the improvising scholar: some early observations on the practice of research

(For the group that assembled in Vancouver, on Jan 12th, 2018, at the Gold Saucer Studio, for the 'ambiguity and the creative practice roundtable')

“What is Growth? Not Mere Increase!” Charles Sanders Peirce



Recently a scholarly reader wrote to me saying that the credibility of a recent paper I had published was weakened due to my excessive use of indirect citations. Not trying to sound too full of it, I explained to this reader a point that I had already gone back and forth on with the journal’s editors: that this sporadic use of secondary and primary quotes was in fact a deliberate literary decision on my part. It was a decision that I discovered, that is; that I found emergent through the practice of researching and writing the paper.

The article in question was on aspects of indexical sign processes as applied to learning theory (Campbell, 2016; and Nöth in Stables et al., 2018, Ch. 5 for a discussion of my article). An index is a sign that signifies its object based on a direct relation of co-presence; like how ‘smoke’ signifies ‘fire’, or how footprints signify the vector and possible location of prey. The index differs from both the icon (which signifies its objects based on a ‘perceived resemblance’) and the symbol (which signifies based on an established social-convention or ritualized habit) by actually pointing out contiguous relations in a shared world. My intention was to demonstrate how this physical force of indexicality was also operative at the textual level: by indexing how a primary source – say, Ginzberg (1980) was also being referred to in Bondanello (1996) – I would direct the reader (and myself, perhaps at a subliminal level) to webs of discourse, circulating beneath the article (undercurrents of metonymic chains; ‘tracks’ that form connections and networks through the universe of discourse). When I first started writing the earliest drafts of this article I found that this process of direct and indirect citation arose not out of scholarly indolence, nor lack of attention, but as a sub-conscious way of ‘drawing lines in the sand’ – tracing the rambling path of research and ideas.

I quickly realized that this pre-conceptual cognitive strategy was in fact a reflection of a basic and primary mode of perception, one that I had encountered many times through the practice of improvising music. In fact, many have spoken about this exact phenomenon. Michael Taussig (2011) refers to it as the “bodily unconscious”, the cultivated automation of an embodied process. A kinaesthetic strategy that is expressed in an orientation and relation to one’s environment: like the reactive and anticipatory awareness a hunter must have for their surroundings during a hunt; or the similar awareness a jazz musician must have during a particularly active and responsive group improvisation session; or, even, the various ways in which, through meditative practice, one might automate and regulate their breathing and eating. It is a phase of consciousness that directly interacts with our first (unmediated) sensory impressions; impressions that we have little cognitive control over, but are yet still central to the ways we act in and are acted upon by our environments. A phase that is outside the scope of ‘intentional’ awareness, yet still (somewhat paradoxically) a practicable perceptual skill, one that “requires a critical degree of consciousness, but not too much, as that would derange the finely calibrated automaticity of the body” (Taussig, 2011).

Because it is not easily representable nor conceptually describable, this Firstness aspect of consciousness has been relatively neglected by modern scholarly traditions, even though it is central to the way skilled practitioners relate to and perceive their environment.


Back to those indirect citations. Intertextuality is important to me as a writer. In fact, I think it is the reason I started engaging in scholarly writing in the first place. As a music student craving words and books in a predominantly sonorous environment; I would read an exciting quote and be compelled to write it out in my notebook, and concurrently continue the path of the quote myself. Not the prose itself but rather the chain of interpretants this little slice of text induced in my reading of it. All I was doing at this early stage was reading: literature, poetry, philosophy, music theory, musical scores, biography, auto-biography, anything. I was reading and simply writing about what I read. I started gradually reading more contemporary scholarship and copying it. I couldn’t see what was fundamentally different from the way I wrote from the way Persky, or Eco, or McLuhan, or Benjamin, or Illich, or Levi, or Calvino, or Langer, or Miłosz wrote (an incomplete lists of some early influencers). In my ignorance, I saw a continuum of what was fundamentally the same basic inquiry process: all either of us could do (me or these venerable scholars and authors) was write about what we read, and write about the ways in which we lived through and with the things that we read. All that separated me from them was a unique acquired experience and a distinct cultural and historical prejudice – a different set of reading and listening under my belt.

It was in this sense that reading and writing became inseparable activities, and in fact, completely indistinguishable from one another; to read was to write and to write was to read. To write, to do, to read, to undergo. Novice and stumbling as it was, the process was vindicating. Soon, a strange mass of writing amassed in notebooks and files, and with it a strange feeling of accomplishment: a kind of guileless protestant satisfaction with the very act of production itself (probably understandable from a musician whose preferred musical practice had been prominently improvisational).

