant manner of speaking with another parent. And so on. Wittgenstein suggests that in fact we will not find a defining feature or property to marks people as having the McCormack look. In short, the McCormack look does not have a defined unique essence or identity. It is made up of an overlapping collection of subtle similarities.

And so Wittgenstein’s key warning about what to guard against in thinking was: Don’t rely on just a simple generalised case. (Notice that educationally, we could immediately suspect that insofar as genre pedagogy focuses on what they call ‘the typical case’, they are likely to focus on abstract definitions of things, as well as abstract rules about how to construct a well-formed instance of a genre. BTW ‘abstract’ here means: abstracted away from actually looking closely at real cases and comparing them with other real cases. In other words, abstraction is what Wittgenstein is trying to warn us against. Abstraction means we generalise prematurely, try to formulate rules, conventions, definitions to pin down what we have abstracted, but in the meantime miss all the important subtle similarities and differences between the cases when they are studied and described closely.

There is a further problem here with the style of thinking that is bent on constructing forms or structures or essences that can be used to ‘discipline’ the thinking, speaking and writing of students. By focusing on a search for the essence shared by all the cases of, say arguments or narratives, the sampling of cases are ripped out of their context and transformed into decontextualised data, so that they can be easily compared and contrasted with the data from other cases. However, this is fatal for understanding discourse, the actual contexted speech or writing or reading of anyone, because all engagement in language is responsive. That is, what we speak, write, hear or read is never just self-sufficient or passive. It is not as if we write out of the blue just to write an argument; rather, we write in order to respond to something—something someone else said or wrote, or something we have been puzzling about. We are provoked into writing. And it is only in relation to this original contextual provocation, that what we write can be understood in detail. For example, what might seem to be an inexplicable deviation from the conventional patterns of arguing may in fact become understandable and explicable when viewed in light of the original provocation or issue to what the writer is responding.

In fact it is my view that the so-called forms and definitions governing the ‘genres’ of genre pedagogy are in fact mostly just generalisations of typicality, and so they sacrifice attention to the specificity of the writing of individual students to the ‘higher general interest of formulating standards against which students can be assessed and ranked in abstraction from the concrete play of meanings individual students were mobilising and setting in play. To my mind, if we adopt Ranciere’s contrast between politics and police, on this count ‘genre pedagogy’ has positioned itself as a weapon or instrument suited for deployment as an abstract standard against which to measure the work of individual students. Genre pedagogy is engaged in Platonic pedagogy, the discovery of abstract forms that can be used as templates against which student work is measured and assessed. And towards which their work must approximate if they are to write true arguments or true narratives.

My view, along with many others, is that in fact each case is unique. Any piece of work by a student, if they are seriously trying to articulate their understandings, will face a unique context and state of play given their prior understandings and the particular spin of the question or issue that presents itself to them given their embodied and sociocultural context of situation. Of course, a student can decide to simply ‘churn out’ what they know is expected or they may, explicitly or implicitly, be encouraged to produce mush-fake, so that they can ‘get a good mark’.


About Rob McCormack
I am a retired second chance educator living in Melbourne, Australia. Theory I am interested in includes: Rhetoric, both ancient and contemporary; Post-structural discourse theory, Laclau; Halliday's systemic functional linguistic theory; Hermeneutics (esp. Gadamer); philosophy, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Derrida; 'practice theory' in social theory such as Schatzki, Bourdieu; political theory, such as Arendt, Laclau, Tully ; pedagogic theory and philosophy such as Biesta, didaktik. Praxis I am interested in include: Adult education and adult literacy; second chance education; academic discourse and writing; langauge and learning; Indigenous education.

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