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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Felonius Screwtape
Felonius Screwtape
6 years ago

this seems like click-bait for analytics to complain about the alleged obscurantism of continentalists, so preemptively i’ll suggest that the “problem” of (lack of) clarity in continental philosophy is not in the writer’s ability to write clearly but rather the reader’s ability to interpret and understand difficult prose and complicated ideas. how many times have you heard a version of this argument ” *I* don’t understand Jacques Derrida [or favorite continental bugaboo], he is an obscurantist, and therefore wrong” ? it’s ironic that those who place high value on logic often commit this logical error.Report

Vincenzo Politi
Vincenzo Politi
6 years ago

“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 […] 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”. But the point is that, for many continental philosophers, language is both the medium and the the subject matter of their investigation. They all more or less agree that everyday common language is laden with metaphysical preconceptions sedimented through the centuries and now imposed or just implicitly taken for granted. The daily language constraints the way we reason and disguises things, rather than revealing them. “Along the way, she argues that phenomenology can play a helpful role in revising common sense thought and ordinary language use.” This is very strange, because in my knowledge Phenomenologists were the first to be critical of the so-called “objective language” and to create new words, concepts and expressions.Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

I do not like a lack of clarity. However, writing is never”clear” or “unclear” in itself. It is clear or unclear to some reader. A paper written in formal logic may be incomprehensible to some people, but very clear to others (clearer, even, then any any translation of it into ordinary English). Scientists often use terminology that makes what they say clearer to other scientists, but less clear to the other folk, and it is alright that they do so. To my mind, the problem in philosophy is not that we write in ways that can’t be understood beyond our clique or sub-clique, but that we don’t attempt to also say the same things in language that is as ordinary as possible. Our failure to do so has not only resulted in two camps within philosophy who can barely understand each other, but leaves us incomprehensible to the world beyond professional philosophy that we theoretically serve.Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

The irony of so many typos in a post about clarity does not escape me. Sorry.Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
6 years ago

“Scientists often use terminology that makes what they say clearer to other scientists, but less clear to the other folk, and it is alright that they do so.”

Agreed, but I don’t think philosophy is any different. We have no more obligation to “serve the world beyond professional philosophy” than mathematicians or theoretical physicists have to serve the outside world; in all these cases, what professionals in the field normally serve is just the project of discovering the truth.Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

I disagree. The work of scientists frequently benefits people who do not understand it. A medicine will work just as well on someone who doesn’t know how it works as on someone who does. Philosophy must generally be understood by someone before it can be of any use to them.Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
6 years ago

Applied scientists, yes. But I don’t think philosophy is akin to medical research or technological innovation; it’s much more akin to pure science. (And, like pure science, it may have downstream social benefits, but that’s not the immediate reason for doing it.)Report

Nick
Nick
6 years ago

“when logical formalization is used, the resulting writing can be just as difficult to access as some continental philosophy.” This strikes me as misleading if not incorrect. Well-formed logical formulae have easy and direct translations into ordinary language, using well-defined and clear translation manuals. While performing the translation might require effort, it does not require the level of effort or extent of background knowledge one requires in order to translate other kinds of,philosophical jargon into ordinary language. I, for one, have been told that understanding jargon in some continental philosophy requires familiarity wi an intellectual tradition that cannot be given by any kind of direct translation manual. Perhaps I have been misled….Report

77
77
6 years ago

“We have no more obligation to “serve the world beyond professional philosophy” than mathematicians or theoretical physicists have to serve the outside world; in all these cases, what professionals in the field normally serve is just the project of discovering the truth.”

and this is why some say philosophy is deadReport

n
n
6 years ago

If philosophy were simple and easy, then we could be very clear about it. But that would also trivialize the problems of philosophy. ‘2+2=4’ is clear, but it is also something we teach five year olds. Until we have answered all our philosophical questions, there will be hard, complex problems that we need to be as clear as possible about, but no more. Otherwise we are oversimplifying.Report

Matthew
Matthew
6 years ago

Vincenzo Politi #3 has this in the bag. But I’ll give my 10cents.

There are philosophical untruths in our ordinary language, there are superstitious phrases and of course there is ‘gendered’ language and knowledge and so on. That makes commitment to ordinary language tout court philosophically ignorant and dangerous. Insofar as ‘clarity’ means the interpellation (and yes I meant to specifically reference that word to be as ‘clear’ as possible) of thought into an appropriately common sense distribution (‘I’m for this’, ‘I’m against that’), it becomes impossible to say something someone else couldn’t always-already have expected you to say. Of course you’re either for or against rights for women or homosexuals – why be so complicated about it, philosophy guy? Because it’s not the friggin’ point of what I have to say!

