Should philosophical discourse be clear and distinct?

Some people think there are things in the realm of knowledge that are absolutely beyond the ken of the man in the street (MITS). I would have to say no, because that would mean the MITS is completely incapable of learning, and that the supposed realms of knowledge are wholly inaccessible.

However, it is my belief that such translation or transmutation from academic language to the vulgar street language always results in misleading interpretations because of the inherent ambiguities in the day to day language that is meant for practical purposes, rather than abstract reflection or deep contemplation. A bridge may be made, but the MITS has to put in some work, and walk towards the “realm of abstract knowledge.” the MITS cannot have everything handed to him or her on a silver platter, rendered in painless and easy-to-digest information.

The MITS is limited by the prejudices of common sense, and those prejudices prevent him or her from seeing further than the short-term goals of expediency or practical life. Most realms of knowledge, if one meant to refer to the abstract musing of scholars and intelligentsia, contain a vocabulary that requires far more than passive learning; an active understanding that attempts to apply the concepts to experience, experiment with them and interpret them for others. The only way a person (MITS or would-be scholar) can understand the technical terminology is through active use, actively reading and writing with these concepts. If the person can explain what he learned to another MITS at a reasonable level, then he does understand at some level.

By then, after a period of scholarly exercises, the MITS is no longer an MITS. But for the MITS who refuses to do anything (on account of other more important things to do, or sheer laziness) will see nothing more than bromides and superficial takes. I have met far too many of the like but that does not diminish my optimism.

A great writer can transmit the ideas of ivory tower residents, yet there are difficulties within such attempts at popularization. Philosophers, generally, do their work by talking/writing to other philosophers, and that involves a priestly language wholly inaccessible to the general public. The popularizers aren’t usually the philosophers themselves but good teachers or academics who can write for the layperson. Nevertheless, they are limited by their audience’s ability to grasp difficult concepts that have little to do with daily life, and require special training with foreign vocabularies.

However, there is an activist program in the works in certain circles. For example, there is a program at the state university that calls for teaching philosophy at the elementary to high school level here in the USA, like they already have in Europe. My cousins from Italy were aware of several philosophers by the age of 16 to 18.

Some say that the public does not do enough to familiarize itself with the range of issues considered by philosophers.

I suspect this is an American issue rather than European, and most Americans are wedded to a certain mindset that is decidedly pragmatic. Philosophy as a reflective discipline is not a very good example of pragmatism.

Perhaps this is symptomatic of a wider anti-intellectualism or a culture of “sound-bites”.

Television, magazines, Hollywood blockbusters, airport filler and other byproducts, which are the chief tools of mass consumerism, have institutionalized a culture of sound bites. Philosophy has no such place in mass consumerism, unless its exponents can reduce their wizardry to fit the ADHD-prone audience in the forms of aphorisms and quotes like Nietzsche. However, Nietzsche’s books never caught on for 50 years until continental thinkers took his philosophy seriously and an English translator saw past the superficial Nazi propaganda.

If people do notice the disdain for philosophy (or philosophers) before, why does it exist and how should it be addressed? Does popularizing the subject require “dumbing it down”? Well, this disdain will continue to exist unless democracy is no longer the vogue, and people begin to award credit for skill and talent instead of whatever coincides to mob thought, or their own norms. Popularizing the subject will always require dumbing it down, no matter the skill of the writer or the intelligence of the audience, chiefly because of two things:

One: the appeal to mass audience must cater to the lowest common denominator, which is by default always closer to the average person than the skilled or creative or special individual.

Two: a popular treatment of the subject uses the generic terms of common language that glosses over the sophisticated distinctions and employs quick generalizations and cheap analogies to the ordinary ideas of the day. The nature of the subject is foreign to daily activities – reflection, questioning, doubting, and analysis – that require obedience, memorization, results, etc.

