Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Obfuscatory Philosophy as Intellectual Authoritarianism and Cowardice

I've been told that Kant and Hegel were poor writers whose impenetrable prose style is incidental to their philosophy. I've also been told that their views are so profound as to defy expression in terms comprehensible even to smart, patient, well-educated people who are not specialists in the philosophy of the period. I've heard similar things about Laozi, Heidegger, Plotinus, Derrida. (I won't name any living philosophers.) I don't buy it.

Philosophy is not wordless profound insight. Philosophy is prose. Philosophy happens not in mystical moments, but in the creation of mundane sentences. It happens on the page, in the pen, through the keyboard, in dialogue with students and peers, and to some extent but only secondarily in private inner speech. If what exists on the page is not clear, the philosophy is not clear. Philosophers, like all specialists, profit from a certain amount of jargon, but philosophy need not become a maze of jargon. If private jargon doesn't regularly touch down in comprehensible public meanings, one has produced not philosophy but merely a fog of words of indeterminate content. There are always gaps, confusions, indeterminacies, hidden assumptions, failures of clarity, even in great philosophical prose stylists like Hume, Nietzsche, and David Lewis. Thus, these philosophers present ample interpretative challenges. But the gaps, confusions, indeterminacies, hidden assumptions, and even to some extent the failures of clarity, are right there on the page, available to anyone who looks conscientiously for them, not shrouded in a general fog.

If a philosopher can convince the public to take him seriously -- or her, but let's say him -- being obfuscatory yields three illegitimate benefits: First, he intimidates the reader and by intimidation takes on a mantle of undeserved intellectual authority. Second, he disempowers potential critics by having a view of such indeterminate form that any criticism can be written off as based on a misinterpretation. Third, he exerts a fascination on the kind of reader who enjoys the puzzle-solving aspect of discovering meaning, thus drawing from that reader a level of attention that may not be merited by the quality of his ideas (though this third benefit may be offset by alienating readers with low tolerance for obfuscatory prose). These philosophers exhibit a kind of intellectual authoritarianism, with themselves as the assumed authority whose words we must spend time puzzling out. And simultaneously they lack intellectual courage: the courage to make plain claims that could be proven wrong, supported by plain arguments that could be proven fallacious. These three features synergize: If a critic thinks she has finally located a sound criticism, she can be accused of failing to solve the interpretive puzzle of the philosopher's superior genius.

Few philosophers, I suspect, deliberately set out to be obfuscatory. But I am inclined to believe that some are attuned to its advantages as an effect of their prose style and for that reason make little effort to write comprehensibly. Perhaps they find their prose style shaped by audience responses: When they write clearly, they are dismissed or refuted; when they produce a fog of words that hint of profound meaning underneath, they earn praise. Perhaps thus they are themselves to some extent victims -- victims of a subculture, or circle of friends, or intended audience, that regards incomprehensibility as a sign of brilliance and so demands it in their heroes.

56 comments:

Bernard said...

Perhaps this is all quite true but compatible with the further thought that the philosophical sinners you identify were fastening in their obscure way onto creative, deeply interesting ideas that stand in need of clearer expression by subsequent writers.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, I agree.

Roy said...

Aren't there levels of abstraction sometimes involved that some people may not be able to reach, no matter how well the writing? Abstract inferences to be drawn, for example, that require a high level of prior curiosity before some could even attempt to find the meaning?

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly except...

How is Nietzsche a clear writer? I agree he has a colorful prose that's fun to read but in no stretch of the word, that's clear philosophy. (Leiter says that his prose is a result of his thinking that rational argumentation isn't very convincing.)

I think your criticisms apply equally to Nietzsche.

Jackson Davis said...

"Clarity is the courtesy of the philosopher." José Ortega y Gasset

Richard Marshall said...