In my view, and in my personal experience, analytics use ‘clarity’ as a bully word, and yes they mean it objectively. Either everyone can understand what you say (and you have been exorcised of your demons by whatever initiation they come up with), or you are disallowed to have anything but garbled thoughts and ‘confusion’ either for yourself or your group (continentalists of this stripe or that stripe). At root I’d wager that it’s a colonial attitude. Gregg Littmann #4 put it correctly when he says “writing is never”clear” or “unclear” in itself. It is clear or unclear to some reader”. This is basic philosophy that many analytics avoid because it undermines their status as experts.Report

Matthew
Matthew
6 years ago

77 #10 This is the reason that I and others say that philosophy is not done in the academy! It is not dead, it is simply the case that it does not exist where one is looking for it. Grad Student #9 does not know that the truth has something to do with… stuff that’s true!Report

Tasha
Tasha
6 years ago

I strongly believe that Pr. Stone just can’t comprehend how full of life any european language is for any continental philosopher. When you have thousands years of history and ideas, you can’t possibly strive to “clarity” in the meaning that she asks for. I can just advice her to come to live in Europe for at least few years.Report

John
John
6 years ago

Last time I looked Lancaster was in Europe.Report

grad
grad
6 years ago

Grad student:

I think your analogy is apt only if one thinks that philosophy operates like a science, i.e. that it is primarily a piece-meal accumulation of knowledge through the work of specialized experts. But I don’t think everyone thinks this is the best description of large parts of philosophy (or at least not the best description of those parts done well). For those, like me, who think that philosophy rightly belongs in the humanities, it is vital that it not be opaque to the folk to the same degree that work in science often is.Report

Matthew
Matthew
6 years ago

John #15 I think the point might be made that Lancaster is a rather dull place in Europe.Report

Vincenzo Politi
Vincenzo Politi
6 years ago

I agree with what said by Matthew #12. It is in fact true that “analytics use ‘clarity’ as a bully word and that they mean it objectively”, but for continentals “objectivity” itself is a problem. A language which is thought to be as “objective” as possible is already presupposing what is objective and what is not – like “clarity”, in this case. To make Matthew’s example clearer (what an irony!), when one says that “you’re either for or against rights for women or homosexuals”, one is already presupposing that it is correct to classify people using the categories of “men and women”, or that there are such things as “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” and one also presupposes which types of “rights” one is either in favour or against. All these things are not critically discussed, but presupposed by the very language one uses to discuss these things. Of course, in your daily conversation you use ordinary language. If someone asks you whether you are for against gay rights, you cannot spend three days wondering “are we sure there is such a thing as gay? are we sure there are such things as rights? are we sure the rights we are talking about are the rights that gay people really need? and what are real needs?”; however, ‘as philosophers’, continental are very ‘critical’ about the ‘myth of the given’ and they try to challenge the obviousness of objectivity (instead of justifying it, as many analytics do).

I keep on being surprised by the author’s reference to Phenomenology. Phenomenologists were the first to say that we should suspend any presupposition about the objectivity of the given world and begin from the our immediate subjective experience. Phenomenologists themselves defined Phenomenology as an “unnatural” activity. So, I really don’t see how “phenomenology can play a helpful role in revising common sense thought and ordinary language use”.Report

Vincenzo Politi
Vincenzo Politi
6 years ago

Grad student: that’s spot on. In fact, analytics already presupposes “what philosophy is” – namely, an epistemic activity similar to science. Continental philosophers would actually problematise such a definition.

I do not consider myself analytical or continental, but for sure I do not regard philosophy as an activity aimed to the discovery of the “truth” and similar to science. I am not even sure what are the “truths” that philosophical investigation can discover or uncover. On the one hand, there are “logical truths”, which are either discovered by logicians or mathematicians, or are plain tautologies. Clearly, these are not “philosophical truths”, unless we endorse the view for which philosophy can be reduced to logic, which is problematic. On the other hand, there are “empirical truths”, which are discovered by the empirical sciences. These are not “philosophical truths”, unless we endorse the view for which philosophy is an empirical science, which is problematic. So, are there any “truths” left to philosophy? I suspect no.

There are a lot of normative issues which are not about the discovery of final and definite truths, but nevertheless require a lot of attention and consideration. This is the realm of philosophical analysis and philosophical criticism. I don’t think that people working on aesthetics or philosophy of politics are fooling themselves with the idea of finding out what the “true definition” of beauty is, of what it is the “true” form of government. Yet, their problems still deserve to be discussed.Report

L.
L.
6 years ago

I’ve always tended to distinguish two (sometimes opposed) sorts of ‘clarity’. In the first sense, clarity is *ready* understanding: the reader has a sense of what is meant quickly and without mental effort. In the second sense, clarity is *reliable* understanding: all readers, with enough time and effort, will tend to converge on a single interpretation of what is meant. Jargon typically makes things ‘clearer’ in the second sense at the expense of making them less clear in the first. My impression is that often the accusation that analytic philosophers direct against (certain) continental philosophers is not really anything to do with clarity in the first sense (ready understanding), but rather with clarity in the second sense (reliable understanding). The accusation is that *even if* you spend the time – even if you look up definitions, consult experts, etc. – you can’t be certain of what is meant. That at least is what seems to be meant, whether or not it’s true.Report