I can hear the objection: but, but, clear doesn´t equal shallow or less sophisticated!
Lets look at that claim: what is purported to describe as “Clear” is a relative term that depends on the understanding level of the reading audience. If the reading audience is not familiar with philosophy, then what is clear to them must be said or written in their language, and that language is the average joe’s common-sense language.

Now, common sense language, due to its mode of communication as a pragmatic tool, has its limits. What is clear in common sense language usually contains unexamined presuppositions and hidden assertions. If they are not unpacked, as is the tendency of philosophical analysis, then common sense philosophy incontrovertibly appears trite, shallow, and ultimately irrelevant.

Therefore, clarity is not a prerequisite of philosophy – but the limits of the audience’s ability to understand anything beyond the instant results from the activities in their day-to-day life. Clear and distinct language almost entails multitudinous yet ambiguous interpretations.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with clear language in the works of philosophy, but clarity itself is not necessarily a virtue. Clarity helps only as a primer for the uninitiated. There is no need to enshrine it as a metaphysical god when it’s not even practical to do so!

The defender of blunt speech will continue to insist that clear writing isn’t dumbing it down. However, having read a great deal of the relevant literature, I fail to see the difference between the two. For instance, Bryan Magee is a good “in a nutshell” writer, but he is not a good source for deep philosophical analysis. I do prefer the clear writers to the difficult, obscure ones, but it is the difficult ones who are the original thinkers, not the middle men who speak our language.

People claim they don´t have a problem with specific terms in philosophy, as long as they are explained. So, what is clear for most doesn´t mean ambiguous or unspecific either. When a specific term is explained, it does employ the common words we already know or are familiar with. That is common sense language, in a nutshell. 😉

The best example I can give of clear and accessible writing is this very good introductory series written by Paul Newall.

Indeed, Newall’s pieces are excellent, for the newbie. However, were he to compile a book, it would be called Introducing Philosophy, and would be for the general public. Those who are bitten by the philosophy bug won’t be satisfied with his works. While they will be intrigued by the summaries, they more than likely will read the original works for themselves, in order to gain a greater grasp of the subject. In addition, the other philosophers will be busy reading the original works in order to do scholarly work. Newall is capable of writing original work, but in order to do that he must abandon the general public and sacrifice their aesthetic criteria to convey his thoughts. Read an article submitted for a peer review journal sometime; they aren’t full of 5-cent words that scare no one.

Priestly language may bore the most of us. Yet, one man’s junk is another’s art.

Bottom line: the defender of clear and distinct speech is relying on an aesthetic judgment, which is an impractical one for philosophical scholarship.

Some may not like to hear this, but popular works do more damage than most may think. They only appeal to the audience’s aesthetics, and if those aesthetics are in direct conflict with philosophy, then philosophy is sacrificed for the Sacred Cow. After all, not everyone is inspired to do history after reading Will Durant. They may appreciate it, and gain some sense of history, but unless they already have a desire for some kind of academic excellence. Durant becomes their authority of history and their understanding remains frozen at a bourgeoisie level.

Of course, introductory essays with clear writing will reach a greater audience. If someone wanted to appeal to fans of rap music, they would write in rap lyrics, and adopt the required gansta handle, gain street cred, and appeal to a certain sect of people. They would in turn be inspired to study philosophy until they achieved mastery of the technical terminology. There is nothing is wrong with this approach in itself. But since Newall is appealing to a sect that does not engender to highbrow academic language at all, that would mean the odds of someone being “inspired” is slim to none. I speak with people who like rap or street music all the time and even though I am not using any foreign 20 dollar words, they are always saying the same thing: why don’t you talk real?” A deep and inherent distrust of “highbrow language” is far more problematic than a classical liberal is going to admit.

There are already popular works in philosophy, such as Matrix and Philosophy, Seinfeld, Simpsons, etc. So there are inroads being done by appealing to popular audiences’ common tastes. However, philosophy by default will always remain a hermetic discipline.

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...a philosophisticator who utters heresies, thinks theothanatologically and draws like Kirby on steroids.