A pithy turn of phrase, a quip engendering insight, all these linguistic devices are the tools of smarter men (and women) than I. Philosophy, for the most part, is not easy. It is not easy because of the hours spent frustrated by misunderstanding, or, as is more often the case, a sense of not understanding what the hell it is that you are reading. In the end, I must add, it is an experience for which one is better off for having. With the afore written in mind, and as good evidence of my point, I want to address the notion of clarity in philosophy.
Some might argue there is, in fact, a lack of clarity in the very enterprise of philosophy. Is this true? Perhaps, for philosophy is inherently abstruse. After all, the ideas we are grappling with are difficult. Yet, is it their importance that renders these questions difficult , or is it their difficulty that makes them important? I think one could argue it is, in fact, both, and for that very reason, it is important for those engaged in the articulation of these difficult questions, to make certain the answers are accessible to as many inquisitive minds as possible. If philosophers, through wordiness, simply add to the abstruseness of their project, thus taking important questions and making them impenetrable, philosophy, turns into the “quibbling of vain men” (and women).
Having said all that, and in such a way as to highlight my very point, I want to ask the following question: Is misunderstanding the fault of the reader or the writer? Is clarity, merely comprehension? Or is understanding, “given” through the art of eloquence? This goes to the heart of a pedagogical dilemma: how do we get knowledge from the page to the heart? Is it the duty of a writer to forge understanding by presenting difficult ideas in plain English, even at the risk of cogency? Or is it up to the reader to lift up, so to speak, their intellectual arsenal, in order to encounter first hand the wisdom hidden behind the words? These question seem important ones to me, for freedom from suffering is at stake here.
If philosophy is to be important to future generations, it must be important for future generations. It must speak to them in such a way as to seem important, even when difficult. For it is only when we see the doing of philosophy as important to community, important to the future of persons, that we will be interested in investing in its comprehension. Therefore, I believe, clarity is dependent on both reader and writer. Writers should strive for clarity at every turn. Making certain, to the best of his or her ability, what is said is as clear as it might be. This means, using the language (up to a point) of the day. Indeed, if your writing does not “speak” you run the risk of becoming the intellectual equivalent of a drunken shadow-boxer ranting at passers-by. Yet, readers of philosophy, too, have a responsibility to do some heavy lifting to bring meaning from the page. To borrow something of a Heideggerian turn of phrase: To bring Understanding to understanding is to bring Being to being.
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