The Philosophy Guild (guest post)


“Most contemporary philosophy writing is just bad writing… How did things go so wrong? It’s tempting to declare that philosophers are simply terrible writers, but I think that’s a mistake…”

The following is a guest post by Regina Rini, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Moral and Social Cognition at York University. It is part of the series of weekly guest posts by different authors at Daily Nous this summer.


The Philosophy Guild
by Regina Rini

To understand how a group thinks, pay attention to what the initiates must work at learning. For instance, teach first-time philosophy students and watch them struggle with the peculiar prose of our journals. There’s the cumbersome jargon, of course, and the gratuitously anti-mnemonic acronyms. But these vices belong to all scholarly writing. Other literary landmines are more clearly philosophical. Let x stand for any variable which is unnecessarily inserted into a sentence S, such that S was perfectly comprehensible without said insertion of x, yet where a hypothetical audience A might judge S insufficiently rigorous, per A’s rigor-norms rN, were S to fail to feature x while A reason under rN. Then we can say that x is an overly quantified variable.

There are even more subtle eccentricities, the sort that become invisible once you’re used to them but can throw a novice far off track. We like to assign philosophical viewpoints to imaginary champions, clad in definite articles and -ist suffixes (the realist, the internalist), and appear to be letting them fight it out for our amusement. “What can the blahblahist say to counter the anti-blahblahist’s attack?” we ask, as if we were commentators at a pugilism tournament sponsored by abstracta. This feels natural enough once you’ve read it a hundred times, but the initiate reader will often assume that ‘the realist’ is a specific, mysteriously unnamed person, like how Aquinas refers to Aristotle as “the philosopher”, or perhaps some Voldemort of metaethics.

Then there’s sign-posting. In this paragraph I will explain what sign-posting is, then I will argue that sign-posting is overdone, then in the next paragraph I will discuss something other than sign-posting. Used sparingly, it can be helpful to remind your reader where they are amid a complex argument. But contemporary journal articles tend to feature sign-posts atop sign-posts atop sign-posts, crowding out actual arguments like Borges’ famous map the same size as the land it depicts. Apart from the aesthetic atrocity that is treating the literary form of Montaigne like a highway rest-stop information kiosk, excessive sign-posting actually diminishes an essay’s readability by inducing boredom and loss of focus on the central argument.

Simply put, most contemporary philosophy writing is just bad writing. This is not a new point. Bernard Williams memorably summarized the analytic style as “scientific reports badly translated from the Martian”. In her 2009 book How Professors Think, about interdisciplinary grant review panels, sociologist Michèle Lamont calls philosophy the “problem case” among humanities for appearing both unreadable and pointless to other academics. As Christine Korsgaard notes, in her Dewey Lecture at the Eastern APA earlier this year: “Many philosophers try to write in what you might call perfectly true sentences. A perfectly true sentence already contains all the qualifications it would need to make it perfectly true. It is unassailable. But it is often therefore unintelligible.”

It’s ironic things got this bad, since the analytic approach was born largely to bring clarity, rigor, and clean prose to a discipline drowning in obscurant Idealist verbiage. But not everyone has Bertrand Russell’s understanding of when to formally axiomatize set theory and when to just say plainly why nuclear weapons are terrifying. A discipline where writing the latter must ape the conventions of writing the former is a discipline that almost no one will ever voluntarily read.

How did things go so wrong? It’s tempting to declare that philosophers are simply terrible writers, but I think that’s a mistake. Philosophers tend to be smart people, and they also tend to be readers, and smart people who read a lot usually gain a decent facility with the powers of words. But philosophers are people who write under extreme stylistic constraints, meant not for making things easy or enjoyable to readers, but instead to satisfy journals referees’ vague and empowered sense of what looks like a work of philosophy.

I call this the philosophy guild system. In medieval Europe, artisanal guilds provided training and ensured quality, but they also protected the economic interest of their members. By restricting their profession to a limited number of people—who would know each other via special rings, or handshakes, or shibboleth phrases—guilds inhibited competition and propped up their own wages. More recently, anyone who finds their stellar medical training in Abuja mysteriously ineligible for licensure when they migrate to Arizona knows what this is all about.

Now, philosophy is not quite so lucrative as medicine (or perhaps even medieval candle-making). But when there’s less to go around, it’s all the more important to control who takes a bite from the pie. We’ve created politely distanced metrics—CV lines, citation index scores—that varnish our hiring policies in clinical quantification. And access to publications, the coin of our realm, is still throttled by the guild-enforcement mechanism of peer review. You’d better know on which finger to display your variable-inscribed ring, or how to do the sign-post handshake, or else you’ll be facing a barred door.

In certain ways, our modern guild is a welcome replacement of an older, more overtly gatekeeping system. Once upon a time, if you had a promising idea for a paper, you’d get your secretary to type it up and mail it off to the editor of Mind, who’d glance at your name atop the letterhead and fondly recall many hours ale-quaffing at the Lamb and Flag with your doctoral supervisor before passing your paper down the hall to a tame reviewer. Of course, if you weren’t an old boy, or at least associated to one, you’d find the going much harder.

The rise of professionalized, anonymous peer review did a lot of good, but it also created new problems for guild enforcement. If you don’t know who wrote the paper, how do you know it was written by a real philosopher? Call this the crackpot time-tax; it will be familiar to any philosophy professor whose email address is publicly available. Several times a year you receive unsolicited invitations to read 147,000 daringly-formatted words promising to solve the problem of causal determinism through asymptotic laser refraction or revolutionize Platonic ethics with a lost codex discovered in a Montpelier 7-11 restroom.

There are a lot of people without professional philosophical training who have original and compelling philosophical ideas. But it takes time to read their work and distinguish it from crackpottery, time that overworked journal editors and referees just don’t have. It’s so much faster to look for secret handshakes and guild shibboleths. And this is why we train grad students to write like a philosopher: that is how they will prove their guild membership while behind the veil of journal anonymity.

All of this has costs, of course. It makes reading philosophy often a dreadful chore, where the smallest-publishable-unit of an idea has been hidden in a rhetorical ravine overgrown with prickly formalization and signs posting the way to further signs. And this means that almost no one reads contemporary philosophy.

What would it look like to publish philosophy outside the guild system? For more than two years, I’ve written a regular column, ‘The Morals of the Story’, in the Times Literary Supplement. Once a month, I connect an idea from philosophy to some current news headline. It’s very hard work, with tight deadlines (often three days from notion to publication) and even tighter word limits (900 words, shorter than this blog post). But it’s also extremely rewarding writing. I work with an excellent professional literary editor, Andrew Irwin, who reins in my showy allusions and defensive qualifications. At a moment when many public concerns—from trust in science to faith in democracy—might benefit from philosophical tools, I can at least feel as if I am trying to write for an audience beyond the guild.

Unfortunately, I don’t know how to make this scale up. I’m incredibly lucky to have the guidance of an editor, but there just aren’t enough of them to go around. Perhaps the best we can do is exert internal pressure to swap our guild signifiers for something better. Rather than expecting philosophy papers to come armored in unnecessary formalization, we might demand lively prose and judicious examples. I don’t have space here for a whole theory of how to balance philosophical rigor and accessible writing. My point is that our current guild norms discourage us from even trying.

What we need is a cultural shift, a re-setting of expectations. I’m encouraged by the growing interest in public philosophy, especially initiatives to train philosophers in communication of ideas, like the Sanders Foundation’s Philosophy in the Media program run by Barry Lam. My hope is that, as more philosophers gain experience writing for a general audience, their academic work will start to show literary virtues as well. A guild is only what its members make of it. And a guild that doesn’t change, like the medieval candle-makers, is doomed to terminal irrelevance.

