Keith Frankish on obscurity in philosophical writing

Keith Frankish on obscurity in philosophical writing

There is a very good, short essay by Keith Frankish on the problem of obscurity in philosophical writing at Aeon. Frankish’s piece is titled “Is great philosophy, by its nature, difficult and obscure?” His answer is, in a word, “No.”

While there may be some details here and there in what Frankish writes that I haven’t made up my mind about yet, I agree with most of what he says. And I say this as one who does a lot of work in continental philosophy. Many (but certainly not all) of the questions that move continental philosophers move me too, but I find their writing quite often irritating. I should say that I did not always have this attitude toward continental prose. As an undergraduate, I found Heidegger’s dramatic, mysterious language attractive and cool. Now, for the most part, I just find it, well, irritating.

But let’s be honest. It’s not only continental philosophers who have a problem with obscurity in their style (and let’s also note that not all continental philosophers have this problem). Many texts in analytic philosophy are equally unintelligible. One very obvious example is Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Many of its passages are just as impenetrable as anything Heidegger ever wrote.

But I’m getting away from Frankish’s essay. Frankish is an advocate of clarity in philosophical writing, as I’m sure you have already surmised. Of course, it’s strange that clarity should need advocates. But that’s the world we live in. 

Now, Frankish doesn’t deny that obscurity can in all situations be avoided. Sometimes what we want to talk about is rather difficult and there’s no proper vocaublary for it already on hand. But those situations should be exceptional. (Okay, I know that there’s more to be said about this last point but I’ll have to leave it for another time.)

The essay’s core is well articulated by its concluding paragraph (sorry for the spoiler):

In most cases, obscurity is a defect, not a virtue, and undue concern with interpretation puts the focus on people rather than problems. It is not easy to write clearly, especially on philosophical topics, and it is risky. Clear writers stand naked before their critics, with all their argumentative blemishes visible; but they are braver, more honest and more respectful of the true aims of intellectual enquiry than ones who shroud themselves in obscurity.

I encourage you to read the whole thing.