Bernard's onto something I think. What happens where a philosopher detects a bias in the relevant philosophical literature that reflects a deeper bias (perhaps in the way we've evolved cognition itself) that contributes to making discussing a contrary position seem awkward. Perhaps the ordinary language reflects the bias against which the philosopher is trying to argue, hence the resorces she has to express her views may become stained, counter-intuitive, even crazyily reconfigured. For example, Carnap famously ridiculed Heidegger's 'The Nothing nothings...' etc but later philosophers have argued that because there's a bias towards existing materialism in our thought and language discussing a non-existent materialism may justify strangeness. I also would argue that philosophers working before the upgrading of the logical apparatus by Frege and Russell are disadvantaged and might well be justified in sounding a bit tangled up because of this lack of apparatus.
A quite different point is that perhaps sometimes deliberate obscurity is a useful survival tactic at the beginning of a theory to hold off the critics whilst a philosopher works out enough of her bearings to be in a position to defend. Sometimes an interesting idea requiring development could be killed off too quickly without this kind of protective cloak. Of course, the temptation to maintain the cloak is a danger and then would be a case of unjustified obfuscation.
Finally, perhaps the charge of obfuscation is unmerited if disciples of the great obscurity produce workof great power and merit, and keep doing so. The cases you cite seem to be of this order. This would then replace an individualistic approach to judging the merit of a philosopher with one based on the merits of a collective activity spawning interesting research programmes. Wittgenstein springs to mind as being someone like this.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Roy: Yes, that's why I said that it should be comprehensible to intelligent, well-educated, and patient readers. Now probably there are complex abstractions not comprehensible even to them -- maybe if we considered trying to talk about tensor multiplication without contemporary mathematical formalisms -- but my view is that human beings fail philosophically well before attaining that sort of thing becomes relevant. (Except maybe in formal logic.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon: Interesting issue. Nietzsche is one of my favorite prose stylists, so I listed him almost reflexively. (I also wanted a German.). But Nietzsche is not always clear and sometimes even deliberately obfuscatory, so on reflection I admit he's a bit of an odd case. I would put Wittgenstein and Zhuangzi in the same category. Perhaps no accident that all three had a complex relationship with conventional approaches to philosophical argumentation.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

All good points, Jackson. But I don't think abstraction or absence of 20th century formalisms or cutting against the presuppositions of everyday vocabulary presents an insurmountable hurdle to clarity. I would advise nurturing a theory in early stages not through obfuscation but rather through exposing it first to a circle of people who will be sympathetic in spirit but critical of details.

Tesla_Girl said...

- simply put, i'm glad someone finally has the nerve to present this viewpoint...brilliantly well said.

Badda Being said...

Let's talk about this in terms of dispositional stereotypes. You have a problem with philosophers who write in excess of your dispositional stereotype for doing philosophy. Willfully or not, they defy what you hold to be the acceptable protocols of philosophical discourse. And your way of dealing with this is to detain their heresy within the defamatory categories of authoritarianism and cowardice. Do you also defame the universe where it fails to conform to your model of it?

Badda Being said...

Read Nietzsche on star friendship. You seem to believe that all ships should remain anchored in the same harbour, or at least never sail from each other's sight.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Badda: I'm sorry to hear you feel that way! I think Kant and the others can handle the abuse, and I think these thinkers have virtues as well as vices. In fact, I was favorably discussing Kant's valorization of autonomy in a roundtable lecture yesterday. I would hope that, like Nietzsche, I am capable of having sharply mixed attitudes toward other philosophers -- which doesn't mean that the full mix needs to be displayed in every comment I make.

Christopher Hitchcock said...

The point has also been made eloquently by John Searle: http://www.pyke-eye.com/view/phil_I_16.html

Christopher Hitchcock said...

I think that philosopher who write in obfuscatory prose often appeal to those suffering from Groucho Marx Syndrome: Something that I can understand couldn't possibly be deep or interesting.

KimmoE said...

It seems to me that Badda Being wants to make this into an issue about the blogger's values. But the blogger did not use the terms "obfuscatory", "authoritarianism" and "cowardice" simply in a derogatory way but in a way that that potentially has validity quite independent of the blogger. For instance, we could choose to define the "obfuscatoriness" of a philosophical text as measurable by how few people claim to understand it and how little those who claim to understand it will agree on the interpretation. Similarly, the "authoritarianism" could be operationalized by the extent to which the text is defended against criticism by reference to authority. And by "cowardice" we could mean the relative scarcity of claims that most readers would agree could be proven wrong. Any philosophical test could then in principle be scored on these three qualities. Different people who agree on these definitions may then have varying opinions of how undesirable these qualities are. (I side with the blogger's opinion that they are quite undesirable.)

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Nietzsche is at times opaque, but I would argue that most (if not all - the man was a genius stylist) of those times were purposeful. Since Nietzsche was somewhat of a determinist, he was not above using rhetorical flourishes or fallacious arguments to persuade the higher individuals who might be reading his works to free themselves from the straightjacket of "morality in the pejorative sense" (as Leiter puts it).