I would even venture to say that this strange form of writing-reading intertwined process/action is not essentially different than the practiced skill of playing-thinking improvised paths through song-structures. This has indeed influenced my current (far less technical) musical practice routine, which is concerned primarily with learning (and, in a sense, re-learning, after years of formal training) how to play music by feel: to perceive and re-cognize sounds through the way my body engages the instrument; the ‘habits of feeling’ developed through movement around the fretboard, or sensing the vibratory force of the string, or responding to the signs and signals radiating from an unfolding musical event.

It is in a similar sense that the practice of scholarly research and teaching are deeply intertwined dialogical processes. Research is not a solidary affair. It is always done with others and involves acknowledging the relations that sustain us. Teaching is an essential part of research –  not an added-on appendix – “a way of sustaining [a] relation of mutual indebtedness” to the world and the ‘Others’ we commune with (Ingold, 2017, p. 71). Ranciere (1991, p. 33) tells us that the teacher “is he who keeps the researcher on his route, the one that he alone is following and keeps following”. Ingold (2017, p. 72) continues the thought: “Both teaching and research, then, are practices of education, and both are inextricably linked in just the same way that… older and younger generations contribute to each other’s formation. Teaching is the gift that the older generation offers to the younger – the gift it does not possess – in deferred return for the gift it received from its seniors”. That is how life and knowledge are carried on...” and this is the only way ‘research’ happens. A gift is only a gift if it is received. It is not something given in advance, but emergent in the undertaking of communing with others. The Canadian philosopher Tim Liliburn explains this kind of teaching-as-gift in which self-knowledge (but also art) is discovered: “We are heard or seen into a larger presence. Often this recognition comes in conversation; in the space between ourselves and our interlocutors, a new apparitional figure appears, a fresh version of what we might be, and we walk toward it, realizing it as we go. Here is the essence of good teaching, good spiritual direction, nourishing talk among deep friends... This means that individuality is not a solidary or selfish achievement, but the artifact of some sort of convivial community. As art is” (2017, p. 5). This is certainly how music-making is learned: amongst friends in garages, in jam sessions, in families, in private lessons, in classrooms. Knowledge is not produced, as it is with the current logic of globalization, it is felt and sustained, just as music is sustained and carried on from one moment to the next. Both tell us something important about the unravelling process of doing and undergoing.


To draw a possibly tenuous line, this may not be so different than the way in which the books you read talk to the other books you read, and through this invisible channel reveal certain clues...

The scholars I admired as a young person (and still do admire), like, Thomas Sebeok for example, were people who could make – who had a ‘special knack’ for making – book’s talk to each other. Not at all unlike the musician who can pick up and object and make it musical, make it sing and dance, or more impressively, play to any musician and tempt them to play back.

Both these activities involve a distinctive type of creative freedom – where the end-result is not something logically deduced from a series of baseline principles imposed context-independent, but from cleaving the event from within. A freedom that comes from dwelling in habitual relations; not a "hollow freedom" outside the event, as an act of volition imposed on events retrospectively; the implementation of a method. This type of freedom comes not from principles or sovereign rights, not from methodology, but from skill; “not imposing exterior form on compliant matter but finding the grain of things and bending it to an evolving purpose” (Ingold, 2017, p. 42).

Such being-in-practice involves a strong mimetic drive: a basic motivation to attune oneself to the world, to perceive resemblances, and in that cognitive sense of metaphor expressed by Aristotle in The Rhetoric “to see resemblances even between things that are far apart”. This requires a willingness to rise and meet novelty – the capacity to respond to the unknown. Engaging in craft, also means leaving yourself open and vulnerable to new possibilities and resistances. It is from being in skill, that the practitioner infers (sub-consciously or ‘intentionally’, instinctively or deliberately, for we can draw no distinction) a frame of reference, or an action-response, to attend to the surprising experience. This responsive and felt homology is the essence of metaphor. From within the flow of skillful action and perception, we see that “[t]he world is built for metaphor. And metaphor, we discover when we think carefully... is not mere aesthetic embellishment, but probing, true description, a sagacious form of realism” (Liliburn, 2017, p. 8). This is also what CS. Peirce called abduction. Abduction represents “a move from what is known to the unknown” (Stables and Semetsky 2015: 25), and it is in this sense that it differs from the other two more emphasized (in modern philosophical circles, that is) modes of inference:

