Is great philosophy, by its nature, difficult and obscure?

Discussion in 'General Philosophy' started by paddoboy, Nov 16, 2015.

  1. paddoboy Valued Senior Member


    Great philosophy is not always easy. Some philosophers – Kant, Hegel, Heidegger – write in a way that seems almost perversely obscure. Others – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein – adopt an aphoristic style. Modern analytic philosophers can present their arguments in a compressed form that places heavy demands on the reader. Hence, there is ample scope for philosophers to interpret the work of their predecessors. These interpretationscan become classics in their own right. While not all philosophers write obscurely (eg, Hume, Schopenhauer, Russell), many do. One might get the impression that obscurity is a virtue in philosophy, a mark of a certain kind of greatness – but I’m skeptical.

    To some degree, all texts need interpretation. Working out what people mean isn’t simply a matter of decoding their words, but speculating about their mental states. The same words could express quite different thoughts, and the reader has to decide between the interpretations. But it doesn’t follow that all texts are equally hard to interpret. Some interpretations might be more psychologically plausible than others, and a writer can narrow the range of possible interpretations. Why should philosophy need more interpretation than other texts?

    Academics assume an advanced knowledge of their field, as well as familiarity with conceptual nuances, contemporary references, cultural norms. All this background needs filling in for those outside the tradition. When dealing with work from another time or culture, different scholars might produce different interpretations of the original. But this openness to interpretation is merely an accident of distance. The text could have been quite clear to its original readers, and with sufficient knowledge we might settle on a definitive reading. This doesn’t explain the special difficulties presented by some philosophical texts.

    Maybe these difficulties exist because great philosophers operate at a higher intellectual level than the rest of us, packing their work with profound insights, complex ideas and subtle distinctions. We might need these difficult thoughts unpacked by interpreters and, since these are usually less gifted than the original authors, they might differ on the correct reading. But then, if a clear interpretation of the ideas can be provided, why didn’t the original authors do it themselves? Such a failure of communication is a defect rather than a virtue. Skilled writers shouldn’t need interpreters to patch up holes in their texts.

    Another explanation focuses on the nature of philosophical enquiry. Philosophers do not simply marshal facts: they engage reflectively with a problem, raising questions, teasing out connections, investigating ideas. Readers can respond with their own questions, connections and ideas. Consequently, great works of philosophy naturally generate different interpretations. But is that because readers engage with the problem being discussed and explore their own ideas about it? Or because they engage with the problem of what the author meant and try to come up with hypotheses? Only the former is the mark of good philosophy. A work can be tentative, exploratory and suggestive without being hard to understand. The options canvassed can be set out with precision and clarity.

    Perhaps obscure texts are more open to reinterpretation. Philosophy,some argue, does not progress as science does. Philosophical problems aren’t solved but continually re-explored in new contexts, and each generation returns to great works of the past and reinterprets them for its own time. So texts that are obscure are more likely to become classics, since they naturally lend themselves to reinterpretation. By contrast, unambiguous texts can soon seem sterile and dated. Personally, I am skeptical of the view that philosophy does not progress but, even if we accept it, this doesn’t justify a preoccupation with reinterpretation. If one is grappling with the same problem as an earlier writer, it might be useful to study his work, but what is gained by effectively rewriting it in light of knowledge previously unknown? Why not produce a new work that draws on the old but is not bound by it? Devotion to reinterpretation betrays a misplaced focus on philosophers rather than philosophical problems.

    But some great philosophy is creative in a way that is incompatible with clarity. It doesn’t seek to construct precise theories; rather, it reaches out to unmapped areas of thought, where we do not yet know what techniques to employ, what concepts to use, or even what questions to ask. It is more like art than science, and it makes its own rules. It is not that such work is defective by being ambiguous; it is trying to do something that cannot be done clearly, and its aim is precisely to stimulate diverse interpretations.

    This is, perhaps, the best justification for obscurity. However, it should be used with great caution. Work that respects standards of clarity can be evaluated against those standards, but how to tell if a difficult text is ground-breaking and creative or just pretentious nonsense? And how can we be sure that any good ideas it spawns were latent in the original, rather than the creation of ingenious interpreters? It’s prudent to be very suspicious of such texts; they must earn their status as serious works through a long history of intellectual fertility.

    Finally, some philosophers might write obscurely because it creates an aura of profundity and mystery. This invites interpretation and scholarly attention: special effort is required to engage with the work, helping to create a cult following among scholars. The work is also harder to challenge, and criticisms can be dismissed as misinterpretations. Meanwhile, writing that is more transparent can seem less fertile or exciting, and its errors easier to spot. Not admirable, perhaps, but is it cynical to think that such motives for obfuscation sometimes play a role?

