Monday, July 31, 2006

Clarity in writing

Richard Rorty once criticized analytic philosophers for dismissing writing that was unclear as being a product of confusion or subterfuge. He went on to say that he had never seen an argument for the conclusion that clarity entails or promotes philosophical depth or insight. After giving it some thought, I don't think I've seen an argument for that either. There are a couple of reasons for this. It is a metaphilosophical point about which not that many people write, as far as I can tell. It is taken as a presupposition by a lot of people that clarity aids or entails insight. Why should this be though? If I have written a clear paper with a valid argument that is easy to follow, then it might be easier to read. This is not enough for insight, depth, or progress. The content of the argument needs to be interesting and lead to interesting places. Is there any reason to think that an argument laid out in a straightforward deductive style with all the premises explicit will facilitate interest? It is plausible that an argument laid out with some premises implicit, not necessarily with the conclusion at the end, could facilitate interest. If the argument reflects the thought processes of the author, it is quite possible that a lot of the argument had to be constructed after the fact to bridge dialectical gaps that emerged in the course of writing. This could all be done with a fair amount of clarity though. Why think that someone who is less than crystal clear, e.g. Heidegger, is not as deep as someone who is fairly clear, e.g. Quine (at times)? Suppose we take as our model of philosophical argumentation first-order logic, or some rigorous proof theoretic system. These are models of clarity; there is nothing hidden in their notation. If these are our models, then anything that requires close textual interpretation is already deviating from them. Those deviant texts have hidden premises and implicit assumptions. Switching gears some, we could take as our model scientific papers. I'm less familiar with scientific journals than with math and logic journals. Assuming they are fairly similar to computer science journals, then they will be fairly clear. The occassional metaphor might be used to illustrate a point, but not much else. There won't be any exigetical heavy lifting required. Deep results in science can be obtained without appealing to unclarity. However, some science writing is bad and is a bit hard to follow. This might undermine the point a little, but such papers still don't require the expertise of textual interpretation that Kant or Hegel do.

Here's another stab at it. If someone has written something that is difficult to follow and somewhat unclear, then we think that if they understand it well and there is some substance to it, they will be able to reformulate it in a form that we can better follow. If this is our implicit principle, then it says something about us too. The author should be able to reformulate her idea in such a way that the reader can more easily follow her thoughts. That's what it says about us. Following this principle as an author makes things easier on the reader, but again, it doesn't seem to have anything to do with depth of thought. Maybe it belies a bias towards extensionalism. If arguments/books/papers have a content which is extensional, then that content can be specified in different ways that are all extensionally equivalent. In the case of unclear writing, the author has selected one way whose presentation makes things difficult for us. She should be able to reformulate it in an extensionally equivalent, more accessible form. If this bias is dropped, arguments/books/papers could be said to intensional in that their content depends on its presentation in some important way. This is likely to be the case when an idea is put in an unusual way in order to draw attention to it and make the reader abandon some particular connection with that idea or presupposition. Possibly, once the reader has drawn out the moral she may kick away the intensional ladder and keep the extensional content, but that would only be once she's figured it out. The form of the presentation was crucial to reaching the insight. Some writers, like Wittgenstein, might use unusual forms or presentations to drive home this point.

I guess my tentative conclusions at this point are: (i) that the presupposition that clarity facilitates depth/insight is probably derived from taking science/math/logic as a model of inquiry, (ii) clarity is more an aid to the reader than the writer, and (iii) the presupposition might be false in some cases, e.g. Wittgenstein.

2 comments:

Brendan said...

I thought Martha Nussbaum did a good job arguing for clarity in writing -- it prevents b.s.:

Link: Professor of Parody

Shawn said...

Nussbaum did a good job of arguing that sometimes an illusion of depth is created by being obscure and that it aids intellectual bullying. She didn't give any sort of argument that clarity is in anyway related to depth or originality.

While being clear can help us see b.s., being clear doesn't prevent b.s. I've seen some arguments that were fairly clearly laid out but were utter nonsense. The clear writing helped to make that easier to discern.