How not to write in philosophy – Against obscurantism

Saint Jerome Writing
Saint Jerome Writing by Caravaggio (1573-1610)

By Eric Bright

[Updated on 2014-12-01]
[Updated on 2014-02-20]

Note:
If the reason why you write in philosophy is to confuse your potential readers, or to mislead them, or to obscure your point, or make it harder for the reader to understand you, or to make it impossible for the reader to get your point, then you don’t need to read this article. You can skip it and move on with your own style. You would do just fine.

Now, I am talking to the rest of us, those writers who write for readers to be understood. Believe me, not everyone writes in order to be understood. As it happens in philosophy, actually the opposite is true: many pseudo-philosophers have actually wrote books in order to confuse their hapless readers and fellow philosophers.

One would expect philosophy to be different. For example, I remember, and usually quote, William James’ notion of philosophy that I have found to be the best description of philosophy so far: “Philosophy is the peculiarly stubborn attempt to think clearly.” So, one would think that “clarity” is a virtue. Indeed, philosophers have emphasised on clarity many times. Here is another example, this time from Karl Popper:

“Although clarity is valuable in itself, exactness or precision is not: there can be no point in trying to be more precise than our problem demands. Linguistic precision is a phantom, and problems connected with the meaning or definition of words are unimportant. Thus our table of Ideas (on p: 25 [of his book]), in spite of its symmetry, has an important and an unimportant side: while the left-hand side (words and their meaning) is unimportant, the right-hand side (theories and the problems connected with their truth) is all-important. Words are significant only as instruments for the formulation of theories, and verbal problems are tiresome: they should be avoided at all cost.”

Nevertheless, clarity is usually what we do not find in philosophy literature. Many philosophy books and papers are littered with incomprehensible rubbish that have either no meaning, are clearly false, or completely ill-conceived. And I am not talking just about the concepts that these poor writers had in mind and struggled to communicate. The objection that ‘it is the topic that is too complicated and so it ends up being expressed in complex and hard-to-understand works’ does not seem to be a valid objection either. Competent writers have shown over and over again that most complex topics can be explained in a way that they can be understood by most people, expert or not.

There seems to be a consensus among most modern philosophers that, in many cases, if you write unintelligibly, the chances for you to be recognised as a serious philosopher are higher than when you write clearly. Here is an example from Bertrand Russell:

“This suggests a word of advice to such of my hearers as may happen to be professors. I am allowed to use plain English because everybody knows that I could use mathematical logic if I chose. Take the statement: Some people marry their deceased wives’ sisters’. I can express this in language which only becomes intelligible after years of study, and this gives me freedom. I suggest to young professors that their first work should be written in a jargon only to be understood by the erudite few. With that behind them, they can ever after say what they have to say in a language ‘understanded of the people’. In these days, when our very lives are at the mercy of the professors, I cannot but think that they would deserve our gratitude if they adopted my advice.”
(Portraits from Memory, London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956.)

Or Schopenhauer when he said:

“Because of his style which was obscure, Kant was properly understood by exceedingly few. And it is as if all the philosophical writers, who since Kant had had some success, had devoted themselves to writing still more unintelligibly than Kant. This was bound to succeed!”
(Schopenhauer, Manuscript Remains, Vol. 4, “Cogitata I,” § 107.)

“This was bound to succeed!” Then it would be safe to assume that many writers were, and still are, aware of the trick. But, so are many readers today.

Bad Examples – Poor Styles

Oh, boy! If there is only one thing on this planet of which there is no shortage, it must be horribly-written philosophical works. I am being serious. Aside from the reasons that Schopenhauer and Russell talked about, there are a few other reasons why a writer fails to be a communicator. A big one is because in some cases he or she does not want to communicate anything in the first place. There are some theories to explain why such deliberate obscurity could be useful or even desirable. One can easily think of Plato and his method of restricting knowledge in a society for the sake of the society itself. Another explanation is what Hegel would have given. He would have argued that when philosophers think, one of the side-effects of their reflections is an apparent obscurity of statements and propositions in the eyes of laypeople, and hence what they do is justified and unavoidable.

 

Knight Tour

However, most philosophers disagree. They call it “obscurantism” and think that it is dishonest and stupid at best. Here is an example of what Schopenhauer said about Hegel’s obscurantism:

“… a colossal piece of mystification, which will yet provide posterity with an inexhaustible theme for laughter at our times, that it is a pseudo-philosophy paralyzing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking, and, by the most outrageous misuse of language, putting in its place the hollowest, most senseless, thoughtless, and, as is confirmed by its success, most stupefying verbiage… .”
Schopenhauer, Arthur (1965), On the Basis of Morality, trans. E.F.J.Payne, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, pp.15-16.

And others seem to agree with Schopenhauer’s evaluation.