Nietzsche himself recognizes the difficulty of understanding his prose, which is why he wrote: "Of course, in order to practice this style of reading as art, one thing is above all essential, something that today has been thoroughly forgotten—and so it will require still more time before my writings are “readable”—something for which one almost needs to be a cow, at any rate not a “modern man”—rumination."

Badda Being said...

@Eric - I know they can take it, because they're dead. But anyone who is alive and partial to what you find opaque can still feel the chilling effect on creativity. Your ability to speak favourably of what you can penetrate doesn't diminish that effect. There is still the pressure to conform to the stereotype for doing philosophy.

@KimmoE - I don't see how there can be 'independent' validity to the charge of obfuscation without prior access to the noumenal content being obfuscated. Your proposal for measuring obfuscation only measures opacity. Opacity could be the result of obfuscation but not necessarily.

Richard Marshall said...

Eric

My point wasn't that obscurity of expression is justified by abstraction or absence of 20th century formalisms or cutting against the presuppositions of everyday vocabulary presents or the nurturing of a theory, rather, I was trying to explain why you might have obscurity that isn't motivated in any way by authoritarianism or cowardice.
(Nor was I intending to ventriloquise Jackson!)

Sam said...

Very enjoyable read! Although I'm certainly not a philosophy major (I'm a college senior studying developmental biology), after reading this post I could not help but to reply.

Back in high school a few years ago, I had to take a senior year humanities class. Prior to this course, I had never really spent any time with philosophy. I knew about Plato, the Greeks and their literary achievements, and perhaps a few others. In any case, this senior year humanities class exposed a broad spectrum of philosophical concepts, cultures, and people. We covered topics ranging from Plato's Republic and the foundation of Western philosophy to Confucius' Eastern concepts of filial piety and benevolence (upon which much of China's structure is based today!).

Along the course, my teacher led us through some fairly "obfuscatory prose", by your definition. As nascent seniors who had never before seriously attempted to read the likes of Kant, we were downright challenged by much of the prose in the beginning. It was not that we were incapable of understanding the philosophical content -- it was that our progress was fettered by the prose. Our teacher was aware of this problem, and made it quite clear that he did not expect us to write like those particularly guilty of obfuscation. I find it appropriate that one of my initial questions was:

"Why do these writers use a style that seems to purposefully complicate things to the point of obscurity and confusion if their goal is to convey a message and convince me of an idea?"

Indeed, the writers who impacted me the most from that course were the ones who were not "bad writers" (as my teacher would refer to those in question). The words of Nietzsche, for example, I remember initially were difficult to assimilate. In fact, I ALMOST thought he fell into the category of "neat ideas, terrible prose". After getting used to his aphorisms and peculiar style of expression, however, he quickly became my absolute favorite. His words, although a little funky at times, did a great job at communicating meaning, whereas some of the others (such as Kant) were just not as powerful in their modes of expression. Those that did not write as clearly (whether by accident or by intention) did not affect me nearly as much, and I did not appreciate their content nearly as much.

For what it's worth, I feel that it is in a philosopher's best interest to be as clear and concise as possible. In science, when one wishes to convince the uninformed of something, one does so in a very clear and evidence-based way. I understand that this method differs in philosophy, but I think the key of "clarity" is one common factor that should remain. When these unclear writers sacrifice clarity for whatever reason -- intentional or otherwise -- they lose a lot of potential input from alienated "dummies" who couldn't break the impenetrable layer of obfuscatory prose.

Those are my thoughts for now. Once again, thanks for the read -- I really enjoyed getting back in touch with that long-lost humanities course. Now that my ramblings have come to a close, I'm happy to say I'm left with a feeling of further curiosity and interest in philosophy that was not present when I woke up a couple hours ago. Who knows -- maybe I'll muster up the courage to take on a philosophy course as an elective next semester.

I will continue reading your blog, cheers!

Badda Being said...

@Eric - Do you think of obfuscation in terms that oppose interior to exterior? That is, do you think it involves the transmission of ideas through a chain of signifiers that unnecessarily distort the noumenal signified? Or do you think of it in terms of the affectation of dispositional attitudes that deliberately subvert and reconfigure stereotypes? Or...? And why isn't the answer already evident in what you have said here?

Ben said...