Matthew J. Brown
6 years ago

Thank you for sharing this, Justin. Very interesting. I do agree with Greg Littmann @4 about the relational nature of clarity. (I think I first came across that point in Evelyn Fox Keller’s work.) But I don’t think it really changes anything in Stone’s argument. Also, given Stone’s background that you comment on @2, and actually looking at the actual content of the OP and Stone’s essay, I find it strange and sad how many commenters are reacting to this in an “analytic vs continental” mode, as if Stone is pushing an analytic agenda or as if she hasn’t considered the objections they raise.Report

Matthew
Matthew
6 years ago

Agreed with Vincenzo Politi #19. But I’d like to suggest that the interest in ‘phenomenology’ could be just the interest in having a specialised way of talking about the world that makes philosophy appear systematic, for which experts might be needed. And so analytics might want to stake claim to ‘the way things appear to us’ as to a kind of real estate (a Jerusalem of sorts). Of course it need not have anything to do with the motivations of phenomenology as you mention them, but a ‘moderate, modern’ version that could be explicated in a thousand back-patting books and articles.

L #20 I have to disagree. Deleuze and Guattari, for example, may be difficult to read at first, but one does not meet with wild variations in definitions of their concepts given by different scholars familiar with their work. I’ve always found that philosophers in fact have a grasp of where ‘continental’ concepts come from, what motivates them, and can give examples of what they mean. This is also true for the analytic philosophers – they know full well what this or that means, but they want to insist on incoherence because the values involved in many of those concepts aren’t the values they find workable: ‘well, I know that A means B and is related to C in such a way, but *shrug*’. It’s all about values. And of course, clarity itself is not a value, it’s an impulse to purge made into a value. The fact that analytics call it a ‘virtue’ should ring your alarm bells. (something something Nietzsche…)Report

Alison Stone
Alison Stone
6 years ago

Thanks to the commenters.
I was absolutely not claiming that continental philosophy is bad because unclear. I was trying to move beyond that sort of view – either that continental traditions are blanket unclear or that, if there are occasions when work in those traditions is unclear, that necessarily makes it bad. I was addressing a different sort of view, that of someone who over-hastily concludes from problems such as clarity being a bully word – as it can be, I agree – that we should dismiss clarity altogether. I acknowledge (in my essay) that there are various perfectly good reasons to raise critical questions about clarity as an ideal or goal. Nonetheless, I suggest, those reasons don’t ultimately show that we should reject clarity utterly or that there is no merit in clear work. Moreover, I say that it’s just one value amongst others, the others including things like creative play with language, building on the imaginative resources and richness of language.
Regarding Europe – I have lived in Europe all my life and have studied French and German! My ‘favourite’ philosophers are Hegel and Irigaray. Even had I been living in the US, though, the US too has thousands of years of history and culture…just that it wasn’t in the English language until colonisation!
Regarding phenomenology, I don’t claim that phenomenologists think we can objectively access the bare facts of the world as it is in itself or anything like that. My point about phenomenology is that phenomenological reflection can help us to clarify features of our experience and the world as we experience it and in that way can line up with, not against, clarity.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

I am surprised that the author did not mention a conspicuous sign of clear academic writing – whether it is easily translatable to a foreign language (even better when it is genealogically distant from the original language). As a philosophy student whose first language is not one of the philosophically-major-Western-languages, translatability is more or less the clarity for me. I believe many would agree with that the analytic tradition tends to offer, in this way, clearer literature than the other. (ironically, Quine’s writing is still very clear, or “translatable”)

It seems like some consider using formal languages is on a par with using “terms of art”, which is embarrassing to me. Usage of formal language in an academic discipline is indeed a promising news for many scholars worldwide. If you compare the proportion of non-native English speakers’ publication record in STEM fields with that of humanities, the answer would be obvious.

Of course, every ordinary language has some aspects hardly translatable to another language, and some fundamental insights are. I doubt, however, that philosophical discourse is the one, if it is to be the subject of argumentative inquiry.Report

Matthew
Matthew
6 years ago

It’s good to have your opinion here Alison. The problem with suggesting that a ‘minor clarity’ that is not ideal is o.k. (or one we should not ‘reject utterly’), is that it’s a bit like saying writing with a pen is not something we should reject utterly, or that wearing shoes whilst walking is something that is sometimes agreeable (such as when we are outside, although we may ‘go all stylish’ and adopt the sandals with socks look). To write ‘clear work’ is something anyone should be able to demonstrate before setting foot in a university, but that does not say anything about the quality of the work and I put it to you that clarity is in its minor sense just as mundane. No, clarity must be meant as an ideal and you want there to be space for such an ideal, which as you can see I disagree with. I don’t think philosophers need to line up with clarity, but against it, and that this does not mean being against clarity in its minor sense, which is easily accepted and is in fact a clever strawman on your part.Report

Avi
Avi
6 years ago

(1) “In philosophy, clarity is a courtesy.” (Ortega y Gasset)
(2) “Never speak more clearly than you can think.” (I’ve seen this attributed to both Niels Bohr and Jeremy Bernstein)Report

Another Grad student
Another Grad student
6 years ago

“I, for one, have been told that understanding jargon in some continental philosophy requires familiarity wi[th] an intellectual tradition that cannot be given by any kind of direct translation manual.”

