Friday, May 04, 2007


John Protevi is a philosopher employed by a French department, as well as one of the many wiseacres who used to congregate at Michael Bérubé's place. Since the GNF Event (don't ask), many such have been seen wandering aimlessly around the blogosphere, evoking pity and fear in Aristotelian proportion; but Prof. Protevi has channelled his, well, whatever emotion was evoked in him by the Event, into a blog of his own, where he recently posted his own contribution (spurred by Leiter, as was the one here) to the discussion about analytic and continental philosophy. Check it out, and tell your stories there! (I see that John McCumber has posted in the comments.)

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 feels knows for a fact, is our commenter's complementary assertion that "that is what is good about [post-Hegelian continental philosophy], after really wrestling with the language and the mode of expression, we feel that we are in fact thinking more deeply about the issues of philosophy" – to which she replies by underlining the distinction between such a "feeling" and being, well, non-deluded (having this feeling means "we've been conned"); and Prof. Warburton adds that this "is part of the seductive power of pseudo-profundity: it gives you the illusion of great depth."

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.


Anonymous said...

I think Wittgenstein is a continental philosopher at heart. The "grossly repulsiveness" (for APers) of Prop. 6.3-7 in the Tractatus is, I think, representative of much of his thought, especially in his Nachlass.

Anyways, I agree with Warburton on this matter. Clarity is important. But I wonder if it's just dogma, that maybe we're missing something important if don't think outside the box. Maybe that's what guys like Heidegger were getting at. We're stuck on the clarity level, we can't expand to a new level of thinking; a new "clarity"....

Or to try to say what I just said in continental speak (I'll give it a go, I'm a little rusty :)

"Dasein appropriates the primordial language of being into Being. It understands its innermost being in the sense of a particular "factual occurrentness". But Dasein could always be constantly more than it factually is, supposing that one makes an inventory of its constantness, for its faciticity is its ability to belong essentially to itself and being-in-the-world."

N. N. said...

Though Wittgenstein's later philosophy is hard to define (naturally), his ubiquitous influence on analytic philosophy makes it impossible to exclude him. In addition altering Russell's course, and his impact on the Vienna circle (as you mention), the Tractatus lead to Cambridge analysis, e.g., Ramsey, Braithwaite, Wisdom, Stebbing. And then there's Wittgenstein's impact on Oxford philosophy, e.g., Ryle, Strawson. Ryle's Concept of Mind, for example, is unthinkable without the later Wittgenstein.

Indeed, since the descendents of American pragmatism, what Hacker calls "logical pragmatism," e.g., Quine and Davidson, could not have come about without the Vienna circle, they can also be viewed as progeny of Wittgenstein's. A plausible case can be made that analytic philosophy is a footnote to Wittgenstein.

Duck said...

Continental, analytic, what's the diff? 8-)

Good one, anonymous! Only I might say that Dasein "always already is more than it factually is." Heck, I even have the illusion of understanding that.

N.N., condolences once again (re: Mavs). Naturally you are right about LW's role in spawning AP, which I underplayed in the post. Although I've never heard of Stebbing. The real question is what happens now. What sort of "Wittgensteinians" are there, and are they (we) "analytic" or "continental philosophers" or neither or both?

N. N. said...

Thanks for your empathy. Last night's game was difficult to watch (I turned it off a few minutes into the fourth). I never thought I'd say it, but Dirk has to be traded. Dirk for KG? All in all, it's been a bad five months for Dallas sports. The Romo fumbled snap. Stars out in the first round. Now the Mavs. And the Rangers are terrible.

I think one of the difficulties with types of Wittgensteinians and how they relate to "continental" philosophy is that the dust hasn't really settled about how to interpret Wittgenstein. There are so many different ways to read both the early and the later philosophy, and no consensus about what the latter has to do with former. So, for example, someone like myself and Conant nominally share an interest in Wittgenstein, but his Wittgenstein is not mine. With such disagreement, it's simply not possible to draw valid comparisons between Wittgenstein and, e.g., Derrida.

Hopefully, my dissertation will change all that (followed by fame, wealth and power).

Anonymous said...

My apologies on Dasein LOL

This fellow here
collected what I believe was awkward about Wittgenstein to APers, and why I think he was a CP at heart. This is the Wittgenstein I enjoy.

John Protevi said...

