Thursday, April 27, 2023

New Voices in Philosophy

guest post by Nick Riggle

Philosophy is a famously rigid and complex discipline full of daunting and difficult prose. As a sign of this, people have wondered whether philosophy is literature. Literature is creatively ambitious, figurative and fun, wildly imaginative and associative. Philosophy, in contrast, is often hyperbolically literal, formulaic, painstakingly logical, tortuous and so often unfun.

But even in a tradition as strict as analytic philosophy, fun can be had, imaginations can run wild, and style can reign. If there is anything true in the complaint that philosophy lacks the quality of literature, it is that philosophy often lacks voice.

What does it mean for a “voice” to be present in works of philosophy? Voice is a vague concept in literary theory and it is often defined in a way that is indistinguishable from the typical definition of literary style. Here is how an expert defines voice: “A writer’s voice is the way his or her personality comes through on the page, via everything from word choice and sentence structure to tone and punctuation.” And here is philosopher Jenefer Robinson’s influential definition of literary style: “I shall argue that style is essentially a way of doing something and that it is expressive of personality. …what count as the verbal elements of style are precisely those elements which contribute to the expression of personality.” If you’d rather not take a philosopher’s word for it, here is poet Frank O’Hara: “Style at its highest ebb is personality.”

But voice and style are not the same. Literary style is the expression of the ideals the writer has for their writing. The writer who values economy of expression and rhythm has a different literary style from the writer who values complexity of thought and detailed emotional insight. Writing that follows strict formulae or rules of composition (e.g. writing legal contracts or instruction manuals) has difficulty achieving style because the rules crowd out the expression of literary values. Trying to inject one of these anti-style genres with style is a recipe for literary disaster. Or worse: witness WeWork’s failed IPO filing.

Voice comes from the perspective the writer inhabits as a writer. A writer’s voice is that of a single mother in Southern California expressing the difficulties of raising two children. She might do this through a poetic economy of expression or through a complex and emotionally nuanced account. A writer’s voice is that of a Zoomer navigating romance through DMs and dating apps, or a bank executive worried about the economy. Literary voice is, in this way, personal, where literary style is artistic.

Of course voice and style are not entirely separate. They can interact and influence each other. A writer’s artistic ideals might be informed by the perspective that drives their voice, and a writer’s voice can be shaped and inflected by their style. Some aesthetic writing practices encourage the former (rap, or romantic poetry with its ‘spontaneous overflow of passionate feelings’) and others tend toward the latter (Flaubert, Proust, Ernaux, French Writing in General?).

But there is an important difference between voice and style when comes to connecting with a reader. While style can captivate and impress, voice is a locus of love. By conveying the specificity of a perspective, literary voice forges connections and grounds affection between reader and writer, where people can communicate elusive truths about the world and their experiences. In doing so, voice has the power to create literary intimacy.

Although style and voice can interact in mutually supportive ways, when it comes to philosophy, style and voice tend to conflict. Philosophers are encouraged to adopt an ideal of philosophical writing that inhabits an impartial or impersonal perspective. Philosophers abstract from all real-world roles and particular perspectives and write from the place that Thomas Nagel called “the view from nowhere”—speaking from a general ‘we’, making claims about what ‘one’ does, structuring the prose by the general strictures of logic, writing to a faceless opponent.

If literary voice comes from inhabiting in writing a particular role and perspective, then a common ideal of philosophical writing amounts to aspiring to a kind of voicelessness, where everyone tries to write (and read) from the placeless perspective of a General Philosopher. Philosophy thus tends to lack that source of writer-reader connection and affection, and so it often overlooks those elusive truths we can communicate by developing literary intimacy.

The ideal of voiceless writing is a kind of style, and since style and voice interact, the philosophical ideal of writing can be quite literally self-sabotaging—trying to bring a voiceless self forward in writing in ways that clearly present a vocal self. Often that voice is simply a product of its time—the way that Kant, for example, comes across as a very specific dude in a very specific set of circumstances—revealed in various time-stamped expressive devices, e.g. the strategies the philosopher deploys to attain voicelessness.

