Why is Philosophical Writing Sometimes Difficult to Read?

Philosophy is sometimes saddled with a reputation for presenting its supposed insights in writing styles that are verbose, obscure and pretentious. I don’t think the charge is quite fair, for reasons I want to set out here. But there’s no need to be deliberately obtuse, denying that there’s ever a problem with opaque prose in philosophy. Probably the most influential modern Western philosopher, Immanuel Kant, routinely served up sentences like the following one from his Critique of Practical Reason: “Consciousness of this fundamental law may be called a fact of reason because one cannot reason it out from antecedent data of reason, for example, from consciousness of freedom (since this is not antecedently given to us) and because it instead forces itself upon us of itself as a synthetic a priori proposition that is not based on any intuition, either pure or empirical, although it would be analytic if the freedom of the will were presupposed; but for this, as a positive concept, an intellectual intuition would be required, which certainly cannot be assumed here.” 

Kant wasn’t known in his time, as Shakespeare was in his, for “honey-tongued eloquence.”

One could multiply the examples, of course. Sometimes philosophical writing is a burden to read. But is this a fact about writing in philosophy, or is it a fact about writing generally? Some people write very, very poorly. But there are bad writers among people who write press releases or legal decisions, instruction manuals or self help books, not only among those who write about philosophy. It is asking too much of any area of life to rigorously exclude from participation anyone who struggles and fails (or just fails, without bothering with the struggle) to write passably well.

Even so, some people think that philosophy makes a particular point of refusing to present its insights, if that’s what they are, in a way that is sufficiently “accessible” to general readers. And this is a claim that I want to take up here: why isn’t philosophical writing more accessible to more people?

I think we can distinguish at least seven ways in which “accessibility” in philosophical writing might be impaired. In all or almost all of these ways, however, the problem is not specific to philosophy, but a generic problem that affects specialist discourses as such.

The first source of inaccessible writing is the unfamiliarity to outsiders of concepts that are familiar to those who have already gone through a learning process. This may be a barrier for those who have not yet gone through that learning process. For example, someone who has studied mathematical logic or number theory for years might not be fazed by a writer’s reference to “the transitive closure of a binary relation,” but readers who have not studied the background taken for granted by the writer may need several minutes, or even a few hours, of remedial logical and mathematical learning, so that they can clearly understand what is meant here by “transitivity,” “closure,” and “binary relation.” The same might apply to a basketball fan or commentator saying that a certain team’s “bigs can post up or stretch the floor.” Someone who has no background in watching or playing basketball might be able to guess what “bigs” are, with more or less precision, but probably wouldn’t have a clue what “posting up” or “stretching the floor” might mean. This seems like a hard barrier to remove on the front end (that is, to remove from basketball talk among fans of the sport): people just wouldn’t be able to talk efficiently about basketball if they had to explain what they meant by “low post” or “pick and roll” or “drive and kick” every single time. People approaching an up-and-running discourse, into which most participants have already been ‘brought up to speed,’ simply have to accept the burden of working over time to learn what these expressions mean, so that they know the basic terms and concepts that people are using. In the same way, if you want to read books and articles about the philosophical ‘method’ known as phenomenology, you’ll need to look up terms like “eidetic analysis,” “traditionary sedimentation,” and “noematic correlate.” But there’s no way you can expect people to either stop using such terms, or to explain them again and again and again, every time they use them. The same goes for economists using terms like “elasticity,” “commodity futures,” and “demand curve,” or whatever. The burden has to fall on the newcomer, otherwise these discourses simply won’t be able to proceed with the requisite efficiency. 

