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INTERVIEW: Nigel Warburton

Nigel Warburton is senior lecturer in philosophy at The Open University. He is one of the world's foremost popularizers of philosophy, and has a particular gift for explaing things clearly. His books include Thinking from A to Z (about to come out in its 3rd edition this summer), Philosophy: The Essential Study Guide and The Basics of Essay Writing.

As the issue of clarity came up in the comments on a recent blog of mine. I asked Nigel five questions about clarity (questions in bold).

At the top of your website the Virtual Philosopher you quote John Searle: "If you can't say it clearly, you don't understand it yourself". What is clarity, and why is it important in philosophy?

Clarity is expressing yourself in a way that allows readers to follow what you are saying. It minimizes the risk of misinterpretation. Clarity contrasts with obscurity. Obscurity leaves at least some readers in the dark about your meaning. I like the quotation from Searle. I like another quotation from the author Robert Heinlein too: 'Obscurity is the refuge of incompetence'. Obviously in some sorts of writing obscurity doesn't matter so much: some writers want to be interpreted in a variety of possibly contradictory ways. But Philosophy shouldn't be like this.

Clarity is important in Philosophy because life is short. Another reason why it is important is that many lightweight thinkers are attracted to Philosophy because it seems to promise them power through looking clever. Hiding behind a veil of obscurity is one way in which such people have traditionally duped their readership. Philosophy thrives on debate: if you can't understand what someone is saying the collaborative aspect of philosophy is likely to wither and much ink will be spent on the vexed question of what a particular philosopher could possibly mean by his or her oracular pronouncements. All that before we ever get on to the important question of whether what that philosopher said was true or worth saying. Philosophy thrives on debate and discussion, but if you don't really know what someone is trying to say, how can you discuss it?

Clarity in Philosophy involves clarity at the level of 1) words, 2) sentences, 3)paragraphs, 4) arguments, 5) illustrations, and 6) underlying thought. This list is not exhaustive, but these six features are all important.

1 ) At the level of words, there is no excuse for obfuscation through polysyllabic abstraction (i.e. hiding behind long words). Some writers write Philosophy as if they were paid by the syllable with bonus payments for including untranslated Latin. They also use jargon which may or may not clarify meaning. For a spectacular example of obscurity through excessive use of jargon, see Martin Heidegger's Being and Time (almost any page).

2) Then at the sentence level, passive constructions or convoluted syntax can obscure meaning.

3) Poor use of paragraphs often indicates poor argument structure.

4) Philosophy involves building a case for a conclusion. The reader needs to be able to see how evidence, argument support the conclusion which purportedly follows from them. For examples of this kind of clarity, take a look at René Descartes' first 'Meditation' or John Stuart Mill's chapter on Free Expression in On Liberty.

5) Illustrative examples help most readers, even the highly sophisticated ones, to understand generalizations. When philosophers omit examples or applications of their ideas they sometimes float off into realms of imprecision - not all their readers will be happy to float off with them.

6) Some philosophers have a nose for the subject and what matters. Others don't. Those who don't can be particularly difficult to understand because it is very hard to see why they are bothering to think or write about a particular topic at all.

If I find something is said very unclearly, can I really be confident the author doesn't understand it him or herself?

No. It is possible that the person saying it is just not a very good writer or speaker. But, on the other hand, obscurity cannot be good evidence that someone does understand something. My own experience has been that I've understood philosophical ideas far better once I tried to explain them to someone else. Teaching bright students, preferably students who aren't afraid to ask difficult (or obvious) questions is one of the best ways to get straight about an idea.

Might the lack of clarity in the writing of some philosophers be due to the fact that what they are are dealing with is so deep? As we peer further into the depths, so the shadows inevitably grow deeper?

The history of philosophy includes many examples of beautiful clarity about deep subjects. Think of the writings of David Hume, for example. More recently, Thomas Nagel and Daniel Dennett have demonstrated that it is possible to write clearly about some of the most difficult philosophical problems about the mind; Jonathan Glover and Peter Singer have done the same in the area of ethics. Sometimes philosophers have to say very clearly 'we are in the dark about this'. They might choose to communicate this indirectly rather than stating it directly. But that need not involve obscurity of language, nor even of meaning.

Philosophers in the analytic tradition sometimes accuse those in the continental tradition of a lack of clarity. Why is that? Is there any justice to the accusation?

