Thursday, September 17, 2020

Why Writing Philosophy Is Hard (and Why Every Historical Philosopher Focuses on the Wrong Things)

The number of true sentences is infinite. This is why writing philosophy is hard.

As if to prove my point to myself, I'm having some trouble choosing this next sentence.

With the exception perhaps of fiction, philosophy is the most topically wide open and diversely structured of writing forms. Literally every topic is available for philosophical inquiry. What rules and principles then guide how you write about that topic as a philosopher? Respect for truth is one guide -- but then again not always. Quality of argumentation is another -- but then again, philosophy is often less about presenting an argument than articulating a vision.

This issue arose acutely for me yesterday -- a day spent amid a flurry of invisible revisions (that is, making then reversing changes) on the book I'm drafting. What needs to be said explicitly? What can you pass over in silence? What can you assume the reader will accept without further support, and what requires defense or explanation? I find myself adding sentences of support or clarification, then later deleting them, then adding different ones, then expanding those -- then deleting the whole business, then deciding I really do want such-and-such part of it after all....

Here's a sentence from a paragraph I've been working on:

The experience of pain, for example, might be constituted by one biological process in us and a different biological process in a different species.

Is this something I can just say, and the reader will nod and move along? Or do I need to explain it? What exactly do I mean by an "experience of pain"? What is a "biological process"?  How much is built into the notion of "constituted"?  In philosophical writing -- unlike in most scientific writing -- phrases like this are very much open for challenge and inquiry. Indeed, the substance of philosophy often is just inquiring into issues of this sort and challenging the assumptions that lie in the background behind our casual use.

Suppose the meaning is clear enough: I don't need to explain it. I might still need to defend it. Although the sentence (variously interpreted) expresses majority opinion in philosophy of mind, not all philosophers agree. Indeed not all philosophers even agree that the external world exists. We can disagree about anything! It's perhaps the most special and obvious talent of philosophy as a discipline. (Wouldn't you agree?) For example, maybe species that are biologically sufficiently different (octopuses? snails?) don't really feel pain, and the species that do feel pain all have basically the same neural underpinnings? Or maybe there's no good understanding of "constitution" such that pains can be constituted by anything? Maybe the very idea of "consciousness" is broken and unscientific?

In philosophy, it seems, I can always reasonably choose to explain my terms and concepts more clearly (that's so central to the philosopher's task!), and I can always reasonably choose to defend my claims at greater length (since philosophers can challenge and doubt literally anything). My explanation will then in turn invoke new terms that might need explaining and my defense will rely on further claims that might need further defense. An infinite regress threatens -- not just an ordinary infinite regress, but a many-branching regress in which I suspect, eventually, every true sentence could eventually become relevant in some way somewhere.

For this reason good philosophical writing requires careful attunement to your audience. When every term is potentially requires clarification and every claim potentially requires defense, you need to make constant judgment calls about how much clarification and how much defense, in what dimensions and directions. To do this well, you need a good sense of your readers: what will make them prickle and what they'll be happy enough, in context, to let pass.

Students and outsiders to the discipline will rarely have a good sense of this. How could they? This is not because they are bad philosophers (though of course they might be) but because philosophical thought and writing is so open-textured.

Let me try to express this with an illustration.

Suppose, to simplify, that every idea has four (imagine only four!) respects in which it could reasonably be clarified or defended, and that each clarification or defense in turn admits four further clarifications and defenses. The structure of all possible ways to articulate your idea then looks like this:

[click to enlarge and clarify]

Of course you can't write that! So here's what you write:

[click to enlarge and clarify]

You go deep into clarification/defense 1b, skip 2 altogether, add a superficial remark on 3, deeply illuminate two aspects of 4a and a bit of 4c.

Unfortunately, the reader wanted a deep dive into two aspects of 2c and a little bit on 4:

[click to enlarge and clarify]

The reader finds your treatment of 1b and 4 tedious. Why are you spending so much time on that, when the issue that's really on their mind, what's really bugging them, is 2, especially 2c, especially these sub-ideas within 2c? 2c is the obvious objection! It's the heart of the matter, of course of course!