    In most cases, obscurity is a defect, not a virtue, and undue concern with interpretation puts the focus on people rather than problems. It is not easy to write clearly, especially on philosophical topics, and it is risky. Clear writers stand naked before their critics, with all their argumentative blemishes visible; but they are braver, more honest and more respectful of the true aims of intellectual enquiry than ones who shroud themselves in obscurity.
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  3. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    From the Tao Te Ching on the subject of obscurity, first two lines of 70, three translations:

    "My teachings are easy to understand
    and easy to put into practice, - "
    "My words are so easy to understand,
    so easy to follow, - "
    "My words are very easy to understand and very easy to put into practice, - "

    The Old Guy, who was right about that. In a way. Because if you notice, the quote ends with a comma - and you know what's next.
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  5. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    Don't blame philosophers if you can't understand them. Take a course in philosophy. Learn the history of their ideas and the specific terminology they used. Read an introduction to them like "The Dummy's Guide" series. Philosophy can be a very rewarding experience if you take the time to educate yourself about it. Carl Sagan himself was a philosopher of science. Many great science figures were philosophers in their spare time. Einstein. Schrodinger. Poincare. Mach. Bohm. Feynman.
    Last edited: Nov 17, 2015
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  7. exchemist Valued Senior Member

    Ha! Have you tried to read papers from the English faculty of an American university? Many of them are equally terrible to read - which strikes me as especially inexcusable. But science papers too are routinely written extremely poorly, with little or no attention to making understanding easy. I fear the modern demand for output of papers, in order to secure funding and tenure, causes a loss of focus on clear communication. When (- Harrumph! - ) I was at Oxford, my physical chemistry tutor used to correct grammar and spelling and criticise poor expression, to the amazement of some of us undergraduates. But he was right, I think. He took trouble in his papers and books to be clear and he said we had a duty to do likewise.

    Cynically, I suspect the second-rate academic sometimes dresses up his efforts in jargon to appear more knowledgeable. Anyway, I don't think it is just philosophers.
  8. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    It's very true of those examples. They are all Germans who shared a certain style. Their works continue to be a bit incomprehensible, even to professionals, and there's an entire industry devoted to interpreting their works

    I don't think that Kierkegaard's style was aphoristic. His style was more literary, he wrote in the manner of a novelist. He wrote about things like the nature of faith where a literary style might be more appropriate than the style of a mathematical proof.

    I think that Nietzsche and Wittgenstein had issues that interested them. They thought about those issues and had many ideas about them. They recorded their ideas in notebooks that they later allowed to be published without a lot of editing. That resulted in a product that lacks continuity and that, in Nietzsche's case certainly, served to obscure inconsistencies and lacunas.

    That's true, but analytical philosophy papers are certainly no more demanding than scientific papers. Both kinds of papers are written by academics, published in the professional journals and are intended for a readership that consists of peers who are already educated in the subject.

    I don't think that's true of analytical philosophy which is written so as to be crystal clear. Part of what makes it seem difficult to outsiders is the attempt that's being made to clarify any ambiguities that might exist in what's being said.

    But yes, it's definitely true of so-called 'continental' philosophy. There are entire industries devoted to trying to figure out what Kant, Hegel or Heidegger actually intended to say. That's why continental philosophy is focused far more than analytical philosophy on interpreting its canonical predecessors and in applying their thought to contemporary problems.

    Analytical philosophy, by contrast, is organized around philosophical problems such as induction, confirmation, modality or the philosophy of quantum mechanics. Many writers write about the same problems and few writers of analytical philosophy gain the kind of cultural status where their names are widely known (like Nietzsche or Sartre) to the general public untrained in the subject. (Can the general public name any leading contemporary physicists?)

    There's obscurity and there's obscurity. I mean, what's with all of those incomprehensible mathematical heiroglyphs that seem to fill every physics paper? Laypeople are assured that somehow they "prove" X,Y or Z. Supposedly they lay bare the secrets of the universe. From the point of view of laypeople, mathematics is extremely off-putting and it makes physics resemble magical arcana, with white-coated wizards chanting spells in some unknown mystical language. But from the point of view of those educated in it, mathematics looks very different. It clarifies the logic of the physics tremendously.

    That's true of every subject, not just philosophy.

    I think that most analytical philosophy papers are reasonably clear to the audience of academic readers for which they are intended. That's the intent anyway. If the author of the text in the OP can't understand them, it's because he never studied philosophy and is unfamiliar with the issues, concepts and jargon. I'd wager that he can't understand physics papers either.
    Last edited: Nov 17, 2015
  9. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    I think that a certain group of canonical German philosophers do write obscurely, as do the French who were influenced by them. These writers seem to be the target of the OP's whine. The author mentions analytical philosophy but doesn't seem to have much familiarity with it.

    So while he writes as if he's criticizing all of philosophy, he's really addressing a particular style of philosophy. He doesn't seem aware that the much of philosophy, as it's practiced in the US, UK, Scandinavia and Australia, doesn't really resemble his caricature.

    It's interesting that the critique in the OP is entirely stylistic. He doesn't engage with philosophical ideas at all. My guess is that his background is probably in the literary humanities, and any exposure that he's had to philosophy may have come by means of studying literary theory or something like that, where the emphasis is typically on the 'continentals'.

    There's no end of good introductory texts in philosophy.

    I think that it would do many participants on Sciforums no end of good to read a good introductory text in the philosophy of science. One that I like is 'An Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science' by John Losee. I have its 4th 2001 edition, published by Oxford University Press.