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Matt
1 month ago

For reasons that are probably not 100% good (no doubt it involved time-wasting, at the least) I recently re-read about 50 or 60 referee reports that I’d written over the last 4 or 5 years. I’m pretty sure that I never suggested more formalization (though once or twice I suggested that I didn’t think that formalizing that was done was very helpful) and, while it was very rare for me to ask for more sign posting, it wasn’t that unusual to say something like, “this paper is a bit long. Some of this is because it spends a lot of time on set-up and saying what it will say, rather than just saying it. It would be better and be likely to have more impact if it got to the point sooner.” And, while I sometimes noted that papers were “too jargony” I noted, in a large number of cases, that papers were “nicely written and clear.” Now, it is true that many philosophers are not good writers, but I suspect that a lot of that is because most people are not that good of writers, and philosophers are people. It seems plausible that bad philosophical writing has its own vices, or perhaps that the vices of bad writers express themselves in philosophy in distinct ways, but there is lots of bad writing in the law, and history, and so on, too. So, I’m skeptical that the problem is philosophy, or professionalism, or journals, or referees, so much as that writing well is pretty hard, and most people are not that good at it. And yet, because we all have to write for work, we must do it anyway. With that, lots of less than great writing is the result.Report

Hakim
Hakim
Reply to  Matt
1 month ago

Let’s not fool ourselves here. Of course the problem is philosophy, professionalism, journals and referees. There’s bad writing and bad writing. Philosophy students do learn a very specific type of bad writing. Absolutely no one writes like a professional philosopher, even if one tries. It takes a consistent and very explicit training. Hell, we can even guess the publishing year by looking at the stylistic gimmicks and writing conventions. And being impervious to bad writing is certainly a critera as well when it comes to be able to go trough with these studies (it is not surprising to me that most graduates on this post actually can’t see what the post is talking about).

As a result, students do learn really bad habits, such as pretending to understand texts, or using gimmicks to cover up their unoriginal comments or ideas. Most importantly, a majority of published papers (that’s right, most of them) end up being really low in term of intellectual nutrients, while being hard on the stomach.

And no, appart from literature departments, none of the other humanities have this kind of problem. We have to acknowledge that if we ever want it to change.Report

Matt L
Reply to  Hakim
1 month ago

I think I partly agree, but only insofar as I think this partly missed one of my points. Bad writing in philosophy bears marks of it being “philosophy” – the types of cliched formulations, structure, crutches people use, etc. But, this is so in bad writing all around, and most people are bad writers, so they mostly produce bad writing. The particular shape of the bad writing is just adjusted by the discipline. That’s not 100% of the story, but I think it’s the largest part.Report

Hakim
Hakim
Reply to  Matt L
28 days ago

I don’t think I’ve missed the point here. Anyway I’ll try and clarify my point. First and foremost, saying that most people are bad writers and that ”the vices of bad writers express themselves in philosophy in distinct ways” is not only bad, as it implicitly calls for a ”well what can you do” relativistic kind of attitude, but it is also wrong. People can learn. Even how to write appropriatly. And, sadly enough, this works both ways : people can learn horrible writing habits, as it is the case in -and only in- philosophy departments.

Secondly, saying ‘‘[t]he particular shape of the bad writing is just adjusted by the discipline” is, I think, a way to trivialize the problem. Disciplines are not condemned to produce flavors of bad writing. And even if it was to be true for the mediocre yet almost universal kind of bad writing, it cannot be applied to philosophy since we’re way beyond that stuff. We clearly play in our own field : any philosophy student can pick up another humanities’ paper and read it without any critical problem but the opposite is false. Moreover, even if all humanities had this problem, it is still a problem which ought to be solved by teaching students to write appropriatly since our only tool is basic literacy.Report

Grad student L
1 month ago

I am a bit mystified by this post. Already as an undergraduate student I found contemporary philosophy papers fun and often easy to read, more so than readings from other subjects and older works in philosophy. I’m now a PhD student close to finishing, and I enjoy reading philosophy journal articles more than ever.

I don’t recall ever being annoyed at sign-posting. Sign-posts are often quite useful if you need to quickly read an article or you need to find a particular argument.

I am sometimes annoyed at an excess of formalism. But in many cases, the formalisms do serve a purpose of clarifying claims and arguments that would otherwise be unclear. It might be better if authors were able to accomplish the same with easier language, but not everyone has that skill.

Sure, many articles are “boring” in the sense that the prose is dry. But as a professional philosopher I don’t read journal articles to be entertained by literary creativity. It’s the ideas that are important and they need to be communicated as clearly as possible.

I was also recently taught writing standards that I initially did not always appreciate. But this helped me clarifying my arguments much, and ultimately improved not just my ability to communicate to other philosophers but also greatly improved the ideas themselves. I wonder if I’ll become the type of reviewer that Rini complains about.Report

Billy
1 month ago

All academic and professional writing has the problem of being (to some degree) inaccessible to outsiders. And the inaccessibility that slows the outsiders down often speeds things up for the insiders. If someone says, “I accept existence internalism about well-being but not about normative reasons generally,” then this will be pretty much unintelligible to a non-philosopher but quickly tells me a lot. My wife, two of my siblings, and my brother in law are all lawyers. When they talk with each other, it’s the same: certain insider words and phrases quickly tell them a lot, whereas for me these words and phrases are obstacles. Same for medicine: listening to my mom and older brother (both physicians) speak can leave me wondering if they are speaking a different language at times, but for them this “different language” is quite efficient. And so on, mutatis mutandis, for just about every academic and professional field.

Obviously, I’m not saying philosophers’ writing should be inaccessible to outsiders for its own sake. I’m saying that this inaccessibility can be well worth it when it improves efficiency in communication among insiders.

I agree there is probably too much sign-posting in philosophy writing. But for those of us that are often reading only parts of books and articles, the headings and talk about what will be talked about can be helpful, since it can help us easily find the parts we are interested in. Also, even though sign-posting adds words to articles, it can reduce the overall cognitive load for readers by making it easier to know exactly where they are.

On formalization run amok, I don’t see this much. Also, you have to remember that there are two kinds of philosophers and that what one finds unhelpful, another might find helpful. One kind of philosopher sees arguments in words and mentally translates them into something more formal or symbolic, finding this translation more precise and easier to grasp in terms of what is essential. The other kind of philosopher is the opposite: he or she sees symbols or formalizations and mentally translates them into words, finding the words easier to grasp. I am in this latter camp, and so I personally don’t like formalizations. But I also know that this is just a personal preference and that plenty of philosophers are in the former camp, the camp that is helped by formalizations.

I think public philosophy is good. For example, I’m reading Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko’s public philosophy book this morning, and it is great. But I don’t agree with the claim that we have a serious problem with our professional writing. Could we be better? Yes. But do we have a serious problem? No.Report

C-d
C-d
1 month ago

The replies so far tend towards the defensive, so let me say that a lot of what this post has to say rings true with me. In my field (political philosophy) it’s got to the point where I seldom read pieces in the one or two flagship journals, because the scholarly apparatus they come wrapped in is so maddening (other journals don’t seem to require or encourage quite as much scaffolding), and I can rarely assign them to undergraduate students. Luckily, pieces in the other journals are often just as good but much more accessible. So it can be done.Report

Platypus
1 month ago

In the above blog post, Regini Rini argues for what we can call:

The Guild Thesis
Professional philosophy (i) works like (ii) a guild.

