Philosophy that’s a Pleasure to Read


“People have been asking me: what will you acquire? In most cases I gave the obvious response about seeking new directions in these fields and at the same time furthering established dialogues scholars are already engaged in. And that answer is true, but it’s not the full story. What I’m actually looking for is clear, vivid thought.” That’s Jenny Gavacs, the new sociology and Asian studies editor at Stanford University Press, in a recent blog post entitled, “So You’re Writing a Monograph.” She adds, “when a scholar’s writing has been refined to transparency her idea shows through in all its glory.” She has a bit to say about word choice, too; I disagree that “a priori” is “just bluster” but perhaps I am part of the problem.

Meanwhile, Oxford University Press philosophy editor Peter Momtchiloff, in his interview at Aesthetics for Birds (previously), says, “Of course a lot of philosophy is hard work to read. But one thing which I tell my colleagues about philosophers is that they generally have reasons for saying what they say the way they say it rather than some other way. Philosophers’ writing tends to be considered, which is better than unconsidered.” Yes, better than unconsidered, but that on its own is kind of a low bar for readability (and yes, I know that words like “readability” only get in owing to low bars, but this is just a blog post, mkay?).

I think a lot of philosophers take readability as something they have to make a concession to in their writing. That is somewhat understandable, as comprehensiveness and fine distinctions and other aims may take us away from readability. But it is also kind of weird, since the main point of writing, one would think, is to be read. Perhaps it would be good if we had some exemplars of excellent philosophical writing to inspire us, or to emulate. Help us out. What are your examples of philosophy that’s a pleasure to read?

guest
36 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Adam
6 years ago

David Lewis’ _On The Plurality of Worlds_ is an excellent example of good philosophical writing. Sometime during his career he made a transition from filling pages up with symbols (like we see in _Counterfactuals_) to writing memorable turns of phrase that clearly explain very strange and abstruse ideas. No doubt he did this before in _Counterfactuals_, but he did more of it in _On the Plurality_.

Many of Peter van Inwagen’s papers display a similar attention to the virtues of writing, e.g. Two Concepts of Possible Worlds.

I also took a class on philosophical writing, where we interacted with Nicholas Wolterstorff’s _Justice: Rights and Wrongs_, which also had many memorable turns of phrase, felicitous sentences, and a well-formed outlined structure.Report

James Camien McGuiggan
James Camien McGuiggan
6 years ago

I mentioned Aaron Ridley and Arthur C. Danto a while back as having written some great papers in aesthetics: I can add that they’re also two of the best writers I know. Ridley’s writing is quick and conversational; Danto’s is not exactly a breeze to read, but is extremely witty, and has made me laugh aloud a few times. To these two I’d add Collingwood and Scruton (although Collingwood’s limpidity masks a huge conceptual complexity and sophistication; I speculate that one of the reasons Collingwood is so neglected is that people don’t understand him but don’t realise this, because his prose seems so easy to read).

This list is similar to my last one – I suppose that’s no coincidence though, even beyond the fact that I’m an aesthetician and am leaving great writing in other areas to those who know them. I’ll add though that I find most philosophers pretty dull writers, and although I prefer dull and clear to colourful but superficial, in trying to give my own writing character I look rather to such as Joyce and David Foster Wallace.Report

SER
SER
Reply to  James Camien McGuiggan
6 years ago

I second your recommendation of Danto – clear and engaging.Report

Ben
Ben
6 years ago

I’m a big fan of Pamela Hieronymi. There are lots of really excellent writers in ethics, but Hieronymi’s style stands out because it is a bit more restrained than most–it’s cool, economical, and comparatively formal, while still feeling rhythmic and alive. I wish I could write like that.Report

Steven Gross
6 years ago

Gregory VlastosReport

Laura Grams
Laura Grams
6 years ago

Philippa Foot… Hilarious and elegant.Report

Neil Sinhababu
Reply to  Laura Grams
6 years ago

Her writing is full of life in a way that really appeals to me.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
6 years ago

