Don’t Forget to Remove the Scaffolding

“In a way that will be familiar to any reader of analytic philosophy, and is only too familiar to all of us who perpetrate it, this style tries to remove in advance every conceivable misunderstanding or misinterpretation or objection, including those that would occur only to the malicious or the clinically literal-minded.”

That’s Bernard Williams, in his essay, “Philosophy as Humanistic Discipline” (published in the collection of essays that bears that name), writing about the “well-known and highly typical style of many texts in analytic philosophy which seeks precision by total mind control.”

Here’s the paragraph in which these choice quotes appear:

The scaffolding metaphor is perfect.

There are certainly many instances of philosophical articles containing too much of “the making of this philosophy article.”As Williams says, “it is perfectly reasonable that the author should consider the objections and possible misunderstandings… the odd thing is that he or she should put them in the text.”

Williams provides good style advice, but perhaps some reflection is owed to why philosophers are prone to leaving in so much scaffolding.

Might part of the answer be found in the academic publishing process, such as the combination of the importance of publications and the lack of trust one has in referees? Getting an article published can be crucial to one’s career, so, one might think, it’s best to do what it takes to get published. If that means sacrificing style and readability in order to address possible objections that otherwise would have led some possible idiosyncratic referee to suggest a rejection, so be it. And perhaps these writing habits, once developed, stick around long after they’re needed. Understandable, but still regrettable.

What other factors, besides publishing pressure, contribute to a more complete explanation of this style and its persistence? And how should authors decide what to leave in and what to remove? Your thoughts welcome.

Known to some as the “Cook’s Illustrated Approach to Philosophy.” See this description of the typical article in that publication, which “follows the recipe’s development… invariably [beginning] with numerous problems in its original incarnation. The author then describes iteratively modifying the recipe’s ingredients and cooking method, each time presenting the recipe to a panel of tasters who provide feedback. At the end of the article, the author reaches a final recipe and lists the ingredients and preparation instructions.”

Okay, possibly just me.

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