If you come from the same philosophical subculture as the reader -- if you're soaking in the same subliteratures, admiring the same great thinkers, feeling pulled by the same sets of issues -- then the shape of what you include and omit is much likelier to match the shape of what the reader feels you need to include (to have a good treatment) and omit (since they're not going to read the booksworths of material that could be written as subsections of basically any philosophy article).

This is the art of writing philosophy. It's a culturally specific knack, acquired mainly by immersion. It is so hard to do well! It's part of what makes philosophical work from other times and places often seem so wide of the mark, difficult to understand, and poorly argued.

Okay, I know what you're going to object now. (I think I know.) If all the above is true, how is it that we can appreciate philosophers as culturally distant as Plato and Zhuangzi? They certainly didn't write with us in mind!

Here are my two answers.

First, at least some historical figures played a role in shaping our sense of what needs and does not need clarification and defense, or (the more minor figures) were shaped by others in their era who also shaped us.

Second, and I think my stronger answer: This is why history of philosophy is creative and reconstructive. We reach toward them rather than the other way around. We allow ourselves to sink into their worldview where issue 2 is just taken for granted and where 4a is what really requires long, detailed development. And if 2 seems to us to require serious attention, we develop a speculative treatment of 2 on their behalf, piecing together charitably (maybe too charitably) what we think they would or must have thought about it.


If you enjoy my blog, check out my recent book: A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures.


SelfAwarePatterns said...

I can appreciate the language difficulty. I know even in my little amateur analyses that I often struggle to adequately express things, and I've been called on a particular phrase many times by someone who thought it needed more clarification, or who disagreed with what they took to be its implications.

And I don't know that it's just in philosophy. It seems to happen in science pretty often. I think about the terminological mess in affective neuroscience. When someone says "emotion", that phrase can have a number of different meanings, from the lower level reflexive reaction, to the primal feeling of that reaction, to the fully developed feeling integrated with autobiographical memories. A lot of animal researchers mean the first version but a lot of people reading them take them to mean the final one.

On the other hand, I think a lot of philosophers lean on this issue at times. Thomas Nagel makes no real effort (at none that I can recall) to clarify what he means by "something it is like". He simply depends on his readers to know what he means. Many are satisfied with it and take him to have said something precise and profound. Many others, like me, take it to be hopelessly ambiguous and therefore somewhat meaningless.

The same is true for many philosophers who lean on phrases like "phenomenal consciousness" or "subjective experience" without making any effort at clarification. I know it can be argued that clarification may mean invoking some theory about these concepts, but it's the very fact that so many different things could be mapped to those phrases that gives them a lot of their mystery.

So I'd rather see more than fewer clarifications, but maybe organized and labeled in such a manner that I can pick and choose which justifications I need to deep dive on, and where each detailed section doesn't depend on having read every section before it, unless absolutely unavoidable.

Duane said...

People reviewing submissions for journals should really keep in mind that people are allowed to pick different branches to focus on than the ones they think are most important. Sure, there are gaps and errors that almost anyone familiar with a topic would latch onto, and such a gap/error is a good reason to reject a submission, but it seems like there are far too many reviewers whose reasons for rejection boil down to "You should have written a different paper, the one that follows the branches *I* think are important/interesting". Another pragmatic thought: in many sub-disciplines, there are (or at least it seems to me there are) certain circles of people talking to each other (literally and in published work) who have a consensus on what topics warrant deep examination, and this creates a bad barriers: if you want to talk about something on the topic but not the chosen sub-topics, it's very difficult to wrest any written conversation in the direction you prefer. There won't be any secondary lit (by anyone important anyway) on the questions you're asking, and reviewers and editors will be inclined to reject submissions because what you wanted to write on doesn't neatly engage with what the big-wigs are talking about.

Arnold said...

Very young in the 1960s, some of us were inclined toward ways for self knowledge, and I thought, then, that's what all philosophy was about...

Ways (fakir, yogi, monk) come to find out, are about learning to understand yourself while practicing learning to understand...

What I like about Erick's Splintered Mind is its questioning of our pretentiousness...

And thanks again...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

SelfAware: Yes, I agree, it does arise in all writing. I think it's especially acute in philosophy. On Nagel and similar: There's of course a legitimate question of whether those terms do need to be explained more (given the expected audience and/or possible misunderstandings/misuses/ambiguities). Maybe so!