When we suppress the power of voice in philosophical writing, we tilt philosophy toward voiceless questions that ask for perspective-free answers, and in doing so we encourage philosophers to lose their voices. This is an expressive problem in itself, but the problem is exacerbated when we also care about making philosophy a more diverse practice. Simply gaining membership to an elite club does not mean you can really speak your mind. And a philosopher’s particular identity can deeply influence their philosophical concerns without shifting their writing voice an inch out of the view from nowhere. Without diversifying voice in philosophical writing, we risk losing a source of the intimacy that can communicate the important and elusive truths philosophers possess. To bring voice into philosophy, we need to be able to step out of the view from nowhere and land somewhere, in our own bodies, times, and lives.

History has shown that philosophy can inhabit a wide range of literary forms in the service of voice—novels, letters, memoirs, dialogues, confessions, plays, and poetry [as I was editing this piece Helen De Cruz posted this]—and past philosophers have effectively developed voice in their works. Unfortunately, perhaps the most famous and widely taught example is Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy, where, to me at least, he at best semi-convincingly deploys the voice of a man desperate for knowledge to encourage the reader to cultivate their own doubt. There are more effective examples in Montaigne, Emerson, de Beauvoir, Arendt, Cavell, and others. In Either/Or, Kierkegaard writes from the perspective of two radically different worldviews to get his readers to inhabit them and appreciate their differences. Sor Juana’s The Answer and Friedrich Nietzsche’s entire oeuvre scream with voice.

Some contemporary philosophers have tiptoed outside of the confines of academic writing. Most recently, Kieran Setiya’s Life is Hard adopts the voice of a man who suffers chronic pain and of a philosopher who wants to understand the place of pain in a life well lived. Chloe Cooper Jones’s Easy Beauty combines a philosopher’s discernment with deeply personal, beautiful, and humorous insights into her own disability. Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s impassioned voice in Elite Capture is blazing with his own sense of care and conviction. My recent book This Beauty develops the voice of a man who had a challenging childhood, who is becoming a father, and who sincerely wants to understand what, if anything, makes life worth living so that he has something sincere and thoughtful to say to his sons. Philosophers like John Kaag, Anthony Appiah, Agnes Callard, and Alexander Nehamas prove that philosophers can write from places of pain, oppression, loss, joy, need, and love. And in doing so they show how philosophy can handle deep and difficult issues in ways that bring to the fore the humanity they have forged by living and confronting life in the actual world as unusually reflective and intelligent people.

Let’s unleash the literary power of philosophy and let our voices sing.

[image source]


Anonymous said...

Reminds me of Plato’s(?) “There is an ancient* quarrel between poetry and philosophy “. *even then? “Poetry” often tries to “hide” the truth. Philosophy is usually expected to present it as clearly as possible.

Arnold said...

Can Voice be subject to two sides of the same coin-experiencings... inner and outer voice inquiries...

Would hearing precede voice...more please, thanks...

Tim Smith said...

To the knod to Helen de Cruz's tweet, which is excellent, I would add Artful Truths: The Philosophy of Memoir by de Bres.

I'm confused with the conflation of genre and voice. It seems Nick is as well.

Anonymous said...

I like this a lot, but I feel like it comes across as if the only way to have a distinctive voice that connects the writer with the reader is to write from a personal perspective (or imagined personal perspective, as in Kierkegaard). I would say that philosophers like David Lewis, Jerry Fodor, or Daniel Dennett are adopting a sort of view from nowhere, yet have very strong voices. Maybe you aren’t engaging with them as particular situated people, but you can certainly feel how they are very particular *thinkers*.

Nick Riggle said...