This has been my repeated experience with many continental philosophers. My partner took an undergrad course title “Introduction to Continental Philosophy,” and found that her TA refused to explain any terms. He simply said that you would have to read the philosophy who introduced it, in the original language, if you wanted to really understand the term. This is, I think, what many analytic philosophers mean when they complain about ‘lack of clarity.’

Every now and again, though, I meet continental philosophers who will will carefully explain what they mean by their terms, when asked. I like talking to such philosophers.Report

Matthew J. Brown
6 years ago

“He simply said that you would have to read the philosophy who introduced it, in the original language, if you wanted to really understand the term. This is, I think, what many analytic philosophers mean when they complain about ‘lack of clarity.’”

That’s not lack of clarity. That’s being an elitist jerk.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

anon: “translatability is more or less the clarity for me. I believe many would agree with that the analytic tradition tends to offer, in this way, clearer literature than the other.”

I’d agree on balance that analytic philosophy is clearer and that’s generally a virtue. But I’d add that analytic philosophy is ironically the hardest to translate into “English”–precisely because it so often assumes its eccentric style and jargon just *is* English, when it’s actually a very unique dialect of a small academic tribe. It’s almost like an entire scientific field conducted in, say, high Bostonian. Getting really riled up about those obscure New Orleansians.

Nick: “I, for one, have been told that understanding jargon in some continental philosophy requires familiarity wi an intellectual tradition that cannot be given by any kind of direct translation manual. Perhaps I have been misled….”

Some continentals think that, but I suspect they’re the minority. In most areas of continental philosophy, if you dig around a bit, you’ll find secondary work that “translates” quite directly, clearly, and effectively, without presupposing an extensive background in the tradition. I think it’s a defense reaction on the part of some continentals to turn the analytic charge of obfuscation into a virtue, a reactionary trend that does continental philosophy more harm than good.

I really do find many continental figures easier to translate to ordinary English than analytic philosophers. Analytics are often more clear in the original, but less clear in translation. (To give an admittedly extraordinarily controversial example: I find David Hume initially appears superbly clear, but when it comes to spelling out, unpacking and translating his ideas, they become much less clear. I’d say he has this in common with Nietzsche, who at first seems clearer than most in that tradition.)Report

Vincenzo Politi
Vincenzo Politi
6 years ago

Thank you very much for your reply to the comments, although I am not entirely convinced by some of the things you said.

For instance, you say that “I acknowledge (in my essay) that there are various perfectly good reasons to raise critical questions about clarity as an ideal or goal. Nonetheless, I suggest, those reasons don’t ultimately show that we should reject clarity utterly or that there is no merit in clear work.” But are there philosophers who deny the merit of clarity? Or are Continental philosophers *intentionally* unclear? I don’t think so. I think that even people like Heidegger and Sartre were convinced that their writing was clear (once you understood their terms of art) and that was also the reason why they literally created new words and expression: to be clearer and to go beyond the ambiguities of the common language. Of course, this is not to say that Heidegger’s and Sartre’s writings are clear, but only that Heidegger and Sartre did not reject clarity utterly or saw no merit whatsoever in clarity. So, I really don’t know what or who you are reacting against.

Also, when you speak about phenomenology, you say that “phenomenological reflection can help us to clarify features of our experience and the world as we experience it and in that way can line up with, not against, clarity.” If I may, I think there is a bit of confusion here between what will become clear “to me” about my own conscious experience in the world and what is clear at an intersubjective level. I can have some pretty clear insight and a deep level of understanding about my private experience, but that does not mean that the way I will describe these things to other will be “clear”.Report

Vincenzo Politi
Vincenzo Politi
6 years ago

The existence of bad teachers of Continental philosophy does not imply that Continental philosophy is bad.Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

I don’t know enough continental philosophy to directly compare the ease of translating analytic and continental philosophy into ordinary English. I do know that I see much more analytic philosophy conducted in ordinary English. Perhaps that is due to where I’ve been looking, though.Report

Another Grad Student
Another Grad Student
6 years ago

So the problem with postmodernism is more that it is ultimately self-defeating than that it is unclear. Indeed, the message is fairly clear: there is no such thing as objectivity. So is the problem: the claim that there is no such thing as objectivity obviously aspires to objectivity, otherwise one couldn’t use it to criticize anything. If there is no such thing as objectivity then the postmodernists’ critiques of concepts like gender, etc. are no more or less correct than the language that uses these concepts unreflectively, and thus everyone who is so inclined can simply ignore the postmodernists’ criticisms. Really, this is just another species of semantic paradox.Report