A second source of inaccessibility is the fact that, in some cases, the complexity of the material can be a barrier for people who are considering an issue for the first time, and are still trying to get a sense of the basic questions, and so may not be ready to take up more complicated topics. Whether in philosophy or in any other domain of inquiry, discussing complicated matters often requires taking for granted that several simpler matters have previously been discussed, and don’t need to be reviewed from scratch just now. Talking about simple things and complicated things are not so much alternatives, forcing us to choose between them, as they are a sequence: we discuss simple things, and move on from there to take up more complicated matters. For example, a person who is trying to understand what causes climate change might first need to understand the basic dynamics: the drive of private sector industrial firms to maximize profits and how this affects their choices of fuel sources and production methods, and so on. But there are levels of complexity that go far beyond this basic analysis: how profit-motivated technological R&D choices are affected by the dynamics of worker resistance, how regulatory changes interact with environmental protest movements, how pipeline or other energy extraction-infrastructure projects are contested by Indigenous land defenders, and countless other social factors, not to mention the complex matter of weather pattern dynamics, as they interact with the social processes, and so on. It is impossible for all of this to be addressed all at once. For the most part, discussion of matters of higher complexity and finely detailed specificity will tend to be conducted as a conversation among people who have already worked through some of the more basic dynamics, and don’t need or want to work through those points all over again every time they talk about it. And although this isn’t unique or specific to philosophy, it certainly impacts the accessibility of many philosophical texts.

A third source of inaccessibility is the need to find or construct a vocabulary for articulating insights that are important to express, but hard to express in the inherited vocabulary of common sense or everyday speech. For example, some of the difficulty one finds in path-breaking books like Heidegger’s Being and Time or Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, is related to the fact that these books tried to express something that no one had previously tried to be articulate about. Hegel’s book tries to find a way of talking about philosophy and knowledge, when we switch from thinking about knowledge in terms of a singular encounter between a knowing subject and a known object, to thinking instead about a progression that unfolds over time between an earlier stage and a later stage of an unfolding learning process. Hegel finds that he has to bend the inherited jargon of philosophy (terms like “concept,” “truth,” and “absolute”), in order to express the complex dynamics of what he called “the progressive evolution of truth.” Similarly, Heidegger wanted to talk about how cognitive forms of intelligibility (like believing something or intending to do something) were derivative in relation to more basic forms of intelligibility that were not a matter of “knowing that something is so” but instead a matter of knowing how to navigate some routinized social practice or skill-guided activity (like exhibiting the social-cultural competence to interact in appropriate ways with strangers in a workplace, or to engage practically with place-settings and servers and menus in a restaurant). When we try to find a way of talking about something that no one has ever really tried to talk about, we’re in the unenviable position of having to make up a new way of talking. Heidegger found himself making up terms like “everydayness” and “the they-self.” Sometimes, the weirdness of these new ways of talking diminishes over time, when more and more people learn how to talk in the new way. (For example, a lot of ways to talk about sexuality and gender and the family that fifty years ago would have seemed to most people to be strange, or even nonsensical, now seem perfectly clear and obvious to millions of people.) But in other cases, the new way of talking doesn’t catch on, except within a small circle of specialists. This is often what happens within academic disciplines, and in some cultural or political subcultures, or indeed professions like carpentry or beekeeping.

A fourth barrier to accessibility may have to do with mismatches between intended versus actual audiences. If I write something that I expect only to be read by people who have read Donald Davidson’s and Michael Dummett’s books and articles on truth and meaning, and for some reason it finds its way onto the reading list of people who have never read any philosophy, they will find my use of the term “propositional attitude acriptions” or “de dicto specification of propositional contents” to be impossibly opaque and hyper-technical. Of course, had I imagined that my audience would be non-specialists, with no philosophical training, I would have written differently, and presumably stopped at a more general-interest level of detail. But since I took my intended audience to be people interested in late-20th century philosophical semantics, I helped myself to a vocabulary that would be familiar to that group of readers. (In practical terms, this point overlaps considerably with my first point, about how some conversations proceed on the assumption that participants either have already undergone a learning process, or at least would be willing to do so; but perhaps it adds something to express the point also in terms of intended or assumed audiences.)

