Culture and Civilisations

Why can’t academic philosophers write?

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Why can’t academic philosophers write?


The following impenetrable nonsense is from a long-archived paper in the philosophy of mind:

Connectionism — parallel distributed processing- is a developing paradigm within the field of strongArtificial Intelligence. In this paper I develop the following modus tollens argument. That (I) connectionism assumes a materialist metaphysics — known as eliminativism; that (2) eliminativism is an incoherent account of the human mind; and that therefore (3) connectionisms aspirations to be a complete instantiation of human consciousness are forlorn.”

Reader (assuming you’re still here), a confession: I was the author of that pretentious garbage, and my only defence is that it was written many lifetimes ago. One in which I was attempting, to quote my friend Hector Drummond, living in times of Wine and Cheese.

It could have been written by a machine. I should have written this (in fact I wanted to):

All attempts modern or otherwise to fully understand the complexities of the human soul are forms of hubris. The mind is not the same as the brain. Deal with it.”

That iteration would not have served as sufficient supplication at the altar of the Gods of Peer Review. Even though it’s true. And I stand by it.

I left the Academy because (to borrow the format) I was (1) never going to get the magical tenure — a well upholstered and remunerated armchair of intellectual complacency; (2) I was rubbish at writing in the style required (due to congenital and incurable indolence); and therefore (3) here’s your P45.

Academic writing — especially in my roaming hinterland of philosophy — requires obedience to a set of protocols, all of which are intended to subvert any regard for Truth. They exist in the service of the generation of tedious distinctions aimed, not at Truth, but at the next peer-reviewed publication — and have at their core a cattiness which serves to undermine the reader who might find themselves in a position to dismantle the “central thesis” of the paper.

It’s Freemason writing: be part of the club and embrace the meretricious advances of the rituals. Or be cast out. Never to publish again.

Of course, this must also be true: that there are good and bad arguments. But any argument –properly valid — preserves the premises within the shorthand known as the conclusion. And so what? If you’re not animated in some way by the assumptions, then you have no right to be excited by that conclusion. If you believe that Socrates is a man and that all men are mortal…. why be excited at the news that Socrates turned out to self-identify as male and also be dead?

Surely, though, this must matter? The dry, tedium of your average philosophy textbook at least serves as a reminder that there are ways of clear thinking. If A.C. Grayling (who once wrote a decent textbook on philosophical logic but, unfortunately, failed to stop there) cannot help you with clear thinking, can you go wrong? Surely being interminably boring is a way of draining your prose from the infelicitous intrusions of the imagination.

Not really. If you write in ways which carry a self-regarding version of something which can be said very simply, then you aren’t thinking clearly. You are, instead, robbing the reader of that facility.

The careful logician does little more than shuffle their notes. The genuine writer throws them into the air, David Bowie-like, to see where they land. And builds brilliance from there.

Of the latter you’d have to include Roger Scruton (pictured above), whose competence as an analytical philosopher was always in service to his astonishing competence as a writer. Scruton was a genius for two reasons: he realised that philosophy — if it is important at all — has to not talk about itself but to activate an intellectual curiosity about the quotidian concerns of the average human person.

And because that’s the person you’re talking to, you need to address their comforts and concerns. What do you most care about? Sex? Architecture? Heavy metal? He wrote about them all and in a way which always rehearsed a deeper picture of the overall human condition.

I  also have to mention the most proficient philosopher active in that tradition today: Thomas Nagel.

Nagel writes with an eye always to the distinction between the subjective and objective perspective. The latter being no perspective at all, but a collection of assumptions: “What is it like to be a bat?” Well, how would you know? And what completed neuroscience could answer that question?

An obvious question in a way, but given depth by the non-technical language in which it is framed.

And…an honorary mention to my old boss, Stephen RL Clark.

Stephen eschewed the requirements of rigour in order to write about stuff that matters: God and our animal status in relation to Him.

There is among philosophers in the “Western analytical” canon an embedded condescension towards our colleagues who write in the “Continental” tradition. We quite rightly point out that obfuscation can often be the point of an article, rather than the unfortunate consequence of difficult stuff.

But we’re often guilty of the same thing. The Truth is rarely difficult; why complicate the way we get to it?

Write clearly. Write with humour. Aim at Truth. It isn’t that difficult. And if you try that, He will always guide your pen.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 78%
  • Interesting points: 80%
  • Agree with arguments: 81%
34 ratings - view all

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