C.Wright Mills: On Intellectual Craftsmanship

by Thomas Brett

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Thinking is a struggle for order and at the same time for comprehensiveness.”
- C. Wright Mills

Charles Wright Mills (1916-1962) was an American sociologist best remembered for his 1959 book The Sociological Imagination (which is still in print). For me, one remarkable aspect of the book is its Appendix, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship.” Here Mills does something I have never really seen other social scientists do: discuss the nature of the research craft, particularly the creative process of linking intuition with idea generation. This is important because, after all, generating ideas is what scholars do.

Mills begins with the suggestion that one set up a file or journal in which to record ideas–ideas about stuff, about the world, about what you’re reading, about what excites you, and about that which stimulates your curiosity. This lays the groundwork for what he calls “systematic reflection.” The file or journal is a space you can unite “what you are doing professionally and what you are experiencing as a person.”  Or put another way: your personal interests are in fact linked to your professional research interests. The journal is also a place to capture “fringe thoughts”–bits of information such as overheard conversations, something you read, or even a feeling revealed to you in a dream (!). Very cool stuff to read in an Appendix, right? Keeping a journal keeps your inner life awake and allows you to develop powers of expression and the discipline of “controlled expression” by which I think Mills simply means the process of capturing those aspects of your inner life in order to study and consider them. Once the journal is up and running, its individual entries can be periodically re-arranged, cross-referenced, and so forth. All of this serves to loosen your imagination by revealing to you connections and larger themes. The most important point to remember about the journal is this: “The maintenance of such a file is intellectual production.”

Later on the Appendix. Mills suggests ways to stimulate one’s imagination, and many of these suggestions revolve around a sense of play. Playing with words, phrases, concepts and definitions is one way to start. Or you can pursue insight by considering extremes such as “thinking of the opposite of that with which you are directly concerned.” In suggesting forms of intellectual play, Mills advocates for a constant shifting of one’s attention from one level to another–kind of like playing with the zoom function on a camera. To use a musical analogy, Mills almost seems to be describing what could be called composing with ideas.

The Appendix ends with a set of suggestions for good craftsmanship. These include the importance of writing simply and clearly, the importance of grounding your writing in clear examples, and the importance of thinking broadly about the relevance of your work to your time, or in Mills’ words: “orient [your work] to the central and continuing task of understanding the structure and the drift, the shape and the meanings, of your own period . . . ” Finally, and perhaps most incisively, Mills suggests that we maintain our autonomy as scholars when it comes to deciding the kinds of projects we take on and which ideas are in fact important to us:

“Do not allow public issues as they are officially formulated, or troubles as they are privately felt, to determine the problems that you take up for study. Above all, do not give up your moral and political autonomy by accepting in someone else’s terms the illiberal practicality of the bureaucratic ethos or the liberal practicality of the moral scatter.”

You can read the Appendix here.

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