A fifth source of inaccessibility is the failure or refusal to use terms in a precise and consistent way. This, however, is often not a matter of being deliberately obscure. Rather, the problem is that some philosophical writers — the later Heidegger comes to mind — deliberately seek out words that are “evocative,” and rich with “poetic resonances,” rather than having clear and precise meanings. Normally, as in Heidegger’s case, this is rooted in some opinion about what the functions of language are. In Heidegger’s case, he believes that the most basic function of language is not to communicate thoughts, or to express claims, but rather to open up or “disclose” “worlds,” that is, to illuminate the world rather than to represent it. (Similar factors require Lacan’s psychoanalytic texts to surrender the pretense that an author has a command over the semantic functioning of the text he or she — seemingly — produces, a gesture necessitated by some of his central theoretical claims, if that’s what they are. The question of how to read a text that is deliberately calling into question our assumptions about meaning, reading and writing is certainly relevant here, but it is too big a topic to fully address in this setting. It is enough, I think, to acknowledge frankly that some philosophical writing is obscure because it is trying to do things other than convey straightforward claims from a writer to a reader. This is what gives us the self-consciously “stylistic” philosophical writers like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Lacan and Derrida. But it would be even more confusing if a writer both relied shamelessly upon, and denied the very possibility of, straightforward communication of singular “thoughts” from a writer’s mind to a reader’s.)

A sixth source of inaccessibility is that ‘difficult language’ is sometimes needed  to invoke a semantic context. It may seem that the expression ‘invoke a semantic context’ is itself needlessly academic and perhaps inaccessible. And it may indeed be academic in style, but not needlessly so. One could rephrase the point by saying, instead, that one wants to ‘bring into play a wider set of meanings that are relevant to the point being made.’ In a way, this seems to mean the same thing as ‘invoke a semantic context.’ But the original formulation has the merit that — I dare say — it invokes a semantic context that the second formulation does not, notably, the difference between the semantic, pragmatic and syntactic ways in which sentences function, as well as the difference between a semantic context and other contexts, like historical, cultural or intellectual contexts. For this reason, the phrase ‘invoke a semantic context’ does more work, conveys more significance, than its lengthier proposed substitute. I can readily imagine situations in which I would opt for the longer, but less academic substitute, but that would be a sacrifice of a certain kind. I would have to omit part of what I wanted to say, or else find a way to add it in later. But if I thought I were writing for an audience that would probably know what I meant (whether the audience was academic or not), I would no doubt remorselessly help myself to the more meaning-packed formula. The same inclination to bring into play a relevant semantic context might lead a philosophical writer to opt for a word like “transcendental,” when “necessarily presupposed” could have done the trick, or a word like “hermeneutical” when “interpretive” would convey a very similar point more accessibly. This impulse to invoke semantic contexts that lend specificity to one’s claims and situate them in wider background-coversations can indeed be a dangerous temptation. But it would needlessly impoverish one’s writing, or indeed one’s thinking, to abstain from it entirely.

A seventh factor that can lead to inaccessibility in philosophy is a writer’s adoption of an oracular affectation. (Indeed, perhaps my use of the term “oracular affectation” may seem to some — wrongly, I think — like a case of adopting an oracular affectation.) An affectation is a mode of self-presentation that is ‘studied’ or carefully cultivated, as opposed to being spontaneous and authentic, and an affectation is oracular if one’s self-presentation tries in effect to invite one’s hearers or readers to consume humbly one’s wise pronouncements, rather than to challenge what one says or press for more detail, evidence, precision or clarity. A philosophical (or other) writer who adopts an oracular affectation wants, apparently, to be listed to with uncritical reverence, and possibly even with a certain sense of awe.

Generally speaking, it is only the last of these forms of inaccessibility that should be regarded as disreputable. It is reasonable to expect a writer to treat one as an equal, generally, even though it is not reasonable — for reasons set out above — to expect a writer to communicate only in ways that make it possible for every reader to understand her meaning immediately, without preparation or effort. When sports fans or sports journalists use a piece of basketball jargon, like “weak side help,” this does not treat the uninitiated as somehow ‘less than equal.’ It is not pretentious or self-indulgent for a carpenter to use expressions like “wainscot” or “cantilever,” which are unfamiliar to many outsiders. It simply reflects an assumption that entry into a specialist discourse is a process that unfolds over time. It probably also reveals an optimism that the uninitiated can navigate the challenge of getting up to speed, in the long run, as so many others have done before them.

Of course, when we return to Kant’s sentence, quoted in my opening paragraph, we are still hard-pressed to defend it. But I hope we can see it for what it is: evidence that among the ranks of philosophy professors, as among the ranks of accountants, economists, and engineers, there are some people who don’t write particularly well.

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