" Perhaps they find their prose style shaped by audience responses: When they write clearly, they are dismissed or refuted; when they produce a fog of words that hint of profound meaning underneath, they earn praise. Perhaps thus they are themselves to some extent victims -- victims of a subculture, or circle of friends, or intended audience, that regards incomprehensibility as a sign of brilliance and so demands it in their heroes."

Your closing thought brings to mind this paper: http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/soc/faculty/lamont/Derrida.pdf

I've read quite a bit of philosophy and theory (Lit degree) and this is an idea I always end up coming back to.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the comments, folks! A few further thoughts:

@ Ben: That looks like a very interesting article! I'll have to look at it more carefully later.

@ Badda: I have been wondering what effect my comments might have -- though I can't imagine that they would have very much of an effect on their own, really. It seems to me that there are positives and negatives. Among the negatives is encouraging people to be intellectually lazy when faced with difficult work. Among the positives is helping empower people not to be intimidated by these philosophers -- encouraging them to think of Kant, Hegel, etc., as their intellectual peers, capable of great lapses, which I think is a liberating thought, and true. I have enjoyed your comments on previous posts and am disappointed that my grumpiness in this post seems to be alienating you! (On obfuscation: I think the interior/exterior distinction isn't so helpful if philosophy is a kind of public act of prose-making. I have to confess I haven't fully thought the externality issue through....)

Eight Tons of Geese said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kapitano said...

Bravo.

I've been ploughing through Hegel and arguing with people who think he's brilliant. Their arguments generally fall into two types:

1) "I don't understand Hegel, but I know he's brilliant because thinker X said he was, and I like thinker X."

2) "Hegel had thuddingly obvious insight Y, which no one else ever had, and which is still denied by limited thinkers."

Thinker X is usually Marx, Lenin or Trotsky. If you've read their works, the economics and politics, even if wrong, is not stupid. But when they stray into philosophy, it's just embarrassing.

Thuddingly obvious insights have included:
* One thing can be described by two mutually exclusive oversimplifications.
* States of balance are usually short lived.
* When things change, it can be sudden or gradual.

So, arguments from authority, and wrapping up the obvious in fancy words and pretending it's arcane knowledge. Almost...cult like.

Eight Tons of Geese said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bianca said...

Hello, Eric!
I completely agree with everything you said. I'm studying text complexity/intelligibility regarding translations, and if you think lack of clarity is already a problem in original texts, imagine that equated into translations! It's a nightmare :)

Badda Being said...

@Kapitano re: 'Thuddingly obvious insights have included: One thing can be described by two mutually exclusive oversimplifications.'

Do you place yourself outside the domain of this insight's application when it concerns descriptions of Hegel's thought?

I don't think it's possible to describe anyone's thought without remainder, even your own.

boomer said...

Charitable reasons for obscurity:

(1) Technological: Kant and Hegel were writing a lot of their works by hand, and in any event, writing and revising were not nearly as easy then as they are now. Consider what your first drafts are like (not to say the German greats only winged things). And consider how these technological aspects allow you to be a better reviser and planner (and I think therefore writer) than Kant or Hegel could ever have imagined. Not to mention the quality of life, how it's increased substantially, and how that provides a great background for our philosophical "clarity" that previous authors have not had.

(2) Complexity of a body of work: "Obscurity" is sometimes also synonymous with complexity. Consider how technical any problem in philosophy can get. There are so many terms that are variable, e.g.: concept, belief, desire, object, external, internal, etc. And if we get some brief saying or work of philosophy that seems simple, it's probably because we're ignoring these place-holder words. It's great that analytic philosophers can boil things down to formal equations (almost), but it's deceptive because of how many ideas they assume. Especially with thinkers like Kant and Hegel, you have to trudge through a fair amount of their system (reading at least a half dozen tomes) before you're usually justified in making a judgment (for or against them).

(3) Complexity of the subject: It's kinda cool how contemporary philosophy has taken patterns from logic and the sciences, trying to compartmentalize problems and reduce them to T/F formulations of questions. But this also has huge problems if it's not prefaced or understood in the proper way. A model is easiest to understand when it's simple, when it can illustrate one aspect very clearly. But then the model is limited. So maybe you make a more complicated model to better represent the subject matter, but now the model becomes a bit unwieldy. Kant and Hegel, I think, tend more toward the latter, especially in their systematic works. I've found that in short essays, letters, etc. they can be more casual. But in their systematic works, they try to treat complex issues in complex ways because the subject matter is deserving of that.