“But the height of audacity in serving up pure nonsense, in stringing together senseless and extravagant mazes of words, such as had previously been known only in madhouses, was finally reached in Hegel, and became the instrument of the most bare-faced general mystification that has ever taken place, with a result which will appear fabulous to posterity, and will remain as a monument to German stupidity.”
Caird, Hegel, in the Blackwood Philosophical Classics; pp. 5-8

Russell also does not have a better evaluation of obscurantism for that matter. For example, this is what he says about Heidegger:

“[H]is philosophy is extremely obscure. One cannot help suspecting that language is here running riot.”
Russell, Bertrand (1989), Wisdom of the West, Crescent Books, pp. 303, ISBN 978-0-517-69041-3.

W. V. Quine, René Thom, John Searle, and Richard Rorty have also expressed similar criticism in relation to the way, for example, Derrida wrote to the extent that the first two of those thinkers believed that Derrida’s works were “pseudo-philosophy” and “sophistry.” This is how Michel Foucault thinks about Derrida:

“Michel Foucault once characterized Derrida’s prose style to me [Searle] as “obscurantisme terroriste.” The text is written so obscurely that you can’t figure out exactly what the thesis is (hence “obscurantisme”) and when one criticizes it, the author says, “Vous m’avez mal compris; vous êtes idiot’ [roughly, “You misunderstood me; you are an idiot”] (hence “terroriste”).”

 

John Searle – Foucault and Bourdieu on continental obscurantism

 

Here comes the fun part. Karl Popper never had a high regard for Hegel in general and the Hegelian style in particular. In one of the most hilarious paragraphs in philosophy literature, he wrote:

In order to discourage the reader beforehand from taking Hegel’s bombastic and mystifying cant too seriously, I shall quote some of the amazing details which he discovered about sound, and especially about the relations between sound and heat. I have tried hard to translate this gibberish from Hegel’s _Philosophy of Nature_ as faithfully as possible; he writes: ‘§302. Sound is the change in the specific condition of segregation of the material parts, and in the negation of this condition; merely an _abstract_ or an ideal _ideality_, as it were, of that specification. But this change, accordingly, is itself immediately the negation of the material specific subsistence; which is, therefore, _real ideality_ of specific gravity and cohesion, i.e.—_heat_. The heating up of sounding bodies, just as of beaten or rubbed ones, is the appearance of heat, originating conceptually together with sound.’ There are some who still believe in Hegel’s sincerity, or who still doubt whether his secret might not be profundity, fullness of thought, rather than emptiness. I should like them to read carefully the last sentence (which is the only intelligible one) of this quotation, because in this sentence Hegel gives himself away. For clearly, it means nothing but: ‘The heat-ing up of sounding bodies . . is heat . . together with sound.’ The question arises whether Hegel deceived himself, hypnotized by his own inspiring jargon, or whether he boldly set out to deceive and bewitch others. I am satisfied that the latter was the case, especially in view of what Hegel wrote in one of his letters. In this letter, dated two years before the publication of his _Philosophy of Nature_, Hegel referred to another _Philosophy of Nature_, written by his good friend Schelling : ‘I have had too much to do . . with mathematics . . differential calculus, chemistry’, Hegel boasts in this letter (but this is just bluff), ‘to let myself be taken in by the humbug of the Philosophy of Nature, by this philosophizing without knowledge of fact . . and by the treatment’ of _mere fancies, even imbecile fancies, as ideas.’ This is a very fair characterization of Schelline’s method, that is to say, of that impudent and audacious way of bluffing which Hegel himself copied, or rather exploited and aggravated, as soon as he realized that if it reached its proper audience it meant success.

The Open Society and Its Enemies Volume 2: Hegel and Marx by Karl Raimund Popper (Originally published 1945) (Edition extracts taken from version published by Routledge and Kegan Paul, 5th Edition, 1973 reprint, ISBN 0 7100 4626 X) (Page 28)

You can easily find more examples of poor styles, pretensions forms, and empty single statements that run for one or more pages non-stop. Hegel’s works is a good place to start from for hours of good laughter, but certainly he is not the only one. Here is Nietzsche’s opinion on this matter:

On the question of being understandable. — One does not only wish to be understood when one writes; one wishes just as surely not to be understood. It is not by any means necessarily an objection to a book when anyone finds it impossible to understand: perhaps that was part of the author’s intention — he did not want to be understood by just ‘anybody’. All the nobler spirits and tastes select their audience when they wish to communicate; and choosing that, one at the same time erects barriers against ‘the others’. All the more subtle laws of any style have their origin at this point: they at the same time keep away, create a distance, forbid ‘entrance’, understanding, as said above — while they open the ears of those whose ears are related to ours. (GS 381. Cf. BGE 290 and TI, ‘Expeditions of an Untimely Man’, 26)

And if you think this is not bad enough, he has more for you in Beyond Good And Evil, Part II, Aphorism # 27:

“[…] I’m simply doing everything to make myself difficult to be understood? – […]. But so far as “good friends” are concerned, […] one does well to start by giving them a recreation room and playground of misunderstanding: – so one has to laugh – or else to get rid of them altogether, these good friends – and also to laugh!”

So much for having a good intention and doing philosophy! It sounds more like a medical practitioner claims that he does everything to make his clients sick. Go figure!

