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.

Why philosophical writing needs philosophical proofreading and copy editing.

It has been a while since my last update here at Flourishing Philosophy. I have had a steady stream of tutoring, proofreading, and other philosophical work. I have also just started my training as a counsellor. This is a new and exciting thing, with a lot of connections to my philosophical work, and I will certainly post some thoughts about that here at some point.

Today though, I want to say a little bit about what I do when read philosophical writing for clients.

You may have used a proofreading or copy editing services before. Typically a proofreader will check your work for errors in formatting, grammar, and spelling when it is close to its final form. A copy editor will check your material for grammar and spelling, but also for stylistic problems. There is a little more to it than that, and the distinction is not clear-cut, but that’s the basic gist of it. When I do work of this kind, I don’t make a rigid distinction between proofreading and copy editing, because each client’s requirements are individual. I calculate my rates according to how long it will take me to complete the work, and will sometimes factor in discounts based on the client’s individual circumstances.

So why would you choose to have your work read by someone who is a specialist in philosophy? There are any number of reasons for this, but I will mention three.

The first (and least interesting) is that I am likely to be familiar with technical terminology that you use. It might be important, for example, that your work is being read by someone who understands the difference between egoism and egotism, or between cynicism and scepticism.

The second reason is that philosophical audiences are particularly sensitive to ambiguities in language, and that this can sometimes make or break your writing. When I do basic proofreading, I won’t usually identify all the ambiguities that appear in a piece of writing, while I will do my best to check for any ambiguity or unclarity when copy editing (as I said, the difference is not clear-cut, and I can do as much or as little of this as required). However, even correcting grammatical errors can sometimes reveal these ambiguities: something as simple as the placement of punctuation can make a dramatic difference to the meaning of a sentence. A non-specialist reader will typically ‘correct’ this error to whatever feels right or looks most elegant on the page. When I encounter these cases, I take a little time to consider the range of possible alternatives and make several suggestions for how the sentence might be correctly worded and punctuated. This is obviously more useful than a process that results in you having to go back and correct all the corrections, but it does more than that: sometimes it can highlight important distinctions that can greatly improve the quality of your argument.

The third reason for using the services of someone who knows your discipline is perhaps the most contentious: style matters! I don’t just mean that it helps people to understand your words (although that is obviously true) but that a philosopher’s style of writing is not easily divorced from the substance of what they are saying. Many of my favourite philosophers create a whole conceptual landscape, and their writing invites you to enter their world and have a look around. Writing style, especially the use of metaphors and imagery, can open up new ways of seeing. One of the ways that I can help you is by trying to engage with your whole project, and helping you to convey your arguments in a way that will invite your audience into your conceptual world. For example, when you are talking about a concept or phenomenon, are you reaching for a general atmosphere that is more mechanical or more organic? Are you using the language of qualia, phenomena, appearances, or subjective experience? Often, terms that might superficially be taken as near-synonyms carry a rich set of associated images or historical connections. By using the services of someone who is experienced in philosophical teaching and research, you can more easily create the conceptual landscape that you need.