Brain Pickings

The Philosophy of Style: Herbert Spencer on the Economy of Attention and the Ideal Writer (1852)

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“To have a specific style is to be poor in speech.”

Today’s abundance of advice on the art and craft of writing makes the phenomenon appear a modern meta-trope of the written word. And yet it is anything but new. In his 1852 treatise The Philosophy of Style (public library; public domain), Victorian-era philosopher, scientist, and liberal political theorist Herbert Spencer sets out to create a structural framework for good composition, guided by the emergent groundswell of formalist writing. Only 32 years old at the time, he defines language as “an apparatus of symbols for the conveyance of thought” and proceeds to map out its essential machinery.

Like Alexander Graham Bell, Spencer believes that engaging with good writing on a regular basis helps one internalize the secrets of the craft:

There can be little question that good composition is far less dependent upon acquaintance with its laws, than upon practice and natural aptitude. A clear head, a quick imagination, and a sensitive ear, will go far towards making all rhetorical precepts needless. He who daily hears and reads well-framed sentences, will naturally more or less tend to use similar ones. And where there exists any mental idiosyncrasy — where there is a deficient verbal memory, or an inadequate sense of logical dependence, or but little perception of order, or a lack of constructive ingenuity; no amount of instruction will remedy the defect. Nevertheless, some practical result may be expected from a familiarity with the principles of style. The endeavour to conform to laws may tell, though slowly. And if in no other way, yet, as facilitating revision, a knowledge of the thing to be achieved — a clear idea of what constitutes a beauty, and what a blemish — cannot fail to be of service.

A scientist at heart, he proposes an empirical approach to literary dogma:

However influential the truths thus dogmatically embodied, they would be much more influential if reduced to something like scientific ordination. In this, as in other cases, conviction will be greatly strengthened when we understand the why. And we may be sure that a comprehension of the general principle from which the rules of composition result, will not only bring them home to us with greater force, but will discover to us other rules of like origin.

Like Kurt Vonnegut, Spencer recognizes that the writer ought to pity the demands placed on the reader. One of his key concepts is thus the principle of economy of attention:

On seeking for some clue to the law underlying these current maxims, we may see shadowed forth in many of them, the importance of economizing the reader’s or hearer’s attention, To so present ideas that they may be apprehended with the least possible mental effort, is the desideratum towards which most of the rules above quoted point. … A reader or listener has at each moment but a limited amount of mental power available. To recognize and interpret the symbols presented to him, requires part of this power; to arrange and combine the images suggested requires a further part; and only that part which remains can be used for realizing the thought conveyed. Hence, the more time and attention it takes to receive and understand each sentence, the less time and attention can be given to the contained idea; and the less vividly will that idea be conceived.

One of his key aims is to liberate writing from “friction and inertia”:

Language must be regarded as a hindrance to thought, though the necessary instrument of it … Hence, carrying out the metaphor that language is the vehicle of thought, there seems reason to think that in all cases the friction and inertia of the vehicle deduct from its efficiency; and that in composition, the chief, if not the sole thing to be done, is, to reduce this friction and inertia to the smallest possible amount.

He cautions against the perilous burden the direct style — a technique that “conveys each thought into the mind step by step with little liability to error [and] gets the right thought conceived by a series of approximations” — places upon the reader’s attention, rendering it unfit for communicating complex or abstract ideas:

So long as the mind has not much to do, it may be well able to grasp all the preparatory clauses of a sentence, and to use them effectively; but if some subtlety in the argument absorb the attention — if every faculty be strained in endeavouring to catch the speaker’s or writer’s drift, it may happen that the mind, unable to carry on both processes at once, will break down, and allow the elements of the thought to lapse into confusion.

In a related aside, Spencer offers an apt aphorism:

What is bombast but a force of expression too great for the magnitude of the ideas embodied?

The same principle of economy of attention, Spencer argues, holds true of the creation of powerful imagery:

Not only in the structure of sentences, and the use of figures of speech, may economy of the recipient’s mental energy be assigned as the cause of force; but that in the choice and arrangement of the minor images, out of which some large thought is to be built up, we may trace the same condition to effect. To select from the sentiment, scene, or event described those typical elements which carry many others along with them; and so, by saying a few things but suggesting many, to abridge the description; is the secret of producing a vivid impression.

[…]

Whatever the nature of the thought to be conveyed, this skillful selection of a few particulars which imply the rest, is the key to success. In the choice of component ideas, as in the choice of expressions, the aim must be to convey the greatest quantity of thoughts with the smallest quantity of words.

Spencer uses this attention economy to admonish against saturation and advises on the proper sequence to achieve literary climax, advocating for variety:

As immediately after looking at the sun we cannot perceive the light of a fire, while by looking at the fire first and the sun afterwards we can perceive both; so, after receiving a brilliant, or weighty, or terrible thought, we cannot appreciate a less brilliant, less weighty, or less terrible one, while, by reversing the order, we can appreciate each.

[…]

The sensitiveness of the faculties must be continuously husbanded — includes much more than has been yet hinted. … We must progress from the less interesting to the more interesting; and why not only the composition as a whole, but each of its successive portions, should tend towards a climax. … [As] the easiest posture by and by becomes fatiguing, and is with pleasure exchanged for one less easy, so, the most perfectly-constructed sentences will soon weary, and relief will be given by using those of an inferior kind. … We may infer … not only that we should avoid generally combining our words in one manner, however good, or working out our figures and illustrations in one way, however telling; but that we should avoid anything like uniform adherence, even to the wider conditions of effect. … We must subordinate the component effect to the total effect.

In a worthy counterpart to Nabokov’s ideal reader, Spencer concludes by considering the ideal writer, with an implicit addition to history’s most eloquent definitions of art:

The ideal form for a poem, essay, or fiction, is that which the ideal writer would evolve spontaneously. One in whom the powers of expression fully responded to the state of feeling, would unconsciously use that variety in the mode of presenting his thoughts, which Art demands. … To have a specific style is to be poor in speech.

He ends with a proposition reminiscent of Anaïs Nin’s insistence on the importance of emotion in writing and urges:

The predominant feelings have by use trained the intellect to represent them. But while long, though unconscious, discipline has made it do this efficiently, it remains from lack of practice, incapable of doing the same for the less active feelings; and when these are excited, the usual verbal forms undergo but slight modifications. Let the powers of speech be fully developed, however — let the ability of the intellect to utter the emotions be complete; and this fixity of style will disappear. The perfect writer will express himself as Junius, when in the Junius frame of mind; when he feels as Lamb felt, will use a like familiar speech; and will fall into the ruggedness of Carlyle when in a Carlylean mood. Now he will be rhythmical and now irregular; here his language will be plain and there ornate; sometimes his sentences will be balanced and at other times unsymmetrical; for a while there will be considerable sameness, and then again great variety. His mode of expression naturally responding to his state of feeling, there will flow from his pen a composition changing to the same degree that the aspects of his subject change. He will thus without effort conform to what we have seen to be the laws of effect. And while his work presents to the reader that variety needful to prevent continuous exertion of the same faculties, it will also answer to the description of all highly organized products, both of man and of nature: it will be not a series of like parts simply placed in juxtaposition, but one whole made up of unlike parts that are mutually dependent.

Complement The Philosophy of Style with Stephen King’s militant case against adverbs, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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