What can go wrong with a style

If you have read this far, you probably have got my point as to what I mean by a bad style of writing. There are simply a few writing habits that you must avoid in order to be comprehensible, let alone to form a great style (i.e. they are necessary but not sufficient). You don’t want to sound like Hegel if you know what I am talking about. Read the following paragraph and you will get the point if you have not already:

Echnotropological Anthropomorphostatsioptrathic Phenomena

Although Schelling has emphasised that its ‘to-be-fication’ is not that it can not be to the extent that being and to becoming has any effect of the ultra-dimensionality of the conceptions that are transcendental to the way to be is expressed in the mind of the one who is conceptualising it at time and beyond time so that the time is nothing but a segment of the imaginary self egosenthesized beyond being and being is temporoegoformulized beyond time, so that the concept of echnotropological phenomena turns into a meta-anthropomorphostatsioptrathic phenomena through not ontologically allowing the ego to go and while Hegel is right about it being the antithesis against not existing and existing be beyond being and Derrida of course sees it all in the same light of the platitude expressed by the pantheic and, honestly, epidemic view of ontochronologico-mathematical approach of Pythagorean era and Greek’s obsession with neolocochronomathematically unclarificationilizational bubbling of Hegel, the mastery of this temporal semi-Heideggerean, quasi-Schelling, and mimicosemiquasihegelean take on echnotropological anthropomorphostatsioptrathic phenomena is crystal clear that the synthesis of analysis before it becomes the anti-analysis of the synthesis while Hegel was postulating its synthetically monoliticoemperiostrochronologism of being into the antithesis of “effectiveness, from synthesis due to an adulteration of the concept of such apprentice,” to quote one of his devote followers, is at the same time, and at times same as before, as what Heidegger proposed posthumously as time being of its own substance in relation to what Derrida would have called synthetically antiprolgetic in relation to the ontology of Heidegger’s Being and Time as other similar qausiphilosophers would call ‘intellectual artistry of the synthetical a priori gymnastic of the mind in itself’ so that if it can become itself while still in the process of becoming, it would transcend beyond the analytical mind the same way that Heidegger and Derrida would have been approved of and Hegel would have been fond of by virtue of unclassificationilization of the ultimate form of deconstructioning of forms as an antithesis to the familiar theses of familiarity and familiarityness into the psyche and ontological procrastination of the final judgement so the judgement is suspended and the mind is supper clear at the end.

Ouch! How did that feel? I know! But, that is how many people fashion their writing styles after Hegel. Then they think they have said something profound.

By looking at the above ‘Echnotropological Anthropomorphostatsioptrathic Phenomena’ paragraph that I just composed, a few things become immediately obvious:

 

1- Run-on sentence

Dialogue - message bubbles

It is similar to ‘comma splice’ error that is extremely common among students when they join two or more independent clauses with a comma. Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, 11th Edition, defines a run-on sentence as, “a sentence containing two or more clauses not connected by the correct conjunction or punctuation.”

If you go back and look again at the ‘Echnotropological…’ paragraph, you will see that it is all one sentence with only one full-stop at the end of the paragraph. It is not just the sentence being long that is a problem. That, by itself, does not make a sentence a run-on sentence. When one sentence contains more than one independent clause, then we call it a run-on sentence. There are rare exceptions, in very short sentences with common forms and rhythms that a short run-on sentence might be acceptable; it is an error otherwise.

Aside from such sentences being grammatically wrong, they also become exceedingly harder to understand as the length of the paragraph grows. You want to be intelligible, right? Then avoid this common error.

“I don’t care about grammar. I make my own grammar,” is also not a good excuse for writing horribly. Trust me, that attitude has a name: arrogance.

2- Jargon and neologism

Neologism: A writer might be able to invent a new phrase or coin a new word and make it popular too in his lifetime; a few words at best. For example, James Randi has been trying to make the term “woo woo” into the Oxford English dictionary by popularising it. There is nothing wrong with new words and expressions. However, when they are used in excess, one after another, and without proper introduction of the terms, they become problematic.

When there is no definition of a term or when a common term is used in an undefined and uncommon way, then we have all the reasons to suspect the ulterior motives of the writer in using such a term. Derrida, for example, is often criticised for talking nonsense. Why? Because he made it upon himself to use words that were not defined before and use familiar words with totally unfamiliar meanings in his own mind, without even telling the readers what he had in mind if there was any. Was he joking? Was he trying to prove a point, like showing how far he can go on producing nonsense without being caught? No one will ever know. His suspicious motivations cannot be explained away as easily as he wanted us to think (I think he was trying to pull our leg and see if he could get away with it, and to a certain extent he succeeded. But who knows).

Jargons: Some writers believe that if they write for a specific audience, like for the community of mathematicians, it would be all right if they use jargons; such an audience would understand the language anyway, or should be able to understand it, they think. Then these writers feel justified in using as many jargons as they can in their papers or books. Given this argument they bring up, any case against using jargons would be a hard sell. After all, either you are the proper audience for a paper or a book or you are not. If you are, then you are supposed, in the mind of the writer anyway, to know the terminology that they are using, otherwise you are not the right audience. That is why and how you are considered to be the audience of the paper in the first place: Familiarity with the language of the paper. These writers believe that if you are not the proper audience of the paper, then it would be fine if you cannot understand a word of what they wrote. But, is that so?

