Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Clarity and Philosophy (III)

My previous postings on this topic have tended to concentrate on responses that have been made, and thought justified, in response to works of Jacques Derrida. For some reason, his "style" is thought to be irritating by a number of people and this irritation has been rationalised by means of allegations of obscurity and, with this, an allegation of "wilful" attempts to mislead by means of such alleged obscurity. Previous postings gave short shrift to this reaction.

A thoughtful posting over at Pea Soup pursues this question from a slightly different angle, though, once again, taking off from a response to the writings of Derrida. As is pointed out here the canon of philosophical writings includes many, not least Kant, who are writers whose work is by no means evidently "clear" and yet who we take to be worth the effort required to try to work out the sense of the texts they wrote. This does instantly show that if clarity is a mere synonym for "accessibility" then there would be a serious problem with defending quite a considerable number of works in the history of philosophy. The fact that this attitude is generally not adopted does suggest that standards of what should be understood to be examples of "clarity" in philosophy can also be very varied. Is Aristotle, for example, more or less clear than Kant? Even if "clarity" is taken as a synonym for "accessibility" then there would be varied answers here depending on which works were focused on and, even within the works, which passages and stretches of argument. Also, given that the reputations of philosophers rise and fall at different points it would seem that the basis of appreciation is not clearly tied to standards of "clarity".

A second point made in the piece referred to above is that the irritation some feel when reading Derrida is one that rises from what the author calls: "the posturing, the pretense, the thin layer of bullshit that covers such exercises of coded insider-talk". Whilst this may well indicate sentiments felt the notion of the writing in question itself containing something that clearly corresponds to this attitude is disavowed by the author of the posting. Since the writing in question is effectively "innocent" of such "crimes" then what is it that lies behind such responses? After all, some of us might feel that the prose of, say, Quine, is rather more rebarbative than that of Derrida and that it certainly addresses an "in-crowd" through its own mode of "insider talk".

The sense of "insider talk" might well get at the problem better as it suggests a feeling of exclusion on behalf of certain readers when confronted by certain types of writing. Again, that exclusion can hit different readers differently since I, for one, feel much more excluded from the writings of Quine than those of Derrida. So this sense of exclusion might well have something to do with a certain kind of expectation when confronted with philosophical prose, an expectation that is at issue in the demand for "clarity". What this expectation would refer to is a model of writing that has been picked up from certain types of philosophical writing that the reader has grown habituated to such that when a different type of style is presented the search for comprehension of the piece gets disappointed. In this case, however, the problem surely lies with the reader for importing an expected standard that might well be the right one for getting published in journals of academic philosophy and for being taken seriously at conferences held in certain places with certain types of people attending. However, surely that reflects the generalisation of a certain model without accompanying argument for the basis of this model and simply assumes the greater transparency of this model based on the experience of a selective group? In which case the standard of "clarity" has itself, as I suggested in previous postings, been significantly left under-determined.


Patrick O'Connor said...

Two Points

1. It might be useful to consider a distinction between 'simplicity' and 'clarity.' While complex ideas, with some effort, can be made clear, whereas simple ideas, irrespective of their philosophical merit, tend to be clear from the get go.

2. Why should philosophy be clear? Philosophy is complex and difficult and confusuing, and it has a rich and varied history; all the clarity in the world will not capture this totally. Indeed, this is why Derrida adopts alternate models of expression. Furthermore, if philosophy, praticed at its highest professional level, gives expression to the most difficult ideas in the history of humanity then a call for clarity at all costs might delimit the standard and expertise of the discipline. This might level accusations of elitism etc. but other disciplines woiuld not have the same problem. You never really hear of people accusing 'rocket scientists' of obscurantism, indeed it seems to be par for the course.

While absolutely we ought to have an imperative to make our work communicable, this does not mean that the demand for clarity should take precedent over other demands. Clarity and complexity are not always mutually exclusive.

Enjoying the blog,

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for the comments Patrick and glad to know you are enjoying the blog. In response:

1. The distinction between simplicity and clarity is a useful one though I don't think it quite goes how you suggest. Locke, for example, spends quite a long time discussing what he terms "simple ideas" as, in fact, Descartes did before him. For neither do ideas that are "simple" work in a sense that doesn't require quite detailed analysis. Instead they are notions that are basic in some foundational type of way. Of course if you generally oppose foundationalism then you might want a different role for simple ideas but I don't think they can be taken as directly clear.

2. Second point is exactly right, there is no direct requirement for philosophy to be clear, not least prior to clarifying what is meant by "clarity", something that is itself taken to be axiomatic often, when it is not. Quine, to go back to my example, doesn't strike me as a writer who is that clear and yet many philosophers assume he is because they have certain habits of reading and expectations of what kinds of writing is normatively acceptable. There are hosts of assumptions involved in that which should be forced out into the open. But, for sure, there is no automatic opposition between complexity and clarity, again, depending on how "clarity" is itself understood!