She also explores the implications and grounds of what I call:

No Bon Mots?
Philosophical writing is bad.

I shall rebut Rini’s argument, defending the honor of cutesy and pedantic philosophical writing, in the below blog post comment, by arguing against The Guild Thesis.

Here’s a road map. In my view, there exists a distinction between kinds (or “sorts” – this difference will not matter for our purposes) of guilds. Section 1 will briefly overview the literature on guilds. In section 2, I lay out what I call Type 1 Guilds, or “Type A Guilds” (sometimes I will refer to them as “standard guilds”), and Section 2 introduces Type 2 Guilds, aka “Type B” (or “nonstandard guilds”). Section 3 argues that we can capture Rini’s intuitions by recapitulating her argument using Type B guilds. Section 4 considers objections. Section 5 (“Conclusion”) concludes.

Section 1
Blah blah blah blah blahReport

Michael Kremer
Reply to  Platypus
1 month ago

Before seeing this comment I did a search on JSTOR for “plan for the paper”. There were 97 uses of which there were 83 in the form I had in mind (i.e. preceded by “Here is the” or followed by “is the following” or the like, in an introduction to a paper, as opposed to a plan for the paper industry or a plan about what to do with a paper). The earliest of these was in 1977 in an econ journal. The first in philosophy was in 1993 in a logic journal (JPL). There wasn’t another philosophy use until 2002 but in this century the phrase has occurred in philosophy journals 34 times, for a total of about 40% of all uses (surpassing econ/business and science/math, the early adopters from which it seems we picked this up). There are now quite a few philosophy papers containing the formula “The plan for the paper is as follows”. There can be a mechanical character to this kind of writing that I find sleep inducing, no matter how interesting the ideas.Report

Michael Kremer
Reply to  Michael Kremer
1 month ago

There were basically no uses in other Humanities fields, and just a couple in Social Sciences outside of Economics and related fields.Report

Redundant
Reply to  Michael Kremer
1 month ago

Most of these types of plans are just a paragraph long or are in the introduction. They don’t make up the whole paper.

But I dislike it when the author keeps stating the thesis statement over and over again for each section. I’d much prefer they dive in. I think there’s an anxiety amongst many philosophers about readers misreading or misinterpreting their paper. This is understandable since lots of people have complained about referees and reviewers frequently strawmaning their ideas or arguments.

Sometimes I wonder if redundancy in philosophy is a reaction to *bad reading* on the part of reviewers, fellow philosophers, or readers in general.

These sorts of writing can be boring of course. But I don’t think boringness should constitute “bad writing” since style preference is highly subjective. If it’s bad then it has to be obviously bad like Hegel or Kant bad. But they are on the extreme end of “bad”.

For the longest time, I’ve enjoyed and still enjoy writings that are written like Campbell’s Biology textbooks. I’ve read them in high school and in college. They’re readable without too much jargon or extreme pretentiousness; there’s a level of sophistication that allows you to learn something new without forcing you to re-read every sentence just to understand one point.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Redundant
grad student who likes signposting
Reply to  Redundant
1 month ago

Sometimes I wonder if redundancy in philosophy is a reaction to *bad reading* on the part of reviewers, fellow philosophers, or readers in general.” I think that this point is true; I can say from personal experience that most of the times that I have added any of the features that Rini is talking about to my writing, it was in response to a referee or an advisor misinterpreting something I am saying. Though I want to also raise the (genuine, not rhetorical) question of whether the readers are really bad or whether communicating novel philosophical ideas is just very hard.Report

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier

1.     Yeah, I might be one of those bad readers. I sometimes find that although I understand what an author is saying, I can’t see exactly why they’re saying it. So I might need more signposting than other people. I suspect this is because my power of concentration is a little weak.
2.     A few years back, someone posted a passage here on Daily Nous from the writing of a very well-known philosopher, the point of which was to offer an example of terrible prose. I believe everyone who commented agreed that the writing was terrible – ‘convoluted’, ‘pointlessly complicated sentences’, things like that.
But I thought it was great. Of course, I think the content, the ideas that this philosopher brings to the table, are groundbreaking, ingenious ideas, so that probably helps. But my point is, no doubt tastes vary – one reader’s ‘convoluted’ is another reader’s ‘intricately structured’. (And no, it’s not Dummett, but yes, I do like reading Dummett too!)Report

Sandman She-Hulk.
1 month ago

I think we can pretty much reduce things into Pragma-Dialectical Schema, then Diagram them so as to make really complex matters accessible. There is a precedent for this I’m Scholastic Philosophy, they are referred to as Habitudo, that is, little diagrams for argumentation.Report

Gabagool
1 month ago

Here Rini, like Korsgaard whom she cites, seems to think that philosophical writing should resemble long form think piece journalism: easy, predigested arguments suitable for the untrained and only moderately interested reader who mostly wants a good anecdote to share at dinner parties. I think this is a conception of philosophy which flourishes in areas that require no formal background to state the relevant theoretical positions, and I also think it is badly mistaken and harmful to the profession. We are not engaged in writing think pieces for the moderately interested reader. We are engaged in inquiring into philosophical questions, and our articles, like scientific journal articles, are condensed summaries of the results of our thinking designed to be understood and appreciated by other inquirers in our community. This does not mean that they should be written badly — but then again, the only feature of philosophical writing Rini identifies which strikes me as actually bad is using variables unnecessarily, and my sense is that this happens less than she suggests.Report

Barry Lam
Reply to  Gabagool
1 month ago

What is harmful to the profession Gabagool? That there are areas that require no formal background to state the relevant theoretical positions, or that someone might generalize from what is good writing in those areas to areas that do require such formal backgrounds?Report

Gabagool
Reply to  Barry Lam
1 month ago

Only the latter — I have no problem with informal philosophy!Report

Barry Lam
Reply to  Gabagool
1 month ago

I agree that in every academic endeavor, there needs to be writing by experts for experts that pushes knowledge outside of existing boundaries and makes breakthroughs. It would be the sign of a dead field if I understood the latest research in statistics when I picked up one of their journals. But I think philosophy, like other humanities fields, which is ONLY like this can be damaging to the profession also, for well understood sociological reasons.Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Barry Lam
1 month ago

Barry, I appreciate your point, but I wonder how much of it comes from thinking of philosophy as exclusively being in the humanities bucket? Sure, that’s where philosophy departments typically sit in academia, but we could arguably also fit elsewhere.

For instance, my philosophy department here at Cal Poly was born from the computer science department back in the day. For at least logic and maybe some phil. mind, STEM could be a natural home, even if (say) aesthetics and ethics are more clearly in the humanities.

Insofar as philosophy is a meta discipline and can shape-shift into a lot of things, I’m not surprised by the diverse styles of writing. We can let a thousand flowers bloom here, though I admit that might be confusing for a lot of outsiders who might insist of thinking about philosophy as just one kind of thing…Report

Barry Lam
Reply to  Patrick Lin
1 month ago

I don’t think of philosophy as being exclusively humanities. But I do think it is also humanities. I came from LPS in Irvine and then Princeton, so I know full well the difference between the research of Brian Skyrms and that of Mark Johnston. Both are very important, and I might add, good writers! I take Gina’s point to be that things shifted too far in one direction (formal rigor) as a signal to young people about how to write even if the topics don’t necessarily require and may even be better treated less formally. But it may not feel that way for someone whose work errs far on the other side, with people complaining that its math or comp-sci rather than philosophy. I’ve heard that for a long time also. I’m all for pluralism, I think we may have different experiences on what are barriers to it. Let’s remove all of them.Report

Kelby
Kelby
Reply to  Gabagool
1 month ago

Here Rini, like Korsgaard whom she cites, seems to think that philosophical writing should resemble long form think piece journalism: easy, predigested arguments suitable for the untrained and only moderately interested reader who mostly wants a good anecdote to share at dinner parties.