Hi, thanks for the link. This whole clarity / obscurity thing as a way of differentiating AP / CP needs rethinking. I can't see anyone claiming that Foucault in Discipline and Punish or the History of Sexuality series is unclear, for example. Besides, if it's unclear, that's what teachers and commenters are for. I'd recommend to anyone wanting to see Deleuze very clearly explicated in terms of non-linear dynamics, with lots of references to analytic philosophy of science, Manuel DeLanda's Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (Continuum, 2002). At the risk of self-promotion, let me add that my co-author, Mark Bonta, and I take up DeLanda's approach in Deleuze and Geophilosophy (Edinburgh UP, 2004).

Anonymous said...

I agree that AP/CP is not necessarily a clarity/obscurity distinction. I agree with Warburton that Kierkegaard is a great and clear philosopher. I enjoy reading SK's imaginative and poetic parables and analogies he uses to make his point. He's a master thought-experimentor.

But on the other hand, I read Derrida, Irigaray, Lacan and Lyotard; I'm embarassed that SK is classed in the same tradition with these guys.

Duck said...

n.n., I cannot advise you on Maverick personnel decisions (although the trade you suggest is an interesting one). I had forgotten about the Romo snap. I remember watching – that was some game, as I recall. The Rangers deserve their plight, not simply trading A-Rod for Alfonso Soriano but also agreeing to pay part of the former's fat salary (although I did enjoy seeing ex-Ranger Kenny Rogers do well last October when it counted).

Of course people disagree about Wittgenstein (that is, about what he/his writings mean). But they also disagree about how things are, a disagreement which will not simply go away when you settle the former question definitively for us. The same is true of Nietzsche. What if Leiter is right that Nietzsche is basically a proto-Quine – that he was never saying anything like what Nehamas, Foucault, Deleuze, etc. say he said? That would hardly affect what I want to say (i.e., about truth and reality and whatnot); it would simply mean that Nietzsche was actually less interesting than some of us were willing to give him credit for being. Only if I were using an appeal to authority would this matter. So he's not saying those things on which I have taken us to agree? So much the worse for him. Same with Wittgenstein. (Yes, that's a bit quick, but I don't want to get into it right now.)

Thanks, anonymous, for the idiocentrism link. I'm familiar with John (Emerson) from a number of places, so I have seen this before. There are indeed some good lines there; but by themselves they lack the punch of a coherent full-fledged Wittgenstein interpretation (as John realizes; the page is entitled "Tendentious Selections from Wittgenstein"). I'm also not convinced that saying those things makes you "continental" in particular, or even non-"analytic" exactly.

Thanks also to Professor Protevi for the visit, and the DeLanda recommendation. I have that book (actually I lent it out and had to buy it a second time), and have started it twice. Third time's the charm! (I should say that my bogging down in it was my fault, not his, as it does seem clearly written.) I should also mention for our readers that Professor P's post was the first in a series, and that more are promised. I may have a comment on Prof. McCumber's provocative comment on that post. Later. After I think about it some more.

N. N. said...

Sorry, I did not mean to imply that you were appealing to authority (St. Ludwig, as Dennett calls him). My remarks were focused on your last paragraph. It seems to me that Law's use of Wittgenstein as a counter-example is tricky business for the reasons I mentioned, viz., which Wittgenstein are we talking about?

As to the broader question of how to do philosophy, clarity, vagueness, and the lot, I'm in favor of clarity, of course. But what does that mean? Anyone who reads the Tractatus for the first time, unless they've got a stack of commentaries next to them, is going to be confused (just ask Frege and Russell). It seems to me that this is a fault of the TLP. It could have been written more clearly, for what it has to say (in my opinion) is quite clear. So perhaps a text is clear if a commentator (and second-rate mind who's better at understanding first-rate philosophy than producing any of their own) can come behind the author and clearly restate their position.

I don't know that this is possible for some of the more obscure works of continental philosophy. I've read Being and Time (in German and English), and read a couple commentaries of varying difficulty. I'm still a bit hazy on what, exactly, Heidegger is doing.

Hegel... forget about it. Kant, on the other hand, is a different story. Someone like Paton can come in behind him and say quite clearly what he was up to (though there are other ways to read Kant).

As for whether "irreducible obscurity" is philosophically advantageous, I cannot say.