The Philosophy of Style

Spencer, Herbert 1892. The Philosophy of Style; Together with an Essay on Style by T. H. Wright. With introduction and notes by Fred N. Scott. Second Edition. Boston, Allyn and Bacon.

Sterne's intended implication that a knowledge of the principles of reasoning neither makes, nor is essential to, a good reasoner, is doubtless true. Thus, too, it is with grammar. As Dr. Latham, condemning the usual school-drill in Lindley Murray, rightly remarks: - "Gross vulgarity is a fault to be prevented; but the proper prevention is to be got from habit - not rules." Similarly, there can be little question that good composition is far less dependent upon acquaintance with its laws, than upon practice and natural aptitude. A clear head, a quick imagination, and a sensitive ear, will go far towards making all rhetorical precepts needless. He who daily hears and reads well-framed sentences, will naturally more or less tend to use similar ones. (Spencer 1892: 1)
I tend to hold similar beliefs regarding language acquisition. We depart in that I believe that passive reception is not nearly as effective as constant practice - not only reading in English, for example, but also writing in it. These short remarks I have written to my compendium of quotes have gone a long way towards improving my syntax.
Standing as isolated dogmas - as empirical generalizations, they are neither so clearly apprehended, nor so much respected, as they would be were they deduced from some simple first principle. We are told that "brevity is the soul of wit." We hear styles condemned as verbose or involved. Blair states that every needless part of a sentence "interrupts the description and clogs the image;" and again, that "long sentences fatigue the reader's attention." (Spencer 1892: 2)
This could very well be used as a counter-argument against Shklovsky's deautomatization. I now have a personal experience - I began reading Blue Lard, as recommended by Ü. P., but had to quit after a few pages because I found the style to be too deautomatized. Why should I read something that only gives me fatigue?
On seeking for some clue to the law underlying these current maxims, we may see shadowed forth in many of them, the importance of economizing the reader's or hearer's attention. To so present ideas that they may be apprehended with the least possible mental effort, is the desideratum towards which most of the rules above quoted point. When we condemn swriting that is wordy, or confused, or intricate - when we praise this style as easy, and blame that as fatigue, we consciously or unconsciously assume this desideratum as our standard of judgment. Regarding language as an apparatus of symbols for the conveyance of thought, we may say that, as in a mechanical apparatus, the more simple and the better arranged its parts, the greater will be the effect produced. In either case, whatever force is absorbed by the machine is deduced from the result. A reader or listener as at each moment but a limited amount of mental power available. To recognize and interpret the symbols presented to him, requires part of this power; to arrange and combine the images suggested requires a further part; and only that part which remains can be used for realizing the thought conveyed. Hence, the more time and attention it takes to receive and understand each sentence, the less time and attention can be given to the contained idea; and the less vividly will that idea be conceived. (Spencer 1892: 3)
This is the first part of the first quote that Shklovsky uses in his "Art as Technique". The underlined part, that is.
How truly language must be regarded as a hindrance to thought, the necessary instrument of it, we shall clearly perceive on remembering the comparative force with which simple ideas are communicated by ideas. To say, "Leave the room," is less expressive than to point to the door. Placing a finger on the lips is more forcible than whispering, "Do not speak." No prase can convey the idea of surprise so vividly as opening the eyes and raising the eyebrows. A shrug of the shoulders would lose much by translation into words. Again, it may be remarked that when oral language is employed, the strongest effects are produced by interjections, which condense entire sentences into syllables. And in other cases, where custom allows us to express thoughts by single words, as in Beware, Heigho, Fudge, much force would be lost by expanding them into specific propositions. Hence, carrying out the metaphor that language is the vehicle of thought, there seems reason to think that in all cases the friction and inertia of the vehicle deduct from its efficiency; and that in composition, the chief, if not the sole thing to be done, is, to reduce this friction and inertia to the smallest possible amount. Let us then inquire whether economy of the recipient's attention is not the secret of effect, alike in the right choice and collocation of words, in the best arrangement of clauses in a sentence, in the proper order of its principal and subordinate propositions, in the judicious use of simile, metaphor, and other figures of speech, and even in the rhythmic sequence of syllables. (Spencer 1892: 3-4)
This is the continuation of the first quote in Shklovsky. I was pleasantly surprised to find Spencer appraise nonverbal communication, but saddened a bit that this is exactly the part that Shklovsky chose to leave out and not deal with.