One reason is that some so-called continental philosophers have inherited a style of writing from Hegel that leaves readers floundering, confused or pretending that they understand when they don't. I think that some post-structuralist writers were charlatans who conned a generation (though this has been more of a problem in literature and fine art courses than in philosophy). If you don't believe me, read Sokal and Bricmont's brilliant exposé. But obviously not all continental philosophers fall into this category. Besides, it isn't always obvious who is to count as a philosopher in the continental tradition: Descartes, Kant,, Schopenhauer, Frege, and Wittgenstein were all born on the European continent...each in their own way was capable of a high degree of clarity.

Even among the more poetic philosophers, though, such as Soren Kierkegaard, there are ways of showing things rather than saying them which can be clear. The different voices within Either/Or explore contrasting positions from within and we are not meant to read what is said as literally Kierkegaard's view: I take it that Kierkegaard's meaning lies in what is shown rather than what is straightforwardly said in this book. But he is not perversely obscure in the way that some philosophers are, despite dealing with 'deep' topics. Or, to take another example, Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness adopted the obscurity of phenomenological jargon, but through his brilliant use of extended examples and thought experiments manages great and memorable clarity in places in that book. We can forgive a philosophical writer who is sometimes obscure if he or she provides us with insight and occasional clarity; but obscurity can never be a virtue in Philosophy.

What would be your five key tips for thinking and writing clearly?

1) Care about being understood.
2) Read George Orwell's essay 'Politics and the English Language' (1946). It has excellent practical advice about writing to be understood.
3) Use examples. These can be highly imaginative and creative. This will force you to think through what you mean by generalisations and will also help your readers to understand what you mean. If you want your writing to be impressively obscure, don't descend from abstraction and use as much jargon as you can.
4) Know what your conclusion is, how your reasons and examples support it and your response to obvious counterarguments and counterexamples. If you don't know that, how can you expect your readers to work out what you are saying?
5) Don't bullshit. Most people know when they are doing it. If you don't, you are probably in the wrong subject.


Larry Hamelin said…
For a spectacular example of obscurity through excessive use of jargon, see Martin Heidegger's Being and Time (almost any page).

I love you, Dr. Warburton, and I want to have your baby!
Anonymous said…
although you raise some good points about clarity, i think you are only rehearsing the rather tired analytic vs continental divide;clarity is certainly important, especially for politics and things of immediate public and moral interest.( sartres work on racism such as anti semite and jew is very clear, as are his essays on the vietnam war for instance) yet, philosophy to be philosophy should say things that are not just obvious; this is the problem with most analytic philosophy; it is one dimensional and the clarity reveals nothing. i mean, analytic philosophy is relatively shallow in its clarity, while that of hegel etc have great depth and enable us to think in ways that are perhaps not normal or obvious.this is what philosophy is for philosophy to be philosophy. For example, hegel and the traditions that follow hegel; or for that matter lacan and deleuze etc are not clear, they require repeated reading and thinking about, yet that is what is good about this kind of 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. for me, nagel, ayer, etc are not the equal philosophically of hegel, deleuze, sartre etc because they are so clear, they tell you nothing.
Anonymous said…
I read and enjoyed this article on clarity, and feel it’s a topic worth exploring.

The distinctions western thinkers draw with the continental tradition are really worth looking into. I believe it stems from differing ideas about what philosophy actually is. 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.

Its worthwhile that you brought up Heidegger. He 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?

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.
Anonymous said…
Anon @ 9.54 underlines NW's (2) and (3), to which I would also add that a conventional use of capital letters and punctuation aids clarity.

this is what philosophy is for philosophy to be philosophy. Sorry?

Anon @ 4.32 - could you perhaps supply some examples in support of your last parargraph, which as it stands conveys more or less no meaning to me?
Ophelia Benson said…
One has to wonder if anon 9:54 is teasing. That has to be a double bluff, doesn't it? 'while that of hegel etc have great depth' - come on, that has to be a cod; it sounds like Molesworth.

And this bit -

'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.'

Well exactly, which is part of Nigel's point. We feel, deludedly, that we are thinking more deeply; we've been conned. Notice that anonymous carefully doesn't say that we are in fact thinking more deeply. A clever tease; has to be.
Stephen Law said…
Posted on behalf of Nigel Warburton

Thanks anonymous. Actually I don't have it in for continental philosophy as I hope I made clear in my interview. Nor does continental philosophy have a monoply on obscurity (believe me!).

