Philosophical Diamonds

“I don’t know any academic field whose writing regularly indulges in sentence structure as complex as in analytic philosophy.”

That’s Geoffrey K. Pullum, professor of linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, discussing the writing of analytic philosophers in a recent column at The Chronicle of Higher Education. He will be co-teaching a class on “philosophy of the language sciences” with philosopher Brian Rabern (Edinburgh) in the fall, and aims to “keep in mind that when we expect our students to read original work in the field of analytical philosophy, we are asking a lot.”

His main example of the complexity of analytic philosophy writing is a single sentence from Ruth Millikan’s Beyond Concepts: Unicepts, Language, and Natural Information:

In arguing for his analysis of non-natural meaning, Grice made the mistake of arguing from the sensible premise that a hearer who believed that a speaker did not intend by his words to produce in the hearer a certain belief or intention would not acquire that belief or intention to the invalid conclusion that a hearer who merely failed to believe that a speaker intended by his words to produce a certain belief or intention in the hearer also would not acquire that belief or intention.

Pullum’s point is not to insult this kind of writing, but to highlight how difficult it may be to read for students and others unfamiliar with analytic philosophy. He writes:

That is an 86-word sentence, so by the usual standards of readability it’s off the charts, even for high-school students. Yet it is perfectly formed; don’t imagine that I’m criticizing it. It’s just extraordinarily complex and demanding.

He then provides an exegesis of the sentence, noting that it is both “subtle” and “mind-crunchingly difficult.”

I sometimes think of such sentences as diamond-like: hard but clear, or, complex in their structure or vocabulary but with a meaning that’s transparent upon close inspection. I would imagine that many sentences in the writings of analytic philosophers are like this, especially for students.

I picked two books off the shelf and opened them at random. It took a few seconds in each to find such “philosophical diamonds”:

How can a sentence which comes as close as “Vixens are female foxes” does to being a definition of “vixen” be about vixens rather than about the word “vixen”? (Timothy Williamson, The Philosophy of Philosophy, p.49)

If a moral theory can be quite straightforwardly true, it is clear that, if it is self-effacing, this does not show that it cannot be true. (Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 43)

Bonus points to Parfit for using both “straightforwardly” and “clear” in that sentence.

If you have your own examples of philosophical diamonds, let’s hear them. Noting their prevalence would be a good reminder of just how challenging it can be to put together and teach an effective course in analytic philosophy.

Alexis Arnold, “Complete Book of Crochet” (Crystallized Book Series)

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