In November I posted about an essay by Keith Frankish on obscurity in philosophical writing. I agreed with most of what Frankish had to say. Today I read a post by William Vallicella on the same topic. I like Vallicella and try to read his blog regularly. He makes an excellent, succinct case for clarity in philosophy while at the same time distancing himself from certain other partisans of this ideal.
He begins with some witty jabs:
The precise, explicitly argued, analytic style of exposition with numbered premises and conclusions promotes the meticulous scrutiny of the ideas under discussion. That is why I sometimes write this way. I know it offends some. There are creatures of darkness and murk who seem allergic to any intellectual hygiene. These types are often found on the other side of the Continental Divide.
“How dare you be clear? How dare you ruthlessly exclude all ambiguity thereby making it impossible for me to yammer on and on with no result?”
Let it be said that Vallicella is not an “analytic isolationist.” He does not ignore continental philosophy or dismiss it out of hand. He also believes that good philosophy was being done long before the 20th century. So, do not take these remarks I have quoted in the wrong way.
Here is Vallicella’s main contention:
Ortega y Gasset somewhere wrote that “Clarity is courtesy.” But clarity is not only courtesy; it is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of resolving an issue. If it be thought unjustifiably sanguine to speak of resolving philosophical issues, I have a fall-back position: Clarity is necessary for the very formulation of an issue, provided we want to be clear about what we are discussing.
This hardly needs to be argued for but pointing it out every so often is usually salutary.
Now, I can understand that someone might not want always to be forthright for pedagogical or rhetorical purposes. This is a typical practice of Socrates. But I believe you can do that – and that Socrates regularly does – without condemning your auditors or readers to hopeless puzzlement because you make no effort to speak a language that they can understand.
One quibble. Vallicella entitles his post “A Note on Analytic Style.” Many philosophers were able, of course, to express themselves with clarity before the advent of philosophical analysis. I don’t think Vallicella meant to imply otherwise. It may be that he is using “analytic” in a wider sense than it is usually used.