Here's a Guardian.UK article questioning Simon Blackburn's view that philosophy should be understandable by the non-specialist.
The author's article critiques British popularizers of philosophy by saying:
In their bland readability, these books defeated their own avowed project of getting everybody interested in the great philosophers, by confessing how unreadable the texts of Kant and Hegel themselves must be.
Personally, I think philosophy should be comprehensible but not necessarily possible to make into slogans, i.e. not comprehensible by the intellectually lazy. On the one hand, any true and applicable idea should be confirmable in any number of ways, and can be put into nice examples, anecdotes, applications. (I'm thinking here of, say, how to describe what phenomenological analysis amounts to or what Kant's or Mill's ethical theory is about.) On the other hand, there's no reason to think that the advanced applications of even these ideas won't be aided by a newly grown conceptual system that takes time to decipher. I agree, then, with Blackburn who is characterized in the article as saying "making philosophy accessible should not be a question of simplifying it but of bringing people up to its level."
As per Albert Einstein: “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.”
Or the lazy-man’s version ( ie. Me): “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
Douglas Lain says
This has been an issue that has been plaguing me as I’ve recently moved more concretely into a philosophical direction with my own podcast. A listener recently wrote to tell me that, after listening, he felt as though he deserved college credit somewhere.
When I was interviewing Martin Jay about his book The Dialectical Imagination we discussed Adorno’s elitism and the same issue of accessibility came up. Adorno aimed to write sentences that could only be comprehended within the total context of his essay. He almost seemed to aim at requiring the reader to get to the end of his essay before comprehending even the first line. More than one reading would then be absolutely required I guess. But Adorno was an egalitarian Marxist, and not an elitist. So his goal was to write inaccessibly in order to challenge the reader to “think differently.”
So this is my long way of saying that I agree with Blackburn about bringing people up to the level of philosophy, but I believe that this is more than just a philosophical endeavor. In other words, people have to have a material basis, not only comfort and leisure but a space for thinking, in order to even begin to make the journey into philosophical thought.
Guy Debord said that the task wasn’t to understand philosophy, but to realize philosophy, and by this he meant that only through changing the structures of society could we hope to democratize or embody philosophy.
What to choose: an excerpt of phil text that is difficult to read and decipher, or a clearly presented rephrasing?
A no brainer.
As Geoff said ‘as simple as possib;e, but no simpler’
Of course, what I just posted has a lot to do with my career as an engineer rather than having been a poet.
Ethan Gach says
The notion of philosophy as activity rather than an object, or easily distilled system of thoughts or speculations seems the best defense for writing somewhere between obscurity and the obvious. The problem with simplifying something is that you lose the nuance, and the whole of philosophy is in the nuance (perhaps not the practical, usable portion, but the majority of what people like discussing).
And so if philosophy is suppose to be an activity, like a dialogue, then a piece of writing that was too simple or obvious would require too little from the reader. The philosophy as activity comes in precisely when a reader is struggling with a text. If philosophy were something to be recieved, then a clear and direct rhetorical style would be best. But if it is suppose to be an activity the reader engages in, it must require some leap and work, or else the whole point has been missed.
It’s like a metaphor: too simple and obvious, and it does nothing to enlighten us, and too bizarre and alien, and we are unable to traverse the gap.
Of course, that said, a lot of writers will then use this as an excuse for being poor writers. Continental writing can be obscure to the point where anything and everything could be contained in its pages, and analytic writing can be laborious to the point of saying nothing new or interesting.
Seth Paskin says
Philosophy as activity can be a struggle with an idea or communication with another person, as well as a text. “Philosophy” may or may not be understandable to the ‘non-specialist’ (?), but the problems of Philosophy absolutely should be something that a lay person can understand.
If a philosopher cannot articulate the question they are trying to answer or address in a way that most people can understand and relate to, then I think the problem probably isn’t that interesting. I don’t know, maybe I’m making a pedagogical point, but to me Philosophy is supposed to be about important stuff and important stuff is important to many people.
Ethan Gach says
I think I agree with you Seth. It’s all about balance. I’m always surprised when a person or a text provides examples, and the clarity begins pooring into my mind in droves.
Reading Hegel, my mind trudges along through his bog of eternal WTF-ness until getting to one of his examples and thinking, wow, why does he not use more of these?