This argument seems to look like a slippery slope and a recipe for a bad practice. Because, first of all, it is not easy to define the target audience of a book or a paper. Even if a writer attempts to do it, he cannot limit his work from being read by the population of non-audience. You can never know when a non-technical, but interested reader picks up your book or paper and tries to understand it. Then, if you have the slightest respect for your potential readers and their time, then you might want to make your work worthy of their efforts.

 

Source: Continental inflight magazine
Source: Continental inflight magazine

As we saw in the case of Hegel, pretentiousness and pomposity can be two of the motives of a writer and why he or she writes. One writer might want to show off the vastness of her vocabulary and buy some respect from her colleagues through that. Another writer might want to confuse his readers by using words that cannot be understood by the majority of readers just to disguise some critical point. This is especially the case when republicans in the United States want to pass a bill and at the same time they don’t want anyone to actually understand what detrimental laws are being passed. They have been doing so to destroy the American democracy for years and they never stop. Their motives? Power, control, and money. Using unintelligible language is an indispensable weapon that corrupt politicians use in order to gain more and more power without people noticing it.

There can be other reasons for a style that a writer chooses to imitate or invent. Sometimes, the imitation of a bad style is not what causes the trouble. The writer simply does not know the right way of writing. She is not trying to be a poor writer and she wants to be understood, but because she does not know better, she has caught in a habit of writing that is contrary to what she wants to achieve. I think that most writers with poor styles fall under this latter category; they don’t know better.

If we look at Russell’s writing recommendations, we would see even more flaws in the ‘Echnotropological…’ paragraph (aside from it being total nonsense).

“There are some simple maxims […] which I think might be commended to writers of expository prose. *First*: never use a long word if a short word will do. *Second*: if you want to make a statement with a great many qualifications, put some of the qualifications in separate sentences. *Third*: do not let the beginning of your sentence lead the reader to an expectation which is contradicted by the end. Take, say, such a sentence as the following, which might occur in a work on sociology: ‘Human beings are completely exempt from undesirable behaviour-patterns only when certain prerequisites, not satisfied except in a small percentage of actual cases, have, through some fortuitous concourse of favourable circumstances, whether congenital or environmental, chanced to combine in producing an individual in whom many factors deviate from the norm in a socially advantageous manner.’ Let us see if we can translate this sentence into English. I suggest the following: ‘All men are scoundrels, or at any rate almost all. The men who are not must have had unusual luck, both in their birth and in their upbringing.’ This is shorter and more intelligible, and says just the same thing. But I am afraid any professor who used the second sentence instead of the first would get the sack.”
(Russell, Bertrand (1956), _Portraits from Memory_, London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Simon & Schuster). The bold emphasis is mine.

Undefined, long words, qualifications after qualifications, and nonsensical expressions are everywhere in the ‘Echnotropological…’ paragraph. Some writers, like Derrida, would claim that if you could not understand a paragraph like the one I made up, you certainly are not good enough. Hegel would certainly say a similar thing too, or Mr A for that matter. Who is Mr A? Read on then.

Invalid Excuses

Read the following exchange of words between two fellow members, which I would call Mr A and Mr B, in a philosophy community:

Mr A – General Discussion
question: could Deleuze’s concept of the Fold also be construed as a knot, tied to all other points of space and affected by it, but nonetheless manifesting as something different than the substance of unified whole, depending upon how it is knotted (or Folded)?

Mr B
Except I don’t fully understand what you mean, since using highly abstract terms that tend to become completely meaningless at a point: No.

Mr A
Philosophy is abstraction. If you don’t understand the terms, then that’s quite fine; but I wouldn’t suggest projecting your own lack as a means to pretending that those things that are beyond your sphere of knowledge are as meaningless as you subjectively understand them.
Put more succinctly: if you don’t know the terms, and you aren’t interested in getting to know the terms, then your opinion of the things you don’t know is fairly useless, both to me and the rest of the world.

We don’t want to judge the contents of Mr A’s question and we don’t want to talk about whether or not he asked something profound. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he had something to ask. This article is concerned solely with form and style of writings not the substance.

Was Mr A’s defense of his obscurity a valid one? Do you remember the anecdote that Searle gave us about Michel Foucault view of Derrida? “[…] and when one criticizes it, the author says, “Vous m’avez mal compris; vous êtes idiot’ [roughly, “You misunderstood me; you are an idiot”] […].” The same thing goes in here too.

Ambiguity is either intentional, a sign of laziness, or a sign of the lack of understanding on the side of the writer. It can also be due to disrespect towards the audience, if there is any, that a writer wants to just send them on a wild-goose chase while he stands aside and laughs. I hope this is not very common.