Adam
Adam
6 years ago

Am I alone in thinking it ironic that this article is hidden by a paywall that invites me to pay Wiley $26 to read the full piece? A failure of transparency there. Or did I miss an open version?Report

Matthew
Matthew
6 years ago

Another Grad Student #33 Yes this is a typically wheeled-out argument. A criticism of objectivity that you might call ‘postmodern’ could say that it is the privileging of one point of view, or perspective. You could say that it is not simple but complex and has a history and so on. But once ‘objectivity’ is made specific and local like this, you have to really think that there is no ‘objective’ view on objectivity – because that still assumes objectivity in exactly the same way (so you gave ‘objectivity’ a body and now refer to its spirit, or something). So the idea that the criticism of objectivity cannot claim to be objectively true shouldn’t be surprising to you – you just have to not assume that objectivity is required in order to make any argument against it. Why do you have to not make the assumption? Because of the evidence against formal objectivity. This may leave you in total despair, but it just means thought and argumentation aren’t the beasts you thought they were.

In any case, I don’t know who was doubting objectivity, or arguing for a ‘postmodern’ epistemology. This thread is about the OP’s apology for ‘clarity’, something different I think, though perhaps it seems related if you have the requisite ‘training’?Report

Vincenzo Politi
Vincenzo Politi
6 years ago

#Another Grad Student 33:

While postmodernism can be said to belong to the so-called Continental Philosophy, the whole Continental Philosophy cannot be reduced to postmodernism. Indeed, “Continental Philosophy” is a rather unclear label which is constantly used by analytic philosophers (who claim to be very clear) to indicate several different doctrines, currents, schools of thoughts. Continental Philosophy can be used to indicate postmodernism, neo-Kantianism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, existentialism, idealism, philosophical psychoanalysis, marxism, early feminism, and so on. What happens than is that some people show that postmodernism is self-defeating and, therefore, they assume that Continental Philosophy is useless.Report

JRS
JRS
6 years ago

For those who missed it, I strongly recommend Matthew J. Brown’s comment @21.

Most of the criticism of Stone’s piece in this thread has been lazy and boring. The OP quotations from the paper are interesting and clearly point towards a subtle, nuanced view of clarity. Commenters’ criticisms are are same old, same old knee-jerk analytic vs. continental crap. For example, we see from the quotations that Stone considers and responds to the argument that the demand for clarity reinforces oppressive structures in colloquial language. Instead of seeing what she says about this argument and responding to *that*, commenters simply rehearse the argument.Report

Another Grad Student
Another Grad Student
6 years ago

Vincenzo: I completely agree, which is why I deliberately used the phrase “postmodernism” rather than the phrase “continental philosophy”. Obscure language still tends to be a problem in broader forms of what is called continental philosophy, but in many of the traditions it tends to just be a sort of stylistic choice. I think it is really only in fairly specific schools of thought (i.e. postmodernism) that it really serves as a pernicious smoke-screen. I identify as an analytic, but I am more than willing to hear what any continental philosopher has to say, but just know that I’m going to try translate it into my analyticalese.Report

Cap'n Smoove
Cap'n Smoove
6 years ago

No true European, eh?Report

Another Grad Student
Another Grad Student
6 years ago

Matthew… the notion of objectivity, much like truth, is only meaningful if relativized to a specific form of representation. For a representation to be objective is for it to not involve some sort of interference or projection on the part of the representer. One can only make sense of the notion of interference or projection (e.g. optical illusion) relative to some background theory about how the type of representation in question works (e.g. a theory of perception in cog sci). Most of us “analytics” came to realize this long ago due to the work of Tarski, Quine, Carnap, and others. All we can do is either translate things into our home language or adopt another language for pragmatic reasons. The problem is that this lack of “absolute objectivity” (which is an incoherent notion to begin with) is philosophically neutral, whereas the postmodernist wants to use it selectively to critique certain notions (e.g., gender, race, property, etc.) rather than others (e.g., justice, equality, freedom, rights, autonomy, morality, etc.). Really, they just have to develop one more competing way to represent the world and then attempt to show that it’s more useful than its competitors. Any language that lacks some internal notion of objectivity/logical inference is going to be utterly useless.Report

Alison Stone
Alison Stone
6 years ago

Vincenzo, you ask: who rejects clarity? Well, on this thread, Matthew says philosophers should line up against clarity. But I wasn’t so much arguing against any named individual, but suggesting – ‘here are some reasons why one might be suspicious of clarity – but on the other hand, each of these reasons also suggests a counter-case for clarity’.
As has been mentioned above, the slightly pre-final version of my essay can be accessed on academia.edu for free.Report

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
6 years ago

Hi Alison,

First, thanks for these very interesting reflections.

