The Importance of Clarity in Philosophy:
a short interview with Nigel Warburton
This interview was adapted from the Introduction to the Spring 2014 issue of Think: Philosophy for Everyone. Nigel Warburton is a freelance philosopher. He is one of the world’s foremost popularizers of philosophy, and has a particular gift for explaining things clearly. I asked him a few questions about clarity.
At the top of your website The Virtual Philosopher you quote John Searle: ‘If you can’t say it clearly, you don’t understand it yourself’. What is clarity, and why is it important in philosophy?
Clarity is expressing yourself in a way that allows readers to follow what you are saying. It minimizes the risk of misinterpretation. Clarity contrasts with obscurity. Obscurity leaves at least some readers in the dark about your meaning. I like the quotation from Searle. I like another quotation from the author Robert Heinlein too: ‘Obscurity is the refuge of incompetence’. Obviously in some sorts of writing obscurity doesn’t matter so much: some writers want to be interpreted in a variety of possibly contradictory ways. But Philosophy shouldn’t be like this.
Clarity is important in Philosophy because life is short. Another reason why it is important is that many lightweight thinkers are attracted to Philosophy because it seems to promise them power through looking clever. Hiding behind a veil of obscurity is one way in which such people have traditionally duped their readership. Philosophy thrives on debate: if you can’t understand what someone is saying the collaborative aspect of philosophy is likely to wither and much ink will be spent on the vexed question of what a particular philosopher could possibly mean by his or her oracular pronouncements. All that before we ever get on to the important question of whether what that philosopher said was true or worth saying. Philosophy thrives on debate and discussion, but if you don’t really know what someone is trying to say, how can you discuss it?
If I find something is said very unclearly, can I really be confident the author doesn’t understand it him or herself?
No. It is possible that the person saying it is just not a very good writer or speaker. But, on the other hand, obscurity cannot be good evidence that someone does understand something. My own experience has been that I’ve understood philosophical ideas far better once I tried to explain them to someone else. Teaching bright students, preferably students who aren’t afraid to ask difficult (or obvious) questions is one of the best ways to get straight about an idea.
Might the lack of clarity in the writing of some philosophers be due to the fact that what they are dealing with is so deep? As we peer further into the depths, so the shadows inevitably grow deeper?
The history of philosophy includes many examples of beautiful clarity about deep subjects. Think of the writings of David Hume, for example. More recently, Thomas Nagel and Daniel Dennett have demonstrated that it is possible to write clearly about some of the most difficult philosophical problems about the mind; Jonathan Glover and Peter Singer have done the same in the area of ethics. Sometimes philosophers have to say very clearly ‘we are in the dark about this’. They might choose to communicate this indirectly rather than stating it directly. But that need not involve obscurity of language, nor even of meaning.
What would be your five key tips for thinking and writing clearly?
- Care about being understood.
- Read George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946). It has excellent practical advice about writing to be understood.
- Use examples. These can be highly imaginative and creative. This will force you to think through what you mean by generalisations and will also help your readers to understand what you mean. If you want your writing to be impressively obscure, don’t descend from abstraction and use as much jargon as you can.
- Know what your conclusion is, how your reasons and examples support it and your response to obvious counterarguments and counterexamples. If you don’t know that, how can you expect your readers to work out what you are saying?
- Don’t bullshit. Most people know when they are doing it. If you don’t, you are probably in the wrong subject.
Read the full interview with Nigel Warburton here.