Coward Philosophers and Intellectual Authoritarianism

February 13, 2012

I’ve been told that Kant, Hegel and Kierkegaard were poor writers whose impenetrable prose style is incidental to their philosophy. I’ve also been told that their views are so profound as to defy expression in terms comprehensible even to smart, patient, well-educated people who are not specialists in the philosophy of the period. I’ve heard similar things about Laozi, Heidegger, Plotinus, Derrida. (I won’t name any living philosophers.) I don’t buy it.


Philosophy is not wordless profound insight. Philosophy is prose. Philosophy happens not in mystical moments, but in the creation of mundane sentences. It happens on the page, in the pen, through the keyboard, in dialogue with students and peers, and to some extent but only secondarily in private inner speech. If what exists on the page is not clear, the philosophy is not clear.


Philosophers, like all specialists, profit from a certain amount of jargon, but philosophy need not become a maze of jargon. If private jargon doesn’t regularly touch down in comprehensible public meanings, one has produced not philosophy but merely a fog of words of indeterminate content. There are always gaps, confusions, indeterminacies, hidden assumptions, failures of clarity, even in great philosophical prose stylists like Hume, Nietzsche, and David Lewis. Thus, these philosophers present ample interpretative challenges. But the gaps, confusions, indeterminacies, hidden assumptions, and even to some extent the failures of clarity, are right there on the page, available to anyone who looks conscientiously for them, not shrouded in a general fog.


If a philosopher can convince the public to take him seriously — or her, but let’s say him — being obfuscatory yields three illegitimate benefits: First, he intimidates the reader and by intimidation takes on a mantle of undeserved intellectual authority. Second, he disempowers potential critics by having a view of such indeterminate form that any criticism can be written off as based on a misinterpretation. Third, he exerts a fascination on the kind of reader who enjoys the puzzle-solving aspect of discovering meaning, thus drawing from that reader a level of attention that may not be merited by the quality of his ideas (though this third benefit may be offset by alienating readers with low tolerance for obfuscatory prose).


These philosophers exhibit a kind of intellectual authoritarianism, with themselves as the assumed authority whose words we must spend time puzzling out. And simultaneously they lack intellectual courage: the courage to make plain claims that could be proven wrong, supported by plain arguments that could be proven fallacious. These three features synergize: If a critic thinks she has finally located a sound criticism, she can be accused of failing to solve the interpretive puzzle of the philosopher’s superior genius.


Few philosophers, I suspect, deliberately set out to be obfuscatory. But I am inclined to believe that some are attuned to its advantages as an effect of their prose style and for that reason make little effort to write comprehensibly. Perhaps they find their prose style shaped by audience responses: When they write clearly, they are dismissed or refuted; when they produce a fog of words that hint of profound meaning underneath, they earn praise. Perhaps thus they are themselves to some extent victims — victims of a subculture, or circle of friends, or intended audience, that regards incomprehensibility as a sign of brilliance and so demands it in their heroes.