Obscurantism in Philosophy
Beware the aura of vague profundity
I like to collect quotes from good writers, and many of these quotes are about writing itself. I just noticed that I have accumulated lots of quotes about a kind of bad writing that I try to avoid, which is called obscurantism.
Obscurantist writing is hard for the reader to understand because it uses language that is vague, esoteric, and confusing. Why would someone want to write that way? Maybe to look smart, or defend your arguments against attack by making them hard to pin down. Following are some good quotes from philosophers describing this problem in their field, along with good advice about how to avoid it:
Philosophical work has a cognitive purpose. The purpose is to improve the reader’s knowledge and understanding of something. The purpose is not, e.g., to confuse people, to impress people with your vocabulary, to enjoy the contemplation of complex sentence structures, or to induce people to shut up and stop questioning you.
-- Michael Huemer
Every intellectual has a very special responsibility. He has the privilege and the opportunity of studying. In return, he owes it to his fellow men (or 'to society') to represent the results of his study as simply, clearly and modestly as he can. The worst thing that intellectuals can do – the cardinal sin – is to try to set themselves up as great prophets vis-à-vis their fellow men and to impress them with puzzling philosophies. Anyone who cannot speak simply and clearly should say nothing and continue to work until he can do so.
-- Karl Popper
A great deal of philosophy doesn’t really deserve much of a place of the world ... Philosophy in some quarters has become self-indulgent, clever play in a vacuum that’s not dealing of problems of any intrinsic interest.
-- Dan Dennett
I suspect that whatever cannot be said clearly is probably not being thought clearly either.
-- Peter Singer
Here’s a few quotes that are a bit over the top. Not surprising given the author. Can you guess who?
The essential element in the black art of obscurantism is not that it wants to darken individual understanding, but that it wants to blacken our picture of the world, and darken our idea of existence.
Whoever knows he is deep, strives for clarity; whoever would like to appear deep to the crowd, strives for obscurity. For the crowd considers anything deep if only it cannot see to the bottom: the crowd is so timid and afraid of going into the water.
- - Friedrich Nietzsche (obvi!)
I keep these quotes in mind when I write about complex topics, and make an extra effort to explain them as simply and clearly as possible. As a reader, I try to avoid falling under the spell of language that sounds profound, but lacks obvious meaning.
Speaking of which, the next section describes a particular strain of philosophical thought that is notorious for being especially obscure, and which has significant influence in academia.
The problem with postmodernism
Postmodern philosophers like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Jean-Francois Lyotard are known for using obscure language to explain their theories (which include deconstruction, critical theory, and post-structuralism.) Foucault himself admitted this was by design:
In France, you gotta have ten percent incomprehensible, otherwise people won’t think it’s deep–they won’t think you’re a profound thinker.
Here’s a good example of incomprehensibility from the French intellectual Felix Guattari (it seems he went well beyond the 10% rule though):
We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.
Does this paragraph express profound truths, or is it word salad? Or maybe a combo? In the book Fashionable Nonsense, the authors Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont analyze many passages like the one above, and argue that far too many have no real meaning at all. Paul Gross and Norm Levitt reached similar conclusions in their book Higher Superstition.
A central claim in each book is that postmodern philosophy doesn’t play well with science, or any rigorous attempt to find truth. One reason is the use of vague language whose meaning is hard to define in an objective way. The deeper problem is a radical skepticism about the very notion of objective truth itself. Postmodernism views all claims to truth as being relative, even when grounded in reason, evidence, and science. Without these objective reference points, the search for truth appears impossible, and conversations become unproductive. Perhaps this relativistic perspective is what makes obscure language attractive. Once you decide that nothing can be definitively known, the only purpose of conversation is to score political points, provide entertainment, or impress listeners by engaging in elaborate language games.
Here’s a few quotes from other notable critics of postmodernist thought.
Noam Chomsky on Foucault and Derrida:
A lot of post modern work I just don't understand … it seems to me some exercise by intellectuals who are talking to each other in very obscure ways and I just can't follow it and I don't know if anyone else can. Post modern views of science, by and large have been pretty embarrassing.
John Searle on Derrida and deconstruction in general:
[A]nyone who reads deconstructive texts with an open mind is likely to be struck by ... the deliberate obscurantism of the prose, the wildly exaggerated claims, and the constant striving to give the appearance of profundity, by making claims that seem paradoxical, but under analysis often turn out to be silly or trivial.
None of this means that postmodernist thinkers aren’t worth reading or didn’t have legitimate insights. But it does suggest a warning when reading them, or any other writers who use language that creates an aura of vague profundity: don’t get blinded by science! (Or philosophy).