A Case for Clarity

A Case for Clarity

This stark opposition between analytic clarity and continental obscurity must be qualified. Certainly, analytic philosophers tend to see clarity as a virtue. Yet the very concern to be clear can lead to the creation of precise definitions and fine distinctions marked with technical terms. Especially but not only when logical formalization is used, the resulting writing can be just as difficult to access as some continental philosophy. Moreover, continental philosophers often use terms of art for the same reasons as analytic philosophers: to mark distinctions, capture unnoticed phenomena, and so on. Conversely, some continental philosophers embrace clarity…

That is Alison Stone (Lancaster) in “The Politics of Clarity,” a short piece in Hypatia (update: if you cannot access that version, there is a close-to-final draft here). Stone’s aim is to “identify some reasons why continental philosophers are relatively wary of [clarity], reasons that are understandable and important, as analytic philosophers do not always sufficiently appreciate.”

Helpfully, she makes clear what clarity is:

What is clarity, anyway? I take it that clear language is transparent rather than opaque. When writing is opaque our attention is drawn to the medium—the words— and only dimly, if at all, to the subject matter to which the words refer. When writing is transparent, the medium remains present but draws little or no attention to itself, except that we might admire its very withdrawal from our attention. We see through transparent writing to what it refers to, as when, in a telephone conversation, ideally we hear what our interlocutor is saying, not the telephone equipment crackling.

How can philosophical writing achieve transparency? We need to use words with meanings as close as possible to the meanings they have ordinarily, to use words and phrases much as they are used in everyday, nonacademic language. This is because any ordinary language is a transparent medium in which its speakers move freely, using the expressions it furnishes to talk about their world without noticing the words as such, unless communication or understanding break down. Then the words that were our taken-for-granted background step into the foreground. To make complex theories clear, then, we need to translate them into ordinary language. 

She then goes on to identify a number of objections to the demand for clarity, and finds each of them wanting. These objections include the well-worn “complex thought requires complex, difficult forms of expression”; that clear writing “reinforces social structures that dominate individuals, overpower their critical faculties, and stifle resistance”; that when theoretical claims are made clear by being put into everyday language, “they are recast in terms of false ontological assumptions that constitute our common sense”; and that “clarity is linked with ideals of reason and argument that have long been understood in gender-divided ways.”

Along the way, she argues that phenomenology can play a helpful role in revising common sense thought and ordinary language use. She concludes that while clarity isn’t, of course, the only virtue of philosophical writing, it is, indeed, a virtue.

(image: detail from “A Bigger Splash” by David Hockney)

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