This ingenious paradox rests upon an artificial distinction between language and other modes of expression. Language itself is but a system of verbal signs. Whan Spencer says is therefore virtually this: "Language is an inferior form of expression for ideas which are more easily expressed by other kinds of signs." Language in one sense is indeed a "hindrance to the expression of thought," and properly so; it forces vague and ill-defined thought back upon itself, compelling it to assume the organized form requisite to ordered verbal expression. (Spencer 1892: 4; Scott's note no. 1)
This makes me wonder if I could write my "reader's response to Shklovsky" into a veritable paper that deals, at least a little, with nonverbal communication. In any case it would appear that Spencer is not dealing with "The law of the economy of creative effort" as Shklovsky (2006[1917]: 777) claims, but with "Economy in the Use of Words" (as reads the title of the relevant subchapter).
The creater forcibleness of Saxon English, or rather non-Latin English, first claims our attention. The several special reasons assignable for this may all be reduced to the general reason - economy. The most important of them is early association. A child's vocabulary is almost wholly Saxon. He says, I have, not I possess - I wish, not I desire; he does not reflect, he thinks; he does not beg for amusement, but for play; he calls things nice or nasty, not pleasant or disagreeable. The synonyms which he learns in after years, never become so closely, so organically connected with the ideas signified, as do these original words used in childheed; and hence the association remains less strong. But in what does a strong association between a word and an idea differ from a weak one? Simply in the greater ease and rapidity of suggestive action. It can be in nothing else. Both of two words, if they be strictly synonymous, eventually call up the same image. The expression - It is acid, must in the end give rise to the same thought as - It is sour; but because the term acid was learnt later in life, and has not been so often followed by the thought symbolized, it does not so readily arouse that thought as the term sour. If we remember how slowly and with what labour the appropriate ideas follow unfamiliar words in another language, and how increasing familiarity with such words brings greater rapidity and ease of comprehension; and if we consider that the same process must have gone on with the words of our mother tongue from childhood upwards, we shall clearly see that the earliest learnt and oftenest used words, will, other things equal, call up images with less loss of time and energy than their later learnt synonyms. (Spencer 1892: 5)
This could go well with Shklovsky's notes on the strangeness of foreign language, and of poetry written in another language. But it is also the case that association may work in such a way that - as is my case - if one reads technical (non-fiction) literature in another language, it will be easier to commence academic work in that language, rather in native tongue, which is used mostly for reading fiction, communicating with peers, and going about daily toil. The distinction between "natural language" and "technical language" is relevant here.
If, as all know, it is tiresome to listen to an indistinct speaker, or read a badly-written manuscript, or read a badly-written manuscript; and if, as we cannot doubt, the fatigue is a cumulative result of the attention needed to catch successive syllables; it follows that attention is in such cases absordeb by each syllable. (Spencer 1892: 6)
For some reason it is sometimes the case that a neatly-written and argumentative text is more tiresome than one that is written as if spoken, and full of novel slang expressions.
One qualification, however, must not be overlooked. A word which in itself embodies the most important part of the idea to be conveyed, especially when that idea is an emotional one, may often with advantage be a polysyllabic word. Thus it seems more forcible to say, "It is magnificent," than "It is grand." The word vast is not so powerful a one as stupendous. Calling a thing nasty is not so effective as calling it disgusting. (Spencer 1892: 6)
A very interesting addition to the topic of the emotive function of language. But I wonder why that is - could it be that the greater amount of syllables allows for greater emotional impact in the process of pronounciation? Oh, "A further cause may be that a word of several syllables admits of more emphatic articulation" (ibid, 6).
