Collaborative reading sessions very much form the backbone of Ordered Universe Symposia. The members of the interdisciplinary working group sit around a large table and go through the draft translations provided by Sigbjorn Sonnesyn, and they often find themselves discussing how to best render individual Latin terms in English. The ideal translation conveys what Grosseteste had in mind in a way that’s faithful to the Latin, yet understandable to modern-day readers, and avoidant of terms loaded with modern-day concepts that diverge from the medieval connotations. One might guess that such translations are often difficult if not impossible to find, and hence throughout the sessions Giles Gasper’s list of terms that will need a glossary tends to steadily become longer.
During the Rome symposium I found myself thinking that this careful word-by-word processing of a text is something that I miss in my university courses. I do psychology, and it’s hence not surprising that we tend to not work on the level of individual words. That said, a friend of mine recently shared an article with me that suggests that maybe, this is exactly what we should do more. Lilienfeld and colleagues put together a list of 50 psychological and psychiatric terms that are used in inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused ways. I have to admit quite a few of these errors I’ve been regularly committing. Having read the Lilienfeld article, I understand why these terms are confused, but I had simply never really thought about what they mean. Some of these errors are probably negligible and criticism of their use might appear pedantic. Others, however, reveal in writing fundamental misconceptions and woolliness in thinking. The authors quote the US historian David McCullough from an interview on the topic of the humanities and the role they play in a democracy (http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture/david-mccullough-interview):
“Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.”
The point that Lilienfeld and colleagues want to bring home is that clarity in writing and clarity in thinking go together, and allowing for ambiguities in one will also cloud the other. Insisting on clearly defined and correctly used terms has hence nothing to do with pedantry but ultimately rests at the heart of good scientific practice. I believe that this is a point where modern-day scientists can learn from the humanities. Many scientists do take great care in their choice of individual words, but sadly there are many others who do not. During my undergraduate in psychology and philosophy, I’ve often found it difficult to synthesise different authors’ arguments, and more often than not my tutors ended up helping me out of my misery by confirming that different authors use the same term to mean different things and different terms to mean the same thing. My impression has been that clear, unambiguous definitions of what one means by the terms one uses would bring forward probably all strands of psychology, and my guess would be that this also applies to other scientific disciplines.
The experience of sitting in with the collaborative reading sessions is a good illustration of how one should go about writing texts – namely, taking care over one’s choice of words, considering different connotations of possible terms, and adding a glossary whenever one feels that clarity is otherwise not guaranteed. Careful wording is key not only to the dissemination of medieval science but also to that of modern-day science – the interdisciplinary readings in the Ordered Universe Project have this realisation at their heart, and my hope is that many modern-day scientists would take this way of writing as a role model.
Lilienfeld, S. O., Sauvigné, K. C., Lynn, S. J., Cautin, R. L., Latzman, R. D., & Waldman, I. D. (2015). Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases. Frontiers in psychology, 6.