Duane: I agree that these are serious problems. You can see how they might arise on the model I've offered, even if all parties have good will and are excellent philosophers.

Arnold: Thanks!

Philosopher Eric said...

Though I agree with SelfAware that science has intense struggles regarding clarification as well, and Duane that reviewers of all stripes should tend to inject biases, I’ll also submit that prof Eric has displayed philosophy itself to be extra challenging. I’ll take this premise in another direction however.

It was only perhaps four centuries ago that natural philosophy (now known as “science”) branched off from what educated westerners over the past two and a half millennia might simply have referred to as “philosophy”. So if we take the subject matter which scientists withdrew from philosophy, then what’s left? It seems to me that modern philosophy can be reduced to heading of metaphysics (or principles of existence), epistemology (or principles by which we might effectively explore our domains), and axiology (or principles of value, commonly further branched into ethics and aesthetics).

That said, as well as that agreed upon principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology have gone missing so far, to me it seems appropriate for the professor to reduce his field with a statement like “…the art of writing philosophy. It's a culturally specific knack, acquired mainly by immersion.” What else could it be given these circumstances? And though many use such observations to deride philosophy as a waste of time in general (as if it’s a competitor challenging “team science”), I am not among them. It is my hope that metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology, each explored as “art”, will reign endlessly in the halls of academia.

In addition however, I believe that another community of associated professional must become established. This community’s only mission would be to develop a respectable group of professionals with generally accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology. I speak of a community with no formal use for “philosophy as art”, or at least not in that specific setting.

Then if scientists were to find resulting principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and/or axiology useful for their own work, this perhaps small community of “agreement philosophers” should tend to grow. Without effective principle of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology, I believe that our mental and behavioral sciences will continue to find progress challenging.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Philosopher Eric: Another way to think about how disciplines peel off of philosophy: Once there are generally agreed upon principles, norms, and methods it becomes a discipline of its own and NOT philosophy. Philosophy is what continues to resist such consensus!

Quentin Ruyant said...

I think it's a rather faithful description to some extent, but not entirely.

First, I believe that many times we can reach a point where clarifications are not required (objectively!) because they don't make any difference for the larger point: they're all more or less functionnally equivalent. That's why it's so important to keep the broad picture in mind when writing: so as to avoid getting lost in useless details that are not in service of the broad picture.

Then I also believe that the points that really need defense are the ones that are notoriously challenged in the contemporary literature. Non-philosophers are generally more charitable anyway, so current state of the art ("consensus") in academic philosophy is the most precise measure of what needs to be defended or not. Yet unchallenged points are acceptable by default: they might be scrutinized by unconvinced readers later, good if your writing generates new discussions, but the writer cannot be blamed for not defending them.

So yes, knowing what is worth clarifying and defending requires immersion, but I wouldn't say it's all relative to the reader as you seem to imply: I think there's something objective about it, which lies in current state of the art and a correct appreciation of the functional role of concepts for the broad picture, or at least, there's a fuzzy, but objective discursive optimality that can be approched.

Philosopher Eric said...

Well yes professor, that has been true in the past. At this early stage let me also moderate your assertions so that you don’t become belittled as a proponent for full “scientism”! We must not be perceived as people who desire metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology to be removed from philosophy by means of an ever expanding institution of science. To me it would be a horrible crime if there weren’t future professionals actively working on the same philosophical questions which have been pondered for millennia. I speak of the subject of your post, or “hard stuff” which demands great dedication and aptitude. That should never become any more settled than any other variety of art.

Additionally however we should need a new community whose only goal is to develop effective principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology from which to do science more effectively than its done today. From here the reason that certain fields have become “hard sciences”, is because they’re naturally less vulnerable to associated voids. Effective principles of axiology, for example, simply should not help us do physics better. The property of “value” remains central to fields such as psychology however. Thus in order for psychology to become a “harder” form of science, we should need effective principles of axiology from which to work (not to mention metaphysics and epistemology).

