Block Quotes in philosophical writing

I remember being gently admonished by a lecturer when, as a MA student, I submitted a draft that included long block quotations. It is almost always better, I was told, to incorporate short quotations into your own sentences, and paraphrase for the rest.

But if it is better, why do so many philosophers continue to do it? In books and articles (but especially in books) it is common to see large blocks of quotation separated from the author’s own words.

This now comes up a lot in my work both as a tutor and as an editor and proof reader. Clients want to know whether the block quotation approach is okay. There isn’t a straightforward answer to this, but here are a few thoughts.

First of all, what is a block quotation? This is when you have a longer quotation that is separated from the main text by paragraph breaks, and often marked by an indentation. It looks something like this:

It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous living and go into exile to live with the swine that children learn or mislearn both what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words. Hence there is no way to give us an understanding of any society, including our own, except through the stock of stories which constitute its initial dramatic resources. Mythology, in its original sense, is at the heart of things.

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3d ed. (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), p. 216.

The alternative would be to intersperse MacIntyre’s words about stories in my own summary. For example, I could explain how MacIntyre thinks that stories provide a “cast of characters” that we can transpose into our own lives, and that without such stories we are left as “unscripted, anxious stutterers” in life as well as in speech: “Mythology,” MacIntyre concludes, “is at the heart of things.” (MacIntyre 2007, p. 216)

Guidelines vary over how long a quotation should be to be separated in this way. Here are what some style guides say:

  • APA: Quotes longer than 40 words or four lines
  • Chicago: Quotes longer than 100 words or eight lines
  • MLA: Quotes of prose longer than four lines; quotes of poetry/verse longer than three lines
  • AMA: Quotes longer than four lines

But how do you decide whether to put in a whole block of text, or whether to go digging for smaller bits to use in a paraphrase?

One consideration is what stage have you reached in your philosophical career. If you are a successful professor with a prestigious named chair and acclaimed books to your name, you can probably do whatever you want about this – you definitely don’t need advice from me. Even if you are a little less senior than that, you may be able to get away with it more easily if you feel the urge to quote at length.

This comes down to the purpose of your writing. If you are an A-level student or an undergraduate, your work is probably being assessed by someone who wants to know that you have understood what you have read. You can’t prove this by inserting a long quotation, so a paraphrase is often a better bet. Once you are at a more senior level (lets say PhD or early career academic) people will typically assume that you haven’t got where you are by not understanding things, so it’s easier to get away with the block quotation provided you have something interesting to say about it.

Of course, you may feel that people’s confidence in you is not well-founded (I think most of us feel like that at some point). You can struggle to fully understand something at any level. So here is a grave warning: avoid using a block quotation if you’re trying to hide the fact that there’s part of it that you don’t understand. If there’s any part of it you don’t get, then try to wrangle with it, rather than dropping it in and hoping that you get away with it. This probably goes without saying, but I know that temptation! Of course, sometimes the whole point of including the quotation is to explain that there is something about it that you can’t make sense of – in this case it’s perfectly honest, and often a good reason to put in the block quotation.

Often though, a block quotation isn’t a good stylistic choice. Your work will frequently flow better if you incorporate shorter quotations into your own prose. Readers can also sometimes be tempted to assume that the quotation is simply illustrating something that you say in your own words elsewhere, so the long quotation might not be read.

So why (and when) would you include them?

The first reason, as I alluded to above, is when there is something ambiguous or unclear in the text, and you want to give the reader the full context.

Another reason may be when you want to emphasise the feel of the writing. You can provide as many summaries of Nietzsche’s writing as you like, but it still won’t convey the atmosphere of the text. For some philosophers this is more important than others.

I suppose for writers wanting to embody the ideal of the analytic tradition, style only matters in relation to its effectiveness as a vehicle for content. If the same point can be made in different words, nothing is lost by that. For other philosophers, the connection between style and content is much more complex, and the relationship between the two more ambiguous. It can really matter that something was written with a particular mood, urgency, atmosphere, or whatever.

If the style matters to what you are saying about that author, you might want to include the block quotation to give the reader a sense of it. All the same, it can be wearing to get bombarded with the florid language of impassioned philosophers, and after a large amount of it the impact tends to wear off. For this reason, I would advise choosing your block quotations strategically.

A final (very boring) point: some work is subject to copyright law. This normally specifies that you can quote a certain proportion of a text without penalty. Usually you can quote away with no consequences, but if you are writing a book, quoting one text at length can quickly add up. Keep an eye on this to avoid getting into any tedious and time-consuming issues with your publisher.