Learning to Use Quotations Better

Learning to Use Quotations Better

In my last post, I discussed what I’m trying to do with my formal writing with regard to quotations–learning to use them better by not just remembering the best lines, but understanding their various contexts.

For example, I thought I might use a line from Arthur Balfour (1848-1930) for an upcoming project. So first, I had to add some scaffolding around the quotation in order to determine whether the line would even be worthwhile to reference or not:

As we cannot extricate ourselves from the labyrinth of illusion, let us at least see to it that our illusions are agreeable.

Arthur James Balfour, Theism and Humanism, (New York: Doran, 1915), pp. 140–41

After the quotation has been found, I then have to start asking myself questions. I tell myself:

When you quote—don’t just quote the quotation––engage with the thinking that went into the quotation through these several modes:

What mode of thinking went into the immediate sentences and clauses just before and just after the quotation?

Balfour’s philosophical works are aloof and muddling—this quotation can stand on its own, although it shows his skepticism against idealism.

What mode of thinking went into the entire work from which the quotation was pulled?

These words were part of Balfour’s Gifford Lectures, where one lectures on religion and philosophy in some way in Scotland.

What mode of thinking went into the entire work in relation to the writer’s other works as well as the writer’s general biography?

Balfour was a politician-aristocrat first, and only secondarily a philosopher. He would not have called or referred to himself as a “philosopher.”

What mode of thinking went into the entire work in relation to works by the writer’s contemporaries?

See below.

What mode of thinking went into the entire work in relation to history?

“On the fringe of philosophy stands the engaging figure of Arthur James Balfour, afterwards Earl of Balfour (1848–1930), who gave up to politics very great suppleness and tenacity of mind. He attracted attention as a writer with A Defence of Philosophy Doubt (1879), a book which was never taken quite seriously, because its title appeared faintly flippant. The Foundations of Belief (1895), Theism and Humanism (1915) and Theism and Thought (1925) were later excursions into philosophy; but they contributed nothing to current thought. Balfour was critical rather than constructive, and wrote mainly to clear his own mind.”

George Sampson, The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature, Third Edition revised by R. C. Churchill, (Cambridge UP, 1970), p. 663.

I then must read over these questions and answers several times before I’m able to determine if the quotation can correctly be used in the way I want to use it. And once that is determined, the scaffolding can then be taken down.