Once more, that frequent cause of strength in Saxon and other primitive words - their imitative character, may be similarly resolved into the more general cause. Both those directly imitative, as splash, bang, whiz, roar, &c., and those analogically imitative, as rough, smooth, keen, blunt, thin, hard, crag, &c., have a greater or less likeness to the things symbolized; and by making on the senses impressions allied to the ideas to be called up, they save part of the effort needed to call up such ideas, and leave more attention for the ideas themselves. (Spencer 1892: 7)
This problem is at the center of Shklovsky's polemic: when calling up ideas is easy (takes little effort), then the words themselves are not perceived, but recognized. In poetry (and by proxy, all art), attention should be paid to the words themselves, rather than what they symbolize - or at least that's the argument. What I find faulty here is captured best in Spencer's phrasing: when most of the effort goes into calling up the ideas that words symbolize (if they symbolize ideas at all), very little attention is left for the ideas themselves. In this sense it could be said that the ideal poetry of the formalists (e.g. zaum) is not trans-sense or supra-thought, but thought-less (in Estonian, mõttetu).
The economy of the recipient's mental energy, into which are thus resolvable the several causes of the strength of Saxon English, may equally be traced in the superiority of specific over generic words. That concrete terms produce more vivid impressions than abstract ones, and should, when possible, be used instead, is a thorough maxim of composition. As Dr. Campbell says, "The more general the terms are, the picture is the fainter; the more special they are, 'tis the brighter." We should avoid such sentences as: - "In proportion as the manners, customs, and amusements of a nation are cruel and barbarous, the regulations of their penal code will be severe." And in place of it we should write: - "In proportion as men delight in battles, bull-fights, and combats of gladiators, will they punish by hanging, burning, and the rack." (Spencer 1892: 7-8)
So this is what people mean when they complain that "legalese", e.g. the language of legal documents, is increasingly vague and demanding (the reader should have a degree in law in order to understand it). It is indeed the case that legal documents contain more abstract terms and "pushing the referent further" by means like "(a) In General. - Notwithstanding any other provision of law limiting the assistance to be provided under this section, beginning on the date following the date of completion of the assessment required by subsection (b)" (S.2277).
This superiority of specific expressions is clearly due to a saving of the effort required to translate words into thoughts. As we do not think in generals but in particulars - as, whenever any class of things is referred to, we represent it to ourselves by calling to mind individual members of it; it follows that when an abstract word is used, the hearer or reader has to choose from his stock of images, one or more, by which he may figure to himself the genus mentioned. In doing this, some delay must arise - some force be expended; and if, by employing a specific term, an appropriate image can be at once suggested, an economy is achieved, and a more vivid impression produced. (Spencer 1892: 8)
That's an interesting use of the concept of translation. More importantly, the selection of suitable images to interpret an abstract word is relevant for the discussion of images in Sklovsky.
As in a narrative, the events should be stated in such sequence that the mind may not have to go backwards and forwards in order to rightly connect them; as in a group of sentences, the arrangement should be such, that each of them may be understood as it comes, without waiting for subsequent ones; so in every sentence, the sequence of words should be that which suggests the constituents of the thought in the order most convenient for the building up that thought. (Spencer 1892: 9)
But according to the Russian formalists, forcing the mind to go backwards and forwards is exactly the point of poetry understood as dynamic speech constructions (e.g. demonstrating qualities of retention as well as protention).

Wright, T. H. 1892. Appendix: The Sound-Element in Verse. In: The Philosophy of Style; Together with an Essay on Style by T. H. Wright. With introduction and notes by Fred N. Scott. Second Edition. Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 61-63.

This gratification (i.e. that produced byt he mere sound of verse) such as it is, is of an entirely positive kind, acting directly on the sense. It would not have occurred to me that there could be a doubt about this, had not Mr. Spencer, in his essay on the 'Philosophy of Style,' taken another view. He ingeniously refers forcible style to economy of the reader's or hearer's attention, and makes out his point very successfully in many particulars; but he seems to me quite to fail in his attempt to bring the effect of rhythmical structure in verse under the same rule. He says, 'If, as we have seen, there is an expenditure of mental energy in the mere act of listening to verbal articulations, or in that silent repetition of them which goes in in reading - if the perceptive faculties must be in active exercise to identify every syllable - then any mode of combining words as to present a regular recurrence of certain traits which the mind can anticipate, will diminish that strain upon the attention required by the total irregularity of prose. Just as the body, in receiving a series of varying concussions, must keep the muscles ready to meet the most violent of them, as not knowing when such may come; so the mind, in receiving unarranged articulations, must keep its perceptives active enough to recognize the least easily caught sounds. And as, if the concussions recur in a definite order, the body may husband its forces by adjusting the resistance needful for each concussion; so, if the syllable be rhythmically arranged, the mind may economize its energies by anticipating the attention required for each syllable. (Wright 1892: 61)
The underlined part is the one that Shklovsky quotes in "Art as Technique" and erroneously attributes to Herbert Spencer. This is actually the appendix, first published as: Wright, T. H. 1877. Style. Macmillan's Magazine 37: 78-84.
