Review: Writing as a Way of Being
Abstract illustration, multicolor flowers with stems: Talitha May 2014

Ultimately, it is non duality that will enable us to replace the Cartesian self with a different conception of the writer so that writing can become an act of connection and an expression of wholeness rather than an enactment of separation. Understanding writing as a way of being is a necessary step in that process. (Yagelski, 2011, p. 68)


Robert Yagelski (2011) explained that the Cartesian view of writing is based upon three assumptions. First, language is simply a “conduit for thought,” which reinforces the positivist notion that knowledge exists apart from the knower (p. 45). In other words, writing is the vehicle for knowledge, which is external from the mind of the writer. Second, knowledge is “a function of a reality that is external from us” (p. 47). Finally, Cartesian thinking assumes the writer's sense of self is an autonomous, thinking being. These assumptions form a Cartesian ontology that simply reinforces false distinctions such as self-other, mind-body, and internal-external. As an expression of Cartesian thinking, words are simply the product of a writer’s mind, and a writer exists separately from the world. Despite theoretical developments in the field, Yagelski argued Cartesian thinking drives mainstream writing instruction as well as literacy reform efforts. Unfortunately, not even progressive pedagogies challenge Cartesian thinking.

Yagelski (2011) seemed to have suggested that various pedagogies are merely different sides of the same coin of Cartesian thinking—they reproduce structural homologies. Expressivist, cognitivist, and social pedagogies, for example, are ontologically similar insofar as they view the self in a Cartesian way. Even though they differ in terms of how the self understands the world, “they all assume that we exist in the world as intellectual beings separate from other beings and the world around us” (p. 59). Even when considering post-process theory, the field is imbued with Cartesian thinking because post-process theorists focused on Thomas Kent’s “arguments about the hermeneutic nature of writing as a process of meaning making” (p. 62). They largely ignored Kent’s most radical move toward disrupting Cartesian thinking, which is his “appropriation of Donald Davidson’s ideas about ‘triangulation,’ which foregrounds the role of others and, significantly, knowledge of the world, in communicative interaction” (p. 62). Rather than simply thinking of meaning-making as occurring between a writer and reader (knowledge between two minds), triangulation considers the world as integral to meaning-making. Yagelski explained that in triangulation, “knowledge emerges as a function of the effort to communication with another knower in the context of the world that is inherently part of the communicative process” (p. 67). Post-process theorists ignored Kent’s important steps to collapse the subject-object distinction.

Even though he situated his discussion in current writing studies, Yagelski (2011) missed an opportunity to acknowledge a shared space with the ontological perspectives of Martin Heidegger. Just as Heidegger (1962) did in Being and Time, Yagelski chipped away at Cartesian thinking and reconceptualized “the idea of the self” as well as how “we exist as beings-in-the-world” (Yagelski, 2011, p. 16). Similarly, Heidegger’s notion of “being-in-the-world” indicates that we exist in a context—we are thrown in the world. The world is not external to minds or beings, but is a part of being, a being-with. For Heidegger (1962), even the world itself consists of “referential totalities” (p. 107). Addressing Kent’s notion of triangulation, however, seems to have missed Heidegger’s insight that ontology precedes epistemology (Heidegger, 1962, p. 254). Heidegger’s insight appears to serve as the theoretical groundwork for Yagelski's view of writing as a way of being and for his critique of mainstream education, which is mired in Cartesian thought.