Monday, September 19, 2005

"A difficulty is a light"

Recent debates about "bad writing" have been occupied almost exclusively with "theory". Judith Butler was the target of the most fearsome assault: according to Nussbaum, she "collaborates with evil". Having embraced obscurity – after a fashion – I have been thinking about bad or difficult writing in philosophy.

To begin with, these are not the same, since difficult writing can be very good, and also very clear. A crude operational definition: with difficult writing the risk is incomprehension or lack of understanding; with bad writing, it is mis-comprehension, thinking one understands when one does not.

This distinction is stressed, though not defined, by many contributors to Just Being Difficult?, a humourless and somewhat smug defence of "theoretical" writing edited by Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb. Much of the book is hardly worth discussing, since it operates at a level of generality that is bound to miss the point. As I understand it, the accusation of "bad writing" can only be piecemeal or inductive: this or that writer is needlessly obscure, and his bad arguments are disguised by impossible prose. The charge is properly made in focused essays like Nussbaum's, and properly defused in the same way – as, for instance, in Culler's effective paper on Stanley Cavell. There is little to be gained from operatic gestures towards the political subversion of grammar and the (alleged) paradox of using language to describe itself – or from yet another invocation of "Politics and the English Language".

The more interesting questions are sociological. For instance, "theorists" and philosophers alike are plausibly said to write in inaccessible ways, even when they write well. (There are exceptions to this, but it is more or less the rule.) It is also true that they are not very widely read. But which is cause and which effect, if either? Does philosophy have a narrow audience, mainly of professionals, because it is esoteric? Or did it become more esoteric with the contraction of its audience, which allowed for the indulgence of technicality, and ensured a readership of (only) experts? I have no idea – nor am I sure that the audience for philosophy has very much declined in this century, or how to measure such a thing. I doubt that McTaggart was on the bookshelf of every educated Brit.

The debate about bad writing has a longer history still. In one of the better essays in Just Being Difficult? it is traced to David Hume, whose Treatise of Human Nature "fell dead-born from the press". A review from 1740:
I should have taken no notice of what he has wrote, if I had not thought this book, in several parts, so very abstruse and perplex'd, that, I am convinced, no Man can comprehend what he means; and as one of the greatest Wits of the Age has justly observed, this may impose upon weak Readers, and make them imagine, there is a Great Deal of deep Learning in it, because they do not understand it.
Poor Hume. I am afraid that his unfortunate fate endures. In teaching the history of ethics to undergraduates, I assign Book Three of the Treatise instead of the more friendly exposition of the second Enquiry. Still, I was never prepared for its reception: by some inversion of the order of nature, my students prefer the prose of Kant's Groundwork to that of Hume. They read Kant in contemporary translation, of course. (This fact is the impetus for Jonathan Bennett's re-compositions of early modern philosophy.) But however hard it is to convey the pleasure of Hume's style, one has to try. By the operational definition, the Treatise of Human Nature is badly written: elusive, ambiguous, obtuse. How does one learn to experience its difficulty as a sun?


Blogger Erhan Demircioglu said...

(A quasi-relevant personal comment) When reading some 'too' technical articles, I get the impression that the authors are using formality to hide the basic defects in their thoughts. After all, in our age, who can argue against the (irresistable) beauty of formality?

7:38 PM  
Anonymous Ralph Wedgwood said...

Surely, if Hume meets your operational definition of bad writing, Kant meets it in spades!

At all events, complaints about the difficulty of philosophical writing are much older than the 1740s. One of my favourites comes from Philip Sidney's "Defence of Poesy", where Sidney contrasts the philosopher with the poet -- much to the philosopher's disadvantage.

How will philosophy ever "plant goodness in the secret cabinet of our souls?" Sidney asks. "For the philosopher ... with [his] thorny arguments ... is so hard of utterance, and so misty to be conceived, that one that hath no other guide but him, shall wade in him till he be old, before he shall find sufficient cause to be honest. For his knowledge standeth so upon the abstract and general, that happy is that man who may understand him, and more happy, that can apply what he doth understand."

9:33 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Thanks for the comments! I love the passage from Sidney.

I was thinking of Hume rather than Kant in part because I enjoy his writing, despite its being "bad" – and in part because he seemed to care so much about the accusation. How far did it determine the course of his later career?

9:36 AM  

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