Blog Post #1: Which Came First, The Chicken or The Egg?

In The Secret to Good Writing: It’s About Objects, Not Ideas, John Maguire graces the readers of The Atlantic with a negative generalization about student writers based on a group of college freshmen that Maguire states, “lack certain skills that were common among college freshmen 40 years ago.” While Maguire fails to articulate the exact list of skills, he does, however, present what he deems the sole answer to better writing: writing physically!

While I’m sure that many of my classmates would take issue with such a broad generalization of student writers, I’m not offended. The fact of the matter is: many incoming freshmen can’t write (I was one of them); however, I take great issue with Maguire’s logic as to WHY these students can’t write well.

Maguire’s solution to students writing well is using more concrete nouns, yet how does Maguire expect young writers to rid their writing of abstractness and write physically, when Maguire can’t explain physical writing to his students without being abstract? When asked to define concrete nouns, Maguire responds, “It’s something you can drop on your foot.” Even as a senior philosophy major that has taken many upper level writing courses Maguire’s retort sounded a bit vague, so I did what any college senior would do “40 years later”…I Googled it!

(The following is the result of my Google search)

You experience concrete nouns through your five senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. If you cannot see, hear, taste, touch, or smell something, it is not a concrete nounConcrete nouns can be: Common nouns.

Now, if I were Maguire’s student, I’m now just as confused as the first moment “ drop on your foot” left Maguire’s mouth. In the sentence: “There is a smell in the living room,” smell is a concrete noun, yet I can’t drop a smell on my foot. The fact of the matter remains that the writing problems students face are far more complex than Maguire would like to acknowledge.

Turning from his pedagogical position, Maguire’s characterization of physical objects seems to align with that of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi’s proclaims that, “ [e]very artifact is the product of human intentionality, but that intentionality itself is conditioned by the existence of previous objects,” which is similar to Maguire position that “all abstract ideas derive from objects.” Although Professor C goes a step further than Maguire by attaching a temporal value to physical objects, one still arrives at the age old philosophical question: which came first: the chicken or the egg?

Given every object is preceded by an abstract idea, the resulting inference is either an infinite regress or, for those of us who believe in a deity, the abstract idea known as God. Thus, Maguire has committed what the philosopher Nietzsche refers to as Confusing Cause with Consequence, abstract ideas don’t derive from physical objects… physical objects derive from abstract ideas. At the foundation of Maguire’s position rest a misrepresentation of not only college writers but also of physical objects. Writing embodies a synthesis of physical objects and abstract ideas. The reason many freshman arrive to Maguire’s class without the ability to write well is the lack of basic writing skills being taught in lower grades. Writing physically isn’t the answer, better teaching is!

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3 thoughts on “Blog Post #1: Which Came First, The Chicken or The Egg?”

  1. I don’t think Macguire meant physical objects as something you can literally drop on your foot. It seems he’s using this idea of grounding written works in the physically world so it is capable of communicating a bit more clearly. Dropping something on your foot is an action we can easily access in our imagination, whereas an abstraction described in abstract terms might mean different things to different people, or just confuse all around. That’s probably why that description was effective.

    Do all abstractions come from objects? Or was that just a rhetorical device to force the importance of writing physically? I have no clue and I’m not going to trouble myself to figure out when it seems greater people have not even done it. Whether an abstraction comes from an object or vice versa, i’m not sure, but Prown did touch on form in his paper; and frankly, someone may have sat on a rock before they decided to build a chair. Who knows.
    Overall I tend to agree with Macguire, that students (i’m speaking for myself), confound their writing by unnecessary “abstractitis” that can be soothed by writing physically. As to the “synthesis of physical objects and abstract ideas” you mention, if i understood you correctly, I believe that is what Macguire is saying: that we reach the abstraction by discussing or confronting the physical world. Like when the apple fell on Newton’s head and he came up with gravity (granted, i doubt it was that simple). Yet, in all it’s simplicity, that story was an abstract anecdote told to me growing up: great ideas can come from anything; if the opportunity is seized; and the skill to do so is attained; and the perseverance to follow through is acquired; and so on and so on; in a simple short story about an apple falling on a man’s head.

  2. I don’t think Macguire meant physical objects as something you can literally drop on your foot. It seems he’s using this idea of grounding written works in the physically world so it is capable of communicating a bit more clearly. Dropping something on your foot is an action we can easily access in our imagination, whereas an abstraction described in abstract terms might mean different things to different people, or just confuse all around. That’s probably why that description was effective.
    Do all abstractions come from objects? Or was that just a rhetorical device to force the importance of writing physically? I have no clue and I’m not going to waste brain power to figure out. Whether an abstraction comes from an object or vice versa, i’m not sure, but Prown did touch on form in his paper; and frankly, someone may have sat on a rock before they decided to build a chair. Who knows.
    Overall I tend to agree with Macguire, that students (i’m speaking for myself), confound their writing by unnecessary “abstractitis” that can be soothed by writing physically. As to the “synthesis of physical objects and abstract ideas” you mention, if i understood you correctly, I believe that is what Macguire is saying: that we reach the abstraction by discussing or confronting the physical world. Like when the apple fell on top of Newton’s head and he came up with gravity (granted, i doubt it was that simple). Yet, in all it’s simplicity, that story was an abstract anecdote told to me growing up: great ideas can come from anything; if the opportunity is seized; and the skill to do so is attained; and the perseverance to follow through is acquired; and so on and so on, in a simple story about an apple falling on a man’s head.

  3. Finally, I found a post that I can relate to. I completely agree with your interpretation of magurie article. using freshman student, to support the idea that student are dumb or the fact that they can’t write is just unfair. I just feel that some individuals are at a bigger disadvantage, for many different reasons. For some people writing comes easier then others depending on several thing’s.

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