The weirdness of academic writing

"The changes in the nature of Chinese government after 1978 where at least as great as those that took place in economic policy. Indeed, one could argue that the massive shift from a centrally planned economy to a more open and marketized one could not have occurred without corresponding changes in the nature of government." -- Fukuyama, p. 371

"One could argue"? Well, is one arguing? And who would that "one" be?

Why not just write, "I argue that"?

9 comments:

  1. From Dan McCarthy:

    "That's not academic writing, it's an attempt at elegant writing: use of the first person singular adds a more concrete persona than the generic "one"—I tell the kids to whom I teach magazine writing to think of their stories like plays and not to add superfluous characters—and the subjective but assertive "I" strikes the wrong tone for the context, where a vague appearance of objectivity seems more suitable.

    "In my experience academics are, if anything, all to ready to resort to first person. Don't! Unless there's good reason for you to be a character in this show, you should be behind the stage—let an extra play that walk-on part."

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    1. McCarthy, what, do you think you are a professional magazine editor or something?

      In any case, I disagree just about completely. There is nothing subjective about an insertion of "I": as M. Polanyi has shown us, all knowledge is personal knowledge, but it is a personal assertion about the objective world.

      The one part I agree with is "vague": yes! I *suspect* that Fukuyama is arguing this, but it is as if he disowns his own argument, so if someone challenges him, he can back off, and say "Oh, *I* didn't argue that: I just said *one* might argue that."

      And that is the very good reason I want someone to come on the stage and take responsibility for this argument: because otherwise, who do I ask for a defense of the argument?

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    2. I take it you are saying it's not just "I" but that imagined third person advancing the view is superfluous. Either make the argument or leave it out.

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    3. Yes, I think that this kind of construction is a way to dodge responsibility. I write "One might even argue that Ken B is a fascist."

      You get upset and complain. My response? "Oh, but I didn't argue that!"

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    4. An argument can be made that you are right ... :)
      I agree. Now there are cases where you want to point out that an argument is colorable, rather than one you endorse, but in situations where that is relevant. Judges should not dismiss lawsuits if there is a colorable argument. But as you say this is usually used as part of a denial drive-by.

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    5. In this particular case, I think the situation is that Fukuyama *suspects* his assertion is true, but hasn't done enough analysis to robustly defend it.

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    6. "McCarthy, what, do you think you are a professional magazine editor or something?"

      Isn't he?

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    7. Yes, I was joking.

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  2. "Why not just write, 'I argue that'?"

    Better yet, just come out and say it: the changes in China's social policy required just as much change in its governmental structure.

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