I’m not actually making this claim as an uninterested party. I propose four principles of philosophy from which to potentially better found the institution of science, and so help its softer varieties harden up. Let’s take the noted assertion that you’ve been mulling for your proposed new book:

“The experience of pain, for example, might be constituted by one biological process in us and a different biological process in a different species.”

I do actually consider this to need some unpacking. I’ll also present my single principle of axiology so that you can unpack it such that it either does or doesn’t conform.

My principle states that there is a single variety of physics by which qualia (or consciousness itself as I define the term), becomes produced. Here qualia should not be considered “brain”, but rather something which may be produced by a brain if it implements the proper physics. It’s somewhat like light should not be considered “lightbulb”, but rather may be produced by such a mechanism when current properly flows between the electrodes.

So when you say that different biological processes may produce the qualia of pain in different organisms, are you saying that there should be different ways to attain the same physics? If so then your assertion remains consistent with my principle. Or conversely you might be saying that there should be countless varieties of physics by which qualia become produced. Either way it seems to me that without a basic axiological premise from which to build, whether or not it’s mine, our mental and behavioral sciences can only remain “soft”.

Wes Anderson said...

The web has this same structure. Perhaps we should be teaching ourselves html+css and publish webpages with hyperlinks rather than "linear" papers. Of course, something like the SEP does this to an extent, but maybe it's not enough.

Matthew said...

I am an amateur philosopher with some training (MA, 1980 SFSU). Read much, and write a little though over the years it has piled up. Most of what I see from what I take to be good philosophical writing is the authors state clearly up front on what sub-threads they will focus and what they will treat lightly or ignore. They will also state clearly what assumptions they carry forward from the well known controversies in the field. Armed with this information a reader can decide whether they wish to follow the arguments any further. You cannot anticipate the interests or presuppositions of every reader.

Secondly in my writings (I am not beholden to publishing in any scholarly journals) on a subject (see I see myself as an editorialist rather than a scholar. For example, I write much on the philosophy of mind and I *expect* that the people reading me are (a) interested in PoM, and (b) are read-up on the subject. So in writing about "simulation scenarios", instead of giving a formal reference I might say something like: "I am thinking here of what Chalmers' has called a 'metaphysical simulation'". I expect my readers to know to what I refer. This is not (I realize) acceptable scholarship. But is it acceptable editorializing?

Unknown said...

I think it is acceptable editorialising. It's also your blogspot. I'm sure in your more serious attempts to publish you are more charitable with how you write and cite others.

It's also on us as the reader to charitably read you and put what you say into it's strongest format that we might carry on the conversation than get hung up on the details.

I could say "Oh but you've clearly not thought of this thing said by this person" when in reality, you have, you just disagree.

Your time is yours and you have creative freedom within set rules to different contexts. (Structural context mechanics).

It's not like I'm incapable of reading you charitably, and then respectfully asking you clarifying questions if there is something too unclear to be charitable with.

Personal note: I'm really enjoying your writing. This is the second piece I've read. I enjoyed the Psychology of Philosophy piece too. Made me feel less alone! You aren't the only one whom has noticed the taboo of Psychologising within academic philosophy circles. Especially when you start bringing up Epistemic Contextualism. And so the sparks do fly, censorship comes down and ad hom is all of a sudden viewed as this brilliant new tool of "logic" that gets to shut down the conversations raised by Stewart Cohen and the like. Fierce rebels that they are.

Hope to be able to speak with you soon. Best and sincere wishes.


Sara said...

What a great post! I have been trying to explain this same problem without as much clarity. I will use this link from now on! I would like to add that if one is from a different culture and has a different philosophical heritage this problem becomes very pronounced. I have had this experience in seminars over and over that I cannot direct the discussion towards the conceptual path that I find most urgent. On the other hand, what everyone else finds really pressing really surprises me.
This is one of the ways that doing philosophy is hard for cultural minorities, but it does not come up in diversity-related discussions that often.

Denver Kosch said...

I agree very much in the issue of writing philosophy. This is actually an issue that I have wanted to write about before, ironically. As an amateur undergrad student, I love philosophy, but the verbal discussion always flows better than that of the writing portion of anything, as writing is so linear and it is challenging to follow a path similar to the flow charts you made.