This strikes me as an uncharitable way to frame an otherwise reasonable objection to Rini’s view. Think about someone who holds that view, be it Rini or anyone else — would they read this comment and go ‘yep, Gabagool nailed it, guess I’d better change my mind!’?Report

Jason Brennan
1 month ago

I’ve noticed that badly written books and articles tend to be interpreted as “rigorous,” while nicely written pieces are interpreted as non-rigorous. I suspect a great deal of bad writing is meant to disguise bad thinking. It creates a pretense of plausible deniability, because people have to interpret and re-state your view before criticizing it.Report

Redundant
Reply to  Jason Brennan
1 month ago

I subscribed to this view for a long time: that bad or let’s say, pretentious writing is a reflection of bad thinking. After all, we’re putting our thoughts into textual form when we write. I still subscribe to this view but loosened up over the years through doing philosophy myself.

There were times when an argument or idea makes sense in my mind but I found putting that idea into text so difficult. Then I read a philosopher’s work who wrote about the same idea but wrote it more clear and simple that most people can understand to the T. I knew then my thinking wasn’t actually bad, but rather, I just struggled with finding the better combination of words that would be clear for my readers.

And this is why secondary texts are important for students and professionals who want to write more clearly. The author’s work that I read was a secondary book on the topic too.

Sometimes an article or book is very clear and accessible but the topic is uninteresting to readers. This isn’t something we can cure.Report

Errol Lord
1 month ago

Of course, there are editors of journal articles. It would be great if they were valued in a way that allowed them to actually edit. I’d love to do that but I barely have enough time to get everything a referee and get things turned around in a timely way. This is mostly because I am not compensated at all for my editorial work.Report

Shen-yi Liao
Reply to  Errol Lord
1 month ago

In my limited experience, editors of these sorts of “public” writing are almost like ghost co-authors at the structural and sentential level. And that’s why writers tend to develop relationships with specific editors because they need to come to have some level of mindmeld but also accept that to be the case. But I am very not certain that I want professional philosophy journal editors to take on that role, even if they had the time and were compensated for doing so.Report

Errol Lord
Reply to  Shen-yi Liao
1 month ago

I don’t think that level of involvement would be great (at least in general), but obviously we could do a lot more than we do now!Report

Regina Rini
Regina Rini
Reply to  Errol Lord
1 month ago

I entirely agree! The problems I’m pointing to here are not at all the fault of journal editors, who are overworked and poorly (if at all) compensated. But the role of journal editor just isn’t the same as the role of literary editor. There isn’t the time to help every author sharpen the prose of every piece. In theory, referees could do it, but we currently do not have norms encouraging them to do so.Report

Errol Lord
Reply to  Regina Rini
1 month ago

If I had some temporal compensation for editing I would happily do line edits for every paper I handle that gets past the referees. If this was the norm (and we let it guide our choices about which people to pick as editors), then I’m confident the average quality would go up quite a bit.Report

Shen-yi Liao
Reply to  Errol Lord
1 month ago

Imagine your average journal referee or editor. Is a norm on which they do line edits to your paper—in addition to the structural and substantive advice that they already offer—an improvement over the status quo? Again, I’m not sure!Report

Gabagool
1 month ago

Those of us who work in formal areas of philosophy are already pressured to put the formal statements of our views (i.e. the actual substance of our work) into footnotes or appendices to improve readability for nonspecialists. The result is that when we read articles, we skip the informal exposition and just look at the footnotes and appendices. But the actual philosophy is not happening in the “well-written” parts of the papers: it is happening in the formalism. The suggestion that “good” philosophical writing should not be formal just is the suggestion that good formal work is not philosophy. This suggestion arises in subdisciplines where formalism is not taught to graduate students, and its implicit message is that those are the only subdisciplines where legitimate philosophy is done. I think think it should be understood for what it is: at best, virtue signaling by people in informal areas; at worst, an implicit proposal to direct resources away from formal subdisciplines.Report

Regina Rini
Regina Rini
Reply to  Gabagool
1 month ago

Your first comment was uncharitable to the point of nonsense. (I certainly do not think that the purpose of philosophy is to produce “a good anecdote to share at dinner parties”. Nor, I assume, does the author of The Sources of Normativity.) But there’s actually a point here that deserves a response.

I agree that some areas of philosophy usually cannot be written accessibly. Formal logic, decision theory, probably some philosophy of specialized sciences. The problem is forcing all areas of philosophy to pretend to be these. I acknowledged this difference in the piece you are replying to: “not everyone has Bertrand Russell’s understanding of when to formally axiomatize set theory and when to just say plainly why nuclear weapons are terrifying”

I think the sociological weight of the discipline has swung away from the height of formalism-for-formalism’s sake in the second half of the 20th century. But there’s still quite a lot of it in places where there’s no need. It should be possible to point this out while acknowledging that some specialities still require technical apparatus.Report

Gabagool
Reply to  Regina Rini
1 month ago

I admit that I opened with an exaggeration, and also that my target was more Korsgaard — who claims in her recent lecture that all philosophical writing should be accessible to any curious person even if they have no training in philosophy — than it was you.

But I think there is actually more of a problem with hostility to formalism in the profession than there is a problem with excessive formalism. I and other people in my field routinely have our work rejected from generalist journals on the basis that it is too technical for the “general philosopher” to follow. There is no such thing as a paper being rejected from a generalist journal for being insufficiently technical. Even when technical work is innovative, it routinely gets labeled narrow, unoriginal, or unphilosophical by people who do not have the training required to appreciate it. The world of philosophy is full of people who revel in their lack of understanding of formal approaches, who lament increasing specialization, and who want a return to the days of grand theorists like Aristotle and Kant.

From my perspective, it is hard not to see a list of “bad” features of philosophical writing which includes trying to write perfectly true sentence and making use of variables when they are not absolutely required as part of the prevailing anti-formal sentiment in the discipline. Hence the defensive tone.Report

Prof L
Reply to  Gabagool
1 month ago

Of course there is such a thing as a paper being insufficiently technical. Maybe people submit specialized work in philosophy of physics or Bayesian probability less frequently to generalist journals, but *of course* such work would be rejected by a competent referee if it lacks the formalism it needs.

