Blogging and intellectual craftsmanship

When clearing out some files I came on a reprint of one of my favourite essays — “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” by C. Wright Mills. It’s an Appendix to his book, The Sociological Imagination, which was published in 1959, and it’s something I often hand out to graduate students whom I’m supervising. Mills believed that “social science is the practice of a craft” and he decided that it might be useful to his students if he told them how he went about practising his craft.

The result is an amazingly insightful, thought-provoking essay which some of my students have found very helpful in the past. I hadn’t read it for a while, and so settled down with the battered photocopy when I should have been doing something useful (like writing that long course description that one of my colleagues has been despairingly requesting for weeks).

What I discovered was that I was seeing the paper in a new light, because I was now reading from the perspective of a blogger. And some of what Mills has to say rings bells for academics who find themselves reflecting on the relationship between blogging and intellectual work.

Mills opens with a reminder that “the most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community you have chosen to join [in this case sociology] do not split their work from their lives. They seem to take both too seriously to allow such dissociation, and they want to use each for the enrichment of the other”. Most of the best bloggers I know display this reluctance to separate their lives from their work. There are a few exceptions, of course — Ed Felten, say, or the Posner/Becker double-act — but, in the main, life and work are intertwined.

And for good reasons. As Mills says:

“Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career; whether aware of it or not, the intellectual worker forms his or her own self in working toward the perfection of craft; to realise personal potentialities, and any opportunities that come his or her way, such a person constructs a character which has as its core the qualities of the good workman… craftsmanship is the center of yourself and you are personally involved in every intellectual product upon which you may work. To say that you can ‘have experience,’ means, for one thing, that your past plays into and affects your present, and that it defines your capacity for future experience. As a social scientist, you have to control this rather elaborate interplay, to capture what you experience and sort it out; only in this way can you hope to use it to guide and test your reflection, and in the process shape yourself as an intellectual craftsman.”

But how best to do this? One answer, writes Mills, is to

“set up a file, which is, I suppose, a sociologist’s way of saying: – keep a journal. Many creative writers keep journals; the sociologist’s need for systematic reflection demands it. In such a file as I am going to describe, there is joined personal experience and professional activities, studies under way and studies planned. In this file, you, as an intellectual craftsman, will try to get together what you are doing intellectually and what you are experiencing as a person. Here you will not be afraid to use your experience and relate it directly to various work in progress. By serving as a check on repetitious work, your file also enables you to conserve your energy. It also encourages you to capture “fringe-thoughts”: various ideas which may be by-products of everyday life, snatches of conversation overheard on the street, or, for that matter, dreams. Once noted, these may lead to more systematic thinking, as well as lend intellectual relevance to more directed experience.”

“By keeping an adequate file and thus developing self-reflective habits”, he continues,

“you learn how to keep your inner world awake. Whenever you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your files and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself either how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape. The file also helps you build up the habit of writing. You cannot “keep your hand in” if you do not write something at least every week. In developing the file, you can experiment as a writer and thus, as they say, develop your powers of expression. To maintain a file is to engage in the controlled experience.”

This sounds to me awfully like the best kind of blogging — the kind, say, practiced by Dave Winer, Martin Weller, Tony Hirst, Lorcan Dempsey or Nicholas Carr. And Mills’s essay is one of the the best arguments for blogging I’ve come across. Yet it was written in the late 1950s.