Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Making our ideas clear

Thinking about some things in the Tractatus together with things I've been reading for other classes (mostly the Moral Problem) has led me to think about clarity in writing again. It is still somewhat elusive. One of the virtues of analytic philosophy, I have been told, is that the writing is clear and the arguments are explicit. The importance of clarity in writing seems to me more and more odd. There are many things one might be looking for in reading a philosophy book or article. One of these is good philosophy. There isn't much reason to see clear writing as particularly indicative of good philosophy (an amorphous term which won't be defined here). Placing a high premium on clear writing could lead to the following two sorts of errors. One is the error of mistaking clear writing for good philosophy. The other error is mistaking unclear writing for bad philosophy.

One could take the Searle approach and claim that unclear writing is indicative of poor understanding. There is something right in this. For a lot of cases, this is true. It seems like a good heuristic for grading undergraduate papers. As an across the board maxim, it seems likely to lead to error. There are a lot of people who understand abstract subjects very well but are bad at communicating this to others. It isn't particularly hard to think of TAs who clearly understood things but could not explain them appropriately. Similarly, a presentation might be unclear because the presenter is loading the presentation with so many qualifications and subtleties as to lose the audience. But, this is just because the presenter is being very careful, overly so. At a certain level, it doesn't make sense to hold to Searle's maxim. Clarity of presentation becomes something of an accidental feature rather than indicative of understanding. As another example, some people, I hear, accuse John McDowell of being somewhat opaque, but I would be extremely hesitant to make the leap to saying that this is because he doesn't understand what he is talking about. Doing that seems like a reductio of the Searle maxim.

Going the other way, clear writing isn't always indicative of good philosophy. It is certainly less frustrating to read an article that is well structured so that the dialectic is easy to follow than it is to read an article that is not well structured. The danger is that the author gets caught up making the article clear at the expense of focusing on the philosophical issue, e.g. explicitly naming all the principles, numbering all the steps of the argument, using variables in different scripts for terms whose particular values don't matter, etc. These things all help keep one honest, and I am a fan of them. I use them a fair amount in writing my own papers. But, they go a ways toward giving an illusion of rigor that can lead the reader/author into a false sense of security. If clarity by itself meant philosophical issues were on full display and under control, then philosophy of logic and philosophy of math would not exist, it seems. (That is probably a bit of a hasty assertion but I'm going to leave it for now.)

To head off a worry (possibly a worry only I have about what I wrote), I don't want to endorse any kind of deep vs. (merely) clever dichotomy, something which Wittgenstein himself apparently endorsed (a fact which saddens me). I'm not sure these have to be seen as a dichotomy or even in opposition. Philosophical merit is one thing, and stylistic merit is another. Sometimes the two go together, as in David Lewis. Sometimes they come apart, as in... a lot of philosophers. Confusing one for the other seems like a bad move. Trying to use one to cover for the other seems like an even worse move. There are myriad benefits to writing clearly, and there are reasons enough to keep teaching and endorsing that practice.

The way forward in thinking about this is, probably, to hack away at the idea of clear writing for a bit. I'm not going to attempt to go at the idea of good philosophy. I mean, really, that would be pure hubris.

1 comment:

DPrice218 said...

Nice post. I sympathize with your reservations concerning the function of clarity.

I tend to agree with the idea that analytic philosophy, where considered a style (rather than a method) of philosophizing, tends to be clear(er).

I also think that clarity very often comes at the price of subtlety, soundness, and elegance. Sure, I can "dumb" an expression down to make it simpler and in that sense, more intelligible. But when I do that I run the risk that what was a sound argument is now faulty for lack of clarification if not for "conduciveness to misapprehension".

That said, my strategy is to switch between "potentially redundant" and "simple". Often I wish I was more clear, but then I'm reminded of the many explanatory problems that seem to merely be a function of over-simplification.

I think clarity KILLS prospects for a sound interpretation of Wittgenstein, for instance.

-David

Language Games