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Hi all,
reading some of the more "intellectual" discussions going on here I wondered about the use of citation. Whenever I read a post starting with "as BigGuy says,..." (where BigGuy is a famous thinker), I am automatically suspicious and uneasy. What's the use of quoting BigGuy instead of simply explaining what we mean in our own words? So I thought about the other uses of citation that I know.
In mathematics, we quote someone else's work (not necessarily a BigGuy's) as a shortcut: instead of re-writing what this person has proved, we refer the reader to this other guy's paper. If everything has been done correctly, then one could in theory write the full argument down, including the other guy's results, and obtain a full, self-contained proof of what is claimed.
In everyday life we often refer to lines or situations in famous films or shows or books. It's a shortcut here as well: everybody knows that line in that famous show, so it's easier to explain what I mean by quoting it. Moreover, often that line is also well written, particularly effective, I'm not sure if I could come up with something as good on the spot, hence: the citation. It's a bit of a lazy choice and it requires the existence of a common cultural background, but let's not dwell on that, I'm not bothered by this use of quotation.
So what's different in quoting some BigGuy Thinker? Not much, I admit it. What annoys me, though, is the underlying attitude. The one who quotes should keep in mind that:
1) the fact that also BigGuy said it doesn't prove anything, doesn't make it more true;
2) sometimes the urge of invoking BigGuy's opinion results in making the argumentation less clear: often BigGuy will be someone from another century, who expresses himself in a jargon unknown to most people;
3) (on THINQon) I think we agreed we are not here to write phylosophical essays but to communicate with each other, hence BigGuy should come in only if really relevant.
As Kant once (probably) said, I wish you all a good night.
Hi Layla,
I think you forgot one important use of quotations. In mathematics for example, you won't say:
"Here I think a^n+b^n=c^n has no solutions in the in non-zero integers a,b,c for n greater than n. And actually let me prove it to you."
You could say that, but you would likely mention that it is known as Fermat's last theorem. Otherwise you could be considered stealing. Similarly you will mention Euclid and others. Those are not your theorems but someone else proved them. Similarly in many cases here. I can't say I thought of something when in actuality I'm repeating what someone else is saying.

Moreover, regarding you point 1, if I were talking to an undergrad in math who claimed a theorem to be true, I would react differently if Gaoss would be quoted, or if he quoted himself. It doesn't mean the theorem is correct. I'm sure Gaoss made mistakes, but chances are better for it.

To point 2. That's true what you say, but besides my previous point there is a deeper issue here and that is the one of reading. It's a hard point to explain so I'll just say briefly that some people prefer to talk through the voice of others; through a sort of ventriloquism. Or more correctly through the tension of the text and your own reading of it.
I can say personally that I use that a lot even though I know it would be easier to not tell people how I got to certain ideas. To simply tell them the answer. But I feel then that what I would tell them, even if not stealing, would be a lie. That somehow extracting the origin of the thought, its source of inspiration, misses the whole point.

For example, sometimes when I argue I quote a TV series as you mention, but then I know with certain people that they won't like it as they don't see these series as having anything to do with reality. Can I just say what I learned from them - maybe, but not exactly.

As for point 3, I think people are here for many reasons. But there is again a bigger point here and that is who are you talking to? I'm talking to you now, but I'm also talking to anyone else who might read this. Moreover, I'm talking with dead people - I'm talking with Kant, and I'm talking with Montaigne. They are here with me and part of the argument, and I might quote them similarly as quoting you :-)
Your question is a big one and some of them might have thought of it. Montaigne for instance (to throw a BigGuy) didn't name the source for his quotations though he still always made it clear they were quotations. Many have debated this question and when responding here I'm also responding to them, and so it is reasonable that I would quote them.


I think in general your complaint is not so much about the people doing the quoting but about the people doing the reading. You dislike how people read BigGuys as if what they say is true, and you are completely correct about that. That is what you should be complaining about - how people read and how they accept what they are told by BigGuy without a critique.

(Then of course there are those who quote only to seem smart themselves and with no regard to what they quote. If they are quoting Kant obviously they are smart right. But here again we get into some silly psychology of how people in arguments try to convince other people they actually are "in the know" and should be listened to, no matter how stupid what they say is. Or, for instance, if they find you made a typo or a grammatical mistake obviously your whole argument is meaningless. But all these are endless psychological techniques of argumentation and are not the topic of your post).
As far as quotation goes, I'll sometimes quote Jackson Browne, and sometimes Rainier Maria Rilke. Sometimes "the greats" have a felicity of expression that one's own words just can't quite achieve. Of course, it doesn't make one's points any more true, exactly; but it can make a point more colorful. These blog posts are more than just argumentation; they are an opportunity for differing voices to respond to issues. And that means exposure to different authors. It's nice to hear a "Big Guy" quoted that I'm unfamiliar with. So I say, keep it up.
I would say that, on a psychological level, quoting the Big Guys is not particularly different from the usual way people quote and name-drop in conversation. For every person who happens to name-drop Kant there is a person who mentions that Susan told her such and such when they were having lunch together last week at this new restaurant -- and one is supposed to be just as impressed by the budding friendship with Susan in the one example as one is by Kant in the other.

At the same time, for every person who finds Susan hilarious and wants to give her full credit for her brilliant remark, there is one who mentions Kant in a way that opens up the world for the listener, and makes them want to rush out and read the rest of the reference.

Asserting a bijection might have been a bit much, but I'll stand by the general principle that there are some people who make use of others [as fashion accessories, as protection, as letters of credit, as uniforms...] and other people whose conversation is simply part of a larger frame of reference, who make you feel part of the infinite conversation and call in witnesses from history as you are sitting together at coffee. Those are fun conversations to have. I imagine anyone who has been annoyed by the first sort of people can viscerally tell the difference.
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Latest Post: February 6, 2010 at 3:42 AM
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