Clarity as a political concept

“With which of the characters do you identify?” For God’s sake, with whom does the author identify? With the adverbs, obviously. Umberto Eco, Postscript to “The Name of the Rose”

Philosophers, especially those working in the analytic tradition, clearly pride themselves on clarity. In such contexts, “clarity” is often paired with “rigour” or “precision”. If you present your work amongst professional philosophers, it will not only be assessed on whether it’s original or competently argued, but also on whether it is written or presented clearly. But while it is sometimes helpful to wonder whether something can be said or presented differently, the notion of clarity as used by philosophers has a somewhat haunting nimbus. Of course, clarification can be a worthy philosophical project in itself. And it is highly laudable if authors define their terms, use terms consistently, and generally attempt to make their work readable and accessible. But often wishing to achieve clarity makes people fret with their work forever, as if (near) perfection could be reached eventually. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that there is no such thing as clarity, at least not in an objective sense. You can objectively state how many words a sentence contains, but not whether it’s clear. Rather, it is a political term, often used to police the boundaries of what some people consider canonical.

The notion of clarity thrives on a contentious distinction between content and form or style of writing. According to a fairly widespread view, content and form can come apart in that the same content can be expressed in different ways. You can say that (1) Peter eats a piece of cake and that (2) a piece of cake gets eaten by Peter. Arguably, the active and passive voices express the same content. Now my word processor regularly suggests that I change passive to active voice. The background assumption seems to be that the active voice is clearer in that it is easier to parse. (The same often goes for negations.) If we use this assumption to justify changes to or criticisms of a text, it is problematic for two reasons:

Firstly, we have to assume that one formulation really is clearer in the sense of being easier to parse or understand. Is the active voice really clearer? This will depend on what is supposed to be emphasized. Perhaps I want to emphasize “cake” rather than “Peter”. In this case, the passive voice might be the construction of choice. Although I’m not up to date in cognitive linguistics, I’d guess that semantic and pragmatic features figure greatly in this question. My hunch is that, in this sense, clarity depends on conformity with expectations of the recipients.*

Secondly, we have to assume the identity of content across different formulations. But how do you tell whether the content of two expressions is the same? Leaving worries about analyticity aside, the Peter-Cake example seems fairly easy. But how on earth are we going to tell whether Ryle presented a clearer version of what Wittgenstein or even Heidegger talked about in some of their works?! In any case, an identity claim will amount to stipulation and thus be open to criticism and revision. Again, the question whether the stipulation goes through will depend on whether it conforms to the expectations of the recipients.**

If clarity depends on the conformity with expectations, then the question is: whose expectations matter? If you write a paper for a course, you’ll have an answer to that question. If you write a paper for a journal, you’ll probably look at work that got published there. In this sense, clarity is an inherently political notion.*** Unless you conform to certain stylistic expectations, your work will be called unclear. On a brighter note, if you’re unhappy with some of the current stylistic fashions, it is helpful to bear in mind that all styles are subject to historical change.

The upshot is that stylistic moves are to be seen as political choices. That said, the fact that clarity is a political notion does not discredit it. But the idea that style is just a matter of placing ornaments on a given content is yet another way of falling prey to the notorious myth of the given, often invoked to obscure the normative dimensions.

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* On FB, Eric Schliesser raises the objection that “conformity to expectations” is a problematic qualification in that some position might be stated clearly but lead to entirely novel insights. – I agree and would reply that conformity to expectations does not rule out surprises or novelty. Still, I would argue that the novelties ought to be presented in a manner acceptable by a certain community. – Clearly, clarity cannot merely equal “conformity to expectations”, since in this case it would be at once too permissive (in that it would include grammatically acceptable formulations whose content might remain unclear) and too narrow (in that it would exclude novelty).

** Eric Schliesser makes this point succinctly with regard to ‘formal philosophy’ when saying that “it can be easily seen that if the only species of clarity that is permitted is the clarity that is a property of formal systems, then emphasizing clarity simply becomes a means to purge alternative forms of philosophy.”

*** This is convincingly argued at length over at the Vim Blog. Go and read the whole piece! Here is an excerpt: “[The concept of clarity] creates, enforces, and perpetuates community boundaries and certain power relations within a community. … [T]here is no pragmatic distinction between the descriptive and evaluative senses of clarity. Not only is an ascription of clarity a claim about quality, but it is seemingly a claim that references objective features of the bit of philosophy. So far we have been attempting to analyze the concept of clarity by first drawing out the descriptive senses and standards—i.e. by understanding the evaluative in light of the descriptive. The better approach is the opposite. What does the word do? I propose focusing first on the impact that the word has in discourse. The assumption that clarity begins with descriptive features leads to an array of problems partly because such an approach “runs right over the knower.” Instead, first, certain bits of philosophy are called clear or unclear as a feature and consequence of the power relations of the group and world more broadly. And then second, what gets called clear or unclear becomes subject to philosophical analysis.

… There is a powerful rhetorical consequence. The ascription of clarity marks those who would stop and question it as outsiders. Those in lower positions of power will not dare to question what has been laid down as clear. It is always possible that the clarity of a putatively clear bit of philosophy can indeed be justified from shared evidence. In that case, the person who dared to speak up is revealed as someone who does not grasp the shared evidence or has not reasoned through the justification, unlike everyone who let the bit of philosophy go unchallenged. They appear unintelligent and uninformed and, in effect, deserving of their lower position of power. So, insofar as power is desirable, there is an inclination to let claims to clarity go unchallenged, thereby signaling understanding through silent consent. The immediate impulse is to assume that one is behind or uninformed.”