I agree, though, keeping their strong writing styles to one side, I think we don't get a sense of their voices from a paper or two but rather from knowing quite a lot about how they think. Maybe what's going on is that over time we develop sense of their *intellectual* perspective, a kind of 'thought voice' that comes through once we're familiar with their arguments, ideas, methods, etc.

Nick Riggle said...

Re: TIm Smith

Thanks for your kind comment on an earlier post! And yes to de Bres's book.

I'm not sure I follow your confusion about genre and voice. Was there something in the post that seemed to conflate the two? I tend to follow Walton's "Categories of Art" when thinking about genre. Voice is a rather different literary device--similar voices can show up in different genres; difference voices in the same; etc.

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Here is how I see it: First, is philosophy supposed to BE literature? I don't think so. In a similar fashion, I don't regard religious texts as literature. That was not, as far as I can know, the point of their exegesis. They were intended to change hearts and minds; convert infidels, save sinners. But, if, and only if, potential adherents could read. I digress. Is science writing literature? No, it is conveyance of information that may be practically useful, should readers accept and apply the advice. Naysayers, ground up in religious dogmas; philosophic tenets, find the logic and empiricism of science tedious,untenable,facts notwithstanding. It is ironic that Rorty wrote of contingency, irony and solidarity in one essay. He was a consummate pragmatist though. We prefer the more useful; eschew the less...

Tim Smith said...

@Nick De Cruz refers to genre, and you point to her to talk about voice. I am confused, and confusion is not unheard of; I spend most of my time in that state.

You and de Bres are touching the same elephant. There is a call for voice that grows. Not just in memoir, and yet memoir grows from it.

Whether philosophy is an anti-style genre or not, I don't know. My concern is that two philosophers walk into a bar where the crack is mighty. One speaks with a voice that gets served, while the other doesn't. This voice thing is getting serious when it impacts the distribution of beer.

NIL money flowing to sexy post-high school gymnasts, Ms. Frizzle's driving on the magic school bus, and Tucker Carlsen's firing have me a whirl. These are all matters of style, content, and genre. Am I the only one confused? Maybe just those who read my words.

That you describe your voice in a one-sentence memoir makes me even more confused - though I've read some of your stuff, and it's a pretty good description. Voice was, to me, the interplay of Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the subtle but authentic mention of Robert Sapolsky's wife giving a road rager a lollipop, or the canceled humor of Woody Allen - which I won't repeat but will never forget.

Philosophy is writing about voice and views, if I understand you correctly. We need to fess up to our voice to hear others. But do we need to express these views with our personal voice?

What about bad actors? I can't get them out of my list of concerns for any subject nowadays. Might they warp their voices to brace their ill-gotten claims?

I need some clarification and could use help. I will read Walton and follow as you see fit, but voice is a part of genre, and I'm still determining where to express it and how.

Simon Evnine said...

Just to add another to the recent number of philosophy books in unusual formats (and in this case, with multiple voices), there is my own A Certain Gesture: Evnine's Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

I was unceremoniously undressed today, on another blog concerning a social issue. The critic is unknown to me, as far as I CAN know. The criticism was over my 'waffling' and use of 'five dollar' words. It was short and sounded bitter. Just as the critique had been, I leveled a brief retort, asking that author: why not say something about the post, rather than attacking me? This could be interesting, insofar as I know nothing of the person's interests, preferences or motives. So far as I CAN know. True, I might dismiss the ire as mere trollishness. But I don't have all the facts. And can't. So it is, with voices in the sky. Glad to see old acquaintances branching out.

Anonymous said...

I have been searching for my 'voice' for years. A style personal to me, my signature, the way I put words together. Now into my fourth University degree, this one in philosophy I find myself up against a hide-bound discipline. One that wants charity first, then argument back and forth without any organic flow to the words. It's a tad disappointing. Thank you Nick I enjoyed your piece.

Tim Smith said...