(4) Effect on the audience: I think someone said above that complex or difficult works make the audience actively engage with them. You can either be a fanboy or an enemy by making hasty judgments. But then, the fault does lie with the reader. (Maybe your caveat about educated and patient readers covers this point.)

(5) Author's own innovation: Sometimes when you write, especially when dealing with systematic philosophical problems, you have to break the mold and find a new way of expressing stuff. And sometimes that means experimenting with (seemingly?) circular writing, flip-flopping hierarchies, forgoing many conventions. And while these styles may take a while to get used to, I think when they're used by good authors, they serve an intentional and enriching purpose. Once again, it's very cool that we have the developments of formal logic, metaphysics, and the philosophy of language (and other mechanical ways of seeing biology, psychology, etc.), but I would consider a lot of these things mere tools. And I think many philosophical greats can see when the tools won't fit the problem at hand. Just because a hammer's a really good tool doesn't mean you use it for every job. Sometimes you have to create a new tool, which although clumsy and could use refining, works a lot better than the previous ones.

boomer said...

As a closing note: I feel your pain. Reading these guys is rough. And I think in your comments (and in some of your caveats) you've tempered your opinion.

But I think the same exact charges could be made against most philosophy today, especially philosophy that relies on any technical apparatus. **Just because our apparatuses are en vogue and second nature to us does not mean that these same charges of obfuscation and intellectual authoritarianism/cowardice could not be waged against us.** So as a piece of venting, this post is great. But if it's serious, since the accusation is rather serious, it would take extensive proof to attribute these things to any author, so as to avoid many pitfalls of seemingly ad hominem attacks.

Southgate said...

It is truth, you can not competently talk about mathemathical problems without knowledge of mathematics. Competent dealing with philosophy also demands certain knowledge. Great philozophers mentioned above,Kant, Hegel and others,often use terminology that is havy, that became from the nature of the subject and their efforts.
It is the matter of phylosophical discourse.Terminology often implicitly include and represent the phylosophical system.
In the other hand,for example,the book of Jurgen Habermas "Comunicational theory" contains over 400 pages.But his ideas and views, that are I must say briliant, are placed in no more than 40-50 pages.In my discussion with friend of mine we concluded that he probably get paid by the page.enapple

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Boomer: I meant it seriously, but in a fuller treatment I would add qualifications similar to those expressed by you and me and others in the comments section. And yet: Lading it with qualifications and escape clauses, though some qualifications and escape clauses are necessary, makes it easier than it should be, I think, to excuse authors from the charge, if we are motivated to excuse them.

Kant is, to me, a particularly interesting case, since I think his transcendental aesthetic is very interesting and important and since I think there are some cool ideas in his ethics (layered in among what seems to me some horrible obfuscation, such as his claim that all three formulations of the categorical imperative are equivalent). If for no reason other than the aesthetic and the attempted development of a deontological ethics grounded in the structure of rationality, Kant ranks among the most interesting and historically important philosophers of the modern era. So I'm inclined to think that Kant has some very important virtues as a philosopher, alongside his vices. (For more Kantian vices see my post on Kant on masturbation, infanticide, etc.)

Mattheus von Guttenberg said...

90% of this post is isomorphic to the economics profession and the chief architect (if not the one who profited greatest from intentional obscurity) was JM Keynes.

Daniel said...

I'd like to add my voice to Badda Being's here. I see a tension between your point that philosophy IS good prose and your change of obscuratism. It seems to me that your first point is denying that there is some sort of internal content to a philosopher like Hegel or Heidegger, which he is trying with great difficulty to express. I take it that your reasoning for this is basically that there is no such thing as thinking outside language.

But if that's right, then you've deprived yourself of the basic opposition that makes "obscuratism" a bad thing. That is, some measure of 'thought' that is failing to be expressed in this unclear language.

Of course, you could be saying simply that Hegel and Kant fail in expressing their ideas relative to our contemporary philosophical language, but that's hardly an interesting point.

So, what is it that Hegel is failing to do?

I think that this is particularly important since I for one have had the experience of, after much frustration, finally "figuring out" Hegel or Heidegger's language. At that point, I realize that their terminology is not incidental to their project and therefore hazy. It is in fact essential. What Hegel means by Geist or Heidegger by Da-Sein is not immediately clear. But it is crucial that it is Geist in that particular sense that Hegel is talking about. Translate it into another, 'clearer' system, and you lose something. Indeed, it becomes a lot easier to dismiss Hegel.