You wrote that after wrestling with the language and expression of some philosophers 'we feel that we are in fact thinking more deeply about the issues of philosophy.' But just because you feel that you are thinking more deeply it doesn't mean that you are in fact thinking more deeply. That is part of the seductive power of pseudo-profundity: it gives you the illusion of great depth. With clarity there is no place to hide. Shallow ideas stated in clear language can at least be swiftly despatched to oblivion...

Nigel Warburton
Stephen Law said…
Dear anonymous (es?)

First, analytic philosophy is not all about constructing linear arguments. You say:

"analytic philosophy is going to proceed with the demand for argumentation from premise to conclusion."

Not so, analytic philosophy is also about conceptual clarification and explanation. It often aims to offer therapy through clarification, by getting a clearer view of how language is being used. e.g. "ordinary language philosophy" and the later work of Wittgenstein.

It is also conceptually innovative, constantly developing new concepts and making new conceptual distinctions.

So you are misrepresenting analytic philosophy, I feel.

I would add that the impression of profundity generated by thinking in the continental style often evaporates when you grasp the basic principles and techniques of pseudo-profundity. Check out the couple of examples I give in my entry on pseudo-profundity (click "thinking tools" to the left.
Stephen Law said…
Tell you what, I will paste in here the relevant bit of my entry on "pseudo-profundity". It seems to me that many philosophers, Continentnal and otherwise, are guilty of the following...

"To begin with, try making up some words that have similar meanings to certain familiar terms, but that differ from them in some subtle and never-fully-explained way. For example, don’t talk about people being happy or sad, but about people having “positive or negative attitudinal orientations”. That sounds far more impressive and scientific-sounding, doesn’t it?

Now try translating some dull truisms into your newly invented language. For, example, the obvious fact that happy people tend to make other people happier can be expressed as “positive attitudinal orientations have high transferability”.

Also, whether you are a business guru, cult-leader or a mystic, it always helps to talk of “energies” and “balances”. This makes it sound as if you have discovered some deep mechanism or power that could potentially be harnessed and used by others. That will make it much easier to convince people that if they don’t buy into your advice, they will really be missing out. For example, publish an article entitled “Harnessing positive attitudinal energies within the retail environment”, and Lo! another modern business guru is born.

Finally, if someone does get up the courage to ask exactly what a “positive attitudinal energy” is, you can always give a definition using other bits of your newly-invented jargon, leaving your questioner none the wiser. If all your jargon is defined using other jargon, no one will ever be able to figure out exactly what you mean (though your devotees may think they know). And the fact that buried within your pseudo-profundities are one or true truisms will give your audience the impression that you must really be on to something, even if they don’t quite understand what it is. So they will be eager to hear more.

Unfortunately, some cult-leaders, business gurus, mystics, life-style consultants, therapists - and even some philosophers – make use of these techniques to generate the illusion that they possess deep and penetrating insights. Now you can see how easy it is to generate pseudo-profundities of your own, I’m sure you will be rather less impressed the next time some self-styled “guru” suggests that your attitudinal energies need balancing."
Anonymous said…
...and here's what I wrote in my book Thinking from A to Z, 2nd ed. (2000), p.107. (a third edition is due out this June) on the topic of pseudo-profundity:


Uttering statements which appear deep but which are not. One of the easiest ways of generating pseudo-profound statements is to speak or write in seeming paradoxes. For instance, if you say any of the following in a serious manner some people will probably think you are saying something particularly important about the human condition:

Knowledge is just another kind of ignorance.
Moving leaves you in precisely the same place.
The path to virtue is through vice.
Shallowness is an important kind of depth.

Whilst meditation on some of these statements may reveal interesting possible interpretations, and in an appropriate context they might indeed be profound, once you have appreciated how easy they are to generate you will be less likely to be taken in by them.

Another way of achieving pseudo-profundity is to repeat banal statements as if they were profound, a technique favoured by some popular psychologists:

At birth we were all children.
Adults aren't always nice to each other.

A third way of generating pseudo-profundity is to ask strings of rhetorical questions and to leave them hanging in the air wihtout attempting to provide answers to them:

Are humans every truly happy?
Is life a meaningless game?
Can we ever know ourselves?
Does everyone suffer from self-doubt?

Profundity arises from answering these questions, not just from asking them.
Anonymous said…
this is anon 4:32 responding to Steven Law:

your characterization of analytic philosophy certainly
sounds quite a bit more palatable, when you put it in those terms.

I guess something worth stating is that a philosophy will never do the thinking for you. whatever tools it provides, the individual using it has to make the necessary effort to see the issues clearly and the intuitive skill to apply these tools within a clear perspective. so the upshot of this is that analytic or continental styles of thought could be applied quite poorly by the wrong person.