[i]t is the only logical operation which introduces any new idea; for induction does nothing but determine a value, and deduction merely evolves the necessary consequences of a pure hypothesis. Deduction proves that something must be; Induction shows that something actually is operative; Abduction merely suggests that something may be.
— CS Peirce, Collected Papers, 5.172

When following an improvised melodic line, there is a sense in which you don’t know where it’s heading: if it follows a pre-determined trajectory, patters out into sonorous babble, broken musical thought, or, arrives at an exciting and new consequent. A large part of improvised practice involves becoming receptive to emergent possibilities. This is the practiced unknowing involved in any improvisational art. This is a process of being led out of your familiar positions, which Ingold playfully calls ex-duction – merging together one of the Latin origins of the word education, “educere” (to lead out), with the concept of abduction: “One goes not from facts ‘on the ground’ to theories, by in-duction, nor conversely from theories to facts by a reverse process of de-duction, but rather along the sensible path of continuous variation, that is by ex-duction. One is led out along the way” (2017: 41).

Experiencing such presence (this Firstness) involves “a gradual fine-tuning or sensitisation of perceptual skills that renders perceivers ever more attentive to the nuances of the environment” (Ingold 2017: 31). An example: Before the young musician can experience such glimpses of presence, they must be able to enter states of absorbed attention, that allow them to perceive variations and opportunities in the musical environment. This increased capacity for interstitial differentiation (Ingold, 2017) is developed in learners through practices of enskillment. That is, they must have sufficient familiarity with: their instrument; the musical components both semiotic (systems of harmony melody and rhythm) and material (artifacts like LP’s, sheet music, guitar picks, etc.) that provide the “furniture” for their music-making; as well as the people they (ritualistically) commune with in these engagements. And further, they must embody these relations, for it is only through such embodied ways-of-being in relation that the emergent space of the possible becomes accessible (and sensible) to the skilled practitioner. Abduction, the inferential process associated with this “emergent space,” is thus not to be understood as an active cognitive operation upon a passive environment, but of potential emerging from out of the actual. We can say with Ingold (2017: 31, my emphasis) that “the skilled practitioner resonates with the properties of their environment.” The more able and practiced the practitioner is at entering into these states of being-in-habit, the more open and receptive they become to felt-variations in the sensoriuum, these emergent qualitative possibilities revealed by the cultivation of creative skill.

Peirce says that abduction constitutes a “mediated immediacy” (CP 5.181). This is a way of saying that abduction “exceeds direct Cartesian intuition understood as a merely dyadic relation between the knowing mind and the known object that delivers the self-evident truth” (Stables and Semetsky 2015: 20). Abduction reflects a tri-relative sign-model that paradoxically, through its constant closing in on itself (its circularity and self-reference), always opens new (virtual) possibilities. This is the logic of the included (rather than excluded) middle. The included middle that rejects traditional substance dualism that says “this is this because it’s not that”, and embraces mediation, that “this is always becoming that” (see our interview with Inna Semestky, which discusses this idea). This is a model that incorporates growth. Not the growth of knowledge or truth, but the growth of meaning. Meaning is different than knowledge for it enters-into-relation with the learner. It extends beyond the actual to incorporate the potential, beyond the individual to the community, and is not constructed, or built up, but rather (notice our musical metaphors) discovered, attuned to, resonating. Deduction is the logic of necessity; induction, the logic of value. Creativity is about discovery, and abduction is the “logic of discovery”. Abduction merely shows that something is possible.


How does one rise to meet the unknown in their practice? The simple answer I can give is through play. Providing time and space for people to cultivate their playful manipulative tendencies is something that all ‘traditional’ societies invest in, even though they provide no immediate adaptive purpose. You can play anything: play fight/combat, play music, play sport, play games, play logic, play sex, play thought, play roles, play Play! This is learning in its most consistent and simplest formation, and probably the origin of ‘schooling’ as cultivated free-time (‘schole’). As Dewey described it, learning is nothing more or less than the ability to create habits that enable the growth of future habits. It is the realization of unactualized potential through direct engagement with others in a shared world. Like a pathway between body and image, a somatic doing that creates and empowers potential futures. The infinite opening flow of signs known as “unlimited semiosis”: a beautiful theory – not unlike the Zen art of un-mastery – something to know, to witness, and to eventually forget. For semiosis always closes in on some indefinite future state of things and thus exercises a pragmatic terminating operation as well – the zeroing in on a future target that is the pragmatic function: ‘that meaning is always in reference to purpose’, but such purpose is always evolving through the action of being in-habit with the world. This is how Dewey (in Art-as-experience, 1934) describes it: the process of living (and thus also learning in his estimation)

… possesses continuity because it is an everlastingly renewed process of acting upon the environment and being acted upon by it... of relations between what is done and what is undergone... The world we have experienced becomes an integral part of the self that acts and is acted upon in further experience. In their physical occurrence, things and events experienced pass and are gone. But something of their meaning and value is retained as an integral part of the self. Through habits formed in intercourse with the world, we also in-habit the world. It becomes a home and the home is part of our every experience.

