In addition to my fondness for science fiction, I also read a great deal of philosophy. As a result, I was surprised and pleased by how much instruction in philosophy I received as part of our learning in the tech writing graduate school at University of Central Florida.
Philosophy helps you set priorities
As you’ve no doubt noticed, different philosophers have different perspectives on what constitutes the best approach to metaphysics, ethics, politics, epistemology, or aesthetics–and those perspectives can be instructive as well, even if you disagree with them. But what does all that have to do with technical communication?
Aside from learning and general mind-expanding, philosophy helps the technical communicator identify different approaches to what’s important to a given audience or within a specific document. Are facts or ideas more important? The physical or the intellectual? The spiritual or the logical? The facts or opinions?
You probably have (or at least should have) your own convictions about which ideas should take priority. Those are the convictions that drive you toward your personal goals and ensure that you behave in an ethical or responsible manner. However, it’s important that you have some notion of other interpretations of reality–not because other perspectives are less ethical, but simply because different customers or tasks will require different priorities. The more different perspectives you encounter, the better you are able to understand other people’s priorities, how they think, and how best to communicate in ways that will persuade or make sense to them. (Science fiction can do this, too, by the way.)
Philosophy helps you better reach your audience.
Another aspect of philosophy that is emphasized in formal technical writing classes is the Greek (Aristotelian) form of argument: ethos, pathos, and logos.
Ethos is, essentially, writing with authority. It’s not just writing ethically (though that’s the same root word); you write with ethos when we back up our work with solid knowledge or speak in “the company voice.” Writing with ethos is a way to show that you know what we’re talking about.
Pathos is emotion–the same root word from which we get sympathy and empathy–it’s writing with feeling. Depending on what you’re writing, you might or might not use pathos in our writing. If you’re writing technical instructions for something that could go boom, we probably want to focus on “just the facts, ma’am.” However, you might have a situation where you’re trying to keep things light, in which case some added humor might be of use. Taking another situation, let’s say you’re writing a persuasive speech about a particular technology–for or against. You can cite fact and statistics all day, but occasionally you might need to move your audience, and emotional appeals do that more quickly and effectively than recitations of the facts. Of course even a recitation of the facts can have an effective emotional appeal.
Logos is logic–your reasoning. What facts or arguments do you use to make your case? How do you arrange them? What train of thought do you use to ensure that your audience reaches the same conclusion?
Truly effective technical communication draws upon all three of these ancient concepts–ethos, pathos, and logos. You must communicate ethically and with authority, you must touch the the right emotional chord with our audience, and you must reason clearly so that your audience is persuaded of your point of view.
Philosophy informs your views of the world
I had a friend who insisted that “politics has nothing to do with philosophy.” I would most respectfully disagree. As I noted above, philosophy is the personal framework we use for determining what our priorities are. If politicians champion particular public priorities, they are taking a philosophical stance, and they must use ethos, pathos, and logos to convince us of the rightness of their position.
In a similar way, effective technical communicators must set priorities in their work to determine the most important ideas and make those ideas useful for their audiences. So if someone tells you that philosophy has nothing to do with technical communication, you now have a bit of logos to refute their argument. How much ethos and pathos you use is up to you.