ideasCraig Stroupe | Associate Professor of Information Design | Department of Writing Studies | 1201 Ordean Court # 420 | University of Minnesota Duluth | Duluth, MN 55812 | 218-726-6249 | fax 218-726-6882 |

peter elbow
Peter Elbow, a key figure in the "process movement" in composition studies in the 1970s, and author of Writing without Teachers (1973)


The Believing and Doubting Games

In his book Writing Without Teachers, Peter Elbow introduces the concept of the "believing" and "doubting" games--complementary methods of approaching texts which he claims are both vital to the "intellectual enterprise" (145).

Elbow says that most academics or intellectuals are obsessed with one method of approaching new texts and ideas--the doubting game--at the expense of the other. The doubting game allows you to approach a text "critically," to look for errors and contradictions; it is a game of "self-extrication" from a text's underlying assumptions and conclusions, which you flush out into the open with your hard-headed, scientific skepticism. In Elbow's words, "The truer it seems, the harder you have to doubt it" (148). By playing the "doubting game," you can come to realize your own opinions and positions by reacting against those of another writer, by engaging in what Elbow calls a "dialectic of propositions" (149).

Elbow's article is a plea for a more balanced approach that also includes the "believing game." Rather than extricating yourself from the text, you play the believing game to project yourself into a writer's point of view, to try the idea on for size, to "try to have that experience of meaning" (165). You intentionally believe everything--taking in a text, as Elbow says, the way an owl eats a mouse--and trust your "organism" eventually to sort out the useful from the unuseful (177).

Ultimately, the philosophy of the believing game sees ideas not as inherently true or false, but as tools: "By believing an assertion," writes Elbow, "we can get farther and farther into it, see more and more things in terms of it or "through" it, use it as a hypothesis to climb higher and higher to a point from which more can be seen and understood" (163).

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