ON CLARITY AND OBSCURITY (AGAIN!)

“Must great philosophy be obscure?” asks Keith Frankish in an interesting article posted in AEON This is a vey interesting problem.This post is not intended as a critique of Frankish’s argument but as a series of reflections inspired by it.

Let us take the example of François Laruelle, who is usually seen as very obscure, and Michel Serres, who is considered “clear”.

Laruelle’s obscurity is of two sorts:

1) lexic: he has an idiosyncratic and poorly defined vocabulary, it takes a long time and much effort to begin to comprehend his research programme

2) abstraction: he gives few worked out examples, and one is often in doubt as to the extension of his theses and perplexed as to how to judge their validity

Serres is a stylist, and a member of the Académie Française. His books aim at a more popular audience. erres is nevertheless obscure for opposite reasons to Laruelle:

1) lexic: Serres has no fixed rigorous vocabulary, and explicitly advocates translating between vocabularies that are usually seen as belonging to quite different, incomparable domains

2) overconcreteness: Serres gives so many examples, often of different value, that we are often in doubt as to the substantial thesis that they are examples of.

The result is that Laruelle has a ponderous and discouraging style, but a great degree of coherence whereas Serres has an appealing style but mixes together incoherently theses that “look alike”.

My conclusions are that

1) clarity/obscurity is multi-factorial, this much is obvious – it is one part of the basic anti-essentialist approach.

2) writing is not always conversational: both of these philosopher’s may not be playing by Gricean rules (for more on Foucault’s “obscurity” as an example of deliberately flouting Gricean rules see here), and that their “obscurity”, like that of many other Continental philosophers, may be an artefact of our evaluating their style in terms of criteria that they may not fully endorse, whose limits they may be testing.

3) clarity is language-specific: For an Anglophone an important rule of style is to “prefer the Saxon word to the Latin”. This is not usually possible for a French philosopher, nor even desirable. Bertrand Russell’s style is less Latinate than Merleau-Ponty’s or Bergson’s but they are all clear.

An interesting aspect of this comparison is that Laruelle and Serres have many points in common, but they are not usually seen as belonging together, as elaborating comparable research programmes. Both have similar critiques of standard academic philosophy, and both come out in favour of a form of pluralism that nevertheless gives primacy to the sciences over other ways of approaching the world.

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