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Monday, March 26, 2007

Rationalism and Empiricism

Philosophers talk about the nature of experience and how important this is in "knowing" stuff, which is called epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. Empiricists believe that we ultimately learn through experience, in opposition to Rationalists who believe in the concept of innate knowledge, or "knowing" stuff from birth, like we've been pre-programmed. In other words, this is a nature/nurture debate, with Rationalists going for nature and Empiricists going for nurture. Plato and Descartes were famous Rationalists, John Stuart Mill and David Hume famous Empiricists.

Me? I'm 60/40 in Rationalism's favour. Though I believe absolutely in Empiricism and how experience is important in defining and refining one's skills, I do happen to believe that one has to have a pre-disposition towards that skill in the first place - hence the thought in me that certain things have to be "innate". Hell, maybe that belief is innate. I'm not sure, since I don't even know where everything in me came from. Why am I a scriptwriter? No one else in my family is like me. Not one. Though there are many creative people, my mother is a fantastic pianist for example and won many music competitions and awards in her youth - yet none of them write. All are creative with reference to performance - something I have zero interest in: acting? singing? playing in a band? No thanks - and in any case, all of these interests are secondary to my siblings, bar one. One is a doctor, another a nurse. One is still "considering her options" though she thinks she might want to be a property developer. Only my last sister is even remotely like me in that she wants to be a singer and actor, which is of course nothing like a writer but considerably closer than the medical profession.

So, Rationally, I believe that BEING a writer is innate. It's not a job, where you clock in and clock out; it's beyond that kind of control. You ARE a writer, it's a state of being. But writing is an Empiricist pursuit as well. Take the redrafting process for example. Who writes a perfect draft, first time? No one, that's who. I like to think I'm a good writer, but always, always, there are opportunities missed, mistakes made, structure fucked up, characters unneccessary, arena forgotten and so on in every first draft I've ever written. Just yesterday I posted about my god-awful first script that had many drafts but is STILL THE WORST SCRIPT IN THE WORLD and should never see the light of day. I don't write crap like that any more. Even a mediocre writer has to move on, become more sophisticated, write more coherently.

So keep Rationalism and Empiricism in mind, especially when you've been rejected or you doubt yourself. You wouldn't want to be a writer if it wasn't IN you, somewhere, an organic part of you. And experience always makes us better. Practice makes perfect might be a cliche, but cliches are cliches because they carry a grain of truth.

You ARE a writer. So write. And learn.


Phillip Barron said...

I'm not sure I'd agree with you there, Lucy. I don't know anyone who's exceptional at anything without having practised more than anyone else.

I know people who get really angry when others brand them as 'genius', or innately talented in their chosen field, on the grounds they worked very, very hard to get as good as they are. They feel denouncing their talent as 'inbred' or 'God given' ridicules their dedication.

From my point of view, we're all shaved monkeys who think we're special because we invented trousers; where's the evolutionary advantage in being a 'natural' writer?

Damn it. I've just changed my own mind. I hate it when that happens.

Story-telling has an evolutionary advantage, it's a way of teaching offspring to avoid danger without lecturing them; and it's a way of promoting imagination, curiosity and technological development.

Story tellers have always been welcome around the fire and could make a living out of it.

So I suppose we all have the ability to tell and create stories, so we're all natural writers of sorts.

I just rail against anything which smacks of fate or pre-destiny - I find the lack of choice and free will inherent in that argument to be very depressing.

Lucy said...

Hey Phil. I agree with you - to be exceptional, you have to practice. Mozart was not born with a talent for playing the piano. He had to learn to play the piano. But he had, I believe, an innate talent for music. There are writers out there who are competent, or even very good at their craft, second-guessing the market, experienced... but they're not what I would a TALENTED writer. I do believe there are some who are just better than others - naturally. I'm not saying it's fair or right or even desirable; I just think it.

Here's another Q for you: if everything is based on experience, does this mean talent - at anything - can be taught?

Phillip Barron said...

Yes, within certain limitations.

Someone with no arms and legs may find it harder to play basketball than someone with all his limbs in working order; but allowing for genetic advantages, I firmly believe anyone can do anything if they're taught in a way which makes sense to them.

Mind you, this is just a way of not ruling out any possibilities for myself. I like to think I could do anything I put my mind to.

Except maybe give birth.

I do tend waver on this (not the birth thing) and I often wonder about things like intelligence. Are people genetically more intelligent than others? Or is it all nurture?

There seems to be extremes - I used to work with people with severe learning difficulties and I've met people who have towering intellects (oddly enough, they both seem to end up in mental health care), is everyone else just lumped in the middle or is there a constant graduation?

I think some things come easier to some people than others. I couldn't say whether this is nature or nurture, I don't have all the facts. I do think that the majority of people can be taught 95% of any skill. I think Channel 4's 'Faking it' shows this quite well.

Achieving the last 5%, the bit we recognise as genius, may require something special, but those people seem to destroy themselves fairly quickly because they lack other skills - social skills, or a basic grasp of sanity.

It's like at school, the scarily clever ones don't do very well. The people who do the best academically and socially are at the top end of average.

So yes, ater all that meandering, random thought, talent can be taught - certainly to the point where it's indistinguishable to a layman from a 'natural' talent.

Phillip Barron said...

Man, I need to learn how to write shorter comments.

Lucy said...

Interesting. Teaching talent enough to "fake" is the depressing argument for me, rather than the notion of pre-destiny. I don't believe it as whole-heartedly as the Greeks or The Elizabethans in that I do believe it's subject to change on your terms; however there is a certain romanticism to it that I cannot escape from - whilst still believing in chaos theory. Hence the paradoxical soup that is my brain.