To live and to learn is to “be in intercourse with the world”; to inhabit is to be in-habit. To be out of habit with the world is to closed to it, and in effect, to be working against it. Thus, to be in-habit is to be in learning, to be realizing the perpetual emergence of semiosis in a shared environment.

Scholarship also follows the wavering pursuit of these indefinite and conditional futures. But not in the way that it purports to do in grant applications; where end results are (somehow?) determined in advance. Scholarship is far less certain than we would like to admit. It is expressed in terms of ‘creative guessing’, of conceiving a possible future state that can help sustain our relation to the unfolding present. This is what the modern academic style works tirelessly to destroy: this ‘logic of discovery’; the wavering digressing and highly creative path that got you from A – B. This abductive leap is erased and replaced instead with the familiar “logic of value” (induction). The strange in the unstrange, mysterious in the sacred, the shocks and turns, the hallucinations that drove you to write about the very processes you seek to reflect on. All of these are incinerated and evaporated out of the text: left behind in forgotten field notes, or composition books, tape recorders, or worse, in no material artifact at all, abandoned in the vicissitudes of your psyche.

The modern journal article you see in top-tier North American journals, and the institutions and social frameworks that shape them, represent a ritualized tool-making process. A time honored, but often misunderstood, machinery of reproduction. No doubt, there is always an aesthetic undercurrent that rules these carving rooms of cultural knowledge. Hence, our current form of consumer society – our ‘age of aesthetic decadence’, or better yet, our ‘decaying fetish of grandeur’ – has created venerable and prosperous (but deeply deprived) “factories of knowledge” (cf. Raunig, 2013). These institutions are, in their pursuit of data, generally unable to express this aspect of living and doing that is implicit in the inquiry process. They rather produce a product of hardened knowledge that can be easily disseminated and distributed – without the contemplative and exegetical care necessary for deep thinking. This aspect of scholarship, this slow thought, cannot be tolerated by these factory conditions.

It reminds me how the modern academy researcher is anything but slow and reflective – they barrel headfirst towards the next publication, the next grant, the next university chair, etc. Franco Ferraroti (2005, p. 4) explains this sense of time-destroying urgency: 

"I can’t think now; I’m in a hurry; I’ve no time. In the phrase, there is the idea of postponement, an indefinite one, until there will be time, until the hurry, the urgency will be over. However urgency and lack of time are interrelated concepts, terms, and existential situations. The greater the hurry, the less time one has. Urgency destroys time in advance. In the end, there is no more running toward, hurry with a direction, an aim, a telos; there is only the pure and simple act of running, not knowing where or why. This is pure urgency, made into an internalized habit and a way of life, without any aim which could give it meaning."

Publication, we know, must now occur at a frenzied and delirious speed; a speed that destroys the time necessary for careful and imaginative thought, and more directly, the time necessary for cultivating and practicing skill, for developing a scholarly or teaching practice. Michael Ling (private correspondence) expresses this same sentiment in the following adage for his students:

We are living in a moment in which it is easy, even acceptable, (given our wider culture of celebrity which has pervaded the Academy just as much as the entertainment business), to be a sloppy* and impulsive thinker and communicator. 
One can even be quite ‘successful’ in such a world, in such a moment. Strive to not be one of those. 

