The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Joseph Miles Headshot

Obscurity Is the Enemy of Philosophy

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

"The spoken word unites the objectivity of the corporeal sign with the subjectivity of gesture, the articulation of the latter with the self-awareness of the former."
- Hegel

"A real subjection is born mechanically from a fictitious relation [...] He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself"
- Foucault

"Like everything metaphysical, the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language."
- Wittgenstein

At some point, all these quotes were written down by someone who though it was a good idea to preserve them in writing. Coincidentally, they are also examples of the worst sort of pseudo-intellectual waffling that gives philosophy degrees such a bad name. If George Orwell had written a short pamphlet titled "Philosophy and the English Language", this would be the exact sort of thing that would be right in his firing line.

The charge that I have been used to receiving after dealing out the above diatribe is one of anti-intellectualism; that these authors have said something with an incredibly deep and profound meaning, and if only I could give a couple of hours' thought to a couple of sentences, I might somehow entirely change the way I perceive the world. By being scathing towards those who use a few hundred words where a few thousand would do, I am revelling in ignorance and discouraging others from studying their work and potentially discovering some deep truth hidden within. It does not matter if I find it complicated; the intellectuals can find value in these words, and that is all that counts. However, when it comes to philosophy, I think this is the wrong attitude to take.

It is time to delve into some statistically dubious bragging. At a rough guess (i.e. "numbers that I borderline invented"), less than 1% of people in this country, and less than that in the world at large, have studied Philosophy at degree level and are in any way equipped with the mental tools and training necessary to understand a good deal of what modern philosophy says. Though compared to most of the other people studying Philosophy at Oxford or elsewhere I am extremely ignorant, there is a life outside of academia, and in that context I am probably in a comparatively privileged position when it comes to understanding philosophical texts. With that in mind, if I cannot understand some philosophical text after fifteen minutes of peering at it, how likely is it that the majority of the country can?

This might not appear to be much of an objection. After all, if philosophy is only the study of thought, then it is enough that the few top academics in the country can understand the most obtuse work. Though we may not be able to understand what on earth they are actually doing, we can at least rest assured that it is important and will lead to a vital breakthrough of some sort. After all, nobody says that neurology is not a meaningful field of study, even though hardly anybody understands that either. I do not think that this is an accurate comparison. Consider the following. A good friend of mine studies biochemistry. Every time he talks about his subject I smile and nod politely as, since I am a mere arts student, the idea of something that actually has testable implications terrifies me. Nevertheless, does this mean that his subject, and with it all complex fields of science, is worthless? No, because when he tells me that all of his studies about mitochondria, RNA, et al are aimed at hopefully finding a vaccine for H.I.V., that I can understand. Scientific inquiry has the leeway to be difficult to understand in practice, as in principle it is always possible to explain its benefit to humankind.

With some works of philosophy, this is not the case. You might somehow stumble across some deeply profound thought that you cannot easily explain in terms that make it accessible to most of the population. Is this a problem? If limited to metaphysics, perhaps not so much. It might be enough that at least some philosophers understand the nature of being itself. However, it is rare in my experience to see writings on metaphysics that are obtuse or not clear about what the meanings of the words they use are; from my brief study of Knowledge and Reality last term, it did seem to me that epistemologists and metaphysicians were falling over themselves to define every single word that they used that was out of the ordinary in very precise terms. The worst offenders, as I implied above, are the Continental philosophers. The common theme of Continental philosophy, as far as I am aware, is a level of reasoning about the human condition. This sort of analysis is no less far-ranging in its implications for humans than metaphysics. If we had a clear grasp on how we interpret culture, how power structures work in society, and so on, then this would have huge social repercussions; unlike metaphysics, this is an area where human understanding can make a difference.

If, however, this sort of thought is wrapped up in pseudo-intellectual obscurantism, then it will never have a satisfactory impact. A revolution in thought cannot be led by a team of crack intellectuals who all have a PhD from one of the world's top universities. If you are engaged in critical analysis of how humans process texts and interpret culture, then you must value being able to understand things more competently, free of prejudice. This being the case, this will only lead to benefits for humanity as a whole if the rest of humanity can understand you. It is no good sitting in an ivory tower acting as Aristotle's Prime Mover, taking pleasure in your own ability to think things out so well, if the rest of the human race continues to be unthinking and uncritical because they cannot understand what you are saying. Scientists have gone out into the world at large away from the comforts of academia to justify what they are doing since the dawn of scientific practice itself. It is about time that philosophers did the same.