Now this clarification of statements of which you speak, which you assign to analytic description; I've seen this
in action. A friend of mine hosting various philosophers
cafes also taught an intro critical thinking class, and
would frequently reiterate what a speaker had said in
clearer form, much to the speaker's and audience's

Now at the same time, you have examples of thinkers
establishing entirely new paradigms of thought; Husserl,
Sarte, and no less so Wittgenstien, and its noteworthy
how some have responded to the new frameworks. I really want to point to Sartre's existentialism here, because with the immense significance of the viewpoint it
carried, there were commentators who entirely overstepped the actual critique he made and instead attacked to language he used, writing it off entirely. His language is bad at points, to be sure, but that really wasn't the point.

I guess my impression of analytic thought comes as much from conversations Ive held as anything, and I'm certainly not as well versed in it as I am in continental thought. so there may be numerous analyzers out there who are as innovative and wholehearted in their thinking as I would wish them to be. Nonetheless, I believe the real innovations in thought come from those who provide us with a new feel for the issues at stake. now, when I say feel for the issue, am I being pseudo-profound?
Anonymous said…
Let me begin by saying: I'm so glad I studied analytic philosophy in school. Now that I'm all grown-up, I'm glad I never have to read it again.

In school, it’s up to the professionals what counts as a clear argument, and they’re free to set up whatever formalities they like. In the real world, alas, we must either rest content with the prevailing standard or try to raise it by our example. It’s foolish and pedantic to try to tell the public what counts and doesn’t count as “clear,” or what we are and aren’t capable of understanding. The whole idea of “popular” philosophy, indeed, reeks of condescension, not Enlightenment in any true sense, which—if memory serves—encourages us to have courage to use our own understanding.

My advice for those who really would defend the norms of the seventeenth or eighteenth century is, to put it rudely, piss or get off the pot. If you really want to revisit debates about what counts as “clear,” in the manner indeed of Descartes, of Locke, or of Leibniz, then do so in earnest—but acknowledge that Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger, each of whom knew oodles more philosophy than Hume, had heard these seventeenth century platitudes about “clarity” and “reason” already; and that they found them unconvincing, particularly after the Terror.

Meanwhile, please do cease telling those of us who have not yet given up on the intellectual history of the past two centuries not to bother, that it is all just “too confusing” for us. If you need a little help with Being and Time, Nigel, all you need to do is ask. I should warn you, however, that it has been some time since I read it on spring break sophomore year.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the offer. But, having had a glimpse of your teaching style, I'm going to have to decline.
Stephen Law said…
There's a sort of Hegelian story about reason, the Enlightenment, the French revolution and the Terror, and later, with Lyotard etc., the Holocaust, to which many in the continental tradition sign up.

On this story, reason, as understood by Enlightenment thinkers - and also by today's analytic tradition - is in reality something rather crude and, to some extent, oppressive (even just another form of power).

I guess that's what anonymous is alluding to when he connects clarity to "the Terror?"

There's a certain sort of "continental" bullshit artist that, having become familiar with this narrative, then plays the following game:

1. Alludes knowingly to the narrative, so that those also familiar with it can feel clever and "in the know", while those unfamiliar with it feel excluded and ignorant (a bit like when a clique are all intimately familiar with a particular film, and keep riffing on it and referencing to it, while those not familiar with the film are excluded)

2. Never clearly explains the narrative, because then someone might spot that it is, in fact 95% bullshit.

3. Peppers their discussion with lots of historical references - the more obscure the better - so as to impress the layperson with their sophistication and learning.

4."Critiques" analytic philosophers from the perspective of this narrative, suggesting they are unsophisticated, coercive, insensitive to the historical nuances, etc. etc., but without ever bothering actually to provide any justification for any of these charges at all.

5. When challenged or questioned, talks jargon, or switches to some other feature of the narrative, so that their opponent quickly becomes confused and loses track of the conversation, while those familiar with the narrative can again share a feeling of cleverness and being "in the know".

I used to give these people the benefit of the doubt - after all, I thought, perhaps they really are on to something. I tried to figure out what this something might be.

But having become rather more familiar with this narrative myself recently, and the five techniques outlined above, it has become increasingly clear to me what a bunch of wa**ers these people really are.

Not all "continental" philosophers, by any means. But there are certainly a few...