 (* by ‘sloppy’ I mean, making unsubstantiated or unexamined, incompletely formed claims, by showing ignorance of the history of ideas, by demonstrating a lack of humility in the face of   ideas, a lack of humility in terms of sense of self as a ‘carrier of ideas’, a lack of temperance, care, and patience toward the ideas of others) — ... to put it more cogently... I think there is a considerable lack of a sense of historical consciousness, little or no reflexivity with respect to where ‘one’s own ideas’ sit within the wider world of ideas, little or no reflexivity in terms of one’s sense of self, and the place of the institution in relation to the wider social world (i.e., academic settings are of course profoundly self-regarding institutions), and little evidence of having cultivated a practice of holding one’s own ideas up to a more critical light before making pronouncements.)
— Michael Ling

Thus, is the modern institutionalized professor who grant slings and charges their way to something new and ruling: a project that will receive funding, by producing a product of knowledge already consumed “economically” by an academy system. Such is the only way to describe the massive publishing conglomerates that rule research dissemination (not at all our subject here). This ‘knowledge’ takes the disembodied form of semio-capital (see Bifo, 2012); commodity spiraling divorced from the body – symbols divorced from their iconic and indexical foundations, that, freed from these constraints, can now, as Marx predicted, “travel at the speed of thought” (cf. the swipe and the shuffle). Such a finalization of semiosis comes at a cost; the loss of the body in the sign, the loss of indexicality, is also the loss of “feeling”. The forfeiture of “a poetics of feeling”, of “dwelling in” the practice of scholarship, is nothing short of the loss of a fine art. It is the decline of distinctive aesthetic sensibilities –  pathways of distributing the sensible. It constitutes a great forgetting.

But history reminds us that what is forgotten is never really forgotten, perhaps just inchoate and ready to be reactivated in new and multifarious way. As I’ve written elsewhere (Campbell, 2017, p. 144):

“The reader’s interpretative process acts upon the text; bringing to life its various structures and codes. But no two readers (even the same reader in different times of their life) activate precisely the same aspects of a single text. Each forges a unique path. Some of these paths are well trodden and have etched something almost permanent into the work itself. Each community, culture and epoch have their agreed upon walks through these woods. But with time – as some of these paths become less used and sometimes abandoned, often in favour of new paths – the forest (or text) encroaches and gradually, as surely as the march of time itself, reclaims these paths. Very often the text itself is completely abandoned and established interpretative strategies are lost. Here the woods fully regenerate, until a reader (sometimes centuries later) decides to embark into the unknown and stumble and slice their way through – equipped with nothing but the unique set of cultural and personal experiences that constitute them. Such is the labyrinth; such is the forest of the text.”

This “path of the reader” is nothing other than the path of the learner and the path of the learner is simply the path of anyone who inquires. It is the path of the researcher, of the artist, and of playful study. It is a journey of discovery predicated on growth, and being led out of your familiar positions. Thus, it is at root spiritually motivated, and nearly theological; born out of an ontological commitment to creation itself, a celebration – a playing out of creativity. This path of the reader is nothing other than the venerable spinning of the hermeneutic circle, a celebration of the ‘openness’ in words, in language, and in signs generally.

What I have tried to suggest is that this path of imaginative improvising in research, reading, and inquiry – of riding and feeling a conditional and vague hypothesis, instinct, or intuition – is fundamentally no different from the embodied process behind musical improv, art-making, or any expression and cultivation of skill. It is to follow states in becoming: notes becoming new notes, signs becoming new signs, the flight of interpretation itself. All this by way of saying, that 1) the scholar may be for more like the theologian or the jazz musician than funding agencies would like to admit, and 2) an attunement to the improvisational qualities of all perception may show the possibility for new ways of coming together and sharing in knowledge than currently offered to us by modern institutional frameworks.



Bifo, F. B. (2012). The uprising: on poetry and finance. Los Angeles: Semiotext (e) Intervention Series.

Campbell, C. (2016). Indexical ways of knowing: an inquiry into the indexical sign and how to  educate for novelty. Philosophical Inquiry in Education, 24(1), 15-36.

Campbell, C. (2017). A walk in the Textual woods: Umberto Eco's growing concept of text, in Torkild Thellefsen and Bent Sørensen (eds), Umberto Eco in his own words. De Gruyter Mouton.

Dewey, J. (1934/2005). Art as experience. Penguin.

Ferrarotti, F. (2005). On the science of uncertainty: The biographical method in social research.           Lexington Books.

Ingold, T. (2000). The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. Psychology Press.

Ingold, T. (2017). Anthropology and/as Education. Routledge.

Taussig, M. (2011). I swear I saw this: Drawings in fieldwork notebooks, namely my own.           University of Chicago Press.

Stables, A. Nöth, W., Olteanu, A., Sebastien P., Pikkarainen, E. 2018. Semiotic Theory of LearningNew Perspectives in the Philosophy of Education. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Rancière, J. (1991). The ignorant schoolmaster (Vol. 1). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Raunig, G., & Negri, A. (2013). Factories of knowledge, industries of creativity. Semiotext.