If Philosophy just is prose, I think we need to take seriously the idea that Hegel's prose *are* the best prose for articulating what he was talking about.

So Badda is right, it is only if you think that Hegel was *really* trying to say something other than what he did say that he can reasonably be charged with obfuscation.

Southgate said...

The great philosophycal system of Kant,Hegel and idealism represent an original effort for overcoming of historical gap in european philosophy between anglosacsonic empirism and french rationalistic philosophy.It colud be understood in historical and cultural context.It`s terminology too. To say that it is "obfuscatory" only because we didn`t understood it from our point of view is not correct. External criticism is not frutful.Don`t get me wrong. i am not neokantian nor hegelian.The system means , at list intention, to include all human knowledge. So,don`t laugh, but from this point of view, even american positive psychology could be explained by dialectic idealism. "Authoritarianism"? perheps. University chear has been no less atractive under german Kaizer than today. And, at last, philosophical texts are also literature forms. So maybe the "fog of words" could be seen from the aesthetic point of view.Some of them, like Nietzches, but also many others has great literature values. Which doesn`t mean they are not philosophicaly founded. "Whan is pretty is glad to God too".

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Daniel: My thought here is that when the words are obscure and don't touch down in public meanings, the content is indeterminate -- not that there is a deeper meaning that is being poorly expressed.

Some novel jargon is often necessary to express novel ideas or to break away from implicit assumptions inherent in existing words. But such novel jargon should be explainable to the patient, intelligent reader. I suspect it is beyond the capacity of human beings to create an architecture of ideas so radically new that they elude clarification and content-giving by the mechanisms of ordinary prose.

Chris Mole said...

Hi Eric,
As you may very well know, psychologists have studied versions of this sort of thing under the title of the "name-ease" effect: There are lots of contexts in which people rate harder to read things as more important, even when the reason for their being harder to read is just that they're printed in a hard to read font.
There's even some studies showing that the effect applies to estimations of the importance of research. See, e.g. 'The "name-ease" effect and its dual impact on importance judgments.' Labroo et al. (Psychol Sci. 2009 ;20(12):1516-22.)

Jackson Davis said...

Ortega y Gasset, who studied Kant under the neoKantians Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp in Marburg from 1908 to 1910, said that while reading Kant he developed a "mental callus" like the one that forms on an elephant's head when it rubs against its cage.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Chris: Yes! Thanks for the reference. There's also a fascinating article on this, specifically in philosophy, by Dan Sperber in 2010 Review of Philosophy and Psychology.

@ Jackson: Terrific metaphor!

Kapitano said...

Hegel was a thinker in the hermetic tradition - he was trying to reground the ideas of Hermes Trismegistus, Jakob Boemer, Bruno, Paracelsus and Meister Eckhart in the new atmosphere of science and rationality.

Masonism, Kabala, Alchemy, Rosicrucianism - these form the furniture of Hegel's world, so it's not surprising those of us who aren't versed in European mystical traditions would have a hard time reading his work.

There is something else about hermeticism though: The view that knowledge gained easily is not wisdom, and thus the habit of writing in deliberately obscure styles. Only students who could wrestle with difficult texts were deemed worthy.

So Hegel is obscure both because his subject matter is unfamilliar, and because he's in a tradition of writing that way.

As to whether there's a third reason - that's he's a lousy stylist too - I'll leave that for you to judge.

Alex said...

Your point it certainly well-taken, and I think some philosophers are simply bad writers, some certainly pretentious and authoritarian, but I think the supposed "obfuscation" of some philosophers is not due to bad writing or profundity, but rather a necessity due to the special subject matter.