The worry here is unnecessary formalism. And I assure you, many of your interlocutors have more than enough formal training to appreciate and understand the formalism. I get annoyed by formalism when the goal appears to be to write something that looks mathy and technical in LaTeX, but what the author is trying to express is something commonplace and easily expressible in ordinary english sentences. Math and logic are like a first language to me. But what you see in a lot of philosophy papers is more like ciphers for simple sentences (see the example in the first paragraph). It is not illuminating, even for the math-science geeks among us.Report

Abraham Graber
1 month ago

Regarding Dr. Rini’s comments about scaling up: I recently discovered that helping faculty place editorials is among the jobs of my university’s media relations office. They’ve provided substantial edits to drafts I’ve sent them and then put in the footwork to make sure that my pieces found a home. If something similar is true about other universities, many philosophers may already have access to the kind of support we need to get published in non-academic venues. Though making the time for it is another story entirely.Report

mary
mary
Reply to  Abraham Graber
1 month ago

There is a beautiful club near me that meets others for what they call a Socrates club meeting. Over zoom or in person they discuss chapters. and when the meetings are on zoom the guest discusses them. it is social. I went one but they were so far ahead of me that I could not go back, One day I will get up my nerve to go back. I understand but can’t add to the discussion. Yet. Thank you. MariReport

Owen Flanagan
1 month ago

Very interesting. Thank you Regina. There are some very fine writers in philosophy — Agnes Collard, Amy Olberding, Justin Smith, and Peter Godfrey-Smith stand out in my mind. Among the older generation, Tom Nagel and Dan Dennett are clever, clear, and often elegant. One observation about my examples is that they are also all pretty original thinkers.Report

Enzo Rossi
1 month ago

I don’t understand why we can’t just keep scholarly writing and writing for a general audience separate, at least in most cases.Report

Barry Lam
Reply to  Enzo Rossi
1 month ago

Agreed, I think we can. I took Gina to be arguing that we can do better even in our scholarly writing.Report

Kenny Easwaran
1 month ago

I’ve seen plenty of *bad* signposting, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen *too much* signposting. And I’ve often seen not enough signposting (though this is less common than it used to be when people like Michael Dummett were major figures in the profession).

I do wish that we had better ways of making use of electronic formats, or diagrams, to do signposting, rather than obscuring it in a paragraph of text. Even just a table of contents with a list of the numbered sections, along with their titles, could often be sufficient, if the titles of the sections are clear enough.Report

Patrick Lin
1 month ago

I am not a guild member and look out for the same things the author is concerned about in my own writing. But I also recognize that there’s probably more neurodiversity in academic philosophy than any other discipline outside of STEM.

Some philosophers not only love formalized, precise/tortured, and abstract writing, but they seem to need it. They wouldn’t be happy without it, and some specializations might even require it. And that’s fine — those folks can write for each other, if other readers don’t want to work that hard.

In many other professions, the typical journal paper can’t be easily understood by the average reader, e.g., law, medicine, engineering, sciences, math, architecture, economics. This seems to be a feature of specialization (or at least a foreseeable outcome), not a bug.

But, yes, it’d be great to also have dedicated lanes for writing that’s more accessible to the public. Maybe this is more urgent for philosophy, since the other fields mentioned aren’t really at risk of budget cuts and department closures.

Are those threats driven by not understanding the discipline’s writing, or not understanding the discipline’s value? Perhaps some of both, and they may be connected. But as long as some philosophers are demonstrating value to the public, that helps to afford space for others to write in the style they like.

And I suspect anyone can benefit from ultra-precise writing as exercises, just as with writing in plain, accessible language. Maybe the trick is to not indoctrinate students in any given style. A writing course in grad school could help students understand that they’re not limited to any of these styles but have the freedom to find their own voice.Report

Chris
1 month ago

Prof Rini:
Thanks for this. I agree that a lot of academic writing is bad. Following up on Flanagan’s comment, and keeping in mind the distinction between more popularized and more scholarly work, I’d like to hear more examples of journal articles that are well written. Dennett and Nagel are good examples, because they’re good writers even in their scholarly articles (or were – now they mostly just write books?). The other folks Flanagan mentions all have also written books or work outside of the academic journal article. For those of us who want more examples of good scholarly journal writing (in any area of philosophy), what are some academic journal articles that are particularly well written?Report

Vaughn
Vaughn
Reply to  Chris
1 month ago

This might be worth having a top-level DN post about if there isn’t one already.

One article that I find particularly well-written is Eric Schwitzgebel’s article “If Materialism is True, then the United States is Probably Conscious”: https://faculty.ucr.edu/~eschwitz/SchwitzAbs/USAconscious.htmReport

Current Grad
1 month ago

1) I wonder if some of these issues are subdisciplinary. I work in history and in applied ethics, and, although I notice plenty of mediocre writing, excessive formalism and signposting don’t seem like pressing issues.

2) I had an experience recently where multiple faculty told me my paper wasn’t philosophical enough. They also said it seemed more like a learned magazine article than a philosophy paper. The critique was helpful and fair, insofar as my goal is to become a professional philosopher (which it mostly is). But I’ve been thinking a lot about writing and philosophical style. The paper in question was on applied ethics. It focused on setting out relevant ethical considerations on a topic without previous philosophical literature, often summarizing and incorporating research in social science and medicine. I do/have read many thinkpieces, and my writing is certainly influenced by that sort of style. On important topics I’m often interested in a broader scope, even at the cost of some rigor. It’s difficult to figure out what’s most helpful, but I support a wide variety of styles, including articles which are less straightforwardly argumentative, when those play an important role for future philosophy.Report

Abdul Ansari
1 month ago

Thanks for the post, Regina. I absolutely agree. In fact, the most well-regarded philosophers today–certainly some of my favorite–are fantastic writers. Rigor, precision and philosophical insight need not be bogged down in the prose of a constipated machine; we tacitly recognize this when we give incredible recognition to such philosophers as Nagel, Korsgaard, or Nussbaum.

A mind-blogging thing, to me, is why the need to signal guild-membership came paired with excessive quantifiers and variables, constant talk about “the -ist”, and a robotic drawl. Surely a simpler way of indicating guild-membership is simply engaging the relevant literature and, in effect, talking about whatever-ism without repeating the ‘-ist ad nauseam.

Some sociological hypotheses for why signaling comes paired with bad writing patterns. 1) We are suffering the long hangover of days “linguistic philosophy” and formal methods dominated the scene, leaving work outside these areas to appropriate their language and methods in order to seem worthwhile. 2) If everyone happened to be writing like this, owing to whatever contingent historical reasons, it is less risky and time consuming to go with the flow than to develop one’s own style. 3) Hiding shallow, one dollar takes and poor understanding with bad writing.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Abdul Ansari
Valentin A
1 month ago

Writing is a skill entirely separate from philosophical research and reasoning. Accessibility or relatability is often conflated with simplistic writing in fields other than philosophy (thinking specifically of Frank O’Hara here), often to the detriment of the field. I understand the value of having to work at a complex text. Some of the worst offenders in the game, like Deleuze and Guattari, have changed my life/scholarship. However, I have had to struggle with their texts, and only understood them when I spent an extended period of time with them. I value what I’ve gained from them both despite and because of this. However, if in another universe they did not write like two snakes wrestling over a thesaurus, maybe their theories and information would be more readily accessible and I would enjoy their knowledge just the same.

Maybe introducing more classes focused around the craft of writing itself might be useful in fostering more accessible texts. I would be interested to see a joint Creative Writing – Philosophy taught course. Skills like drafting, editing, etc. could be reinforced, and it might show students the different forms and faces that philosophical writing can take.Report

Zormax
1 month ago

I agree with a lot of the sentiments here; I wish philosophical writing were more interesting to read through. Excessive signposting is a symptom of dry writing: the purpose of signposting is to allow the reader to skim through the dull stuff that had to be included to satisfy some anonymous reviewer but that everybody else would prefer to skip. All the same, I find the analytic style one which makes it harder to get away with the sorts of slippery and vague reasoning that populate popular rhetoric. When I teach these norms of philosophical writing to undergraduates, it’s not because I anticipate most of them will need entry to the guild, but because they’re bright but messy thinkers who shift around between only tangentially related thoughts, and because they’re novice scholars who don’t know how to do research. A lot of the annoying traits of our writing style are training wheels, “disciplinary” tools, ways to take a vague and intuitive sense that something is right or wrong or true or false or insightful and learn it into something that one can communicate to somebody who doesn’t share that vague and intuitive sense and who doesn’t want to be manipulated by words. Perhaps that’s it: it is very, very hard to be manipulated by dry writing. Many of us are immersed in manipulative language both inside and outside of academia; philosophy is a respite. The dryness and abstractness of analytic philosophical writing communicates respect for the reader’s independent judgment, and it’s a welcome shelter from the torrent of verbal trickery one enounters on social media, journalism, and often from the other departments just down the hall.Report

Prof L
1 month ago

Excessive formalism is annoying. Sign-posting isn’t.