"There is surely a confusion here between the intellect and the ear, and between two distinct meanings of perception, namely, the recognition of a syllable as a known word or part of a known word, and the mere hearing of it as part of a series of accented and unaccented sounds. The 'least easily caught sounds' are those which, from softness or indistinctness, it is hardest to recognize as known words or parts of known words; but these are no less easily and completely heard as belonging to the regular series of alternating sounds than the louder accented constituents of the series. As regards the mere act of hearing, the perception of the series is an affection which would be as easily produced by nonsense-syllables arranged in the same rhythm: and as for attention, not less but more of it would seem to be involved in the case of a regular accented series than in prose. (Wright 1892: 62)
On the surface, this sounds a lot like the topic Shklovsky is actually discussing, but since I'm not a linguist I can't yet make heads or tails of it. I can only guess that the problem here is similar to the one pointed out by Shklovsky's critics: that the distinction the process of perception itself and the mode of presentation of that perception is not clear enough.
For against the supposition that the ear is relieved at alternate instants from the strain of its expectant attitude, through foreknowledge of the place of the louder syllables, we must set the fact that in verse it is actively on the watch, and notices with positive satisfaction the rhythmical succession as such; while in an irregular series it is not the least on the watch for the purely sound-qualities of what is going on, but acts as the uninterested and passive conductor of symbols to the mind. The intellectual recognition of the sounds, on the other hand, as known words or parts of known words, is in no way facilitated by their rhythmical succession. There are as many comparatively loud and distinct syllables, and as many comparatively faint and indistinct ones, in a paragraph of prose as in an equally long paragraph of verse: and the sum of mental energy required to identify them is equal in the two cases. The fact that in the verse the ear is aware beforehand at what instant the louder and fainter syllables are coming cannot relieve the intellect of its labour of recognition; for difficulty or ease of recognition is simply a function of the distinctness with which the syllable is heard when it comes, and of nothing else. (Wright 1892: 62)
It sounds like Wright did indeed distinguish between the "practical" and "poetic" use of language. Bingo?

Lewes, George Henry 1901. The principles of success in literature. Edited by WM. Dallam Armes. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

What is the first object of a machine? Effective work - vis viva [living force]. Every means by which friction can be reduced, and the force thus economised be rendered available, necessarily solicits the constructor's care. He seeks as far as possible to liberate the motion which is absorbed in the working of the machine, and to use it as vis viva. He knows that every superfluous detail, every retarding influence, is at the cost of so much power, and is a mechanical defect though it may perhaps be an aesthetic beauty or a practical convenience. He may retain it because of the beauty, because of the convenience, but he knows the price of effective power at which it is obtained. (Lewes 1901: 165)
Again, Shklovsky turns all this upside down, and studies how the constructor takes care to create friction and reduce "practical convenience".
And thus it stands with Style. The first object of a writer is effective expression, the power of communicating distinct thoughts and emotional suggestions. He has to overcome the friction of ignorance and preoccupation. He has to arrest a wandering attention, and to clear away the misconceptions which cling around verbal symbols. (Lewes 1901: 166)
In "Art as Technique" the point seems to be exactly to create "the friction of ignorance" by not naming the things by their correct names, or from an animal's point of view. It is wilful ignorance that acts in that technique.
Words are not like iron and wood, coal and water, invariable in their properties, calculable in their effects. They are mutable in their powers, deriving force and subtle variations of force from very trifling changes of position; coloring and colored by the words which precede and succeed; significant or insignificant from the powers of rhythm and cadence. (Lewes 1901: 166)
This, I imagine, some formalists (like Tynianov) might actually like. Cf. words as chameleons.