Two writers that you mentioned, Heidegger and Derrida, I think have philosophically legitimate reasons for lack of clear prose. In the first case, Heidegger, I will use Being and Time as an example of what I mean. While explicating the meaning of "phenomena" Heidegger points out an interesting paradox: phenomena, in the original Greek meaning, is both "self-showing" and "seeming." So phenomena show themselves often times as an "appearance" or "mere appearance." Therefore, a phenomena's obvious meaning sometimes obfuscates its essential meaning. This is a vital point in Being and Time because there is constant pattern, Heidegger shows, in human understanding to only see the surface (ontic) meaning of our existence. The work of philosophy is to uncover the ontological meaning of these things. For instance, the way in which the things of the world are useful to us (even hammers and doorknobs), point to a deeper existential reality and to the meaning of Being. So mundane objects and experiences can lead to profound insights at the roots of philosophy and existence. The way in which Heidegger writes, I believe, is meant to be difficult, almost uncanny, in order to make us look at mundane phenomena in new ways. This is why he uses mundane words (being, in, home, tools, care, guilt) in highly technical ways. If he used clear, lucid prose, the ideas would be "too easy", so to say. We would again fall prey to the phenomena's "mere appearance." Perhaps, Heidegger could still be clearer, but I think there is a philosophical reason for his style. I, in fact, quite like his prose style. Its amazingly robust and exhaustive when you take time with it.

In the case of Derrida, I think there is again a philosophical reason for his style, not just pretentiousness or authoritarianism. Through the work of "differance" Derrida is seeking to destabilize language. A single signifier does not, for him, have an independent, static meaning. Its meaning is always and infinitely "differed" to other signifiers. Thus his style is a performative demonstrations of the fundamental elusiveness of meaning. Similar to Heidegger, but for somewhat different reasons, Derrida's frustrating prose style is meant to frustrate, is meant to unstable. If he were too clear, again we would think out of habit rather than in new ways. Derrida is capable of being utterly clear, as one can see from interviews and some lectures.

So, although perhaps you do have a point, professor Schwitzgebel, I think that in some cases it is legitimate to use obfuscating language to unhinge our assumptions and make nuanced philosophical points.

Southgate said...

Philosophical qwestioning on lignuistics is by my opinion one of the paths of modern philosophy. It is what I tnihk Habermas had on mind when, concerned about the future of philosophy, he was talking about refleksion, refraksion and dispersion of the Being in modern sciences. One of those is certanly philosophy of psychology,and the choice of professor Shchwitzgebel is certanly not accidentall. Structuralists linguistics of Chomsky is example. But language analisis, I think, shoud be in the best tradidion of Socrates dialemogai, a dialog of those with the virtue,an effort for comming to the real terms, concepts and meanigns. So I would like to think about mentioend Derridas work on lingustics in that manner.

David said...

I'm curious-what are the ideas in the Aesthetic which you think are clear and can be transmitted to intelligent, interested people in non-Kantian language? When I studied the Critique two years ago at masters level I found it just as frustratingly obscure as the rest of the work. (To be clear, this a genuine rather than rhetorical question.)

ABK said...

I agree completely that philosophy happens through public dialogue, which is why I'm posting this comment. But I don't understand the authoritarianism claim. If you want to advance an obscure philosophical view, nobody has to pay attention to you. People pay a lot of attention to Kant, Hegel and Heidegger for whatever reasons, and these philosophers now have the authority of the academy in their favor, but nobody *must* interpret them unless so inclined, and in any case academia isn't Kant's fault. The courage question is slightly harder, but I doubt these guys were afraid of being wrong. Kant wasn't afraid to make very definite statements about some things (i.e. race, unfortunately). More fundamentally, if these guys were sincere (and I can't imagine going to the trouble of writing "Being and Time" insincerely) then they were concerned with getting it right by their own lights, which is the only alternative to dogmatism and takes a lot of courage, I'd say.

Anonymous said...

This is true of plenty of analytic philosophy also.

This Bloody Bastard said...

An interesting counterpoint to this springs from Deleuze's version of the map/territory distinction (a key feature in his theory of rhizomes): writing, he says, is not about narrative, but about cartography -- the world, being rhizome, can never be "xeroxed" onto a book, let alone a linear one. ATP is thus an incomplete book, one that doesn't even dare to speak of progressive chapters homological to progressive levels of understanding a theory.

Set a bit out of context, this means that the fundamental incompleteness of any cartography, any treatise in philosophy or wall-painting, leads an author to one of two options: write in a fiercely dense and polysemic style that one believes to cohere if furiously stared at, or accept defeat and set out to linearize a portion of the theory that fits in a book. This, in turn, can make for a profitable model of writing tens of books (such is the aproach of, say, Christopher Alexander) gradually outlining a grand theory, or it can lead to being stifled and never leaving a minimally complete statement of one's ideas.The latter is the Alfred Whitehead case, I believe; had he the bravado of say, Lacan, he'd push ahead with his mereotopological process theory whether it was crystal clear or not. (As for Lacan, he's the non plus ultra case of an obfuscated "theory" that hides intellectual vacuity and professional incompetence.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I agree that vast complexity of the world forces compromises in writing. Those compromises, fortunately, aren't unlike the limits of our minds. We also can't think or consume a text with hugely parallel polysemous complexity!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

About analytic philosophy: agreed!

