In Praise of Editors: A Philosophical Argument

Image by Patrick Fore.

Writers need editors. We send in our manuscript and the editor corrects typos, does fact checks and urges stylistic improvements. There has been much discussion recently of the art world system. To understand contemporary art, you need to consider not only artists, but also art writers (who theorize it), curators (who display it), dealers (who sell it) and collectors (who purchase it). But there has been little said about editors. The editor, it might seem, has just a humble role, correcting authorial mistakes.

I believe that there is more to the story, for I think that editors are philosophically important. This first became clear to me when a beleaguered publisher asked me to temporarily edit for him, and I failed miserably. An editor’s role, so I discovered, is to improve the author’s text, not to offer what she or he thinks is a better account. To be an editor presupposes that you can better articulate someone’s thoughts than can that writer working alone. And this suggests that those thoughts have a certain objectivity, which transcends their present form. You show a good editor a rough draft and she or he reworks it so that it tells what you really meant to say.

Because there is this gap between what you actually say and what you really intended to say, there is this role for editors. The editor bridges that gap. If I write ‘dig’ where clearly I mean ‘dog’, the editor will correct me, seeing that in context ‘dig’ makes no sense. In a more elaborate verbal confusion, I may state my argument in a way that requires unpacking. And then, again, the editor will correct me, for the plausible assumption is that I aim to be consistent. Once when I spent an evening alone with Clement Greenberg, I presented what I thought was an obvious contradiction in his claims. ‘So I contradict myself, so what’ he replied. At that point it was time for me to go home. An editor presupposes that the author seeks to be consistent. It might see, then, that editing is merely a response to authorial weakness. If a writer cannot spell or has a poor knowledge of grammar, then an editor is needed. And some writers have these problems. But if a writer doesn’t have these concerns, then is an editor required? To answer that question, we need to consider the nature of writing.

Some activities can be done by one person. Playing the piano is an obvious example. Other activities require several people. Playing a musical duet is one. Playing a piano concerto requires a pianist, conductor and an orchestra. But sometimes concertos are conducted from the keyboard. And recordings can change how music is understood. Both parts of the duet “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour” in Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann (1881) can be recorded by one singer, for both fall within the vocal range of a soprano.

Some activities which one person can perform require the presence of another person to be fully realized. When a comedian tells a joke, they need an audience’s response to learn if it is funny. And when a painter makes a representation, a viewer is required to determine what it represents. (This is the central point of Ernst Gombrich’s account of making and matching in Art and Illusion.) If you claim to have drawn a square and the viewer sees a circle, then something has gone wrong. Writing may be like telling jokes or making representations. The renowned English critic David Sylvester who was a famous perfectionist, played an editing game with acquaintances. When you phoned him to make an appointment, he would read aloud a couple of versions of a sentence from work in progress, and ask you which one was best. His procedure assumed that writing is best done with participation of an audience.

Even if you are properly self-critical, still it’s hard to edit yourself. But there is one important qualification to that rule. If you wait a few months, and reread, then you have perspective on your own writing, as if it was written by someone else. We might say that your previous self wrote what the present self judges. The analytic philosopher Derek Parfit developed the idea that the self might be temporally divided in this way. His account was borrowed from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. If the self is divided in this way, maybe a writer who takes time can edit him or herself.

Thinking perhaps always requires this appeal to an audience. To put this in other, perhaps more helpful terms, one never thinks entirely alone. When the editor reads my thought, she is able to identify my real intention, the reality behind my muddled presentation. In effect, she tells me: ‘this is what you really meant to say’. And if she is successful, I agree and accept her correction. (But when I don’t agree, then the situation may be more complicated.)

According to some analytic philosophers, Wittgenstein’s private language argument shows that language use is inherently social. It is impossible, that argument claims, for there to be a language that only one person could understand. In the context of continental philosophy, Joachim Pissarro’s Cézanne/Pissarro, Johns/Rauschenberg: Comparative Studies on Intersubjectivity in Modern Art (2006) takes up a related point. Cartesian philosophers were accustomed to treat thought as initially a self-sufficient activity. And then they get to the problem of other minds: how can I share my thoughts with another person? The alternative way of thinking, which his book anchors within Kantian and post-Kantian philosophical tradition, suggests that thinking is inherently intersubjective. “A Cézanne involved in actual pictorial dialogues with another colleague had no place,” Pissarro writes, in the mistaken but influential ways that painter was understood. (He is critiquing the analysis of Maurice Denis.) And a little later Pissarro offers this generalization: “The question of how the self and the other can recognize and communicate with each other without losing their individual identities was inherent in the Impressionist enterprise.”

Pissarro’s book doesn’t explicitly discuss editing. He is concerned with a somewhat different problem, how do two artists work together, defining their shared interests. But his analysis is relevant to our account of the process in which one person corrects another’s prose. In Pissarro’s examples of artist pairs, both figures are creative, which is to say that neither dominates. Camille Pissarro helped Paul Cézanne, and Jasper Johns aided Robert Rauschenberg; and vice versa! Editing, however, is not a collaboration of that form, for the aim of the editor is merely to help the writer clarify her or his thoughts.

In offering these claims about editing, I am very aware that this discussion has taken us away from what usually matters immediately, the practice of this activity. A busy editor needs to focus on the text at hand, without considering the philosophical claims of Pissarro, Kant or Wittgenstein. But if my present very tentative account is at all promising, then there is reason to acknowledge the importance of editing. Then, perhaps the contributions of our editors would be more generously recognized. And maybe they would be better paid. Most of the editors I work with are female. And so I’ve discovered that a male writer can learn about gender relations by taking his editors seriously. But that’s another story for another occasion.

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.