Thursday, May 15, 2008

Wherein I Am a Bit More Rude than I Should Be

Eurozine has an article in which Barnes, Burnyeat, Stroud, and Geuss pontificate about philosophy (ht):

Poems and aphorisms do not seem to me appropriate forms for carrying out philosophical work, even if they might be used to express or summarize certain philosophical conceptions developed by other means. Dialogue is a very good way to write philosophy, but it is difficult to do convincingly. I don't see much loss in trying to write philosophy in clear, connected, sharply focused prose. I wish more philosophers would try it.

Now, given that their notions of philosophical work are already rather parochial, and in some cases something like a zillion years out of date, it's not surprising that there's a lot I don't agree with, but most of it was pretty standard, and where wrong was often amusing. But Barry Stroud just had to throw this last bit out in response to a question about forms of expression in philosophy. Now, I can see the point of Stroud's ending here; I've often wished that Stroud, for instance, would write philosophy in clear, connected, sharply focused prose, rather than stuff that just looks that way if you don't try to pin down the argument and uncover the presuppositions his writing tends to gloss over. I would suggest that he study more closely the work of, say, Gilles Deleuze (believe it or not), who can be seen usually to write clear, connected, sharply focused prose, once you get the hang of his idiom; except that I think he would think I was joking. But, really, it's just silly to say that a particular form of expression is not 'an appropriate form for carrying out philosophical work' without considering what you are trying to do in that philosophical work. Take the nineteenth century Romantics. Now, they were, to a man, capable of writing beautifully clear, connected, sharply focused prose; but they often didn't, and it's instructive to consider why. The sort of philosophical work they were trying to do was supposed to be revolutionary and ambitious -- changing our approach to the whole field of human knowledge -- and thus required an immense amount of creativity and close collaboration. When you are trying to do philosophical work that is simultaneously revolutionary, ambitious, highly creative, and highly collaborative, however, connected prose is just too slow and clunky for much of what you're trying to do. You need a faster medium of communication, one that helps you to throw out ideas, sparks, pollen, that might catch hold in another person's mind to develop there. Thus the Romantics often did their philosophical work with fragments, aphorisms, and poems, and they were entirely right to do so: it fit the sort of philosophical work they were trying to do. The poem and aphorism wasn't just a bit of fluffy ornament at the end of philosophical discovery; it was a way to do philosophical work that was far more closely cooperative than most of what we do today. Moreover: it was the clear, focused connected prose that was the ornament and the way "used to express or summarize certain philosophical conceptions developed by other means". And, indeed, if we are honest, we must say that even today most people don't think in prose of that sort; it is simply one of the ways they communicate what they have come up with by other means.

But fortunately Raymond Geuss sees sense:

Academic philosophers should not give themselves too much importance. People are not going to stop expressing philosophical views in letters, or dialogues, or aphorisms just because this will not get them employment in a department of philosophy.

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