Preface on Clarity

Before beginning the substantive legwork announced in the last post, I want to clear something up. I complained about the lack of attention to clarity and rigor in my philosophical work up to this point. While I certainly take responsibility for my immature disregard of these ideals, it would be hard to argue that the canonical figures of Continental philosophy regard them very highly. At best, one can try to claim that some of these figures are rigorous ‘in their own way’, an expression that barely disguises an old fashioned bait-and-switch. Even worse are attempts to devalue these ideals by claiming their very definitions are contestable, or that they are simply rhetorical props masking oppressive, even racist or sexist or otherwise elitist power-plays. Some even go so far as to defend opaque, muddled and ‘fuzzy’ thinking as possessing valuable or even superior methodological resources.

None of these desperate and defensive tactics cuts the mustard. There is nothing mysterious or oppressive about what such argumentative clarity consists in. Of course, no favors are done to champions of such clarity by the “philosophically unilluminating and pedagogically damaging cartesian picture of the achievement of understanding as the turning on of some inner light, which permits one then to see clearly.” Clarity is not that of one’s unabashed access to the Truth, as in some sort of ecstatic mystical communion. It is not a clarity of vision, but clarity of reasoning. Pardon me for quoting Brandom at length, as he is brilliant in marking this difference:

We professors tell our students that it is important to think and write clearly. No doubt it is. But this can be frustrating advice to receive. After all, presumably no students think that fuzzy thinking and fuzzy writing are better than the alternative. [! – RK] The hard thing is to tell the difference. What, exactly, is one supposed to do in order to think or write more clearly? Thinking about meaning and understanding in terms of inference provides some more definite guidance in this area. Thinking clearly is a matter of knowing, for each claim that you make, what else you are committing yourself to by making it, what you are ruling out, and what would be evidence for or against it. You can test the clarity of your thinking by rehearsing sample inferences, so as to test your practical mastery of the inferential vicinity of your thoughts. Of course, you may be mistaken about what really does follow from your claims. But that is just a mistake. So your claim, your mistaken thought is at least clear. And writing clearly is committing yourself to by the claims you make, what you would take to be evidence for or against them, what follows from them, and what they preclude. And once again, this is something you can check for yourself when writing, by asking yourself, for each important consequence you take to follow from one of your claims, how your reader is supposed to know that you take it to be a consequence: what clues have you given to that effect?

This is immensely valuable advice, advice that I wish I’d received (or really, that I wish I’d been open to receiving) a long time ago. This sense of clarity of writing as a clear grasp of the inferential moves one is making with the claims one makes, this is the ideal to which I now aspire in my own writing. Hopefully, in the coming posts, I will do this commitment justice.

[quotes from Brandom, Reason in Philosophy pp. 172-3]

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5 Responses to Preface on Clarity

  1. Sans Oeuvre says:

    When you say “the canonical figures of continental philosophy,” are you referring to current thinkers? Or to folks like Kant and Hegel? Kant is hard to read, but I’d still describe him as “clear.” Hegel is fairly opaque, but I don’t think that he’s intentionally obscure. As for an earlier figure like Spinoza — there are moments when he really does seem to suffer from an excess of clarity (if such a thing is possible).

    Brandom himself is generally clear. McDowell and Sellars are not. And at times it can be difficult to follow the argumentative thread in Quine and Davidson (though, somehow, their works still seem convincing…). Nonetheless, there is something like an analytic style that isn’t “poetic” in quite the same way as the style of (later) Derrida or Nancy.

    On the continental side… Adorno certainly has an alienating style, but his arguments seem to me quite rigorous (and he could obviously write clearly — look at the lectures). His reasons for writing in this style are fairly clear (even if the effect is that his style is not clear). Derrida’s early works on Husserl (and some of the early essays) are very rigorous, though their style is still a bit “French” (though this differs from the annoying style of the late lectures). Much of Badiou’s writing seems spectacularly clear (supported by numbered propositions, etc.) but his arguments themselves often seem thin. Indeed, sometimes the gestures to logical rigor seem to obscure the weakness of his claims.

    I guess that I’m wondering what the relationship is between a certain style of writing and argumentative rigor. Does rigor necessitate a certain style? Does rigor entail clarity?

  2. deontologistics says:

    I think there are styles that encourage rigor, although there is no single such style, nor does writing in such styles necessarily encourage rigor. I find that there is plenty of analytic philosophy that takes it’s own stylistic tropes too far, ultimately becoming less clear, as well as some analytic philosophers who simply write in awkward ways. I find reading McDowell like looking at a magic eye picture, as usually I have no grasp of what his position is the first couple times I read it(he has a tendency to use complex clauses and multiple negatives, so that it can be hard to tell which is his own position and which is his foil when tracking through the text), and then find that at somepoint it just clicks into place and I can see what the structure of the argument is (and there is a structure, albeit it labyrinthine). Davidson and Dummett however I like much less. I remember being in a seminar on Dummett’s paper on the justification of deduction, and no one (including the seminar tutor) had a good idea what was going on in it. I eventually realised what the argument was, but it was all presented in the most horrible order.

    When it comes to continental thinkers, I think Heidegger has good moments and bad. His lectures are usually very good, and his private Beitrage style notes are generally very, very bad. I haven’t read enough Derrida, but I think that it’s obvious he’s had a bad influence over all. He has a few stylistic and argumentative tropes that he might be able to pull off, but few others can, despite a lot of trying. There is also a more general style that one finds in a lot of french thinkers, where one gets the impression that they’re almost trying to alienate the reader, by purposefully not filling in blanks and making as many opaque references as possible. Deleuze’s own early work (as opposed to his writing on others, which is generally very well written) suffers from this quite badly. Everybody agrees that D&R is a brilliant book (myself included), but I don’t think anyone has managed to actually reconstruct everything it says (despite their being a veritable cottage industry in tracking down its more obscure references). The less said about his stylistic experiments with Guattari the better.

    Ultimately, I think there is good and bad writing in both ‘camps’, and that one does well to pick up the good bits from each, and their forebears (I personally have a soft spot for Kant’s style, but I recognise that I’m perhaps a little masochistic in this). Clear writing can also be expressive, using all the tools of metaphor, similie, analogy and narrative (something I think Hegel, Heidegger, Deleuze and Brandom are masters of), the problem is that unless these devices are used to aid in understanding arguments, they’re basically promissory notes. There’s nothing wrong with such notes. Sometimes we hit the end of our inferential rope and all we’re left with is intuitions and whatever modes of expression we can use to convey them. The trick is to remember that they’re discursive IOUs, and not to peddle them as hard conceptual currency. Let’s be humble when we’ve reached the precipice where reasons run out and we’ve got no choice but to make intuitive leaps, rather than valorising the act of leaping itself.

  3. Sans Oeuvre says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Well-said!

  4. reidkane says:

    I can’t add much to what Pete says here. I do think having a style that is pleasurable to the reader is strategically a good idea, even if it isn’t essential. Beyond that, however, I think it varies from case to case. While one can of course argue that certain presentational styles, be they obscurantist or alienating or parodic or whatever, can work in the service of conveying an argument, I get wary whenever these styles impinge on the ability of the reader to discover the author’s own position.

  5. Pingback: Deontologistics on Tour: Conferences, Posts and Comments « Deontologistics

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