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.
(@grantmaxwell) is the author of and . He is an editor at Persistent Press and the Archai journal, and he lives in Nashville with his wife and two sons.