When reading philosophy papers, I often am looking for something very particular. Therefore, I find the “Section 4 contains …” type of flagging helpful. However, when I skip to section 4 and the author is referring to various positions “TOA” and “HNE”, I’m like “WTF are TOA and HNE” and I have to go digging around the previous sections to find where these things are defined. And it’s never so complex that I thought ‘ah I see why this person gave TOA a special acronym!’

One thing I’ve wondered about is whether this is an artifact of conference talks, where you are telling me about your view with the assistance of a handout or powerpoint. I’ve never been annoyed by acronyms and formalism in handouts. But it’s not good writing. So perhaps it’s worth keeping in mind that a very good talk might make a terrible article. Report

John Zebedee
1 month ago

Hi Regina Rini,
What an excellent, entertaining and provoking article.
I have been writing about social security benefits for 40 years. It is fascinating and difficult to strike a balance between rules I set myself (“If ‘snark’ means boojum here, it must mean boojum throughout this piece”) and comprehensibility, and to edit my material as though I didn’t yet know what I’ve written.
I think your analogy of the guild system is correct. But it is also the case that unpractised writers simply stumble more often.
ThankyouReport

Greg Littmann
1 month ago

I think that the problem is not that philosophers write for each other in ways that are inaccessible to outsiders. That’s true of lots of disciplines. I think that the problem is that so few philosophers do what Regina is doing and write work intended to be accessible to outsiders. A related problem is that such work for outsiders is often considered illegitimate or unimportant compared to work written for other professional philosophers. I think that the value we provide as professional philosophers is providing ideas for those outside the discipline. That’s compatible with writing work that’s only accessible to other philosophers, but not with failing to make the ideas more broadly accessible too.Report

grad student who likes signposting
1 month ago

A lot of the features of writing that Rini criticizes seem to me like ways of increasing clarity for other professional scholars. If I am reading to figure out exactly what your argument is at a level of precision that most people don’t care about and situate it in a previous literature of which I am already aware, then signposting, formalism, and concise taxonomies of other views will be very helpful for me. It’s true that these techniques may make the writing clunkier in other ways, but it’s easier to accomplish the goal of communicating your view and why its novel to e.g. a peer reviewer by using these techniques than by foregoing them. In light of this, I don’t really find Rini’s “guild” explanation for these features of philosophical writing convincing; in my experience, I’ve found that philosophers dislike the clunkiness of this writing as much as anyone else, and they don’t think that articles written in other ways are signs of crackpottery. But in practice, they care more that a paper is clear in the ways that other professional scholars care about than whether it reads a clunky or not.Report

Philip Kremer
1 month ago

One of the post’s main point is that “most contemporary philosophy writing is just bad writing.” Here’s a suspicion that might be false: if you read philosophy journals from the 1910’s or the 1840’s or any other period, you’d find that most philosophy writing from that period is bad writing. One doesn’t notice this, because one isn’t expected to be familiar with what was going on in the 1910’s, beyond a tiny sliver of work that remains relevant now.Report

Non-native English speaker
1 month ago

Whenever the issue of ‘bad writing’ in philosophy comes up, I tend to worry that the emphasis on ‘readability’ is often addressed in a way that is exclusive to native English speakers, e.g., praising witty style, cultural references, colloquialisms, etc.

On many occasions when I had to read some of the writings by philosophers known to be ‘those rare good, engaging writers’ (which include Bertrand Russell), I could not figure out what was going on, especially when their ‘wits’ or ‘sarcasms’ shine. I would rather read a paper with “excessive sign-posting [that] actually diminishes an essay’s readability by inducing boredom and loss of focus on the central argument” that I could still understand than a ‘witty’ article that you cannot understand without having spent your whole life in Anglophone countries.

As having witnessed many non-native English-speaking philosophers who struggled because of English, I suspect that the ‘boredom-inducing’ writing style in STEM fields may be one of the reasons why they are, ironically, more culturally diverse than philosophy.Report

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Non-native English speaker
1 month ago

Interesting. Perhaps it would be good to encourage fora in which the linguistic nuances of philosophical books and articles could be discussed, so that non-native English speakers can be brought in on what’s going on.

Seems much better than encouraging many the few good prose stylists in philosophy to make their writing more like what is criticized here!Report

Non-native English speaker
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

I see that there is a clash between different values here, i.e., ‘good prose style’ vs. communicability. I respectfully disagree with the suggested solution that prioritizes the former, especially in academic philosophy.

A crude analogy: A pathologist working on the recent developments of Covid has to read an article in English, but cannot understand it due to its ‘style’. Therefore, you have to consult native English speakers who can ‘teach’ them what was really going on in the Covid article.

This looks not only deeply inefficient, but also seems to create a worrisome power dynamic.

I suspect that philosophy isn’t that different. I am aware of some non-native English-speaking philosophers who decided to work on formal philosophy (or, more generally, the fields that tend to sympathize with the cosmopolitan spirit of logical positivism) at least partly because they did not want to forever remain as ‘students’ of native English speakers who could teach them what’s up.Report

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Non-native English speaker
1 month ago

It’s great that, in formal philosophy, those people found a field in which they could thrive.

But there seems to be an implied premise in this reasoning that, when not everyone has a sufficient command of the language to read philosophy equally well, *all* philosophy must be written to the lowest common denominator.Report

Peter Finocchiaro
Peter Finocchiaro
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

Respectfully, Justin, you seem to have misunderstood Non-native English speaker’s point. There are many factors that go into “style” that are not plausibly categorized as “command of the language” and deviation from which indicates writing to a “lowest common denominator”.

To give two small examples: (1) the opening example of Russell’s “On Denoting”, which presupposes cultural knowledge that there is no present King of France but there is a present King of England; (2) the very first sentence of the first chapter of Williams’s book, The Metaphysics of Representation, which presupposes cultural knowledge of what a penny is as well as familiarity with a (once upon a time) common idiom.

Neither of these examples are insurmountable obstacles for non-native English speakers or people who come from different backgrounds from the original author. But they are, as Non-native English speaker said, illustrative of a clash of values. And, for what it’s worth, it’s not clear to me that philosophy — or most of it, anyway — should be written under the assumption that the reader will be familiar with the present state of the British monarchy.Report

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Peter Finocchiaro
1 month ago

I’ll try to respond with reference to the exact cases you think exemplify the problem, but I don’t have access to the text of the Williams book.

1. Russell talks about the King of France and the King of England, it’s true. That would be confusing to people who might never have heard of England or France, or who might not know what a king is. I suppose it might even be confusing to people who know those three words but who didn’t realize that England continues to have a monarchy while France does not.

But how plausible is this, really? I really can’t imagine someone just getting stumped at that point in the article and being unable to continue without first figuring out this fact about European monarchies. It’s very easy to see what’s going on in the context. A reader who might be tempted to abandon reading the piece in utter perplexity at this question, if such a person existed, could find out the answers to both questions on Google within a few seconds. But again, that really shouldn’t be necessary.