I was wondering if you’d mind saying a little more about how you think of philosophical virtues in general. Just to give you a bit of an idea of where I’m coming from with this question I’ll mention some inchoate thoughts of mine. I think there is a virtue in the neighborhood of clarity but it’s not a virtue of philosophical writing but rather of philosophers per se: straightforwardness. The straightforward philosopher is one who does her best to communicate her philosophical insights (or at least what
she takes to be insights) in the most direct and transparent way she can. There are lots of contrasting vices: bullshitting, puffery, rhetorical slights of hand, and so on. I see straightforwardness as a virtue because the possession of it is conducive to the discovery of philosophical insights, since philosophy is a communal activity and none of us operate in a philosophical vacuum.

This virtue can manifest itself in clear writing, if the subject matter permits it. The subject matter might not though. For example, I think of Tractatus-Wittgenstein as attempting to show in a straightforward way things that cannot be said. The phenomenological philosopher might be in a similar situation: the most straightforward way for her to communicate her insights (or what she takes to be her insights) is in a language that departs in many ways from the ordinary.

I think there is another philosophical virtue that is relevant to this conversation: not being dogmatic. Given the track-record of philosophy, we shouldn’t be unduly confident that we have actually acquired a philosophical insight or that it’s only mode of communication is via “unclear” writing. A straightforward non-dogmatic philosopher then should attempt to produce multiple ways of communicating putative insights, if this is possible, rather than dogmatically assuming that the only way to communicate them is in non-transparent/unclear writing.

Anyways, just some thoughts to situate my question as to how you are thinking about philosophical virtues in general. Thanks.Report

Joe Neisser
Joe Neisser
6 years ago

Thanks to Alison Stone for this constructive (and clear!) piece of metaphilosophy. Among several other things, it addresses a persistent feature our discipline today, the two-culture problem. I completely agree with the basic point that there are many ways to be obscure, and many ways to provide insight. Understood in a broad sense, it is not the case that only the so-called analytic tradition values clarity. For what it is worth, I think Kris McDaniel (#43) makes a very valuable practical point that writers should attempt to express their ideas in several different ways, both to liberate their own thinking from a particular idiom and also to help communicate to a wider audience.

A minor note: I was little surprised with the choice of “transparency” as the gloss on clarity. The contrast to clarity, Stone writes, is opacity. She compares clear writing to a clear phone connection which allows you hear through the medium to the voice on the other end, with a minimum of static. But in general, text and language don’t seem analogous to perceptual/motor tools in this way. One doesn’t read through a text to its referent – even when the referent is a concept rather than a state of affairs – and one cannot causally interact with the domain of reference. Instead, the reader and writer must interact with the text. In this sense, all writing is intrinsically opaque! Admittedly, one kind of good writing is writing that doesn’t call attention to itself. But this is not the only way to make ideas clear, and sometimes just the opposite. That is, sometimes it is the new way of speaking that throws new light on the subject (hence McDaniel’s suggestion at #43). While opacity is one good contrast to clarity, “obscurity” seems slightly preferable in this context though both are inescapably metaphorical. Part of Stone’s main argument, it seems to me, is that a text can be clear – even transparently clear – by the standards of some particular discourse, and yet it may systematically *obscure* (elide, distort, disguise, decontextualize, or otherwise fail to illuminate) the very issues it purports to address. Of course, “obscurity” is not clearly defined, so perhaps this doesn’t help matters at all! But then, part of the self-sealing nature of the demand for one particular kind of clarity is that it precludes (obscures?) a critique of that kind of clarity. Finally, I get that the notion of “obscurity” stems from the root metaphor of enlightenment, and that this is part of what is criticized by those wary of analytic clarity. But I don’t see how transparency fares much better on this score. If anything, transparency seems quite directly tied to contemporary procedural and technical values.

Thanks again for the useful paper. I intend to share it with my students, who struggle daily with navigating the two cultures in our curriculum.Report

Wayne Riggs
Wayne Riggs
6 years ago

I’m a little surprised that no one has yet introduced “unambiguous” as a gloss on “clarity,” at least as clarity is prized in analytic philosophy. I take it that it is a desire to disambiguate that often drives the analytic philosopher to introduce myriad distinctions, which then often requires the introduction of jargon because our ordinary language does not carve up the world so finely. I don’t mean to suggest that clarity as a virtue of philosophical writing (if it is one, and I think it is) is exhausted by reining in ambiguity, but I do think it is an important component.Report

Vincenzo Politi
Vincenzo Politi
6 years ago

Dear Alison,

sorry if I insist on this point but – apart from some Matthew guy commenting in the internet about your paper – I haven’t found in your paper (or in the version you have uploaded in academia.edu and which I have had a look at) the mention of someone who defend unclarity as an ideal norm in philosophy. In your paper, I have only found the reasons for why you think some continental philosophers may be wary of clarity, although (as I have already said in previous comments) I am not sure whether continental philosophers regard themselves as being wary of clarity.

