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.


* 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.”

12 thoughts on “Clarity as a political concept

    1. I think students should be taught that clarity is also politically driven. Indeed, normaly they are very aware of this fact anyway. They know that different instructors have different expectations when talking about clarity.

      As I tried to say, I don’t think that the political implications are in itself discrediting for using clarity as a standard. I think this is fine as long as we make clear that this standard is (1) relative to a set of purposes and (2) that it is one of several other possible standards.


  1. Hey! Thanks for writing on this, and for citing my piece on the topic for the Vim. We are gearing up to record a podcast on the concept of clarity. If you’d like to be a part of it, it’d be an honor to have you.

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  2. “My hunch is that, [“in the sense of being easier to parse or understand”], clarity depends upon conformity with expectations of the recipient.”

    Very nice. I’ve often tried to convince others of the nearby point that one’s judgment about the clarity of an expression is often settled by the degree of one’s felt familiarity with the expression (or its style or tone or whatever). But I think I like your point, or your way of putting it (!), better.

    One thing that concerns me, though, is the inference from your point to the claim that clarity is political. (Maybe it’s just that I don’t quite have a handle on what you mean by “political” in this context.) I know the context of your essay is constituted in part by the (history of) accusations of unclarity hurled back and forth between various “factions” in professional philosophy. And I too have been quite uneasy about the reasonableness of such accusations. But surely not all expectations had by philosophers are shaped by the politics of the profession.

    In choosing how to express myself I try to conform to your apolitical expectations as well, expectations I envision as engendered by your being human (embodied, vulnerable, caring about your existence), or your being an admirer of this or that passage in Descartes, or your being plucky enough to have a go at making a career out of philosophy, and so on. And so, just as surely, you can criticize the degree of clarity of the way I express myself insofar as I fail to meet these apolitical expectations of yours, right?

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    1. Many thanks for your kind comment! Yes, the familiarity is what I had in mind. As for your your point, that “surely not all expectations had by philosophers are shaped by the politics of the profession”, I agree and I should have taken more time to discuss that inference (but then the piece probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day). Anyway, I agree that not all our interactions and expectations are shaped by politics; that would be a sad idea indeed. What I meant is that expectations are shaped thus *in professional contexts*. It is in contexts of course work, publishing and grant writing, that it’s not just expectations of an interlocutor but of a *more powerful interlocutor* that matter.
      But while I’m happy to grant your point, I’d also add that our daily exchanges might be affected by the influence of powerful gatekeepers: my academic ‘ideals’ of clarity might spill over into my daily writing etc.

      Following up on your critique, it would be interesting to see what it is that might constitute the ‘tipping point’ at which something moves from the non-political to the political or the other way round. I think we always aim at agreement (or comprehensibilty) with others to some degree. In this sense, we always aim at some sort of clarity. And the (ideas about the) expectations of our interlocutors will be to some degree internalised. Some of these others’ expectations are political in that they hold power over us (teachers etc). Is my answer to you now non-policitcal? Perhaps because you wrote pseudonymously? I’m not sure. Given that my writing is public and I feel observed, I’m probably not solely responding to what I take to be *your* expectations of clarity. So where might the tipping point be?


  3. Ah, yes, I see now that what’s relevant in your discussion are the kinds of expectations that arise when something professional is thought to be at stake. And I think you’re right that, e.g., the way I choose to express myself in non-professional contexts can be shaped by my participation in professional ones.

    Tough question, that last one. While there are probably clear cases of a political expectations and clear cases of apolitical ones, cases we can use for comparisons or as prototypes, it might often be that (what we’re tempted to call) one and the same expectation can look more political in one context but more apolitical in another. But, yah, what is it about the clearly political cases that makes them political cases, and what is it about the clearly apolitical ones that make them apolitical? If I understand you, it has something to do with the extent to which the circumstances are professional. So maybe the question becomes, “At what point do the circumstances tip from being professional to being aprofessional?,” which is just as tough a question!

    By the way, this is wonderfully therapeutic: “An identity [of content] claim [about different formulations] will amount to stipulation and thus be open to criticism and revision.” Derrida, seen by many as the great obfuscatory villain, was onto the same idea. (Or so I stipulate.)

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