Of course, analytic philosophy has its own brand of wa**er.
Anonymous said…
It is interesting how on the basis of that interview I am being painted as if I despised all continental philosophy. I don't. Actually I despise a great deal of analytic philosophy as the intellectual equivalent of crossword puzzle solving by mediocrities. I also don't like being duped by academic charlatans, though (which I have in the past) - and many of these have sprung from the continental tradition. Pity the copy editor of some of those books - as Capote said of Kerouac 'That's not writing. That's typing.'

I do, however, value clarity. And I'm not yet convinced that jargon and obfuscation are superior to that, nor that this is the route that any serious philosophy must take...
Anonymous said…
I have to say, this has been a productive blog session. Its actually one of the first I’ve participated in and followed, but I see advantages to this form of debate that even philosopher’s cafes don’t have.

Now Im going to use my continental sensibilities to raise a point of qualification that lies outside epistemology or language style. It would be the matter of integrity.

Presumably, intellectual integrity is one of the items on the table here. If we are going to deal with it, how do we profile it? What does it look like, and what role does descriptive style play within it?

When qualitative description comes into play, as it does with continental thinking, it is really easy for someone to perform just the sort of verbal slight-of-hand that Steven is describing. I might point out that “reason” has occasionally been used in this way too. As an example, take the manner in which statistical evidence is used by politicians. But this in no way reflects the merit of statistical research.

Rather than make a group of claims for my chosen style of philosophy, I’ll simply use it here as an example. Turning the matter into an area for ethical speculation, characterizing integrity and its meaning in issues of knowledge, and establishing a solid value platform on which legitimate philosophy can be conducted; this is an approach which I think shows the strengths of well applied continental thinking in action. Not only does this leave room for analytic claims, it supports them as well.

Anon 4:32
Anonymous said…
Nigel, I apologize for fixing on the well-worn analytic-Continental question. I suspect we’re in agreement about most bullshit on both sides. But if, as you say, philosophy is a “conversation,” why cut it short with one-liners? Let me still play devil’s advocate.

Mightn’t I be more likely to misread Kierkegaard if I didn’t know his antagonist Hegel, and to be “conned” by Sartre if I didn’t try to read Heidegger? Why not fight “bullshit” with more knowledge, rather than with curses? What exactly, if not the obscure stuff, are you “popularizing”? This is what I mean by calling your concept of “popular” a little too low.

And I apologize, Stephen, for referring to such an “obscure” historical event as the Terror, meaningful only to my clique. Is Napoleon also out of bounds? As a lay person, I find your standard of the “lay person” miserable. But allow me (that’s “she” to you) to restate my earlier point for any who aren’t familiar with the “sort of Hegelian story” to which you refer so knowingly, while admitting (pretending?) not to understand.

Imagine yourself as a late eighteenth-century German philosopher. You think of reason (and, related to this, freedom) as a great thing—a sound ethical standard, even a guarantor of civilized, world peace. Suddenly, one day, your entire country is destroyed by an army of thugs, mostly illiterate, fond of disemboweling priests and waving flags that say “reason” on them. Suppose their leaders, more intelligent yet just as violent, had also cited Locke.

Mightn’t you reasonably infer, if you were Hegel, that “reason, as understood by Enlightenment thinkers... is in reality something crude,” etc.? It might be rash, but it’s not bad-faith philosophy.

Of course, Hegel’s style seems ridiculous, but so does Descartes to many of his most serious readers—to Hobbes, Pascal, maybe also to Locke. They thought this whole new way of arguing was absurd, that this ruse of meditating and so on was a fairy-tale, that his logic was sloppy (neither syllogisms nor the geometric method), that he used jargon (Hobbes objected to “idea”), and so on. Some even worried (including Descartes himself) that he would be misunderstood so badly as to threaten the whole moral order, much as people worry about the corrupting influence of “post-structuralism” or “relativism” today. But the best don’t just cry “bullshit.” They write books of their own, in which they do things a better way. G.E. Moore or Wittgenstein would have done so.

This is what I meant by pissing or getting off the pot. Either admit that the question of clarity and method is a tough philosophical beast and be ready for a long, dull slog, or rest content with informality, battling evil charlatans with your charms. It seems shallow—if not bullshitting—to preach clarity (and to announce that a whole generation has been “conned”) without putting some more philosophical beef into it. If not mathematical logic, a little aesthetics might do the trick. Worked for Plato, Aristotle, etc. Or you could just leave the whole question of how to write to the English department.
Stephen Law said…
Oh yes. This is part of my "long, dull slog" - right here.
Stephen Law said…
Hello again anonymous (most recent anonymous, I mean).

