Times Literary Supplement: Does philosophy have to be obscure?

I recently went to a public lecture at LSE hosted by the Forum for European Philosophy. The discussion was entitled “Does philosophy have to be obscure?” It struck me as a bit odd that both possible responses presume that philosophy is indeed obscure. If we understand “obscure” as “unclearly expressed” or “not easily understood”, so many things seem more obscure – Facebook’s terms of agreement, say, or the Starbucks tax situation – than discussions of the good life or free will. After all, it was a philosopher, John Searle, who said: “If you can’t say it clearly, you don’t understand it yourself”.

The small lecture theatre was filled with an upside-down demographic pyramid; about three-quarters of the audience were over the age of sixty-five. Around the speakers’ table were Andrew Benjamin, a Professor of Philosophy at Kingston University; Joseph Schear, Lecturer in Philosophy at Oxford University; and Simon Swift, Lecturer in Critical and Cultural Theory at the University of Leeds. If it hadn’t been for the presence of Danielle Sands, Lecturer in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, who chaired the event, I would have said “Congrats, you have an all male panel!”, much like this tumblr; but I’m not going to dwell on female philosophers this time.

Obscurity always raises the question: obscure to whom? There’s no such thing as obscurity in the abstract, argued Joseph Schear. He mentioned three situations in which philosophers might say that obscurity is necessary.

In Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), Leo Strauss put forth the historical thesis that ancient and early modern philosophers, in order to escape persecution, used obscure language to disguise their most heterodox or controversial ideas.

Leo Strass
Leo Strauss

Second, there is the critical theorists’ argument that one ought to write inaccessibly, to evade the “alienation of being turned into a mass-market commodity under conditions of capitalism”. Adorno said: “Advocates of communicability are traitors to what they communicate”. So if you think of your audience as “cogs in the administrative life of capitalism” then the practice of obscurity might be considered a tactic of resistance.

Third, there is the Socratic response. Socrates set out to challenge the arrogant knowingness of his contemporaries, the Sophists. His aim was to render purportedly known things obscure, to clear the ground for a more genuine understanding. His art is not one of inaccessible language; it’s the “simple yet rare persistence to ask and then linger”, with a question like: what is courage?

Simon Swift, who apologized for not being a philosopher, need not have done so, because he very aptly cited Paul Celan’s insistence on obscurity’s importance in poetry. “Leave the poem its darkness”, pleaded Celan; “maybe – maybe! – it will give, when the excessive brightness which the exact sciences know already today to put before our eyes, will have changed the very ground of the human genotype”. Then obscurity will “provide shade in which man can reflect on his humanity”. We still live in the great age of appearance, argued Swift; we need the obscure to leave space for what gets lost in the world of the exact sciences and the extreme brightness of our age.

Imagine you’re holding a cube in your hand made of either salt or sugar, said Andrew Benjamin with a nod to Hegel. An empiricist holding the cube will say: I can feel the pointy bits of the cube, I can see its whiteness, and my tongue can taste its sweetness. All these properties are empirically there – but not the coherence of these elements. Society does not consist of a series of identifiable empirical events. That is why philosophy moves beyond “the naivety of empiricism” into obscurity; this is where discussions and matters of judgement thrive, in what Hannah Arendt called the “space of appearance”. Obscurity is “ironically there to bolster democracy”.

The speakers presented three very clear explanations as to why philosophy might need obscurity. But as the floor was opened to questions from the audience, the water became increasingly muddied. “We can wait until you like a question”, said the chair to the panel, after a few obscure questions were met with nonplussed faces. “Two questions, three blank faces” aptly summed up another round of questions, and then came one of my all-time favourite instructions to the audience at talks of this kind: “Please can you phrase your comment as a question?” Once the chair managed to clarify the questions, clear answers followed.


This article was originally published in the Times Literary Supplement on 11.November 2015 http://timescolumns.typepad.com/stothard/2015/11/does-philosophy-have-to-be-obscure.html

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