XHerakleitos said...

No. A philosopher is not a specialist ... nor is oblique, difficult and/or indirect language necessarily "obfuscatory" and/or authoritarian. "Being is said in many ways" as Aristotle remarked - and the question "what does it mean to speak well" is so damned central to both he and Plato that it can hardly be over-estimated as a maxim. But it does not follow that philosophical prose must be of a sort that immediately registers as cogent in a consumer society. And, insofar as the task at hand may require the oblique, the complex and/or the indirect, it doesn't follow that the mere capacity of a sophist or charlatan to ape any style necessarily and universally dooms such use to scorn.

The consumer society of today celebrates sheer immediacy. No product says "you really have to work your ass of to get me!" And here the author flings out Hegel, intimating that he is "obfuscatory, authoritarian and a coward". Please remove the cork!

If you'd ever struggled to ascertain Hegel, you'd know that he would agree that "Philosophy is not wordless profound insight. Philosophy is prose. Philosophy happens not in mystical moments". Moreover, if you could recognize that your wielding the term 'obfuscatory' was a form of question begging, then you might have that requisite cultivation of character necessary to pursue philosophy... and to read Hegel.

Thomas said...

This is just the argument from personal ignorance. "I don't understand what Kant or Hegel says, therefore he's not saying anything important or coherent." It's one thing to say that "I don't understand Kant, and therefore I am not convinced of his arguments." For those who come from a department where (in my case) Hegel was emphasized from almost the beginning, Hegel (at least parts of Hegel) comes naturally. But I am not so foolish as to call mathematical logic gibberish because I would have to invest a great deal of time to understand it.

The post also does not attend to the relation between form and content. Some philosophical subjects may best be expressed in a manner similar to formal logic, others in a manner similar to poetry. The difficulty, I think, with many readers of Heidegger is that they are woefully ignorant of the canons of poetic thought--I include myself in this category. Further, thinkers like Heidegger (especially) presume a very deep understanding of other philosophers (such as Aristotle). If you haven't spent hours pouring over Aristotle's ethics, for example, you may have difficulty with Being and Time. But then, if you're not willing to put the time in, then it's not for you--it's for those with a better background in the history of philosophy.

In any case, Kant is certainly not that difficult of a thinker to read, and while Hegel may be a little harder, the difficulty of his work has been exaggerated to cartoonish proportions. If you have a decent undergraduate background in the history of philosophy, all you need is a good translation of Phenomenology of Spirit and a good commentary such as Harris, and put the time in, it's not hard.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

XHerakleitos: It seems unlikely we'll come to a meeting of the minds about this!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thomas: I hope the form of my argument isn't quite as silly as you portray it! I have spent some time with Kant and Hegel and various commentaries on them, though not as much as a specialist in the history of philosophy. The general argument of my post is, of course, independent of the specific examples.

Anonymous said...

Great article.

A relevant quote came to mind:

>nebulous verbosity opens a road to the most prestigious academic posts to people of small intelligence whose limitations would stand naked if they had to state what they have to say clearly and succinctly. ~~ Stanislav Andreski, "Social Sciences as Sorcery" (1972)

Anonymous said...

re: Heidegger:

>All in all, Heidegger's philosophy is an example of Herrschaftswissen [roughly translated as 'knowledge of domination'] in the service of a repressive society. It calls on us to abandon concepts for the sake of a promised communion with Being -- but this Being has no content, precisely because it is supposed to be apprehended without the 'mediation' of concepts; basically it is no more than a substantivation of the copula 'is'. ~~ Leszek Kołakowski

Southgate said...

It is our professional obligation to absolve certain philosophical terminology in order to be able to speak competently about it and about it`s subject. At least from the point of the history of philosophy. But mentioned critics speaks that the matters is not just of terminology or even philosophical discourse.

XHerakleitos said...

"It should now be revealed here what those people who do not understand ideas are actually lacking - and candidly enough admit that everything is obscure to them as soon as one goes beyond charts and indices."