I don’t know exactly what expression involving pennies Williams uses, but I have seen elsewhere that he refers to some things as ‘ten a penny’. Is the idea that someone who isn’t sure how much money a penny is wouldn’t be able to make any sense of the idiom, and wouldn’t be able to look it up anywhere?

I grew up in Canada where there are pennies but not shillings. To this day, I don’t know what a shilling is. But I do gather from contexts in which I’ve seen the word that it’s a unit of currency. If I read somewhere that some things are ‘ten a shilling’, I’d get the sense that a shilling is a small amount of money and that the things in question are plentiful. If I instead saw it written that someone had made an imposing appearance in a one-shilling designer suit, I would imagine that a shilling is quite a bit of money.

But again, if I were curious, I’d look these things up. I often look things up when I read.

By contrast, technical philosophy is written in a very technical style that many people have a hard time following, and that often requires serious knowledge of advanced logic, probability theory, and so on. Why does the requirement to be inclusive of a broad readership not preclude that as well as mentioning pennies and kings of France and England?

As a matter of fact, your own comment contains a number of words slightly beyond the vocabulary of many English speakers, especially non-native ones. ‘Insurmountable’ and ‘idiom’ come to mind as examples. Would it be better for us to get rid of those words, too, so as to remove another obstacle?

I’d like to hear more of the proposed constraints on this approach, and why some accommodations and not others must be included.Report

Peter Finocchiaro
Peter Finocchiaro
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

Thanks for responding. There’s a lot there to unpack. Let me try my best.

Yes, the ten-a-penny expression is the one Williams uses. (I should explicitly say that I chose this example because it was the one I most recently encountered; I don’t mean to imply anything especially problematic about Williams as a writer.)

You seem to assume that I (and Non-native English speaker, though I don’t want to speak for them) believe some readers will get “stumped” by such examples and “be tempted to abandon reading the piece in utter perplexity”. (As an aside, it’s frustrating to be interpreted this uncharitably. But such is life.) I don’t believe this. I believe merely that such examples detract from the communicability of the paper — as I said, “Neither of these examples are insurmountable obstacles”. It seems that you also agree. As you say, the issue could be resolved by a few seconds on Google. But I hope you would also agree that using an example that forces some readers to look away from the paper to spend a few seconds on Google is to fail to make your paper as communicable as you could. This sort of unforced error is akin to unnecessary uses of the passive voice, mismatches of actor and subject, and the myriad other things that make a paper slightly harder to read than it needs to be. It’s just that this particular error gets glossed over as “witty” and demonstrating “sufficient command of the language”. I disagree.

As far as I can tell, no one in this particular conversation is arguing that philosophy written in a very technical style is easy to read, and no one has been arguing that all or most of philosophy should be written in such a style. I certainly don’t think that. So, you ask, “Why does the requirement… not preclude that as well?” It does preclude that. I agree with Regina Rini’s main claim about the dangers of unnecessary formalisms. Of course, there is a time and place for philosophy written in a very technical style, just as there is a time and place for philosophy written to be full of cultural witticisms. But most philosophy should not be written in either style.

I’m glad to hear that you grew up in a cultural context where you’ve heard the word ‘shilling’ enough to know that it is a unit of currency. Not everyone is so lucky as you, sadly. It’s a pretty obscure word — more obscure than ‘insurmountable’ and ‘idiom’, in fact. Based on a quick search of the iWeb English language corpus, the word is about half as common as those two.

More important, though, are the particular ways in which knowledge of these words is distributed. The words ‘insurmountable’ and ‘idiom’ are fairly general and relevant to English speakers all over the world. The word ‘shilling’ is not. We could easily switch this: words like ‘hot pot’ or ‘offal’ are more likely to be known in cultural contexts where eating hot pot and offal are common but not as well known in cultural contexts where they are not. Someone who chooses to use these words must understand that they risk compromising (even if slightly) the communicability of their writing. And yet academic philosophy is rife with philosophers who use words that are culturally specific to native-speaking countries and use them with seemingly no understanding of that risk.

Again, if anyone were curious, they could look these things up. We are not disagreeing about that. We are disagreeing about whether it is a mistake to write in a way that forces the reader to look things up. I’m happy to have that general disagreement. Others would want to push further and ask about the specific socio-political context of who is forced to look up what.

As for my own writing: I am currently writing for a native-speaking audience — i.e. you. So I feel pretty comfortable relying on you to understand what I say, much more so than when I am communicating with my English language-learning students. When we are writing papers to be published in academic journals, who are we writing for? The worry that I take Non-native English speaker to be articulating is the worry that many philosophers seem to forget that non-native speakers are among their audience.

Thankfully, people much more qualified than I am are working on these problems! Since you said you’d like to hear more, you might start by reading the papers in this special issue: https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rppa20/47/1Report

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Peter Finocchiaro
1 month ago

Thanks, Peter. I just don’t see it that way.

There are many times in philosophy where I’ve come across things I didn’t understand immediately because the writer came from a different cultural context.

One of the first things I was assigned to read when I began philosophy at university was Descartes’ _Discourse on the Method_. He mentions being in a ‘poele’ (which, according to the footnote, was a kind of oven) when he came up with some of his ideas. I didn’t know what that meant, though I’m sure someone in Descartes’ time and place would have known what he was talking about. I also didn’t have a picture of what Athens was like thousands of years ago, and didn’t know what this ‘marketplace’ was that Socrates would sit in: it didn’t seem like the things called ‘marketplaces’ in the culture I knew.

Hume also, in a memorable and much-quoted passage, says, “Were a man, whom I know to be honest and opulent, and with whom I live in intimate friendship, to come into my house, where I am surrounded with my servants, I rest assured, that he is not to stab me before he leaves it, in order to rob me of my silver standish; and I no more suspect this event, than the falling of the house itself which is new, and solidly built and founded.”

I didn’t grow up in a culture in which people are ever surrounded by servants, and I’ll bet almost nobody who reads that passage today knows what a ‘silver standish’ is. I certainly didn’t when I read it. (Incidentally, Hume was forever self-conscious of being a non-native English speaker).

In one episode of Better Call Saul, the character Gustavo Fring tells a story of his childhood in South America. He tells of how he cultivated a lucuma tree, and how the fruits were then eaten by a coati. I found the monologue riveting, even though I had never heard of a lucuma or a coati. (I did look them up).

I’m actually _grateful_ for the inclusion of these things in the philosophical works and stories. They make my world richer. I don’t need to understand or be familiar with everything I read about. If I do choose to look these things up, I will gain a better understanding of faraway parts of the world and different times.

Here’s a question for you, if you please. Suppose that a philosopher in India presents a thought experiment in which he imagines buying some common item at a market. But the item he mentions purchasing, the currency he mentions, and the mode of transaction are all things that hardly anyone unfamiliar with India would know about. They come across as unclearly as Hume’s silver standish or Gustavo Fring’s lucuma fruit and coati: anyone can clearly get the gist of what’s going on, though not necessarily the exact details.

My question is this: would you want the journal editors to press the writer to change the example to one that every English speaker will find more familiar?

Perhaps you would, but I certainly would not. You can’t blame the fact that I would on some sort of privilege I have as a native English speaker, because I know nothing about the ways and wares of Indian markets, and so on your view it would seem that the Indian philosopher’s thought experiment would put me at a disadvantage. But I don’t see it that way at all. It would pique my cultural curiosity and enrich my enjoyment of the piece.Report

Peter Finocchiaro
Peter Finocchiaro
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

It’s possible that we don’t disagree all that much.

