Philosophical clarity.

Bryan Magee considers the historical relationship between philosophy, clarity and appealing prose. It’s a long read. But, a snippet:

Many philosophers will never write clearly. They are incapable of it, because they are afraid of clarity. They fear that if what they write is clear, then people will think it obvious. And they want to be thought of as masters of the difficult. When I made my three series of broadcasts about philosophy, two for television and one for radio, I discovered that only a few in the profession-mostly its biggest figures, such as Quine, Chomsky, Popper, Berlin and Ayer-were willing to address a general audience in a simple and direct manner. Most of the rest were afraid that if they did this they would lose standing among their colleagues. To them, it remained important that what they did professionally should seem difficult.

Having John Broome as a supervisor has started to rub off on me. I find myself avoiding jargon and sticking to short and simple sentences when writing essays now from a conscious desire to be clear and avoid confusion. But achieving that value tends to be at the cost of boredom. And it takes longer to write that way than it does, say, to write in the way I do on here: as a sort of stream of consciousness, and thus with little revision. Being clear and succinct requires far more effort. That Mark Twain quote about not having the time to write a short letter, and thus writing a long one, certainly rings true to me. Most philosophers – in particular people as impenetrable as McDowell – would do well to heed the stylistic lessons of the likes of Broome and Parfit.

(Hat tip: Zack Beauchamp.)


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