Why is early modern philosophy such a great success? A response to Christia Mercer

In 2008, when I was about to hand in the 580 pages of my professorial dissertation (Habilitation) on Locke’s philosophy of language, Robert Brandom came to visit Berlin for a workshop on his views on the history of philosophy. A paper (by Markus Wild) that I was particularly excited about portrayed Hume as an inferentialist, and thus countered Brandom’s more traditional reading of Hume. In the heated discussion that followed, Brandom dropped what was for me nothing short of a bomb. Faced with refined exegetical evidence, he ultimately ended the conversation by saying something like “I don’t care about these texts. My Hume is an atomist.” (I’m quoting from memory) – I was shocked, not just because of the dismissive attitude towards the efforts of the speaker; rather Brandom seemed to have dismissed an entire methodological approach that unifies a great number of scholars. This approach could be described as a nuanced combination of rational reconstruction and contextualism. Adherents of this fairly widespread way of doing history care about both historical details and the plausibility of the arguments. By dismissing any interest in historical accuracy, Brandom had just committed my 580 pages to the bin. Or so I felt.

According to an intriguing paper by Christia Mercer, Brandom’s attitude is now itself a thing of the past. The attitude in question is “rational reconstructionism”, endorsed by people who mine history for interesting arguments without caring whether the reconstructions of the arguments would be approved by the original authors.* Mercer claims that, at least among English-speaking early modernists, rational reconstructionism has been replaced by contextualism. In the light of this methodological victory, contextualism seems to have been an “obvious success” both with regard to scholarly achievements and in putting the history of early modern philosophy on the map. If my anecdata are a good indication of reality, then early modern philosophy is a lot more well off than, say, medieval philosophy: there seem to be a lot more jobs, editions, and translations coming up and out these days. If Mercer is right, then this success is owing to contextulalism, too. Mercer’s paper is a crisp reconstruction of the methodological debate, and I advise you to read it along with the astute responses by Eric Schliesser and Charlie Huenemann. In what follows, I would like to focus just on one single question: Why is early modern philosophy such a success? Is it really owing to contextualism? My hunch is that the opposite might be true: If any methodological approach is involved in its institutional success, it’s rational reconstructionism.

Why do I think so? Christia Mercer claims that rational reconstructionists and contextualists started out as opposed camps, but ended all up as contextualists for the reason that even rational reconstructionists started caring about historical accuracy. In other words, the early Jonathan Bennett is a rational reconstructionist but the later Bennett is a contextualist insofar as he cares about historical accuracy. While this might be true, I worry that Mercer’s portrait of the disagreement is flawed in one respect. Mercer reconstructs the disagreement between rational recostructionists and contextualists as a debate among historians of philosophy. As I see it, the debate is at least initially one between philosophers and historians of philosophy. Arguably, authors like Brandom and Bennett started their careers as philosophers and used history somewhat instrumentally. In fact, there is an ongiong debate as to what extent history is even part of philosophy.** Now, whatever you think about this debate, the simple fact remains that that there are more philosophers and jobs for philosophers than for historians of philosophy. Thus, I am inclined to believe that the success of early modern philosophy is owing to philosophers being interested in early modern authors. Some famous philosophers advertise their historical heroes and, before you know it, scholarship follows suit. Spinoza is now “relevant”, because a number of famous philosophers find him interesting, not because someone discovers an unknown manuscript of the Ethica in an archive.***

A related worry about Mercer’s reconstruction is that she starts out by treating rational reconstructionism and contextualism as extreme positions. While some proponents of the respective methods might be somewhat radical, most historians of philosophy seem to be working somewhere in the middle of the road where, as I said earler, both context and plausibility of arguments matter. Inside and outside early modern studies, these positions have been related to one another for decennia. Perhaps such studies have not always been published in places as prestigious as JHP, but they have informed scholarship for a long time. So again, what might seem as revolution rather strikes me as a continuation, where research and teaching agendas get increasingly refined once people are prepared to dedicate some money and journal-space to historical scholarship.

While I couldn’t agree more with the methodological pluralism that Mercer advocates, I fear its success is not a result of contextualism. Mercer rightly praises the growing number of works on non-canonical authors, translations and editorial work alongside the common interpretative efforts. But in a revolution I will only begin to believe once philosophy departments start hiring people whose area of specialisation is in translating or editing historical texts of non-canonical figures.

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* Following Rorty’s famous categorisation, I’d think of Brandom as being invested in Geistesgeschichte rather than mere rational reconstruction.

** See for instance the papers in Philosophy and the Historical Perspective, ed. by Marcel van Ackeren with Lee Klein, OUP 2018.

*** Addendum (5 August): In a similar vein, Jessica Gordon-Roth’s and Nancy Kendrick’s paper on “Recovering early modern women writers” exposes an important problem for the rejection of rational reconstructionism, as advanced by Christia Mercer. In some contexts, such a rejection might nourish the suspicion that there is nothing rational to be reconstructed. They write: “What is impeding our progress in eradicating the myth that there are no women in the history of philosophy? […] What we argue is that so often we treat early modern women philosophers’ texts in ways that are different from, or inconsistent with, basic commitments of analytic philosophy and our practices as historians of philosophy working in the analytic tradition. Moreover, this is the case even when we consider the practices of those who take a more historiographical approach. In so doing, we may be triggering our audiences to reject these women as philosophers, and their texts as philosophical. Moreover, this is the case despite our intention to achieve precisely the opposite effect.”