Daniel DennettReport

John Schwenkler
6 years ago

Susan Wolf, Bernard Williams, Eric Schwitzgebel, Tamar GendlerReport

Alan White
Alan White
6 years ago

Have to second Dennett and Wolf. Among younger philosophers Kris McDaniel has an almost uncanny ability to express extremely complex ideas in straightforward and unpretentious prose.Report

michaela
michaela
6 years ago

Rae Langton.Report

Daniel Nagase
Daniel Nagase
Reply to  michaela
6 years ago

I second Rae Langton. She is clear, direct, and precise. She also makes good use of examples and drives her points rather forcefully. An excellent overall writer.Report

Alan White
Alan White
6 years ago

Oh, I’d be remiss to leave out how impressed I am with Neil Levy’s writings. Many of his reviews are exemplars of the genre.Report

Jonathan Cohen
6 years ago

Andy Egan strikes a distinctively conversational and unpretentious tone — even on technical ideas — without sounding cutesy or overdone.Report

James Camien McGuiggan
James Camien McGuiggan
Reply to  Jonathan Cohen
6 years ago

I found his ‘Billboards, Bombs and Shotgun Weddings’ thigh-slappingly good.Report

John Capps
John Capps
6 years ago

This is a a great question because I wish I had more examples of fine philosophical writing to show students.

I think Cheryl Misak is one of the best writers I know: she gets to the heart of complicated questions very clearly and makes it all look easy.

I also get a kick reading anything by J.J. Thomson: something about the way she crafts her language and examples.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

Simon Blackburn, especially All Souls Night.Report

ayt.
ayt.
Reply to  anon
6 years ago

could not agree more about blackburn, fantastic writer.Report

Amy
Amy
6 years ago

For instruction, I recommend Joseph Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. He gives a lot of concrete examples and does a good job of explaining why reading academic prose can be such a slog. For example, the sentence that Gavacs cites as “tongue-twisting” has more specific problems. Williams would complain about its excessive nominalizing (turning verbs into abstract nouns).Report

John Schwenkler
Reply to  Amy
6 years ago

Amen to this! Williams’s book is terrific.Report

Michael Cholbi
6 years ago

A second on Susan Wolf. Scheffler’s “Death and the Afterlife” is also excellent stylistically. And I like Rivka Weinberg’s directness. Plus David Sussman.

Also: Everything I’ve written.Report

dmf
dmf
6 years ago
Anon Grad Student
Anon Grad Student
6 years ago

No one lays it out for you, premise by premise, like Alvin Plantinga does. But for sheer pleasure in reading, David Lewis is king. I’ve also found Alan Hajek particularly adept in explaining difficult, technical ideas.Report

Paul Kelleher
Paul Kelleher
6 years ago

Anything by John Broome.Report

Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra
Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra
6 years ago

Nelson GoodmanReport

Jimmy Doyle
Jimmy Doyle
6 years ago

Arthur PriorReport

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

David Lewis, definitely and definitively. Some others off the top of my head: Ted Sider, Adele Mercier, John Heil, Philippa Foot, and William James, very, very much him.Report

Hanno Sauer
6 years ago

Schopenhauer – best non-fiction writer of all time. Dan Haybron and John Doris are, each in their own way, really good recent writers.Report

Brock
6 years ago

Seconding Gregory Vlastos. And I’m surprised Saul Kripke hasn’t been mentioned yet.Report

Bruce
Bruce
6 years ago

Searle.Report

Zach
Zach
6 years ago

Adam Elga all day.Report

David Boonin
David Boonin
6 years ago

Seconding Judith Jarvis Thomson and Rivka Weinberg (for her humor and not just her directness). Shelly Kagan’s book, Death, is a model of writing that aims to be illuminating to philosophers and accessible to non-philosophers. I guess I hear mixed reactions to Parfit as a writer, but I find him a pleasure to read.Report

Aaron Garrett
Aaron Garrett
6 years ago

I love reading Peter Railton.Report

matt
matt
6 years ago

Elliott Sober. Routinely turns mud into crystal.Report

anon grad
anon grad
6 years ago

John Greco and Julia DriverReport

anon grad student
anon grad student
6 years ago

I love the prose of Adam Smith and W.E.B. Du Bois. Oldies but goodies.Report