Meanwhile, at butterflies and wheels, Ophelia directs us to another post relevant to our discussion, this one by philosopher Stephen Law. (I keep wanting to write "Olivia" instead of "Ophelia"; anyone know why?) Prof. Law there interviews Nigel Warburton, another philosopher whose blog I enjoy (when it doesn't crash my browser), asking him about clarity in philosophical writing and the virtues of same.
Much of what Prof. Warburton says is as expected: yay clarity, boo obscurity. And of course this is an easy case to make. Clear writing is writing we understand, and we naturally project our success back onto the writing. It, or its author, succeeded in communicating something to us, where obscure writing failed; and success is necessarily better than failure. So naturally (as Prof. Warburton puts it) "obscurity can never be a virtue in Philosophy."
However, clear philosophical writing cannot simply be equated with successful philosophy; for one virtue of clear (or "transparent") writing is that it gives unclear thought (or downright charlatanry) no place to hide. Some clearly written philosophy can thereby be seen clearly to fail (that is, seen clearly to present invalid arguments, albeit clearly stated ones). Of course even this can be "successful" philosophy if, however unwittingly, it clearly exposes a philosophical error we had not previously seen to be one, or not that one anyway. (This is why I have no objection to Warburton's examples of clear writers, such as Peter Singer and Thomas Nagel; indeed, Nagel is a favorite of mine for that very reason.) Conversely, some profound philosophers (*cough* Kant *cough*) were poor writers struggling with deep and difficult topics. The point is simply that while obscurity may be a necessary evil in this case, given the writer's ability, it cannot be a virtue.
So the importance of clear writing, according to Prof. Warburton, is this: if (or: to the extent that) you can't understand what someone is saying, it is (to that extent) impossible to evaluate it, to judge whether or not it is true. Warburton generously allows that "not all continental philosophers fall into this category [i.e., that of "charlatan"]," excepting Kierkegaard and ("in places") Sartre. But one anonymous commenter thinks that Prof. Warburton is "only rehearsing the rather tired analytic vs continental divide"; that "most analytic philosophy [...] is one dimensional and the clarity reveals nothing"; indeed, "because they are so clear, they tell you nothing." This is what raises Ophelia's ire – in fact she hopes it's a joke, it's so ridiculous.
Also ridiculous, she
Not too enlightening was that contretemps. But another commenter (also anonymous, but clearly a different one) makes what looks like a similar point to that of his/her anonymous comrade, albeit more judiciously:
While analytic philosophy is going to proceed with the demand for argumentation from premise to conclusion, much continental thought moves along the lines of engaging in qualitative description to explore a given line of inquiry. The goal would seem to be to develop the subject, rather than reduce it to a final conclusion. [...] No responsible thinker would push for intentional confusion. At the same time, there is such a thing as too much specificity. More so, there is definitely such a thing as too much deduction. A lesson the analytic school of philosophy still needs very badly to learn: moving only within the loop of premise to conclusion, the relevant qualities of the issues are often lost, and the real clarifying force of language is forfeited.This is much better, but I'm not sure that this is quite what I would say. First, it doesn't seem that the issue concerns specificity exactly. We might, for instance just as well say that there is such a thing (and that this is an indulgence to which analytic philosophers are characteristically susceptible) as too much generality. But that just means that I don't particularly want to say either of these things: the point is symmetrical. Every specific claim is a generality at the next lower level, and every general claim is (obviously) the specific claim that it is. If there's a problem here (i.e. with analytic philosophy), it concerns something a bit different than specificity or generality.
Of course our commenter means not so much that the writer's claim is specific or general, but that its written expression is "specific" in the sense that it has to mean a specific thing. Still, it seems the same point applies. Everything (including meanings) is the specific thing that it is and not something else; and whatever makes every instance of that thing an instance of that thing and not of something else is itself a generality as well. I'm quibbling, but all I mean is that I think we can do better in getting at this issue than speaking of specificity. (For context, I should actually restore the part of the comment that I elided above, to wit: "[Heidegger] made a point about clarity in one of his lectures. He said that metaphysical concepts had to remain slightly ambiguous to be useful. While this seems intellectually offensive at first glance, I eventually saw a basic strategy within it which I believe is characteristic of continental thought; the intention of defining broader abstractions which render many issues clear in one shot. After all, that is essentially the advantage of abstract thinking, is it not?").
Nor would I accuse analytics of being deduction-happy. Of course they (we) pay attention to the deductive consequences of what they say; and if anything follows directly from what we think we know, then by all means let's find out what that is. (That, after all, is how we decide what exactly those things are -- that is, how they are individuated.) But I don't think it's fair to imply that analytic philosophers proceed simply by trying to squeeze the maximum amount of deductive juice out of this or that set of foundational assumptions. They're perfectly capable of speculation, conceptual innovation, and even ontological profligacy (i.e. the opposite of parsimony).
Still, our commenter is clearly (no pun intended; or was it?) onto something. Phenomenologists, for example, explicitly claim to be describing rather than deducing. (At the same time, a description is a claim of some sort: things appear thus, where this need not mean things appear to be thus whether they are or not, which it will take a peek behind the veil to determine). Wittgenstein is similarly categorical: "We must [i.e., in philosophy] do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place [...] The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known" (PI §109; see also §124). Of course we have to be careful in swooping down on §109 out of the blue like this (note for example the vexed questions of what "explanation" and "problem-solving" amount to here), but then see also §126ff, e.g.: "Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything."
Clearly [!] we have only begun to unpack this issue, and I have to go to bed now, so we'll have to come back to this. But I did find it interesting that Prof. Law himself brings up Wittgenstein in this context, in order to use him as a counterexample to the general claim that "analytic philosophy is going to proceed with the demand for argumentation from premise to conclusion" -- making the question now the sense in which and the extent to which one can helpfully describe Wittgenstein as an analytic philosopher (which of course in at least some sense he clearly is, qua student of Russell and father (however involuntarily) of logical empiricism). This (that is, my interest in seeing this move by Prof. Law) is because as far as your typical analytic philosopher is concerned (very much including Leiter, for example), Wittgenstein – his concern for "clarity" (in the very particular sense he uses it in the relevant sections of the Investigations) notwithstanding – is the very poster child for Gnomic Obscurantism Syndrome. So I do find this move somewhat disingenuous: he's an analytic philosopher when we defend same against single-minded obsession with deductive argument; but at other times it seems he might as well be (*gasp*) Heidegger.