I like what you say about clarity and I also like your pluralistic view on philosophical values (and, under this respect, I agree with Kris McDaniel above on the necessity of specifying what are the other values in philosophy and why they are indeed valuable). However, I still think that in your paper you argue against a strawman of sort. (Or perhaps I haven’t read your paper very carefully, in which case I apologise.)

VinsReport

Another Grad Student
Another Grad Student
6 years ago

“I think there is another philosophical virtue that is relevant to this conversation: not being dogmatic.”

But Kris, don’t you know that Quine showed us once and for all that there can’t be different senses or modes of existence?Report

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
6 years ago

Egads!Report

Another Grad Student
Another Grad Student
6 years ago

Kris, just to be clear: I was being facetious. I think another philosophical virtue lies in the attempt to resolve disagreements not just through purely negative attacks, but also by using one’s own view to show the ways in which one’s opponents are correct and why their positions are reasonable. This is something that you’ve attempted to do in much of your metaontological work and I applaud you for it!Report

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
6 years ago

No worries, I was pretty sure it was tongue-in-cheek, as was my reply. 🙂Report

Another Grad Student
Another Grad Student
6 years ago

On topic… I think it’s important to distinguish between several distinct and sometimes even competing ways in which philosophy can be clear or unclear. The much of the time we are concerned with argumentative clarity, which is the type of clarity wherein it is easy to tell how the premises support the conclusion. (E.g., “What is this example doing here? Is this supposed to be an argument by analogy for p, or is it supposed to be a counterexample to ~p?”) Most people here have been concerned with terminological clarity. Obviously the two are typically interrelated. It is hard to see how A implies B unless one understands the content of A and B. But it is equally obvious that terminological clarity does not insure argumentative clarity. In addition, there is also dialectical clarity. It is possible to have completely clear terminology and arguments, and nevertheless be unclear insofar as the reader is left uncertain what exactly your arguments were supposed to accomplish.

I think chapters 1-4 of Williamson’s Philosophy of Philosophy are a good example of this. Williamson’s terminology and arguments are very clear. What is less than clear is what they are aimed at accomplishing. In essence, he presents negative arguments aimed at specific views that claim that philosophy is insubstantial in some way (i.e., that it is “just about concepts” or that it rests on merely analytic claims). But what he doesn’t do is provide any real positive argument that philosophy IS substantive. Some of his conclusions are really rather odd. Yes, the sentence “Mars was always either dry or not dry” is about Mars and dryness… okay. But it still seems to matter a lot more to semanticists than to someone who is interested in the history of Mars. Sure, metaphysical analyticity can only make sense as a metasemantic notion… what exactly does that mean for metaphysics? Couldn’t it still do metaphysical work as a metasemantic notion? Why do realists need to be so adamantly opposed to the notion anyway? Not even David Lewis wanted to claim that mereological sums were a substantive addition to our ontology over and above their parts. It seems like metaphysical analyticity could help in that regard. Sure, epistemic analyticity can’t just be a matter of linguistic competence, when it is weakly construed. What exactly does that show? Do realist mereologists really want to claim that it is an incredibly difficult question as to whether two things compose a third thing? Alternatively, why do anti-realists continue to insist that we can select between languages only on pragmatic grounds? Surely one common way for a certain language to be far more useful than others in describing the world is simply for that language to be a more accurate way of representing the world. Would it really be the end of the world for the anti-realist to admit this?

To be clear, I’m a big fan of Williamson and PoP in particular. It’s just that I think the purely negative and defensive approach perpetuates this sort of weird absolute dichotomy between Realism and Anti-Realism, when in reality the two positions are not nearly as far apart as it seems. If we focused more on what we mean when we say that some part of philosophy is or isn’t “substantive” then I suspect many of these disputes would just dissolve.Report

John McCumber
John McCumber
6 years ago

A really new and important idea may take several generations to understand fully (see Heidegger’s account of the multi-generational development of the notion of sufficient reason, or look at the career of the concept of substance in British empiricism). Those who take clarity to be a necessary condition of philosophical discourse, rather than a hard-won goal for it, risk eliminating new and important ideas.Report

Some Matthew Guy
Some Matthew Guy
6 years ago

I don’t know why you think I defend unclarity (or not being clear) Vince #46. Maybe you need to reread my post.Report

Vincenzo Politi
Vincenzo Politi
6 years ago

Dear Matthew,

I did not think that you were defending unclarity or not being clear. I was just replying to prof. Alison Stone who, when I asked her why she wrote a paper defending the value of clarity when it is not too clear (to me, at least) that anybody has ever defended the value of unclarity, said: “Vincenzo, you ask: who rejects clarity? Well, on this thread, Matthew says philosophers should line up against clarity” (comment #42). I therefore said that the fact that someone on the internet expresses such a view is not perhaps a good reason to think that such a view has actually been endorsed by some philosopher. I hope it is clear now.
(The “Matthew guy” was a hyperbolic expression to stress how random opinions on the internet are not fully fledged philosophical positions.)Report

