Saturday, August 20, 2011


It seems to me that perceptions of the truth about philosophy (as a profession, as a discipline, and as a body of wisdom or knowledge) are likely to be distorted. For instance, if someone starts a thread of comments on what philosophers are teaching next semester, then people who feel good about what they are teaching are more likely to respond quickly than those who feel bad about it. So the people who aren't teaching because they don't have jobs and the people who are teaching numerous large sections of uninteresting (-sounding) courses might well be drowned out by people teaching small numbers of boutique courses on niche topics.

Papers that argue for unfashionable views are less likely to be published than others. On the other hand, merely being right is not enough for a paper to be published. It must be (perceived as) interesting, which means, roughly, within the limits of the fashionable but otherwise as eccentric as possible. (Although admittedly sometimes "interesting" means "exactly what I think too.")

Everyone agrees that philosophy should be written as clearly as possible but no clearer. People one agrees with are much clearer than others. I agree, for instance, that Daniel Dennett writes with a certain clarity, but I remember feeling that Brainstorms was unreadable because I had too many reservations about and disagreements with things he wrote to keep them all in the air at the same time. Now, I might have been quite wrong to have these reservations, but if I wasn't then Dennett's writing is only superficially clear; in reality it (in the hypothetical case that I was right) is a mass of murkiness and, possibly, confusion. Whether he is really clear or only superficially, misleadingly so depends in large part on how right he is. The same kind of thing, except in reverse, could be said about the famous obscurity of Heidegger. He believed that he had to write that way, and knew it wasn't easy reading. If he was wrong then this is a failing, of course, but if he was right then he is as clear as he could be. (I don't mean to suggest that he was necessarily either all right or all wrong, of course.) It's interesting to see some people in Brian Leiter's thread objecting to unnecessary, excessive clarity (here is what I will say, here it is, here is what I have argued, and so on). I sympathize, but achieving just the right amount of clarity and explanation depends on having readers who agree with you just enough to need telling only what you tell them, to need spelling out only what you spell out. The right amount of clarity isn't something one can just have independent of one's audience. Sociology (or fashion) comes in here, too, as knowing the audience is almost impossible if you went to the wrong schools, read the wrong books, talk to the wrong people (or hardly anyone at all), etc.        

Now this might all sound like a complaint, but I don't think I have suffered because of any of these things. They do seem worth being aware of though.


  1. your comment about being unable to manage your reservations about dennett puts me in mind of a parallel term of praise in music, 'listenable': 'very listenable', 'unlistenable', 'compulsively listenable'. the same phenomenon occurs in literature, but maybe it's more stark in music because the experiences are more pleasurable/displeasurable. what one person finds 'unlistenable' can give another regular pleasure. experienced listeners know that lack of familiarity with a piece, with its creator's style, with a conception of the genre or the period, can have an undue influence on how 'listenable' it seems at first. even with new music. but somehow only a few of the canonical / great philosophers are allowed to require some acclimation of their readers before they 'become clear'.

  2. Yes, that's true with music. I often think the feedback used by The Jesus and Mary Chain, for instance, is necessary to prevent their songs from being unbearably sickly. But what makes the music listenable to my ears is precisely what makes it just a horrible noise to others. (Obviously I'm right and they're wrong, but that's not the point.)

    I'm not sure what the philosophical equivalent might be. It must (?) be easier to write in a no-nonsense style if you're arguing for positions in the down-to-earth British tradition of Hobbes, Hume, and Bentham, and harder if you see that tradition as reductive or simplistic. And if you don't think it a good idea to emphasize the view of philosophy as continuous with science, then you might be more likely to bring your personality into your philosophical writing. Some people will warm to this (depending on your personality and their conception of philosophy) while others will regard it as, perhaps, a self-indulgent distraction. Anyway, I'm suspicious of emphasis on rigor and clarity for this kind of reason. (I was going to put quotation marks around 'rigor' and 'clarity' and then say that I was all for rigor and clarity (without quotation marks), but I'm not sure that I see much value in rigor, in fact. It just means hardness, doesn't it? It's much more important for philosophy to be good than for it to be hard. I see no reason why great insights couldn't come easily to someone. Where is the rigor in "What is it like to be a bat?", Searle's Chinese room thought-experiment, or Rawls's idea of the original position? But even if these ideas are all bad (and I'm not saying they are), it isn't because of a lack of rigor. You need to do your homework, of course, but I don't think good philosophy has to have lots of footnotes or endless considerations of possible objections or references to a "time T", etc. But maybe none of that is what people mean by rigor.)

  3. i don't think rigor is just hardness—by this point 'rigor' probably has a sophisticated, audience- and discourse-dependent specification, even if an implicit one, that includes more.

    i often wonder how much of that idea of rigor is internally related to skepticism and a kind of platonic rationalism/idealism. even from philosophers who don't espouse positions like those, the idea of what counts as a good philosophical argument seems to import kindred varieties of rigor.

  4. I agree that rigor isn't just hardness, but I think that analytic philosophers who claim that only their kind of philosophy is rigorous (and, at least sometimes, seem to say this as if it's uncontroversial), mean that they work through problems like a drill through rock, or something like that, while continental types are more like butterfly collectors, waiting for their muse to flutter by. But I should probably drink more coffee before trying to comment on things like this.

    I'm not sure what you mean about skepticism, etc. Can you say more?

  5. i can give it a try. i'm thinking of common attitudes which are on display in academic writing especially, which perhaps stand out best as two opposed poles: one which looks skeptically on every attempt to advance any kind of theory or claim about anything, the other which avows a kind of conviction that there is a truth of the matter about every object of inquiry that we can discover if only we pursue it with the right attitude and methods. it seems to me as if these attitudes have a lot to do with what such philosophers count as rigorous work, even if their explicit positions are not so obviously colored by these attitudes as their way of writing is.

    (and the way they write has, indirectly, something to do with how they relate to their readers, i.e., to other people. but they may treat their writing specially: as a venue in which to adopt an attitude toward their inquiries which is distinctly more skeptical or platonist than the one they go through their day to day lives with.)

  6. Thanks. Yes, that sounds exactly right.