A Bias Against Simplicity?

Kieran Healy (Duke) recently presented a paper entitled “Fuck Nuance” at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting. He writes:

Nuance is not a virtue of good sociological theory. Sociologists typically use it as a term of praise, and almost without exception when nuance is mentioned it is because someone is asking for more of it. I shall argue that, for the problems facing Sociology at present, demanding more nuance typically obstructs the development of theory that is intellectually interesting, empirically generative, or practically successful.

He discusses the problem in an interview at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

In social theory, nuance is bad when it becomes a kind of free-floating demand to make things “richer” or “more sophisticated” by adding complexity, detail, or levels of analysis, in the absence of any real way of disciplining how you add them. People just keep insisting on a more-sophisticated approach and act as though simply listing the many ways something might be more complex is the same as having a better theory of that thing. In such cases, levels and aspects and dimensions may just pile up in a heap. It is especially bad when you habitually make this your first move when deciding whether an idea or theory is any good.

Meanwhile, in a forthcoming paper in Argumentation entitled “Why Simpler Arguments Are Better,” Moti Mizrahi (Florida Institute of Technology) writes:

It appears that many philosophers are often bedazzled by complex arguments. They admire the depth and complexity of a philosopher’s arguments even though, when pressed, they might admit that the philosopher’s arguments are often not of the highest argumentative standard. This is the impression one gets when it is said with approval of philosophy in general that it is “difficult”…,“hard”…, or “complicated”…, and of particular philosophers, like Nietzsche and Hegel…. I think that this is a mistake. That is to say, I think that, instead of admiring complexity in philosophical argumentation, we should prefer simplicity.

He then goes on to provide some rather reasonable arguments in favor of simplicity, ceteris paribus, in argumentation.

These two papers had me wondering about the extent to which philosophers are enamored with complexity (or nuance — though I don’t mean to equate the two), whether it’s a problem, and further, whether there is a bias against simplicity.

In figuring this out, it isn’t sufficient to observe that philosophers have spent a lot of time working on complex arguments of their own, or on the notoriously complex work of some historical figures. We’d expect more complex arguments to take more time to unpack and understand.

It would be helpful if we had two roughly equally compelling arguments of varying complexity for roughly the same thesis, along with an observation that philosophers prefer the more complex one. Is there an example of this?

Calvin Hobbes writing academia

(Nor is complexity the same as obscurity, but if there’s a slender reed of an excuse to put up a Calvin & Hobbes, I’ll probably take it.)



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