Issues in Philosophy Does Philosophical Language Have to Be Difficult?

Does Philosophical Language Have to Be Difficult?

By Grant Maxwell

 

Readers have sometimes asked why my books aren’t more accessible, why they can’t be easily understood by non-academics. At first, I was surprised that these readers found my writing difficult, as I strive for clarity and precision, and I honestly think my work is downright readable compared to some other philosophers. But this question was posed often enough that I began to think carefully about it. The purpose of philosophy, to my mind, is to find words for novel ideas that have not yet been expressed in a robust or coherent way. On this view, writers like G.W.F. Hegel or Alfred North Whitehead or Jacques Derrida weren’t simply writing works (which still stand as paragons of verbal complexity) to confuse or beguile their readers. They were creating new forms of language to widen the scope of what could be expressed.

However, having briefly defended difficulty, there is also certainly great value in explaining extremely complex concepts in more accessible language, like that which I’m attempting to employ here given that the APA blog is read not only by academic philosophers, but also by non-academics who are interested in philosophy, and who want to know what philosophers are up to without devoting decades of their lives to understanding us at our most esoteric. Nevertheless, it seems plausible to suggest that all profound concepts, when sufficiently simplified, become trite clichés. But this spectrum of complexity doesn’t erase the value of the more nuanced expressions. On the contrary, it demonstrates that it is precisely the quality of the language that we use to express our ideas which largely determines their efficacy.

The process of generating meaning is a constant negotiation between our current world views, embodied in vast networks of words and other symbols, and the constraining facts of existence, both the material relations of the world and our own intrinsic characters. And the more we inquire into these apparently objective facts, the more we find that they are more like habits or tendencies susceptible to a startlingly broad range of possible constructions. The semiotic networks constituting our world views evolve, as ideas don’t exist in a vacuum, but are developed through a conversation that has been occurring for thousands of years, with each reply requiring a generation, or sometimes even centuries for its fullest expression. To abstract ideas from their historical context, and from the language developed to describe them in ever-greater nuance, would be to flatten the complexity of these concepts, which comprise the underlying modes of thought that have implicitly informed the more explicit historical occurrences.

I’ve often heard professional philosophers complain that, when they tell non-academics what they do, their interlocutors frequently want to share their own ideas rather than listen to what the acknowledged expert has to say. And though this proclivity can certainly be frustrating for us, it also demonstrates that many people are ardently interested in understanding the deepest questions, in the love of wisdom, even though they haven’t made philosophy their vocation, which I think is generally a positive phenomenon. But what non-philosophers often don’t appreciate is that, just as one wouldn’t expect a surgeon or engineer to avoid technical apparatuses, which are necessary for their work, so one shouldn’t expect a philosopher to plumb the furthest depths of human knowledge, to bring into precise verbal formulation concepts for which simple language does not yet exist, without specialized words which condense concepts that initially required whole volumes to be explicated.

And just as one wouldn’t expect to be able to perform brain surgery or build a rocket without decades of study and practice with the instruments and theories of those endeavors, so too should one not expect to be able to do real philosophy, or even to understand it very well, without years of study and practice. Of course popularly accessible explanations of difficult philosophical concepts are necessary and important. If we’re not communicating what we do to the world outside of the academy, then we can’t complain when the theories we’ve developed to address the most difficult and urgent questions are ignored. Still, the often-repeated demand that all philosophy be understandable by non-specialists is as misguided as the demand that a brain surgeon or rocket scientist should be able to do their work without the tools of their trade, or to explain what they do simply and clearly while they’re in the midst of doing it.

But, one might object, surgeons save people’s lives and rocket scientists enable our cosmic explorations; philosophers just sit around talking about things endlessly, moving in increasingly recondite circles without ever getting anywhere. And there is some truth in this criticism. Philosophy is an extremely long, slow process. But I would argue that there is no more important endeavor, though philosophy’s results are far from immediate. At its best, philosophy is the process of critiquing, refining, extending, and transforming our most fundamental beliefs about the world, of defining who we are in relation to the world, to one another, and to ourselves. Ideas that are radically new and almost inconceivable for one generation become self-evident common sense a few generations later. So I know it’s a lot to ask at such a critical historical moment, when the predominant world views are in need of a massive overhaul, but please be patient with us. We’re working as fast as we can.

 

Grant Maxwell (@grantmaxwellis the author of The Dynamics of Transformation: Tracing an Emerging World View and How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll. He is an editor at Persistent Press and the Archai journal, and he lives in Nashville with his wife and two sons.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Religious texts had a similar history. Priests had a monopoly over them. In countries like India, legends say, priestly class used to punish the commons by placing burning pieces of wood on their tongue for reading sacred religious texts!

    The common availability of bible to everyone after the invention of printing press in Europe,& its role in enlightenment is famous.

    So, shouldn’t all philosophers work towards freeing it from ‘scholasticism’, the trend of its knowledge surrounding around old texts.

    We all know,that the most difficult piece of knowledge also has a simple line of theory at its base, well within the understanding of the least learned. We have the task of getting at such simplest bottom lines of every theory, and make it available to the understanding of the least learned.

  2. I don’t think the difficulty of philosophy stems from the pretentiousness or exclusiveness of the philosophers, but the inherent difficulty in the area itself – so my opinion on the topic is the same as the writer-. As we do not expect to understand a contemporary mathematical paper with ease, we may not expect to understand a contemporary philosophical paper. I don’t really think this is a result of scholasticism in the area but just because of the sheer knowledge and expertise necessary to understand the papers,concepts, etc.