One argument in Mr A’s case is this: ‘Either you understand me, or you don’t. If you don’t understand me, shut up and let those who do understand me engage in a conversation with me’. The problem is that a writer who actually cares to be understood, would have put time and attention into articulating her thoughts in words that can possibly be understood by as many people as possible.

Another argument in this case is this: ‘Philosophy is abstract’, which is another way of the writer saying ‘It’s okay if I’m obscure as long as I am talking philosophy (or to philosophers)’. However, nothing can be any further from the truth than this excuse. Abstraction does not have to, and should not, come at the expense of clarity, and certainly not through obscurity and senseless utterances. Saying that ‘because it is philosophy, I am allowed to write however I wish since it’s all the same and it’s all abstract’ is obviously a nonsense. No one is going to hold a writer back from writing a book filled with nonsense, of course, but that cannot be proposed as the best practice in writing.

Aside from the two claims that I mentioned above being flat arrogant, they also presume too much. If, by any stretch of imagination, they are honest beliefs of a writer, which I doubt they are, they presume that everyone who is reading his writings knows whatever he is referring to; i.e. readers are supposed to know everything that everyone has ever written. Such a writer would be quick to jump up and cry that ‘No! Only if you are my audience you are expected to know what I am talking about’, and then he would think that he has settled the case. I have to disagree. I don’t believe that writers should be able to get away with an intentional lack of clarity. I don’t see how one can legitimately argue for ambiguity and obscurity in any context.

Since the topic of my article is about philosophy, there is one more important issue to consider in here: Honesty. One of the biggest challenges of all humans, all writers included, is to stay honest with themselves in particular and with others in general. If you are a magician, a “conjurer” as James Randi puts it, you are allowed, by the definition of your profession, to deceive your audience. Not only that, but also your audience usually pays you to entertain it through your clever deceptions. That is why the audience is there in the first place: To be perplexed, puzzled, and to be entertained precisely because of that puzzlement.

 

Medieval writing desk

But once a conjurer starts to make money by claiming that her magic is not through what all magicians do, but instead it happens due to her psychic, paranormal powers, then we have a problem. This is the case of charlatans and frauds. Such a conjurer knows that what he is doing is nothing but a trick, but pretends that it is done by his supernatural abilities. This can easily fool people and there are countless examples of this type of charlatans who have been making their livings through this dishonest move.

Writing is also like that, even more so in philosophy. A philosopher is supposed to clarify, not mystify. Hegel, by his own account that I have mentioned above, is a charlatan. He knows that what he is saying is nonsense, and he does it nevertheless.

Richard Dawkins puts it this way:

Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content.

Richard Dawkins, Nature, 9 July 1998, vol. 394, pp. 141-143. doi:10.1038/28089

Not all writers are dishonest Hegelians. Thank Zeus! Most writers with poor writing styles simply do not know better or just try to keep or create a mask of profundity. We all want to sound deep; sometimes deeper than what we actually are. That is fine in general, because it encourages many people into trying to actually become great instead of faking it. However, when this habit becomes the only way we think or write, then it turns into a serious issue. Although many people who write in less-than-a-good style, especially in philosophy, do not realise it. Also many of them would not accept the defect even if their defective writing style is pointed out to them. This is called self-deception.

Philosophy needs more clarity not less, more honesty and no self-deception. Even if the language is “pure abstraction,” by running away from more comprehensible abstractions to less and less comprehensible abstractions, we are not doing philosophy. There are other words for it in philosophy. It is called “rhetoric” and “pseudo-philosophy;” also “sophistry,” if what is said is false, dressed in a seemingly plausible argument.

Many people can see the real vacuum, the illusion of importance and depth, through a convoluted or an obscure style of writing. A philosopher needs to know better and be more careful than a fiction writer. The job of a philosopher is to make complex and abstract ideas clearer and more intelligible by everyone, not less so. He does not write just for his hapless colleagues in his school.

Technicality versus clarity

Is it possible to write a highly technical paper that is, at the same time, clear? I asked a few people in academia, especially two individuals who are doing their Ph.Ds in Electronic Engineering. One of them said: It depends. If I write a paper for a conference and start to explain all the technical terms in the paper in a way that everyone can read and understand it, then a three pages paper would turn into a three-hundred-pages paper and still I would not have explained it enough. Also, my audience would immediately asks me why I am explaining these technical terms.

Given that response, are technicality and clarity two mutually exclusive attributes? Can’t we have both at the same time? Do we have one at the expense of the other? Necessarily?

I asked my engineer friends, “What if some or most people in your community or your engineering department say that your paper is unintelligible? What if they say it’s even hard to make sense of most of your sentences in your paper?” And they immediately said, “That’s a clear indication of a terrible way of writing. There must be something wrong with your writing then!”

