Writing Philosophy With Style


Lou Andreas-Salomé, who was at one time a friend and romantic interest of Friedrich Nietzsche’s, included in her book on the philosopher his “ten rules of writing.” They are:

  1. Of prime necessity is life: a style should live.
  2. Style should be suited to the specific person with whom you wish to communicate. (The law of mutual relation.)
  3. First, one must determine precisely “what-and-what do I wish to say and present,” before you may write. Writing must be mimicry.
  4. Since the writer lacks many of the speaker’s means, he must in general have for his model a very expressive kind of presentation of necessity, the written copy will appear much paler.
  5. The richness of life reveals itself through a richness of gestures. One must learn to feel everything—the length and retarding of sentences, interpunctuations, the choice of words, the pausing, the sequence of arguments—like gestures.
  6. Be careful with periods! Only those people who also have long duration of breath while speaking are entitled to periods. With most people, the period is a matter of affectation.
  7. Style ought to prove that one believes in an idea; not only that one thinks it but also feels it.
  8. The more abstract a truth which one wishes to teach, the more one must first entice the senses.
  9. Strategy on the part of the good writer of prose consists of choosing his means for stepping close to poetry but never stepping into it.
  10. It is not good manners or clever to deprive one’s reader of the most obvious objections. It is very good manners and very clever to leave it to one’s reader alone to pronounce the ultimate quintessence of our wisdom.

(via Brain Pickings and Open Culture)

That last one brings to mind Nakul Krishna’s characterization of the writing of Bernard Williams. But contemporary philosophy is not exactly known for, say, “enticing the senses” or “stepping close to poetry.” Do we need more of that? Or perhaps just more attention to style? Do you have style tips for philosophers? (—For their writing, wise ass.)

Related: We’ve previously offered up examples of philosophy that’s a pleasure to read, and had discussions about what to read to improve one’s philosophical writing. Here’s some writing advice for philosophers from philosopher-novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Cass Sunstein defending academic writing. And here’s a discussion of clarity.

The Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, a typing device Nietzsche used for a while.

The Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, a typing device Nietzsche used for a while.

 

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Henri Perron
Henri Perron
4 years ago

If Nietzsche is taken as an anecdote, a lot more people outside of the profession would probably be interested in reading our work if we (as a profession) cared more about style.

I’m not sure about the widespread belief that people have stopped reading, though I do think they’ve by-and-large stopped reading philosophy — and I think that is telling.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Henri Perron
4 years ago

Yes, but how many of those people read Nietszche, rather than simply quoting him out of context?Report

Tim O'Keefe
4 years ago

Trying to follow Nietzsche’s rules of writing would be an utter disaster for about 95% of the philosophy students I know, and a large majority of those with the PhD, although probably lower than 95%. Nietzsche can pull it off; most of us can’t and shouldn’t try.Report

I guess I got no style
I guess I got no style
Reply to  Tim O'Keefe
4 years ago

Is it ironic that I don’t even understand the style rules?Report

Paul Kelleher
Paul Kelleher
4 years ago

Among the best pieces of advice I’ve seen is Benj Hellie’s: “Development of a personal style is a concern for those with tenure. Students (and typically junior faculty) should be more concerned to learn to write solid /Phil Review/-style essays. Chalmers’s papers are a good model: clear at the sentential and structural level (to the benefit of skimmer and close reader alike); ‘encyclopedic’ in that each paper purports to benefit the outsider with total (within reason) coverage of the topic at hand. Especially relevantly, dispassionate and without distinctive stylistic quirks: aping Chalmers, one would never seem to be /aping Chalmers/.

“In addition, everyone should go reread their Strunk and White.”

http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2011/08/best-philosophical-stylists-for-students-to-emulate.html#comment-6a00d8341c2e6353ef0154345a0a57970cReport

Tristan Haze
Reply to  Paul Kelleher
4 years ago

I like the remarks about Chalmers, but I suspect this advice is good only for a subset of budding philosophers, on a certain sort of career trajectory. To me it seems pretty probable that some very impressive philosophers in the near future will not have a life path that involves ever having tenure at a university, and they should probably not abjure development of a personal style.Report

Helen De Cruz
Helen De Cruz
4 years ago

I’m wondering if developing other ways of writing, such as fiction writing, could be helpful. They may be helpful as ends in themselves, as fiction writing can be an effective way to communicate philosophical ideas, but they may also be helpful in improving our writing generally.
I’m putting together a workshop where philosophers can learn to write fiction.
Apply by February 15. Details here: http://www.brookes.ac.uk/hss/events/fiction-writing-for-philosophers/Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Helen De Cruz
4 years ago

It is true that fiction writing can be an effective way to communicate philosophical ideas. Plato did it, as did Jostein Gaarder, author of Sophie’s World. Having said that, it isn’t a good method for writing for other professional philosophers, since arguments can be put more clearly without it. It is more useful for reaching the general public, but given how competitive the literary market is, it isn’t going to be the best option for reaching the public for the vast majority of philosophers. I think it is important to keep in mind that the short story is a very unpopular form today, and that a fiction-writing philosopher is going to have to produce novels if they want even a chance of reaching the public.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

Nietzsche’s needless and self-indulgent opacity marks him as one of the very worst stylists in philosophical history. His opacity likely did help him becomes so well read, since so many people felt free to read into Nietzsche whatever they wanted to find. Ironically, given his popularity, Nietzsche’s helped move philosophy yet further from the grasp or ordinary people by encouraging philosophers to bury their views and arguments rather than making them as accessible as possible.Report

Pendaran
Pendaran
4 years ago

Just try to write succinctly and clearly and find your own style within those parameters. Trying to implement pretentious style guidelines is likely to be a disaster.Report

guy
guy
4 years ago

Like a commentator above, I’m not sure I understood any of the rules of style listed.

I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but over the course of my time in philosophy, I’ve become increasingly impatient with issues of “style.” When authors or presenters make extensive uses of fiction or clever/artistic modes of presentation, I find myself very quickly shutting the book or tuning out, hoping that the next author/presenter will spare me and just “get to the point.”

I wonder if different reactions to style track some of the differences being discussed in the other post about continental-analytic issues. Like Nonny’s sentiments above, I find reading Nietzsche (traditionally thought of as “continental”) frustrating because of what I agree is just “needless and self-indulgent opacity.” And some commentator on the recent continental-analytic post mentioned a talk where the presenter ended by playing “Hallelujah.” To be frank, I’d be strongly tempted to leave the room.Report