    It takes a more or less chronological approach, discussing (from the table of contents) Aristotle's philosophy of science, Pythagoreanism, the ideal of deductive systematization, atomism and the idea of underlying mechanisms, medieval Aristotelianism and the idea of 'saving the appearances', the contributions of Galileo, Francis Bacon and Descartes, Newton's axiomatic method, the impact of the new science on evolving theories of scientific method, the status of scientific laws, theories of scientific procedure and the nature of scientific theories, inductivism and the hypothetico-deductive view of science, positivism and conventionalism, logical reconstructionist philosophies of science, theories of scientific progress, explanation, causation and unification, confirmation, evidential support and theory appraisal, the justification of evaluative standards and scientific realism.

    Many of the threads here on Sciforums are less about science per-se, than they are about the philosophy of science. They are about the 'demarcation problem' of distinguishing science from pseudo-science, about scientific method and epistemology, about theory choice, about the origin of the universe and the nature of nothingness, about the free-will/determinism problem, and about the ontological status of things like mathematics, cosmic strings or ufos and bigfoot. Discussion on Sciforums often seems to be amateurish in the extreme, little more than "Carl Sagan says...!", without any consideration of where Sagan got the idea or whether the idea is correct or even defensible.
    Last edited: Nov 17, 2015
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  10. C C Consular Corps - "the backbone of diplomacy" Valued Senior Member

    Philosophy is the study (investigation, analysis and evaluation) of our intellectual inventions; and the intermittent creation of them. IOW, our formal systems and disciplines (especially the espoused pre-conditions that regulate such enterprises), as well as circling satellites like arguments, ideologies, rhetoric, etc. As such it usually deals in abstract formulations and generalized conceptions of those subjects, which by their very nature are not going to have the quasi-immediate clarity of concrete particulars. Facetious example: A treatise on "rock-hood" (philosophical study) as opposed to the specific event of Jones being hit in the face by a rock on _x_ calendar date at _x_ geographic location" (newspaper account).

    Also, it's just a common fact that most fields (and their subcategories) often each develop their own formal nomenclature (and sometimes unique symbol or representational system), equally laden in an "in-house" history of reasons and needs for identifying / classifying items of their focus. Those expressions accordingly appear either esoteric or gibberish to outsiders who are non-surprisingly unfamiliar with the occupation. That many of those outsiders will be versed in the lexicon of a profession of their own does not guarantee motivation for fully comprehending what they superficially criticize anymore than the random, bored homeless person on the street would be when introduced to such matters. Even a mundane skill/trade like welding will sport terminology in its classroom textbooks that would seem initially obscure to a person utterly naive to that activity, especially if hearing it without any concrete context for its application.

    Knowledge is not pre-formed and external to the interpretations of the brain, which thereby would enable the function of a chair to be as obvious to a mouse, as it eventually becomes to a very young child that has sat in it after observing others. An objective understanding of our sensations (of visual, aural, tactile, etc ilk) does not ride along with the original specialized tissue stimulations of our bodies, as the most radical type of epistemological direct realist may posit. Because of that local hermeneutic dependency, humans have wallowed in both effective and ineffective conceptions (including disastrous misconceptions) of their world for millennia; and different (non-universal) approaches have arisen among humans for labeling and describing their interests and objects of study / practice.

    Eric M. Rubenstein: We don't even know our own sensations just by having them. We need a language for any awareness, including of our own sensations.[...] If one has a concept of x, one can be aware of x's. With the concept of x in hand, that is, you can notice all sorts of things you didn't notice before you had that concept. For instance, a physicist looks at a puff of smoke in a cloud chamber and sees an electron discharged. She comes to have non-inferential knowledge of something we might not, as she has certain concepts we don't as laypeople, as well as an ability to apply them directly to her experience. In other words, perception is concept-laden, and depending on what concepts you have, you can perceive different things. --Sellars' Philosophy of Mind; IEP

    But that said, the legalese of lawyers is intentionally and unnecessarily extra-obscure for the purpose of insuring their job-security, and a similar concern may infest itself in a variety of other enterprises, too.

    Double standard occasionally being applied with regard to these moanings and accusations. Analytic philosophy introduced its own array of dense terminology over the last century-plus, so there's a great irony in any current philosopher whining about either the outdated or personal semantic structures of past philosophers now being rendered obscure. Some of today's sterile and dispassionate approaches in philosophy arose via influence and emulation of science description. The latter which the average reader would likewise be put off by if encountering it in its primal technical glory, prior to being dumbed-down by popular science outlets. No surprise that the layperson often prefers the older philosophers, since there was still attention to their familiar issues/concerns with less detachment.
    Last edited: Nov 17, 2015
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  11. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    Late night reading and discussing?..Anti-religiousness?..Long bouts of staring off into the distance?..Tendency not to conform?..Habitual use of words you've never heard of?

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  12. danshawen Valued Senior Member

    Philosophy should have been a study in the nature of truth, NOT semantics.

    It failed from square one.

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