“There must be something wrong with your writing” if your colleagues and peers cannot make sense of what you are saying. Don’t get me wrong. What I am saying is different from showing some sparks of genius that is not recognised by the community as such. It is one thing to propose one unbelievable, genius, and controversial idea that can be understood by others but is still rejected as impossible or insane, and it is another thing to write a simple idea in a manner that most of your peers cannot understand what you are talking about to begin with. Don’t take the former for the latter. You might have a crazy idea and explain it very well and still face serious oppositions. Or, you can have a very simple idea in mind, then express it in such a convoluted way that no one can understand you. This latter state is not a sign of the greatness of any idea. If anything, it tells how confused the writer is about expressing herself.

 

Black and white letters background

To demonstrate how it is possible to have a serious, technical discussion in a very narrow field of science (or philosophy for that matter), one can do a simple experiment. Go to your closest library and grab the oldest book you can find on Newtonian mechanics. Then browse to a subject like calculating the trajectory of a falling body. Now, find the latest book you can find on the same subject and browse to the same topic. Put them side by side in front of you and start to read them. The first thing you will notice is the way the same topics are discussed and explained. If the books are one hundred year apart, you can see a huge difference in the way that the same very topic is laid out on each page, is illustrated, is discussed in words, and even in the mathematical notations. It would be hard not to see an enormous improvement over time.

Now, let’s turn to one of the most technical subjects we can think of and see if it can benefit from clarity and good style; let’s turn to mathematics.

I have no doubt that some of you have been thinking, perhaps all the way from the start of this article till now, that ‘Hey! You cannot be technical and comprehensible to all at the same time when you’re talking about some topics like mathematics for instance’. Guess what. We can, and I have a good example to show you.

Mathematics is usually considered a highly technical domain with a language, syntax, and symbols of its own. Either you know the language or you don’t. In case you don’t know the notation we use to express mathematical ideas, you most definitely would be at a loss when it comes to understand anything written in that language. But then, exactly when you thought that things cannot get any more complex than what today’s mathematical language can get, I am going to remind you of how difficult it was to write and read a mathematical paper about a thousand years ago. Consider the following piece from a book called Algebra by al-Khowarizmi, written in early 11th century C.E.:

“What must be the amount of a square, which, when twenty-one dirhems are added to it, becomes equal to the equivalent of ten roots of that square? Solution: Halve the number of the roots; the moiety is five. Multiply this by itself; the product is twenty-five. Subtract from this the twenty-one which are connected with the square; the remainder is four. Extract its root; it is two. Subtract this from the moiety of the roots, which is five; the remainder is three. This is the root of the square which you required, and the square is nine. Or you may add the root to the moiety of the roots; the sum is seven; this is the root of the square which you sought for, and the square itself is forty-nine.”
Cajori, F. (1928). _A history of mathematical notations: Vol. I_. London: The Open Court Co. p. 84 (read the text at http://www.archive.org/details/historyofmathema031756mbp)

It might not look that bad until you see what it is trying to say in today’s mathematical language (and bear in mind that I still had to use less-than-optimal alternatives to subscript and square-root notations because I wanted it to be readable in plain text on all devices):

Problem: what is x in x^2 + 21 = 10x
Solution: x = (10/2) ± [(10/2)^2 – 21]^½ = 5 ± 4^½ = 5 ± 2

Do you agree now that the format and style do matter?

 

Mathematics Template

My point is this: If you can say 5 ± 2, then don’t say
 

( ( ( ( ( 3456 ) 310 2 ) + ( 5 ! 12 ) ) 10 ) + ( ( 1 12 1 t 5 e t d t + 25 + 1 12 k = 0 ( 1 ) k ( 6 + k ) k ! ) 15 ) ) ± ( ( ( ( ( ( 3456 ) 310 2 ) + ( 5 ! 12 ) ) 10 ) + ( ( 1 12 1 t 5 e t d t + 25 + 1 12 k = 0 ( 1 ) k ( 6 + k ) k ! ) 15 ) ) 3 )

 
Okay? Although they are absolutely equivalent, the longer version is patently insane and preposterous.

Strangely enough, some people who perfectly understand why the latter mathematical expression in the above paragraph is terribly worse than the former one, can still fail to see why the Hegelian style of writing is terribly worse than a sane, human-readable style. Can you believe it?!

Now, if you understood the difference between technicality and clarity, we can move on.

What is a good style then?

In the same piece of writing I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, Portraits from Memory, Russell says: “I cannot pretend to know how writing ought to be done, or what a wise critic would advise me to do with a view to improving my own writing. The most that I can do is to relate some things about my own attempts” and then he goes on to explain how he used to write and how he formed his own writing style.

No one knows what exactly all the elements of a good style are. We know what errors would make it worse, but no one seems to know the exact tricks that would make for an eloquent piece of writing. At least no one has been able to articulate it well enough so far. I think knowing some common errors and avoiding them would be a safe ground to stand on. From that ground, you can build up eloquence and elegance, break by break.

In print

There are very famous books on writing style, like The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White that you can read. There are tons of examples of common errors and misused words and phrases that are explained in this book. You can read the whole book online at http://www.bartleby.com/141/.