The Terror wasn't an obscure event (did I say it was?). What was obscure was your linking it to philosophical clarity.


Much of your response was too sophisticated for me to follow, but I did pick up on this... Yes, people have done all sorts of things in the name of all sorts of things. Regimes have tortured under the banners of "freedom" and "justice" and "Jesus", husbands have killed their wives under the banner of "love", etc. If thugs kill and maim under the banner of "reason", thinking that they are doing what "reason" demands. then perhaps they have misunderstood reason.

It certainly doesn't follow that the Enlightenment philosophers misunderstood what reason is or should be (Kant wasn't big on pillaging). Or that present day "analytic" philosophers have. Or that there's anything intrinsically coercive or destructive or bad about reason per se.

The fact that bad people have done bad things under the banner of "reason" doesn't, by itself, even particularly strongly suggest any of these things. It would, as you say, be "rash" to draw that conclusion.

I wouldn't accuse anyone who argued in that way of being a "bad faith" philosopher (when did I?). Just a crap one.

The "bad faith" philosopher is the one who does e.g. those 5 things I mentioned.

There's a pattern emerging here - I say something. You misrepresent it.

I found this particularly mystifying:

"Mightn’t I be more likely to misread Kierkegaard if I didn’t know his antagonist Hegel, and to be “conned” by Sartre if I didn’t try to read Heidegger? Why not fight “bullshit” with more knowledge, rather than with curses?"

Er... yes.

"What exactly, if not the obscure stuff, are you “popularizing”? This is what I mean by calling your concept of “popular” a little too low."

Maybe your point is we should be "popularizing" Hegel and Heidegger?

Well they're both in my next "pop" book. I think it a good idea that people do have an idea of what these thinkers thought. A clear idea (so much more useful than an unclear idea, I find!).

But is that your point - that we should "popularize" Heidegger and Hegel too? Probably not.

Maybe you think we shouldn't "popularize" at all, if "popularizing" means trying to explain and discuss clearly, accessibly, and relevantly (so much better if people have a confused, muddled and ambiguous understanding, right?).

Hard to tell....
Anonymous said…
Stephen, I am impressed with your patience! And I am glad to hear that we agree now on the importance of reading Hegel and Heidegger.

This was indeed my point, that we should not draw arbitrary lines between what is and isn't accessible to the lay person. Of course, Hegel himself taught philosophy to high school students. (Albeit little German mandarins, but still.)

You write: "If thugs kill and maim under the banner of 'reason', thinking that they are doing what 'reason' demands. then perhaps they have misunderstood reason."

That seems to me totally wrong. Surely you don't think that Napoleon's armies were made up of insane people? (This, to my mind, would be required to "misunderstand reason.")

A more likely explanation is that reason alone (whatever that might mean) is extremely limited and fallible as a guide to life. As you know, many philosophers, and not only religious ones, have acknowledged as much. It shouldn't be such a big deal. Hegel was curious about how reason goes awry in the world. Since we like to use examples, I don't see why the Terror is a bad one.

I am still curious as to what you think of the point I have repeated twice now, to the effect that your idea of "clarity" is not itself philosophically grounded. I'm sure this was a problem that occurred to Kant as he was improved upon his cruder Enlightenment predecessors.
Anonymous said…
I just want to provide another quote relating to clarity in writing. This from Dr. Mortimer J. Adler in his book Six Great Ideas: "The test of intelligibility of any statement that overwhelms us with its air of profundity is its translatability into language that lacks the elevation and verse of the original statement but can pass muster as a simple and clear statement in ordinary everyday speech". If what your are reading does not pass this test of intelligibility, then is not worth reading. Life is to short as Mr. Warburton has stated. I have read some of Mr. Warburton's great books and he definitely passes the test. Other writers worth reading and mentioning are John Searle, Brian Magee, Julian Baggini, Simon Blackburn and of course Dr. Mortimer J Adler.

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Here's my central criticism of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). It's novel and was published in Analysis last year. Here's the gist. Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are true, then semantic epiphenomenalism is very probably true - that's to say, the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour. And if semantic properties such as having such-and-such content or being true cannot causally impinge on behaviour, then they cannot be selected for by unguided evolution. Plantinga's argument requires, crucially, that there be no conceptual links between belief content and behaviour of a sort that it's actually very plausible to suppose exist (note that to suppose there are such conceptual links is not necessarily to suppose that content can be exhaustively captured in terms of behaviour or functional role, etc. in the way logical behaviourists or functionalists suppose). It turns o