Tuesday, May 4, 2010

More on Philosophical Style

A couple of years ago now I posted an excerpt from Brand Blanshard's On Philosophical Style. It was a snippet I'd found somewhere on the Internet, where I have no idea. So, a couple of days ago I was browsing in the used bookstore and came across this little books in the flesh, and snatched it up for a paltry couple of bucks. It turns out that it's full of good things. Here's the passage immediately following the one I posted before:

Some philosophers would surely do better here if they bore in mind what great writers seems to know by instinct, that a generalization which we can make without trouble if we are allowed to start at the bottom may be quite beyond us if we have to start from the top. Most of us are incapable of moving freely in the world of pure universals or "as suches"; we are like Antaeus, and must touch ground again pretty often to renew our strength and courage. To be sure, there is some risk in such returns, for concrete things are complex, and if you are offered one as an example, you may pick out the wrong point in it. Kant was so convinced that this would happen that, for the most part, he deliberately abstained from illustrations. With all due respect, this seems to me rather silly. Most men's minds are so constituted that they have to think by means of examples; if you do not supply these, they will supply them for themselves, and if you leave it wholly to them, they will do it badly.

This excellent point, unfortunately, applies to a great many, probably most, of the scholastics. For myself I've felt it keenly in Scotus. Sometimes I've labored on for a dozen pages thinking to myself "I'm pretty sure I know what's going on; if only he'd give me an example so I could be sure!" Perhaps the scholastics were so trained to think logically and generally from an early age that they didn't feel the lack; perhaps we just can't fully appreciate the largely oral culture in which their texts were produced, so that perhaps the examples would be produced on the spot in class or disputation but were not thought necessary to always include in the writing. In any case it can make for difficulty. And it must be admitted that Scotus is a spectacularly bad writer in any case, which doesn't help at all.

Blanshard's most frequent gibes are at the Germans, which seems perfectly fair. Nearly all the greats - Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger - are nearly unintelligible much of the time, and, as he points out, this is not simply because what they have to say is so profound and difficult. Compare Husserl, for instance, with his explication by such a very clear writer as my old teacher Robert Sokolowski. The thought is still difficult, but the reading is much more pleasant.

Sometimes the difference between good and bad writing is a matter of mere laziness. Husserl, like Scotus, produced most of his writing as notes of his thinking for himself, and took few pains to prepare it for public consumption. Neither of them, perhaps, was trying to be obscure, they just weren't trying very hard not to be obscure. But there is bad writing, and then there grows up a tradition of bad writing. Blanshard says:

One influential teacher who writes badly can infect a whole brood of offspring, who proceed to spread the infection. Often our young philosophers, and still oftener our young psychologists and sociologists, are allowed to commit mayhem on the language unwarned, and to grow up under the innocent impression that such behavior is somehow scholarly. "A spectre haunts our culture," says Lionel Trilling. "It is that people will eventually be unable to say, 'We fell in love and got married,' let a long understand the language of Romeo and Juliet, but will, as a matter of course, say, 'Their libidinal impulses being reciprocal, they integrated their individual erotic drives and brought them within the same frame of reference.'" Many of these young people carry no model in their minds by comparison with which they could stamp that sort of thing as barbarism.

It seems to me that this is the sort of thing which has happened with the Heideggerians and the postmodernists, if we are not to assume uncharitably that they really have an ideological commitment to obscurity.

Blanshard also warns against excessive abstractness of language in general. This is difficult, because philosophy is necessarily abstract much of the time. But we should distinguish between a habit of abstract thought and a habit of abstract speech. Precisely abstract thoughts should be presented in as concrete a language as possible. One more amusing excerpt:

One distinguished philosopher talks to us about "the aspirational character of life." Another, in an able book, just off the press, writes, "a relation requires for its exemplification two or more particulars each of which must perform its special exemplificational function," and is on intimate terms with such strange new entities as "characteral features," and "punctuational commitments." In other writers I find it described how a philosopher approaches a problem "from the observational angle," how certain refugees coming to America had their "premigrational conceptions" changed, and how a certain kind of conduct is "organizationally cloaked with official piety." No doubt a case can be made out for such coinages on the ground that they take less space than the simpler words that might replace them. That may well be true. The case against them is that they are ugly misshapen verbal abortions.


Anthony said...

Thanks for this, particularly the first quote. Few things made me doubt my intelligence quite so much as reading German philosophers. I can get through some Kant now, but Heidegger still drives me up the wall. And this is no doubt one of the things that makes Thomas so appealing; in the Summa he frequently gives examples. In fact he seems systematic about it: start with the abstract argument, then nudge the understanding with an often concrete example.

Concrete examples do have their limits, as Blanshard notes, but they are helpful in getting one's foot in the door.

berenike said...

Yes, yes, yes and, um, yes!

And one's brain rots with this sort of thing, so that one cannot tell anymore what is English and what is academese :/

Michael Sullivan said...


It's true, St Thomas is as great a pedagogue as he his a thinker. I maintain to anyone who will listen that the absolute best way to study the literal sense of Aristotle (who, of course, is very unpolished and can be quite obscure) is to read him along with St Thomas' commentaries.


That's one of many reasons why it's a good idea not to read philosophy alone to the exclusion of other kinds of literature.

Burl said...

I have commented many times about how badly sociologists write 0 I see I was not the only one to notice.

When asked why his writing was so unclear, Whitehead said it was because his thinking was too. He did say that words were 'lures for feelings'

The problem with specific examples and/or analogies is that as soon as an author uses one to explain his or her intended point, someone purporting to be an expert on the author's philosophy tells you that the example doesn't mean what the author wanted to express - it is only an example.