Should a philosopher always take the most clear and direct approach when writing a piece of
philosophy? Now I've given this some thought and it seems to me that those who insist on complete
clarity at all times are oversimplifying the issue, especially when it comes to the question of
interpreting the thoughts of other philosophers.
For example, how would one go about giving an accurate account of Heidegger's Being and Time if
it's insisted that this account must be explicated in everyday terms? To explicate Heidegger in
'everyday terms' would do a great disservice to his thought, and to those trying to get an accurate
understanding of his thought. If one is serious about explicating the ideas of a particular philosopher,
then one must employ the technical terms used by that philosopher, for otherwise philosopher's
arguments get leveled down to a vague semblance of their original form. Should one always try to
define these technical terms? If one is writing a serious philosophical essay on a particular
philosopher, shouldn't one assume that the potential readers of this essay will have some
understanding of the philosopher the essay is about? Or should one simply assume that everyone is
completely ignorant of the philosopher in question? Should one be giving a primer on philosophy
each time one decides to undertake a philosophical project?
Furthermore, it is my contention that, if you're after a specific effect, the only way to get that effect is
to eschew the notion of complete clarity. Let us take the topic of aesthetics as an example. Often I
find that if I want to give a non-reductive account of the aesthetic experience, I actually have to
perform an action in my writing that produces an aesthetic effect. I could ramble on and on about
poetry in a style as transparent as Ayer's, but I would fail to capture the essence of the poetic. Now
you may insist that my argument is fallacious if I can't give a completely transparent account of the
essence of the poetic, but I think this is false because, if one can actually write poetically about
poetry, then this serves as a more convincing argument than simple logical deduction. Logical
deduction understands nothing of the language of poetry, but you can be sure that poetry
understands logical deduction perfectly well. Now this is not to say that logic is unimportant. That
would be an absurd statement for a philosopher to make. But logic can only reach a certain point in
explicating the poetic, and once this point has been reached, we are left with a remainder: the
quiddity of the poetic. To reach this zone it's necessary for one to ignore the limitations of strict logical
argument, and proceed with a performance of the poetic.
Lastly, there are many great philosophers who are not 'clear and direct'. How 'clear and direct' is
Kant's Critique of Pure Reason,or Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit,or Heidegger's Being and Time,
or Derrida's Of Grammatology,or Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra? Should we ignore Sartre
because of statements like, "I am what I'm not, and I'm not what I am"? Must all philosophy be judged
under the doctrines of the Anglo-American tradition of complete clarity?
Your question is very pertinent and well argued and you have my complete sympathy. Somewhere in
his lecture cycle on 'Philosophical Terminology', Adorno takes Wittgenstein to task for his assertion
that we shouldn't and cannot talk about matters that we know nothing about: It is precisely the office
of philosophy to do that, Adorno retorts. Language is an extremely imprecise communicator of almost
everything of value to human beings (that was one of Wittgenstein's points), but this only means that
in writing down a possible very complex argument or raising issues that are new to the philosophical
vocabulary, a philosopher may find him/ herself unable to express what needs to be said in 'clear'
prose. The essence of this matter is that it is part of the human equation to understand very well in
non-lingual terms many complex forms of communication (e.g. symbols) which are also difficult or
impossible to decompose into plain statements; and when philosophers write highly convoluted
arguments, invent exotic nomenclatures or implicitly redefine standard expressions to suit
themselves, this is often an appeal to the intuitions of their readers to fill the comprehensibility gaps
by marshalling their own imaginations. Under these terms, philosophy can be become a creative
exercise not only for philosophers, but for their readers as well.
This is not to say that clear writing is not a desideratum, ultimately. If you had the chance to ask
Hegel, he would unquestionably agree. No-one could have been more sensitive to the deficiencies of
his diction than the man himself; but he had important thing to say that he simply found himself
unable to frame into 'clear prose'; he was always wrestling with language like Jacob with the Lord's
angel in the service of precision of utteranceand came out of the fray somewhat bruised and
dishevelled. Indeed of Kant it is well-known that he expressed the sentiment that he was forced to
leave elegance to his tailor, because he simply lacked the time to polish his text. Consequently it is
not a valid counter-argument that men like Descartes or Nietzsche or Santayana wrote in prose to
match the best of their respective literary languages. C'est le metier.What I mean by this is: any
typical sample of 100 books on Descartes would be devoted to precisely the same task as any
sample of 100 books on Hegel: elucidating the meaning of the authors. But didn't Descartes write
'clear and simple prose'? Well, yes. But so did Hegel, on his own terms. For although Descartes
might be more readily served up in the Sunday Literary Supplement, what he really meant is no
simpler to extract from his texts than anything Hegel had to say. In a word, until somebody takes up
Leibnitz's idea of a characteristica universalisand develops it into a richer as well as more precise
communications vehicle than plain language, we're stuck with what we got. So your point is well
First question. Yes, a philosopher should aim for clarity, but should not accept absurd terms.
'Complete' clarity doesn't necessarily mean oversimplifying, but if sometimes terms of shortness do.
When that seems awfully difficult, than that only means you don't master the stuff. My personal
experience is that anything you really through and through understand can be explained in a few
pages (or shorter). If you can't explain Heidegger in common word then you don't really understand
his point (replace 'Heidegger' by any name).Then I don't mean Heidegger's mathematical views, but
his philosophic ideas.
I'll explain: In SF movies sometimes in a few sentences, the subject is treated of a whole formal
philosophy book. Not because of an extremely clever text, but because of the context in which that
sentence is used (making use of the visual power of movies).
Second question: Yes, focus is always useful.
Third question: Be careful to accuse other philosophers of unclarity. Consider the time in which their
article was written.
My experience is that for instance Kant seems at present unclear (he was clearly a product of his
time), BUT considering his circumstances is quite understandable. Only his ideas have in the
meantime been a lot improved. Nietzsche's Zarathustra is on close reading very clear. I even wrote a
summary in which every chapter takes only a few sentences (if you're really interested I can give you
the internet address). Mind that explaining something you only half understand takes a lot of words.
If it is only Anglo Saxon to demand 'complete clarity', then there sure be other ways to look at it No
harm meant but that is slightly arrogant.
Remember, thing are as clear as your own eyes see them.
Since an aesthetic experience is an experience then I agree that you cannot capture it without giving
an example. Furthermore, that example is likely to be a philosophical poem and so logic, I agree,
would not be very important. But a logical poem might be quite fun.
Translation of technical terms into everyday language is an attempt to understand. You can assume
that potential readers know something about the philosopher you are writing about, but it depends on
the level of the essay. If it is an undergraduate essay you have to show that you understand the
philosopher. If it is not, it is still a good idea to explicate the ideas of the philosopher since this allows
readers to know whether you have the same interpretation.
It is the practice of showing that you understand which leads to the Anglo-Saxon requirement for
Something is always lost in translation even if it is just the tone of the original philosopher but it would
be very restrictive if this was to bother philosophers too much!