Vincenzo Politi
Vincenzo Politi
6 years ago

Dear Justin, thank you very much for the reference. Although I am not sure whether Adorno is saying that philosophical writing must be intentionally unclear or obscure; I think he is defending the use of technical expressions and he is refusing the idea that everything in philosophy can be translated in the ordinary language. Is that unclarity? Well considering that the ordinary language itself may be full of ambiguities and imprecisions, I wouldn’t be so sure. But these are hot thoughts and I will surely check Adorno more carefully. Thanks a lot!Report

Vincenzo Politi
Vincenzo Politi
6 years ago

John McCumber: I think you made a brilliant point. New philosophical ideas do not fall from the sky all nice and clear, but they can become clearer. Often, the clarification process is instantiated by the rational/dialectical debate within the philosophical community – i.e., people criticising an idea, revealing its problems, demanding clarification and so on. Of course, if the members of the philosophical community refuse to engage in rational/dialectical debates about ideas which are unclear (or “not yet clear”), hardly those very ideas will be developed properly (and clearly).Report

Alison Stone
Alison Stone
6 years ago

Thanks for these interesting reflections, everyone. Kris: I don’t have a check-list of virtues, but probably I should have been more explicit in the essay that I think they are plural – not only in that there are many of them but also that they aren’t always compatible with one another. Hence, one thing I was trying to say, but didn’t perhaps stress enough: realising the virtue of clarity might mean having to sacrifice some other virtue, such as being interesting, suggestive and thought-provoking (perhaps! sometimes!) and conversely, sometimes perhaps those other virtues – e.g. opening up a new field of thought as John McCumber mentions – may preclude realising the virtue of clarity. But that doesn’t mean these aren’t all virtues, just that they can’t all be realised simultaneously all of the time. I’m wary though of including ‘non-bullshitting’ as a virtue, because I’m wary of the use of talk about bullshit within philosophy. I suspect that when someone says claim X is bullshit that can actually be unpacked, e.g. ‘the author is making the issue unnecessarily complicated in a way that suggests that s/he must be clever to tackle it’, and if we do this unpacking the author in principle retains the possibility of replying ‘no, the issue really is this complicated due to considerations A, B, C’. I guess I’m saying that I worry that talk of bullshit ends up trading insults rather than having a reasoned conversation.
Vincenzo, I think that even if people don’t say they reject clarity, there are times when we can see that they must be doing so implicitly in order to be writing in the way that they do. (That’s not to deny that they might have reasons for doing that.) Could you go along with that?Report

J C McG
J C McG
6 years ago

My thanks to Alison for a fascinating paper. I find it rather more exploratory than convincing though, and I fear the comments here have not done much to convince anyone of anything, though I find much of interest and value in those, too (and my thanks too to the commenters). There’s a lot of fascinating ideas here, it would be lovely if there was a bit more literature on this topic that perhaps every philosopher has thought hard about informally!

Vincenzo asks a few times for examples of philosophers who praise unclarity. I find this an incoherent virtue. Clarity is not binary, but comes in degrees. (And of course, as has been noted above (e.g., #21) the term is ambiguous between something like clear-as-in-precise/unambiguous and something like clear-as-in-readily-understandable-to-a-layman; I am here interested in the first notion.) So Adorno, as #47 notes, rails against clarity: but surely he isn’t railing against any and all clarity, because he is at least somewhat clear himself. Were he not so, we would not understand him even as much as we do. So what is his target? On strength of the excerpts in Stone’s original paper and the passage provided by #47, and a bit of speculation, it appears to be some sort of fetish for making language entirely transparent. It is consistent with some clarity being a virtue that this is not a virtue. But I don’t know what he says. I think the excavation would be worth undertaking.

Another writer who is deliberately unclear is Joyce. In the fourth-last chapter of Ulysses, the writing gets progressively less clear as the characters get progressively drunker; and Finnegans Wake is unclear from start to finish, because it is doing various things – representing the darkness of the night, of the confusion of the dream, of the richness of language and of experience, etc. He is the only champion of unclarity I can think of, but (a) he is a novelist, and so what he has to teach philosophy is unclear – but remember that philosophy and literature are not so far apart! – and (b) he doesn’t advocate all and any unclarity, but specific sorts of unclarity at particular times to particular ends. This suggests that the debate, ‘clarity or no?’, is too general to be resolvable.

A final point before I head to bed: By writing clearly, aren’t we already committed to a particular position on clarity, at least (bearing FW in mind) clarity concerning the matter at hand? Would it not be a performative contradiction to clearly state that “This statement, X, should be stated unclearly”, or, “This statement, X, can only be fully understood when it is stated unclearly,” or more generally, “Discussion of topic X should be clear”, when topic X just is clarity? And so does this not prejudice the discussion?Report