I, too, am grateful to live in a world full of cultural riches and am grateful for those pieces of work that introduce me to them. I also think there is a place for such work in academic philosophy.

But the reality is that the philosopher in India is much more likely to have his choice of examples policed by a journal editor than is the philosopher in England. His local variety of English is also more likely to be policed than is that of the philosopher in England. So there is a risk that a policy aimed at promoting stylish writing has the unintended side-effect that only one kind of stylish writing is promoted — namely, that kind of writing that reflects the pre-existing native speaker biases we’re talking about.

I guess I would not want the journal editor to press the writer. I would want the journal editor to press the American or English writer. Either way, the context in which the writing occurs is important to keep in mind.Report

Shen-yi Liao
Reply to  Non-native English speaker
1 month ago

Over time, there have been multiple discussions about who the “stylish” writers in philosophy are. I went through them a while ago and made a relatively simple tabulation. It turns out that philosophers who are thought to write stylishly are ~97% men, ~98% white, and ~98% native English speakers.

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1q5RLjF-FxPRYjbKH9zCaJlt0v0RdWr0F-8SsALtlUQg/edit?usp=sharingReport

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Shen-yi Liao
1 month ago

Could you please explain what, if anything, you think follows from this? It sounds like some sort of indictment, but I don’t yet see the form it’s meant to take.

If we were to look at the athletes in a certain sport who are generally considered to be the greatest, and found that that they tend to be of a certain race, a certain sex, a certain nationality, and a certain body type, should we conclude that this is due to bias and gatekeeping in the system, or unfair disadvantages faced by those who don’t belong to those demographic categories, or unconscious bias in those making the judgments? Is it really so outlandish to think that there could be cultural or other factors that explain it?

And when we do find sports in which races, sexes, body types, and so on don’t represent that of the general population, should we see this as a wrong to be rectified?

I say ‘body type’ here because, just as it’s not hard to see why a sport might have an overrepresentation of a certain body type among its greats, it’s not hard to see why native English speakers would tend to be better at writing in a beautiful English style than non-native English speakers. The same would go for absolutely any language. I’m pretty sure that, if Chinese-speaking intellectuals made a list of the greatest stylists of Chinese academic writing, the list would be equally dominated by native speakers of Chinese.

By the way, I don’t think I’ve seen any lists of the *worst* writers in philosophy (for perhaps understandable reasons), but I can think of a few appallingly bad writers, and the three who just came to mind are all white males who seem to speak English as a native language.Report

Redundant
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 month ago

The first sentence of Shen’s comment was explaining the issue and the third was giving some empirical evidence relating to it. But I don’t know whether or not such evidence confirms or negates people’s prior assumptions about which group they *thought* were most “stylish” writers.

These are all data based on people’s own perceptions. But I do find it interesting that the data showed mostly White men who wrote in English. Are these people’s perception correct? These survey data mostly tracks people’s subjective opinions. I don’t know if these opinions are correct until we have a definition of “stylish” most of us can agree on.Report

Daniel Greco
1 month ago

While i agree with a lot of the specific points Rini (and Korsgaard) make about common problems with philosophical prose, I find myself generally less pessimistic about the state of writing in the discipline than they seem to be.

I’m particular, I think a lot of technical philosophy is appreciated by people outside the “guild”, even when it’s not accessible to the generally educated public. I have in mind writing that I see cited in interdisciplinary academic work. There was a daily nous post on philosohers cited in the IPCC report. This was largely difficult philosophy of science that I wouldn’t expect the typical New Yorker reader to have much interest in. I often read target articles in BBS (a cognitive science journal) and i regularly find psychologists and neuroscientists fruitfully engaging with contemporary analytic philosophy. And along similar lines to what others have suggested up thread, I suspect some of the same features of our writing that make it less engaging for a general audience (lots of signposting) make it more accessible not just for other philosophers, but also for readers in the sciences.Report

Bryan Frances
1 month ago

I suppose almost no one will agree with me, but I think there isn’t nearly enough formalizing in ordinary philosophy articles. When one tries to make the arguments of such articles precise, one usually finds all sorts of problems the author was unaware of–problems that could have been revealed if he or she had gone through the trouble of formalizing their arguments/theses.Report

Graham Clay
Graham Clay
Reply to  Bryan Frances
1 month ago

I actually do agree with you about this. In some areas of philosophy–including some areas of history of philosophy–one of the primary obstacles to further progress is the tendency to not be clear about claims, assumptions, inferences, etc. I see this regularly in the Hume literature. I think junior scholars have a lot of room to innovate and progress the field by clarifying and precisifying concepts, arguments, and earlier work in order to better evaluate their viability.Report

JTD
JTD
Reply to  Bryan Frances
1 month ago

I agree with you that there is a lot of poor argumentation in philosophy that could have been improved or corrected if only the author had attempted to formalize their argument and seen the various gaps, controversial hidden assumptions, and bits of empty rhetoric that they are relying on. In fact, I think that this is the biggest problem affecting the quality of contemporary work done in philosophy. However, it doesn’t follow from this that more formalism in published philosophy is needed. A better corrective in my view is for authors to formalize their arguments in the draft stage so that these kinds of problems are revealed to them and can be corrected. Once they have a tight formal argument with none of these problems, they can then convert it back to plain prose in their polished draft. This gets the best of both worlds. The rigor in argumentation that comes from formalism and the readability of crisp plain prose.Report

Prujoot
1 month ago

I recently had a paper accepted at a well-known journal. Unusually, I was assigned an independent copy-editor, with whom I worked to revise the paper. Among her major editorial suggestions: remove all sign-posting.Report

Ash
Ash
1 month ago

I like almost all the features you dislike! I mean, I recognize that they are not aesthetically/stylistically appealing, especially given how repetitive they are across papers. But I find reading philosophy *hard.* The arguments are subtle. The ideas are abstract. Keeping the dialectic straight–remembering that v is an objection to x which was an objection to y which was an objection to z–strains the limits of my working memory. I therefore really rely on and appreciate things explicit signposting or explicit reminders that y was an objection to z. This may partly be because I have a disability–in any event I’m sure many other people don’t need the structure of the paper to be made as explicit–but I really hope these features don’t go away.Report

Sam Duncan
1 month ago

I’ve found that in ethics and political philosophy a formal looking presentation almost always indicates the point where the author tries to sneak in some wildly controversial assumption. And I don’t mean this just for random journal articles. Rawls, for instance, is very much guilty of this in “A Theory of Justice.” I honestly find that formal looking stuff plays the role we often assign to rhetoric in that it seems put there to deliberately obscure the weakness of the argument, though it’s less pretty or fun to read. A good rule of thumb is that the second you see something like for “For all phi of chi x phis when…” you should have your b******* detector ready. I’ve yet to read any work in value theory, even in metaethics, that was clearer and more convincing because it used a lot of formal looking talk. Also, another thing that bothers me with “formalism,” at least in value theory, is that it rarely takes the form of correct formulas in say symbolic logic or set theory. Instead it’s some mishmash of stuff taken from them or just something the author made up or copied from whomever did like the phi of x gibberish you see in Williams and lot of other metaethicists, which looks formal and precise but really isn’t when you take the trouble to unravel it (if you even can).Report

Mark
1 month ago

I had no idea that Montpelier had a 7-11!Report

James Barlow
1 month ago

Summa summarum: It is not the case that the Emperor is not naked.
[~ (~ E = n)]Report

Grace
7 days ago

I really appreciate this article’s view. I find that formalism can make reading quite difficult.Report