Two responses on obscure philosophy writing

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Prompt to colleagues on obscure philosophical writing

From: Alfino, Mark Sent: Tuesday, October 4, 2016 4:36:49 PM To: AS-Philosophy Department Subject: philosophical styles


An issue came up in the course I’m teaching on “philosophical method, style, and writing” that I thought I would ask you all about. One of the topics we are exploring is the range of philosophical writing styles, as well as what good writing in philosophy consists of. In “The Sense of Style” Steven Pinker makes some disparaging remarks about obscurity of writing style in some areas of the humanities such as philosophy. I guess it’s no secret that writers in some fields of philosophy win annual “bad writing” competitions more often than others (continental philosophy and feminism have done well). Our question concerns the justifiability of obscurity in philosophical writing. Why is philosophical writing sometimes obscure? Are there good reasons why philosophical style cannot always be direct and clear? If we can eventually parse obscure writing into clear and straightforward exposition, did it have to be obscure to start with?

Like the rest of you, I can generate some answers on this from my experience, but in the discussion last week, we started wondering if members of the faculty might have some insights or comments on this issue. If you do, please let me know. My default approach would be to reflect your views anonymously (you can even use this link to guarantee it: ), unless that’s not a concern.

Thanks for any experience or insight you would like to share on this.


Brian Henning

From: Henning, Brian Sent: Tuesday, October 4, 2016 6:55 PM To: Alfino, Mark Subject: Re: philosophical styles

Hi Mark, This is a fun topic. No need for anonymity on my part.

I suppose I'd agree that there are some interesting trends in both continental and analytic philosophy that has made its style inaccessible, both to people outside the respective traditions and outside of philosophy. I'm not part of either tradition, so I don't take any ownership in this failure. However, in principle, I don't think this is problematic. The need to develop a specialized vocabulary and methodology that is shared among a group of scholars is helpful way to make progress in most areas of study. Medical journals are often not accessible. Most fields have a version of this. That said, I do think that at times philosophers have come to revel in their obscurity. This is the part I don't tend to find particularly helpful or interesting. However, I admit it may be because I'm I an outsider. My own goal as a writer has often been to write lucid prose on difficult topics. I'm not always successful, but that is my goal. But my prose for other environmental ethicists or Whiteheadians is different than my prose for a general audience. As you may know, I've sought ought opportunities to write for general audiences and it is a special sort of challenge. It is a valuable activity, but it can't really replace philosophy aimed at philosophers.

Note on the development of my own writing style: I have an idiosyncratic writing process that I'll not bother you with. But as far as writing style, I guess I'd say that, I developed my own writing style in part by aiming between two philosophical mentors. One said: "Writing clearly isn't the icing on the cake in philosophy; it is the cake." The other wrote extremely verbose purple prose that was off putting to some (as were her exceedingly long sentences). I try to take the best from both, though I can't claim any great success. They are a voice in my head as I write. I try not to drain the life out in the search for clarity, but generally clarity is more my goal than not. That said, I can't help but take it as a backhanded compliment when people simply respond to my work by saying that it is "very clear."

Thanks for asking. Best, Brian

Tyler Tritten

From: Tritten, Tyler Sent: Tuesday, October 4, 2016 6:15 PM To: Alfino, Mark Subject: Re: philosophical styles

Hello Mark,

I don't care about the anonymity, so I just reply here, if that is alright.

I will offer a brief comment on one of your questions. "If we can eventually parse obscure writing into clear and straightforward exposition, did it have to be obscure to start with?" I think the counter-question to pose would be the following: "When one parses 'obscure' writing into clear and straightforward exposition, does this normally (though not always) occur at the expense of oversimplification and misrepresentation?" So, I would be skeptical that such 'translations' can really occur. Or, I think that people delude themselves into thinking that the 'clear' exposition is an accurate representation of the original argument.

We do always want simplicity in arguments and explanations, so long as adequacy is not sacrificed. But, complex phenomena and complex issues require complex arguments and explanations, so that simplicity will often mean oversimplification.

I also wonder if all kinds of philosophy are/can be accused of obscurantism or if, as you noted, it is usually directed at the Continentalist and/or feminist. I, for one, can find much of what the analyst says to be impossible to understand and littered with unnecessary jargon and arguably faux distinctions. This isn't to deny that the Continentalist, American philosopher etc. can't or don't do this, but what is the operative politics that they are not known for this? Can the average philosopher read Graham Priest, for example?

Probably there is not a lot (or anything) that is terribly helpful for your class here, but those are my two cents without a lot of prior reflection.

Tyler Tritten Assistant Professor of Philosophy Gonzaga University (509) 313-4330


"I don't think that philosophical writing is necessarily stylistically awful. Gilbert Ryle and Dan Dennett are great to read. Wittgenstein has some great turns-of-phrase (even if it is a bit on the woolly side). David Lewis is dull but admirably clear. So I suppose if by ""style"" you mean ""flair"" then there are few success stories. But if by ""style"" you mean ""clarity,"" there are more successes than I think Pinker would admit.

I think a lot (but not all) of what gets published in journals tends to be on the boring side, but that's likely a product of the peer review process: you have to show that you know the literature and that you've addressed the relevant objections. (A separate question is whether the peer review process stifles creativity.) For what it's worth, I think that most (if not all) philosophical writing can be made clear and accessible to those outside a niche of specialization. In my own experience, Sokolowski and Zahavi are folks working outside what I do and yet make their ideas accessible. My diss director used to tell me to write for a reasonably intelligent college freshman: I'm not saying that I've always (or ever) succeeded in my own work in this regard, but it at least remains a benchmark for me."