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]