Friday, January 29, 2021

Invisible Revisions

Imagine an essay manuscript: version A.  Monday morning, I read through version A.  I'm not satisfied. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I revise and revise -- cutting some ideas, adding others, tweaking the phrasing, trying to perfect the manuscript.  Wednesday night I have the new version, version B.  My labor is complete. I set it aside.

Three weeks later, I reread the manuscript -- version B, of course.  It lacks something.  The ideas I had made more complex seem now too complex.  They lack vigor.  Conversely, what I had simplified for version B now seems flat and cartoonish.  The new sentences are clumsy, the old ones better.  My first instincts had been right, my second thoughts poor.  I change everything back to the way it was, one piece at a time, thoughtfully.  Now I have version C -- word-for-word identical to version A.

To your eyes, version A and version C look the same, but I know them to be vastly different.  What was simplistic in version A is now, in version C, elegantly simple.  What I overlooked in version A, version C instead subtly finesses.  What was rough prose in version A is now artfully casual.  Every sentence of version C is deeper and more powerful than in version A.  A journal would rightly reject version A but rightly accept version C.[1, 2]


[1] If you're worried about the apparent conflict between this post and my Principle of Anticharity and my critique of obfuscatory philosophy, I see what you mean.  To address this issue, I engaged in several rounds of invisible revisions.  I expect you'll find it much better now.

[2]: Yes, fellow Borges enthusiasts, this piece was inspired by Borges' "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote".


Revised with updates from A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures, which is currently on sale in paper for about $15 at Amazon.

Apologies for the repost.  (It's eight years old, so I'm allowed, right?)  I'm deep into writing The Weirdness of the World, my forthcoming book from Princeton, and with a snow day Wednesday and various other sources of chaos I wasn't quite able to get my head together for a new post this week.

[image source]


  1. Yep. Why can’t we give our ideas to others “directly” rather than by means of word interpretation? It’s frustrating as hell! I guess it’s because it’s not the words themselves that have meaning, but the non-fixed thoughts which they tend to provoke.

    I think our wives were thinking the same thing for that snow day. Don’t know where you were but mine got us a cabin in Idyllwild for it.

  2. Thanks Timon!

    Phil Eric: In other posts and book chapters, I say that philosophy is all about what's on the surface of the text, not about the intention behind the words. This post is rather in conflict with that (hence Note 1). We just drove along the 243 until we found a good empty, forested, flattish spot and pulled over -- a five-hour daytrip rather than an overnight. I do love those Idyllwild cabins though!

  3. Apologies for my charity professor, but after going through your two “Note 1” posts I suspect that you’re not doing yourself justice with your supposed “surface” rather than “intention” stipulation. Your principle of anti charity is essentially a heuristic suggesting that an uncharitable interpretation of historical philosophy should tend to provide more of what was actually intended. Surely their ideas shouldn’t be colored by modern positions or even “political correctness”. I agree. Then your critique of obfuscatory philosophy utterly nails it! I shall bookmark your “three illegitimate benefits of being obfuscatory” for standard usage.

    My point however is that even when we do have non ambiguous ideas, and hopefully are able to express them in reasonable ways, the perceptions of others will still be based upon their interpretations. So it goes…

  4. Yes, so it goes. As long as one doesn't fall too hard into wiggly excuse-making for yourself or your favorite philosophers, it of course makes sense to charitably aim to discover the underlying reasonable intention. :-)