KAPLAN’s Writing Power is one of those books that must be compulsory for every student to read several times. The name of the book might not be enticing to some, more advanced, writers, but after reading the book you would definitely agree that Hegel’s and Derrida’s writings would have been improved at least a million times had they had the chance to read and learn only this book. Alas! They are gone, and what is done is done. But, we are lucky that we have access to good books the way that it was not even conceivable for kings and queens a few centuries ago.

This book has a few rules that are powerful enough to transform anyone’s writing from a poor or a mediocre level to an acceptable or even good one. Here they are: Rule One: Be Concise. Rule Two: Be Forceful. Rule Three: Be Correct. Rule Four: Be Polished. And that’s it! The rest of the book explains these four rules.

Obviously, not everyone believes that he or she is that bad to need such advice. But don’t allow a bad publicity to stop you from listening to some life-saving advice. If Hegel can benefit from that book, so can you.

When you are ready to move up a few steps and when you think you already mastered the basics, you might want to learn some advanced tricks for your writing. It is not fun to re-invent the wheel when so many others have already done so. Instead of re-discovering many of such tricks by yourself, you better see what others have discovered so far. This way, you would save yourself a lot of trouble and would get good at writing quickly. Avoiding common errors and obvious mistakes in writing is fun. Also learning, in opposed to re-discovering, advance techniques of writing is very exciting and at times liberating.

A more advanced and modern book with a more direct approach to writing style is Robert Masello’s book Robert’s Rules of Writing – 101 unconventional lessons every writer needs to know. It talks about the substance as well as the form of a piece of writing, usually a fiction, and gives you many useful and practical tips. However, a lot of tips in that book is tailored for writing a fiction as opposed to writing a philosophy paper. But, you will get the gist of his points that will be good for any type of writing.

Noble’s Book of Writing Blunders – and how to avoid them by William Noble is another excellent book on writing style. It is concise and fun to read. It has a few advice that might be dangerous to follow for those who have not mastered the basics yet (like ‘invent your own rules’, which can be disastrous; like asking someone to fly when he has not learned how to stand on his own feet yet).

Real-time online help

Have you ever wished you had an expert in the English language and writing who could help you with a paragraph or two in your paper, article, or book where you have stuck with a weird sentence that you cannot correct on your own? Let’s give you a real-life example taken right out of a comment in Philosophy Community:

“I find problematic, the idea of an essential psyche, autonomous of objectivity: that is, a mind distinct from the objectified subject– i.e., the egoic existent, the Heideggarian dasein of “being-there”. Sartre revised the classic Cogito in his interpretation of the initial “I” as a state of being, a condition, the negative consciousness which is the sole determinant of humanity. Instead, French existentialist theory places a doubling of thought, the reflexive self-awareness of the self as thought, which condition results in the act of being-in-doubt. This annihilative process of Sartre, I think, works better in late modernist theories; also, the rational thought is conditional of all it takes into account– so that, being depends upon the experiential basis of thought, and the interchangability of an empirical reality with the doubt of such an order of significance: that order which leads from the effect to the generalization of causations.”

Whether or not you think the above paragraph means anything is beyond the scope of this article. We only want to know if we could write this paragraph any better (well, one can argue that you won’t be able to do so unless you understood what it actually meant. True. The writer is the one who needs to be concerned about that issue, and he is supposed to know what he was trying to say. I assumed that the author is the one who wants to rephrase that paragraph, not the reader). If you have ever had a problem like that, and you cannot sort it out on your own and you don’t know where to look or whom to ask, then, you might want to give OpenStudy.com a try.

There are many categories on that website where skillful people get together and help those who have problems. What problems? Anything from mathematics, to history, physics, as well as writing, to name a few. The website states that, “75% of questions are answered within 5 minutes.” Here is where you can find the help section on writing: http://openstudy.com/study#/groups/Writing

The benefit of this website, compare to a forum, is that there are tens of interested people constantly online and available to help you with your perplexing issues and you don’t have to wait for hours or days before you can get an answer; instead, you would get a descent answer to your technical writing problem, hopefully, in a few minutes. Speaking of real-time, interactive, online help!

Online

Now, what if you need a grammar handbook? As it happens, there are literally hundreds of fantastic grammar books, both published on paper, and available online. I am going to mention a few excellent online resources for you in here.

 

Blue gem stones by OCAL

The Blue book of grammar and punctuation is one of the best grammar books you can find, both online and in print. The tenth edition of the book appeared in 2007. This is all what one might want for grammar and punctuation. Everything is explained very clearly and with many examples. The style of the book is simple, clear, concise, and helpful. Both versions of the book have quizzes. The online version of the book has videos too that you cannot find in the print version. You can find the online version of the book at http://www.grammarbook.com/.

Guide to Grammar and Writing is an easy to use and very well constructed online resource for anyone who needs help with this subject. The topics are organised in categories such as Word & Sentence Level, Paragraph Level, and Essay & Research Paper Level. That is not all though. There are a few other main categories with tons of cool stuff in each: Ask Grammar, Quizzes, Search Devices; and Peripherals & PowerPoints. All of the topics under each category are super easy to access. You can access this valuable resource at http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/.

