12.25.2004

More Philosophy

I want to do a post clarifying what I said earlier about the intellectual arcaneness and sometimes outright obfuscation that is found in many so-called "academic" or "intellectual" pieces of writing, notably philosophy. I also want to resond to what Jung said: "It's nearly impossible to make any progress in thinking while trying to make everything accessible and clear," and "it's just that it's unbearably stifling to the process of thinking to explain the history behind every word they use before they use it."

First of all, the problem with many so called "intellectual" works is not so much that the authors don't explain the full relevant history of every word used, or for that matter that they do explain the history of words they use, or that they write words in shorthand for concepts that have been elaborated much more thoroughly elsewhere. The problem is using strange words or phrasings that no one but a few philosophers or scholars of philosophy would know or care to know, writing in interminable run-on sentences, using semicolons every few lines. Let's face it. Philosophy is often written in a very obscure style that's just plain hard to read.

But Jung argues that such presentation is necessary, given the nature of the task and subject. Fair enough. I can evaluate that claim on its face. There are two reasons why I could see this would be true. One is that the concepts are so abstract and difficult that attaining a solid grasp of them is impossible. The second is that the concepts are so abstract and difficult that even when understood, expressing them in consise and simple form is impossible - that is, something is lost conceptually in the translation. The first case is plausible. No one "knows" what justice is. People can only speculate about it, or when trying to define it, conceive it in the most vague and abstract terms. But it still isn't clear to me that the kind of obscurity you see in philosophy comes from a fundamental fuzziness about the underlying ideas. The second case seems to me to be a case of plain pretension. It's saying "Oh, look at me. I'm so smart that ordinary language can't even do justice to the exquisite, subtle complexity of my thoughts." It's a well known fact that entire schools of philosophy developed the habit of writing in abstruse prose as a kind of badge of intellectual heft. On the other hand, plenty of good philosophers wrote simply and clearly. William James is one. Nietzsche is another. I think it's only honest to face the fact that for all its merits, philosophy has a problem, and that problem is elitism and intellectual obscurantism.

I can already hear the counterargument saying that philosophy needs its own jargon because it is a specialized subject dealing with specialized issues. I think it's important to make a distinction between jargon and pseudo-jargon. It's true that in proper discursive fields, terminology is inevitable. New terminology is necessary to represent and communicate unique ideas. Some fields really are so distinct from anything else that they require their own whole new language to facilitate communication. A good example is something like, say, the hard sciences. There is no colloquial correlate to "vector" or "proton." Hence the new word is created to serve a fundamental purpose. Then there are other branches of learning that seem to like to define things that have already been defined because they want to be a science too! To take psychology as an quite fertile example: did you take care of your conatative self today? Conatative happens to be nothing more than the psychological word for "emotional," so why do we need it? I don't know. I'm sure there are plenty of other examples, but I can't think of them, probably because they're insubstantial.

To relate this to philosophy, take Kant's "Categorical Imperative," for example. Would anything have been lost if he had simply called it the "Golden Rule," especially considering that the very idea of the Golden Rule existed long before Kant came into existence? Feel free to argue with me on this, but I'm going to venture nothing would be different. For every philosopher I'm sure there are multiple examples similar to this one. I'm not faulting Kant, or philosophy for being this way, and here's what I wanted to clarify about my other post. We look to philosophy for great intellectual acheivements, and as such, we expect philosophy to be highly intellectually charged and formidable pieces of work. Philosophy provides the intellectual world the equivalent of the fine arts. In addition to what they say, we appreciate great works of philosophy simply because they are great and they exist. They are intellectual showpieces, or momuments of human acheivement. Asking philosophy to write in layman's terms would be like asking an orchestral composer to write a symphony for kazoos. For this reason, I can appreciate philosophy for what it is: sometimes profound, most of the time just inspiring. Like fine art, philosophy takes a certain highbrow approach that will require you to rise up to its level. There's nothing wrong with a highbrow approach, and some of these works of philosopher are great masterpieces. But just don't go thinking that every piece of philosophy has the most profound, useful, thoughtful answers of anything in the world. And don't be fooled into thinking that expositions of thought need to be written in an obscure, inaccesible fashion.

2 comments:

jbarcelona said...

Hi, Thanks for writing about more clarity in philosophy. I have two questions, which I hope you can answer. Where did you find Jung talking about intellectual progress? Isn't "categorical imperative" a good term to use if one's ethical theory has a "hypothetical imperative"?

"Categorical" strongly suggests the "categories" put forth in his _Critique of Pure Reason_. The categories are the formal causes of experience, and solve - accd. to Kant - a lot of the problems brought up by the Empiricists.

In opposition to the categorical is the hypothetical. "Hypothetical" sounds less real and grounded than "categorical."

Let's say Kant used "Golden Rule" instead of "categorical imperative." He wouldn't be able to use "hypothetical imperative," and he is left with the question, "What is the opposite of the Golden Rule?"

Adam Kraus said...

Hi, and thanks for reading! I forgot to link to the post that I quoted Jung from. It is right here if you want to see it.

It's been a while since I've read Kant, but I get the sense that the term "category" implies something that is innate, and as such help explain an aspect of human behavior. It's true that "Golden Rule" implies more of a social contract than an innate entity, and so it may miss the mark of what he was trying to convey. You have a point that the "Golden Rule" is a bad alternative. It still doesn't seem to change the fact in my mind that both of these concepts can be articulated in much more accessible language. Plus, if you've ever read any Kant, you can't say with a straight face that his writing style is necessary. Awe-inspiring and grand maybe, but on a purely communicative level it is quite excessive.

Again I don't think there's anything wrong with that. High art, or high intellectual acheivements (however you want to put philosophy) don't stay in the business by being accessible. High-falutin make-up is part of the job description.