@ Nick, I did read Walton. I don’t think that helps distinguish voice from genre or category, but we can align on terms and approach. I also read an interview of his with Hans Maes and thumbed through a collection, ‘Art, Representation, and Make-Believe’ by Sonya Sedivy. There is very little on voice or well-written prose about what you propose here. I can see why you are professionally interested in aesthetics and the opportunity it offers.

There are many guernicas in philosophy, and they sometimes spawn new genres with healthy expressions of voice. What you speak to here is not health; we can align on that.

De Bres moved me to read more memoirs, and now with your post, I’m reconsidering voice, though not in analytic philosophy. I’m not sure we need representatives in all genres. That grad students resonate with your post speaks well enough to crimes in mentorship and curricula, and there are worse crimes a profession can commit in a generation.

My contact with philosophy was initially given some free reign, but my writing was done mainly by hand and codified with healthy applications of whiteout. Now we pass white papers back and forth, mostly centering on what works and is possible. Lately, these have taken a philosophical twist that has lit fires. The progress could be faster when it comes to reflecting an authentic voice. The last thing I want in a white paper is voice, ironically. That goes for mathematical proofs, and sometimes form can be enlightening there. Reading a proof or a mathematical inquiry, I want a conclusion in the form of a sentence with the proper units and a healthy reference to the original expression and problem statement.

I’m still confused, but this is probably not the best place to unwind. I’ll read on. I think you are touching a much larger object than I comprehend for the moment. Voice is quantifiable, and genre is slippery. My comment here was not meant to be unkind, and I think you and I are confused. I’m comfortable with that for now.

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

I waited awhile to suggest this, seeing if anyone might offer it up for examination. One or two comments stepped close but, well, here goes: is there ever a time when literature is philosophy? I think so. Nashville's whale tale fairly screams philosophy. Probably also Gone With the Wind, albeit via emotional melodrama. These sorts of works may be as close as someone gets to considerations of philosophy in her everyday life. It is not so awful though.

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Sorry. I don't know where Nashville came from. I was not thinking about Tennessee.

Tim Smith said...

@ Paul - this is the confusion of Genre and Voice you speak to. Philosophy is not literature or art, at least not entirely. The project of Philosophy, in part, is to guide us to the good life. That is art. Philosophy also shows us what is true. That is the part that must be void of voice.

Truth can come through literature. Saying Margaret Atwood is not a philosopher will gain little traction anywhere. She is one of the greats. But to blanket a call for voice to an analytic paper... IDK.

Nick might be the one to parse and write this more clearly. There is a book here in this blog, chock-full of voice.

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Hello, friend Smith. I know that you know me and vice versa,to infinitude. If you are getting comfortable here, know I too have left California. I like it here better. Even with trolls---who seem to be everywhere. Well, enough nostalgia.We will have fun, yet.

I hope

Tim Smith said...

@Paul - Eric has an active blog and excellent guest posters. Eric and I don't agree on much though. I liked Nick's book, however - 'On Being Awesome: A Unified Theory of How Not to Suck.' You and I might have differed on that one, but he talks a bit about mean people there. I also like the series he has done here on Aesthetics. I have yet to read too much on that, but it does take a good chunk of mental real estate daily.

At work, we reviewed an org survey which was supposed to be anonymous, to give management feedback. You could hear voice throughout, to the point of outing people in inappropriate ways. Rarely do I find time spent reading philosophy unrewarding, and often it applies immediately.

Nick is edgy on these issues.

I'm not married to any one site and have other projects, but yeah... there is fun to be had all over.

Take care, Paul.

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

That is right ,Tim. The entire other post we are aware of, concerning awesome, left me less than awed. I think the proponents were well-intentioned, but much, or most, of what is proclaimed as awesome, or, awesomeness, is not. In my view. Another thinker, associated with the university, whose blog we commented on, went to Georgia, later talking about credences. That was questioned, as well. I am not up-to-date there, but do not feel it important. I butt heads here. A lot. It has been, overall, a better, more diverse, excursion.
Later, then.