Economy dictates that the meaning should be presented in a form which claims the least possible attention to itself as form, unless when that form is part of the writer's object, and when the simple thought is less important than the manner of presenting it. And even when the manner is playful or impassioned, the law of Economy still presides, and insists on the rejection of whatever is superfluous. (Lewes 1901: 167-168)
Bingo! Shklovsky's very idea, captured decades before he set it to paper.
The reader's pleasure must not be forgotten; and he cannot be pleased by a style which always leaps and never flows. A harsh, abrupt, and dislocated manner irritates and perplexes him by its sudden jerks. (Lewes 1901: 172)
This was me, attempting to read Blue Lard.
But Style appeals to the emotions as well as to the intellect, and the arrangement of words and sentences which will be the most economical may not be the most musical, and the most musical may not be the most pleasurably effective. For Climax and Variety it may be necessary to sacrifice something of rapid intelligibility; hence involutions, antitheses, and suspensions, which disturb the most orderly arrangement, may yet, in virtue of their own subtle influences, be counted as improvements on that arrangement. (Lewes 1901: 189)
This is the passage quoted in the footnote in Spencer's essay, by F. N. Scott, that sent me on an excursion to this book.

Clay, Edmund R. 1882. The Alternative: A Study in Psychology. London: MacMillan and Co.

According to the primary meaning of the word perceive, one perceives not only when he sees, hears, smells, tastes, and undergoes tactile consciousness, but also when he imagines, remembers, conceives, judges, apprehends danger in an emotion of fear or sacredness in one of reverence. According to this signification and the corresponding one of the cognate term, perception, the latter denotes the affectation of mind that is correlated to objectivity, - the mind's embrace of an object. Philosophers have in modern times assigned a narrower signification to the term, perception. Convenience demands another alteration of its meaning, opposing it, as I shall presently explain, to what Leibnitz terms apperception. Accordingly, stripping the word discernment of its connotation of contrast, I assign to it the meaning originally annexed to the term, perception. Discernment and objectivity are correlatives, and perception is a species of discernment. This arrangement is facilitated by the fact that the term, discrimination, has been a synonym of, and can do duty for, the term discernment. (Clay 1882: 19)
In short, even imagination and remembering involve perception, or, to be precise, discernment.
Self-consciousness is the objectivity of an individual to himself. It is therefore a mistake to oppose subjective consciousness to objectivity: it is a species of objectivity. Objectivity is either subjective or non-subjective; in other words, objects are either subjective or non-subjective. What has been accounted opposition of subjective and objective consciousness is really opposition of subjective and non-subjective objectivity. Every normal discernment of which the object comprises all that is objective at any one instant is discernment of a subjective and a non-subjective object, the former comprising what is given as self or the Ego and its appurtenances or modifications, the latter the not-self, the non-moi, the non-Ego. Such a discernment, accordingly, consists of two constituents, one known as self-consciousness, and by Leibnitz more conventiently termed Apperception, the other what refers to the opposed object. The constituent that refers to self and its modifications I term apperception, and the other, perception. It is now obvious that I am conservative as regards the meaning of the term, perception, and that my innovation affects only the import of the term, discernment. (Clay 1882: 21-22)
This distinction may go a long way towards drawing distinctions in relation with autocommunication and private signs.
Subjective objectivity includes the body of the subject and certain of its states and changes. In every normal discernment embracing all that is at the time objective, the subject apperceives his body. In sense-perception he apperceives the perceiving organ, e.g. in seeing he apperceives the eyes. We apperceive the expression of our faces, the attitudes and motions of our bodies. (Clay 1882: 24)
What I have naively termed "nonverbal self-communication" is accounted for here by the term apperception.