Phillip Barron said...

Yeah, that pretty much describes most people: they believe they have free choice and a destiny.

I hate the phrase 'what will be, will ne'.

No! What you do, will be.

On the subject of faking it. I won a dance competiton once at some pre-teenage party. I won a bag of Opal Fruits.

This really annoyed the 'coolest kid in school' you know, the one who would be known as a jock in America and end up raping someone. He actually said to me:

"You can't really dance though, can you? You were just putting it on."

Yes mate, that's right. It was all done with wires.

Lucy said...

"This really annoyed the 'coolest kid in school' you know, the one who would be known as a jock in America and end up raping someone."

Ah: nothing like stereotyping ; )

Phillip Barron said...

Yeah, he's a nice bloke now. Or seems to be on the few occasions I've run into him.

Back then he was an overly-gelled football hero with a short temper and tendency towards bullying. He stereotyped himself.

Lucy said...

Maybe that was something INNATE in him Phil?? ; )

Phillip Barron said...

I agree, he had the innate ability to change and be whoever he wanted. In this case: a nice bloke.

Lucy said...

You're a slippery one, ain'tcha!

MaryAn Batchellor said...

I think it comes down to what can be learned and acquired and what cannot. There is such a thing as natural talent but it doesn't stand alone. What we view as talent is a complex web of acquired skills and innate abilities.

Humans have the ability to speak but the language of their family must be learned. But put a handful of toddlers on an island and leave them to grow up alone and they will form their own communication.

Personally, I believe creativity is something you are born with.It is innate. But the skills required to express that creativity are acquired. That's where the confusion comes in.

Many of us who "think" we are writers are actually only people who have acquired the ability to clack on a keyboard, format, and structure.

Others are highly creative people with the innate ability to picture stories in our minds but who have never developed communication skills that enable us to express those stories. The stories are kind of trapped in our heads.

Still others can envision and communicate stories but struggle with bothersome things like formatting and grammer.

And yet another group can see the story and put it in a literary form that the the world will embrace but they, themselves, are unembraceable. They lack the people skills needed to make a professonal contact, phone call, or email that won't result in a restraining order.

Most of us screenwriters aren't any of those extremes but are, I think, a complex goulash of all of the above.

Lucy said...

"I think it comes down to what can be learned and acquired and what cannot. There is such a thing as natural talent but it doesn't stand alone. What we view as talent is a complex web of acquired skills and innate abilities."

Maryan; totally agree in every way!!!

Olaf Legend said...

screenwriting is like a laboratory frog. If you dissect it, it dies.

Lucy said...

I hate to split hairs Olaf but if you're dissecting something, then it's already dead...

Good Dog said...

I think it's a bit of both. There, not a bad answer for a shaved monkey (who isn't wearing his trousers at the moment).

It may be in the DNA, but there has to be something about environment as well and what you soak up.

If you and I were set a task to go away and write a short film about love the results, I suspect, would be very different. They would also be different from a young writing prodigy who had only experienced his/her first kiss.

In the meantime...

Heard an interesting story about WC Fields. I assume it is true.

When Fields was doing theatre/vaudeville he used to juggle as part of the act. A member of the audience came backstage after one performance and said, in regard to his juggling, "Oh you must know [can't remember the guy's name]'s juggling technique."

Fields hadn't, found a book the next day on the juggling, read it and the next night completely fucked that part of the act up. Because he was thinking about how he should juggle rather than just do it.

I had to explain to a prodco company numpty the process of compositing an animated scene on the computers at the studio. Part way through I completely lost my train of thought, and simply couldn't figure out how I did it. Only because it had become instinctive.

Lucy said...

Intriguing GD.

As are the lack of trousers.

So...Are you a boxers or pants man?

I vote the latter. With polka dots.

Good Dog said...

Well, I'm not wearing... Okay, let's leave it there. Not boxers. Tried them. Didn't work out. And that's all the information you're getting.

Lara said...

"I vote the latter. With polka dots."

Based on innate knowledge or experience? ;)

Lucy said...

Excuse me laydee!!! I'm happily married. So it's INNATE - I can tell GD's a pants man just by looking at him!

Lara said...

Aaaah, I meant experience of the type not GD his good self! Do pardon my lack of clarity!

Phillip Barron said...

As an aside, I believe every person has a low grade super power. Mine is I can tell what key fits what lock just by looking.

You could give me a bunch of identical keys and I'd get it right first time.

Probably because identical keys would either all fit the lock or not.

I expect Lucy's pant's knowledge is something similar; but probably more marketable.

Good Dog said...

Girls... Behave yourselves.

Olaf Legend said...

To dissect something does not mean that something have to be dead first.

And thank you much for inspiring my latest post.

Lucy said...

Ah, if you dissect something living, then you

Vivisect (from
–verb (used with object) 1. to dissect the living body of (an animal).
–verb (used without object) 2. to practice vivisection.

I'm too much of a pendant, sorry Olaf!!!

Olaf Legend said...

Also from

–verb (used with object) 1. to cut apart (an animal body, plant, etc.) to examine the structure, relation of parts, or the like.
2. to examine minutely part by part; analyze: to dissect an idea.

For my wise comment of early to work, you have to take into mind the double meaning of dissect.

You dont vivisect an idea.

This is fun.

PENDANT???? you speak like true swedishman!

Lucy said...

ah, you didn't mean it literally. I get it now.

AND YOU'RE RIGHT! Pendant. That's a frigging necklace. Well spotted.