Plato is probably the best example of having multiple layers (just like onions and Shrek). You can read him at so many levels that for the person new to philosophy, there are plenty of clear articulations of traditional beliefs, many of which we still hold, and then series of examples directed at common everyday experience to help illustrate the possible inadaquacies of those beliefs. Arguably the father of philosophy in the West, still readable and open to any number of revisionist readings, and he spent half his time writing about shipmakers, doctors, and cooks.
The fact that one of the earliest writers in in Western philosophy was not only able to articulate pretty generally the basic questions concerning humanity, but also do it in a style that allows a multitude of interpretive schemes AND levels at which one can read (from surface readings to deeper ones…or perhaps “higher” in the case of Plato).
I mean, why have so few since Plato ever attempted to utilize dialogues that are both poetic and analytic, playful and difficult?
Seth Paskin says
That is an excellent question! The history of philosophy in prose is like sedimentation – it requires the patience of an archaeologist to sift through. Poetry and literature do seem to have a greater power to transcend their historical context.
And I completely agree about examples. We’ve been discussing lately what there are so few visual aids in philosophy texts or teaching, despite the fact that it makes a fetish of vision as a sense. BTW, I’m going to suggest that Mark change the name of his band to “Eternal WTF-ness”.
David Buchanan says
If pragmatists like William James and Robert Pirsig are right, Western philosophy (Thanks Plato!) was predicated on a “perverse abuse of the abstracting function” or a “vicious abstractionism”, as James puts it. From this perspective, our intellectual abstractions are tools derived from the ongoing stream of experience and their whole point and purpose is to intelligently guide future experience. The problem, as Charlene Seigfried puts it, is that intellectualism “became vicious already with Socrates and Plato, who deified conceptualization and denigrated the ever-changing flow of experience, thus forgetting and falsifying the origin of concepts as humanly constructed extracts from the temporal flux”. I think we can see an almost literal deification of conceptualization in Hegel’s Absolute Mind, a sort of non-anthropomorphic God whose really into dialectics. This lofty idealism is very pretty and it’s logical to the last comma, Pirsig says, but it’s very far away from any common sense understandings, too far-fetched. James thinks it comforts us and reassures us and it might even be true, and yet he also thinks it’s vacuous, inane, priggish and more than a little bit cruel in its otherworldliness.
My point? I think this “vicious abstractionism” is exactly what gives rise to the whole notion that philosophy is supposed to be some special province for the gifted and wise. Concepts are supposed to be detached from empirical reality. Ideas come from experience and they operate in experience. And when they don’t, people naturally wonder what the heck is going on.
Seth Paskin says
David, you may be right here – and I think back to the Danto episode – that philosophy from Plato on prioritized ‘Truth’ and then dislocated it from experience. I keep coming back to the question of “Why?”.
I think you call out a key tension between philosophy as investigating the ‘structure’ of experience or the world (vicious abstractionism) and philosophy as explaining the human condition (beliefs, ethics, aesthetics, etc.). I’m more sympathetic to the latter which is why I side with the populists on this topic.
Brian Loftus says
I’m not so sure how successful the attempt at making philosophy accessible might be.
As an attempt to lure in future philosophy enthusiasts and students it seems necessary, but to popularize it would to banalize it. I’m thinking of words and ideas from certain disciplines which give impressions (in popular thought) of concepts which might not necessarily be accurate and/or horrifically misconstrued. As an example, the Ego is known in pop culture as something completely different than in psychology, and I believe will never be altered from this form. Popularizations seem to lead to misconceptions, and defeat the purpose of popularizing when these misconceptions stick.
Economics is another great example. Someone reading freakonomics might now assume they know something about economics, but there is little core economic principles in the book, just some interesting observations.
Scaring readers by telling them how unreadable the material is and offering a more palatable version might not always be the best approach. I would imagine someone reading of the arduous task of reading Hegel will attack Hegel with vigor, while another would soak in the pop Hegel version, then claim to understand Hegel.
I enjoyed Blackburn’s book Think, which was a philosophy intro. I read it having a fair amount of exposure to the discipline. I would hope someone with less exposure reading this book would be interested in moving forward with companion reading materials and not assume they have a tight grip on a particular problem of philosophy.