We see in others, and they see in us, signs that are given as signs of emotion, when the putative subject is ignorant that he is undergoing the emotion ascribed to him. How often does resentment shoot its arrows at us when the subject believes himself not only to be free from anger but to be actuated by regard for our interest or by pious zeal. We frequently discern emotion in ourselves which is given as having had a latent beginning and growth. People of conduct are led by their vigilance to the discovery of kinds of emotions that never manifest themselves in vulgar experience. It achieves what is known in mystical language as discernment of spirits. The discovery penetrates even to emotions, which, when discerned, are found to be the conscious sides - the faces or appearances - of states of the heart that are moulds of emotion, states of which "mood" is the common name. For example, one comes to detect an emotion that signifies a tendency to anger at a time when the heart is altogether free from anger, - nay is disposed to mirth, although with a tincture of irony. Or one may detect an emotion significant of a mood that is a mould of low and trivial sentiment. The discerned events are given as being emotions, - emotions that existed antecedently to, as well as at the time of, the discovery. If the datum be true, if the events be indeed what they seem to be, are they not Consciousness of which the subject is ignorant? (Clay 1882: 26-27)
The first part concerns what I have labelled "nonverbal ethics" - e.g. others are able to perceive our emotions better than we able to apperceive them (we feel, but do not see, the action of our facial muscles), but when they report on our expression and thus our emotions, the result may be that resentment shoots its arrows at us. Anger disposed to mirth with a tincture of irony concerns one of the more complicated problems in the psychology of emotion - the so-called "blends". The author aptly distinguishes emotion from mood by the latter having "a latent beginning and growth", e.g. duration. For my study on "facecrime", I can take away from this that I should not be so interested in the emotive function - which is an intentional expression of emotions - but rather in expressions of emotion that the subject is ignorant of.
The innovation exposes a genus hithero unknown, and is innocent of any greater infringement than the transfer of a name from a species to its genus. I was shut in to the alternative of inventing for the genus a new name or transferring to it that of one of its species. The aversion of the mind to new names I deem a sufficient apology for my choice. It was impossible to avoid a shock to mental habit. I trust it wll be found that I have avoided the greater violence. (Clay 1882: 28)
I feel ill at ease with concourse, which now seems like an unpromising candidate for naming body language in literature.
I have now to explain what I understand by the terms distinctness and indistinctness. They denote undefinable attributes of objects. When a tree is an object of visual perception and attention it is a distinct object, and its qualities, e.g. its solidity, colour, form, etc., are indistinct objects. When a grove is an object of visual perception and attention it is a distinct object, and those of its trees that are nearest to the centre of the field of vision may, if not too remote, be distinct objects. In the second case, the trees near to the circumference of the vision may be indistinction. The qualities of a tree that is an indistinct object are more indistinct than those of a tree that is distinct. Of distinct objects those that are objects of attention are more distinct than those that are not. Thus we see that there are degrees of distinctness and of indistinctness. It is essential to the object of attention to be distinct, but objects of inattentive discernment are not necessarily indistinct. (Clay 1882: 30-31)
This is eerily reminiscent of Michael Polanyi's distinction between focal and subsidiary awareness.
Indistinctness supposes objectivity. What is not an object cannot be indistinct.
There are two well-marked degrees of indistinctness, viz., that which does and that which does not, exclude knowledge of the indistinct object. The indistinctness of normal inchoate consciousness, e.g. the ignored light, is an example of indistinctess that excludes knowledge of the object. Let indistinctness of this degree be distinguished as abditive. The indistinctness of objects near the circumference of the field of vision is an example of the kind that does not exclude knowledge. Let it be distinguished as inabditive.
Distinctness graduates, through instances, into inabditive indistinctness, and the latter into abditive indistinctness, as neighbour colours of the rainbow graduate one into the other, equally excluding a detection of boundary and doubt of the existence of specific difference. For example, the graduation excludes the possibility of ascertaining a minimum of distance from the centre of the field of vision beyond which a thing that, within the distance, would be distinct, is indistinct. (Clay 1882: 31)
Thus, the indistinctness of something in the centre of the field of vision is abditive, while the indistinctness of something on the edge of the field of vision is inabditive. We do not notice the minimum light reaching our eyes when we close our eyes, and thus have no knowledge of it; while we do notice things in our peripheral vision about which, although they are indistinct, we can still have knowledge.
In order to explain what is denoted by the term, Knowledge, I must take a liberty with the term, thesis, assigning to it a partially new meaning. I trust that the importance of the new signification, to which no other known term is, by its connotation, so well adapted, will be found a sufficient apology. I employ the term, thesis, as denoting a thing which, when objective, is verbally expressible by a proposition and not otherwise. (Clay 1882: 32)
Not sure if this would help be define thesis for my own experiment with quasi-Peircean trichotomy borrowed from Santaella Braga. I think I've had enough of this excursion.


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