  3. A counter argument…

    Scientists and engineers can deliver value to society in the form of useful technology, so it doesn’t matter if the public understands the terminology such professionals use among themselves. How do philosophers deliver value to society if the public can’t understand what they’re talking about? And what is the point of professional philosophy if it doesn’t deliver value to the public?

    How is professional philosophy ethical if it takes money from the public, but then doesn’t serve the needs of the public? Would you consider it ethical for me to charge you for this post if it was deliberately written in some foreign language that you don’t understand?

    It can be argued that all the complexity and specialized terminology isn’t really about philosophy at all, but rather the philosophy business, a distinction few seem to grasp. The philosophy business is about creating the image of authority, of expert status, so that somebody will pay the philosopher to do what the philosopher wants to do, pursue their own personal interests. I see a strong bias for complexity among academics, because it’s only in complexity that they can present themselves as experts, and it’s only if they are seen as experts that they can get paid.

    Here’s how readers could debunk the above assertion. Quit your job at the university. Write some books full of arcane complexity explained with obscure technical language. If you can make a living selling those books on Amazon, you have proven your value to society, and in your case at least, my claim above is debunked.

    However, if you require a state entity such as a university to act as a middleman who grabs tax dollars from unwilling waitresses and plumbers and then gives it to you, with you giving nothing back to the waitresses and plumbers, then my point is made.

    Understanding the human condition should be a high priority mission for philosophers, and that mission does not require a PhD, complexity, and fancy language. This is proven by the fact that some of the most widely used insights on the human condition were developed and articulated by ordinary uneducated people long ago.

    To debunk this assertion, go ahead and write anything that is still revered by millions to billions of people a few thousand years from now. Or, if you publish your complex and sophisticated analysis here on the blog and not even your peers, let alone the public, find it useful enough to comment upon, then my case is made.

  4. In reply to Oğulcan Cingiler, it is argued that the “inherent difficulty” involved in philosophy is in finding and articulating the bottom line that Abraham Joseph is referring to. That’s the skill that the philosopher should be focused on, boiling insights down in to their most accessible essence. Being able to articulate the bottom line in the everyday language of the ordinary person is the key to the philosopher being useful to the greatest number of fellow human beings, which is the most rational and ethical use of philosophy.

    Consider Jesus the carpenter, arguably the most influential philosopher of Western civilization. Jesus would say something like “love your neighbor as yourself and you will obtain the kingdom of God”. It’s possible to analyze this plain spoken advice in a manner which presents a more sophisticated understanding of the human condition. But it’s not possible to make such an intellectualized approach as useful as the plain spoken ordinary language that Jesus chose. Evidence, Jesus is still widely influential to this day, whereas nobody but academics remembers the ancient scholars.

    Jesus chose simple language because his goal was to serve humanity. Read that again please.

    Philosophers typically choose complex language because their goal is to serve themselves, both in feeding their own intellectual interests, and in impressing their peers in order to gain career advancement etc. This isn’t a crime, but neither is it fully rational.

    What academic philosophers need to grasp is that if they wish to be in the philosophy business (ie. get paid to do philosophy), like any business the focus has to be on serving the customer. This isn’t a moral statement but rather a rational calculation. Those in any business who don’t focus on serving their customer don’t stay in business long. Evidence, observe the chronic hand wringing among academic philosophers regarding the possible loss of funding for their departments. That’s the customer telling you (typically through a series of middlemen) “you aren’t serving us, so we don’t want to serve you either”.

    To a very significant degree Western civilization is built upon Christianity, a philosophy invented and successfully articulated by carpenters and fishermen. Nothing any professional philosopher has ever done comes close to reaching the influence achieved by these most ordinary of folks using the most ordinary language. Ignore this evidence if you wish, and you will be ignored by history in turn. Or learn from the evidence, and perhaps you will have a chance to make a difference.

  5. Grant Maxwell writes…

    “I’ve often heard professional philosophers complain that, when they tell non-academics what they do, their interlocutors frequently want to share their own ideas rather than listen to what the acknowledged expert has to say.”

    As a non-academic myself, I plead guilty to this syndrome. I often use the articles of academics as launching pads for my own ideas, as regular readers would be aware, if we had any regular readers here. Although it’s unlikely academics will be interested in why I do this, here’s an explanation, offered for my own entertainment at least.

    First, I don’t acknowledge you as experts. You acknowledge yourself as experts. I can explain this at length and in detail, but that would require you to engage.

    As specific example, we can observe the article above. The author makes a somewhat reasonable, if tired, case in a well written manner. But he doesn’t defend the case, he just asserts it. And then he runs, leaving all inconvenient challenges behind. If the author can’t or won’t defend his case why should any reader acknowledge him as expert on the topic? Why should any reader accept the “above it all” defense or the “I’m so busy” defense as evidence of expertise?

    This would not merit mention, and would be unreasonably harsh if directed only at one author on one page. What does merit mention is that this phenomena is completely normal, thoroughly routine, a consistent pattern of hit and run writing on the overwhelming majority of articles on this blog and across a larger swath of the philosophy net.

    There’s no crime here, but neither is there evidence of expert status.

    Why do I frequently share my own ideas rather than listen to what the acknowledged expert has to say? Because the acknowledged experts haven’t proven themselves experts, and my ideas are more interesting and useful than theirs.

    Is saying that socially clueless? Yes. Is it also factually correct? Yes again.

    This is a philosophy site. Anyone wishing to declare themselves an authority, an expert, should be prepared to demonstrate that, to prove it. We in the public don’t want to see your PhD, we want to see you successfully make and defend some case which matters.

    The author has raised an issue which can reasonably be said to matter. He has made a case on that issue. He has failed to defend that case.

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