Monday, 10 August 2009

Clarity and Philosophy

I recently had a disagreement with Nigel Warburton on Twitter concerning the topic of the relationship between clarity and obscurity in philosophy. Warburton tweeted that you should never trust philosophers who can't explain their ideas to intelligent people. That this statement is not just a one-off is confirmed by the fact that his blog is headlined by a quote from John Searle that states: "If you can't say it clearly, you don't understand it yourself". Warburton appeared surprised that anyone would challenge these comments and suggested, in response to my arguing against these views, that it would be odd to favour obscurity.

The problem with the statements by Warburton is manifold and goes further than responding merely to him. It would be possible to begin by arguing that it is not an appropriate relationship to any philosopher to "trust" them. That is, that trust involves a relation in which one responds to the integrity of someone and perhaps questions of integrity should not be at the forefront of responding to a philosopher. After all, there is nothing about moral qualities that determines the interest of thought one way or the other. This might be thought too sweeping though since surely there are some cases where one might say that revelation of some sort of moral defect prohibited serious consideration? The classic example would be Heidegger's relationship to the Nazi Party but then shouldn't we include the anti-semitism of Frege as well in such evaluations? This kind of point effectively seems to get us nowhere when considering the worthiness or otherwise of contributions to philosophy.

The second question concerns the appeal to the verdict of "intelligent people" whoever they might be. Presumably what is meant here is the notion of the "intelligent public" being people of a certain standard of education, who, despite perhaps knowing little or no philosophy, could hear something and have a basis for evaluating its importance. It's odd that this kind of standard should be invoked at all with regard to philosophy. After all, could the Principia Mathematica meet it? Is it plausible to claim that Book Zeta of Aristotle's Metaphysics could really fit it? Or that the Critique of Pure Reason which Kant declares "could never be popular" could be held to such a standard? All these works involve a technical vocabulary that has to be learnt to read them and require serious study over a long period to really be responded to with any seriousness. Nor are they alone in this as who, after all, could even claim to have got the real point of John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding without a lengthy period of reading?

Why, given that the evidence of need for continuous and dedicated study for philosophical works to be responded to, is there even the pretense that ones of any quality could easily be retailed to a general (albeit "intelligent") public? The reason appears to reside in the citation from Searle that Warburton gives, the impression that there is some form of clarity that philosophy needs to aspire to and which can be held as a test for "good" philosophy. What this clarity consists in and how it is to be measured are rarely, if ever, themselves articulated. The citation of Searle reminds some of us of one notorious occasion in which the quest for "clarity" was itself exposed to some very detailed and difficult questions, the occasion of the "debate" (if such it really was) between Searle and Derrida. The original spark of this was Derrida's piece "Signature Event Context", part of which included a response to J.L. Austin and concerned, indeed, questions about the conditions of communication. John Searle's response to this piece suggested a series of failures on Derrida's part to understand J.L. Austin and, in return, in Limited Inc Derrida demonstrates in serious detail all the ways in which his original article had been misrepresented by Searle. This dispute is one of the sources of Searle's more emphatic commitment to a "clarity" that he had apparently defended in a dispute in which he failed to show the standards of clarity that he was the the titular defender of.

Calls for clarity in philosophy are in themselves obscure since underneath them is a view of what such clarity has to consist in. It must involve the ability to translate thought into a general common medium whose own conditions of possibility are never made transparent. There is evaluation here that does not speak its own name and which can be traced back, in Anglo-Saxon countries, to an implicit approval of a standard of "common sense" that has its own institutional and historical conditions, conditions that the advocates of such a standard of intelligibility have no interest in making apparent. Only under the condition that such conditions can themselves be made stakes of a debate would be it possible to address the question of whether some philosophers are, or are not, more "obscure" than others.


Anonymous said...

I like to think of clarity as ‘one path among many’ to a particular destination, perhaps the easiest to follow, most direct path. Whether the journey is adequately represented by the shortest and most direct path and whether this route presents the truth of the distance between here and there is worth consideration. Does the easiest path enable one to gain the most knowledge, enjoyment and experience of life? Taking the path of clarity and avoiding all risk of obscurity may mean one shies away from the scenic route, for fear of getting lost, or the coastal path for fear of facing danger. If clarity here is to be linked to understanding it is only one way of understanding. The worth of the unexplainable is presented negatively against the value of clarity, obscurity is ‘untrustworthy’, yet clarity as a ‘general common medium’ is controlled, it is not excellent. The appeal to an ‘intelligent public’ is reductive and does not in this sense appeal to the philosopher whose mind is open.

Matthew Arnatt said...

Dear Gary,
Thanks for the post. I'd been reading a nicely old-fashioned book by Arne Naess, "Scepticism". In it the author makes some points about the perceived value, to a skeptic, of ad hoc, uncommitted commentary (rather than decisive, assertive intrusions within a dialogue), the suggestion is that, under circumstances, vaguer responses are fully appropriate (as here associated with the non-dogmatic sceptic) and are actually appropriately rigorous. Beyond their obvious rhetorical force, do you think that calls to clarity are an attempt to suppress—or to (as not Academic)obviate some other strategies in reasoning, or even just miss some strategies? I mean, is there some intelligent sense in which one can talk about the contemporary version of such a 'strategy' ... without talking about evasion?
matthew arnatt

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for this comment Matt: very interesting point this one and not one I considered when I wrote this posting. Must have a look at the book you mention! You are on track with you formulate the suspicion in question. I do think that the question of how to argue is itself one that needs to be thought through so that apparently obscure responses need to be considered in terms of what their own logic is. Apart from anything else, unless we think that some deliberate attempt at mystification is the real point of something (which is not completely impossible) then we should assume that failure to grasp a certain point may well be our problem rather than that of the one who wrote the original!

Matthew Arnatt said...

Gary, I think this non-issue of trust is very interesting. And I think that it's good that it's framed by you in terms of whatever is right or possibly even owed in a response to a philosopher (even if that's just a matter of limiting some expectations), but that an issue of comprehension can be a matter of responsibilities or coming-up-to scratch in terms of one's own capability ... and I'd like to contribute just a little more, in support of the issue raised by you, about some contextual saliency of judgments relating to involvements. Jonathan Adler in recent writing has contrasted opposed views in the assessment of perceived 'ad hominems' in arguments: one view which takes the cogency of an argument as undermined by that perception; one which sees an argument as unaffected by the charge. He doesn't specifically address an issue of trust or broken trust because he's concerned with a cognitive dimension in argument; I find him very interesting, but I wonder about focus on a specific level in the deliverance of an argument and the kind of place such an interest tends to have in theories of rationality, or probabilistic or decision-theoretic accounts in contemporary analytic philosophy, anyway. Say, as opposed to older worked-through theoretic materials. M

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for this additional comment Matt: the problem of trust I was suggesting, if viewed as Warburton seems to see it, as indicative of a basis for assessing philosophical argument, is something of a blind I think. The real question was one of a certain kind of view of clarity, one which is itself left unclear. It is the leaving unclear of how clarity is to be grasped, the taking of it to be obvious, that I take to be part of a definite commitment to obscurity!
The discussion you refer to concerning "ad hominem" arguments is not one I know but I think what you are saying about "a specific level in the deliverance of an argument" and how to place it in theories of rationality pretty interesting.

Matthew Arnatt said...

Thank you Gary, I've been enjoying the blog. M