Last but not least, I would like to mention another valuable online resource at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: UW-Madison Writer’s Handbook. There are a few main topics that the handbook is focusing on: Improving Your Writing Style, Stages of the Writing Process, Common Writing Assignments, Grammar and Punctuation, Cite References in Your Paper. This fantastic online resource is for you to use at http://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/index.html.

You can find thousands of books and pamphlets that explain in details the elements of a good, or a bad, style. For example, The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has a very nicely outlined pamphlet that explains style in a nice online format. The handout itself is called Style and can be found at http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/style/. Tens of other handouts can also be found there at http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/ which deal with many other aspects of writing such as Argument, Audience, Brainstorming, College Writing, Color Coding, Conclusions, Drawing Relationships, Evaluating Print Sources, Evidence, Fallacies, and many more issues.

The number of exceptionally well-done online resources is way too many that I cannot even scratch the surface here. Any reputable search engine can show you the most popular ones. They constantly change and old or obsolete ones give way to even better resources that are created by individuals and organisations every day.

University Open Courses

Let’s say you are not still convinced that there is something you can learn from the mentioned books and online resources. Let’s say you think that I am making things up and there is really nothing to be learned from these books. Would you be convinced if I tell you that you can enroll in countless number of university courses on writing? Would that mean anything to you?

Obviously not, if you are Shelling, Derrida, or Heidegger. If you were any of those guys, you would have claimed the greatest praises that humanity can ever bestow upon anyone for the deconstructofabulisiousness of your writing style (perhaps you will come up with the word “deconstructofabulisiousness” to describe your style; or something worse). But, we agreed that you are not any of those people. So, let’s move on.

For those of you who might not be able to attend classes in a university due to a lack of time, financial issues, and other obstacles, there are university courses at The Open University on Creative Writing, Start writing fiction, and Writing What You Know.

Also MIT has open courses on Writing and Reading the Essay as well as Writing and Reading Short Stories.

New Jersey Institute of Technology offers an OpenCourseware, ENG 352: Technical Writing, by Dr. Jim Lipuma that you can take at http://ocw.njit.edu/csla/eng/eng-352-lipuma/index.php. The entire course is there for you to use for free.

Lists of awesome online courses abound. To see a lot more open courses from different universities around the world, you can have a look at this list: http://education-portal.com/articles/10_Universities_Offering_Free_Writing_Courses_Online.html where you can see the names of ten universities and the free, open courses that they offer. The number of extraordinary resources is unbelievably large. Many of these courses are simply amazing.

Of course, there are many more university courses that are not free and open in a sense that you have to register in the course, pay a fee, and physically go to a classroom in a university in order to be counted as a student. There is no way for me to list them all in here. They are all changing and more courses are added every day.

What if I think I am awesome?

Almost everyone who has ever written a paragraph on anything related to philosophy—or literature for that matter—thinks his writing style is awesome, almost all the time. If you ask me, some are even ready to kill anyone who ever dares criticising their writing. The rest of us also certainly feel like that every now and then.

When it comes to writing, most people who have been fortunate enough to go to a college or a university automatically assume that they write well, and their writing style does not need much improvement. Certainly some of us actually do write very well. But, as statistics would remind you by its infamous bell-curve distribution, regretfully, a few of us are very poor writers. Let’s face it: Some of us are excellent, most of us are so-so, and some of us suck at writing.

The unfortunate chance is that the most horrible writers are usually bad at more than just writing; they have a poor reality-check skill too. That is why many of them might remain poor writers. Because if they could impartially see themselves as writers with a poor style, and if they could realistically accept their deficiencies, then probably they would have done something to fix it. Unfortunately, if you think that, for example, Heidegger’s style of writing is awesome, and you are set to imitate him, you are almost certainly out of luck. Thinking that those writers are cool is one thing, and trying to imitate their terrible writing styles is another thing. If one does not have the power of seeing the obvious defects of those styles, one’s power of perception, itself, might be seriously tainted or defective. If that is the case, then you should wish him good luck and leave him alone.

Nevertheless, for the rest of us who are often humbled by reading an eloquent piece of writing, there would be a lot of room for improvement. Someone who is moved by a great piece of writing, is more likely to be able to see something more than what he already posses, perhaps a superb skill that have moved him. For most of us, that is a good sign. It shows that we are not so self-absorbed that we see nothing worthy of our admiration. That usually means that we realised some greatness in someone else’s work, which might be an inspiration to us. Imagine if we all were sincerely thinking that we wrote so well that no one else could come close to our greatness. Would we be moved after reading anyone’s work even if, in reality, it was a lot better than ours? Perhaps not.

So, we have a lot to learn and a lot to improve. You can bet, with a very slim margin of error, that most of us can write a lot better than we do today. We only need to be a little less arrogant and a little more perceptive and humble. Just remember the bell-curve!

 

 

 

Please cite this article as: Bright, Eric. (2013) How not to write in philosophy – Against obscurantism. BlogSophy. http://sophy.ca/blog/2013/03/how-not-to-write-in-philosophy/
Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...