Saturday, February 16, 2008

Philosophy and obscure writing

One of the most valuable passages Chesterton ever wrote was this from Ch. 8 of Orthodoxy:

It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say “The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment,” you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin “I wish Jones to go to gaol [jail] and Brown to say when Jones shall come out,” you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word “damn” than in the word “degeneration.”

This is especially true when reading philosophy. The basic philosophical positions were staked out long ago. The likelihood that a philosopher might, right now, imagine an entirely novel view of things that no one has thought of before is very small. Another of my favorite dicta of Chesterton applies here: “Nine out of ten new ideas are old mistakes.” So it is a good exercise, when reading the typical contemporary philosopher who fills his writing with large, impressive looking words or strings of logic that looks like poorly written C code (~P->~Q || Q ? P ^ !P, therefore #P#), to see if you can express what he is saying in words of one syllable. As a rule, you will find that he is repeating one of the basic philosophical positions, probably one that was expressed better and more clearly by someone hundreds of years ago. It’s also likely that prior philosophers have thought through the implications of the idea more clearly than the contemporary guy, since he’s just thought of it while the ancient guys pondered it for centuries. Also, the contemporary guy is probably smitten with the perceived novelty of his own thought and can’t address it objectively.

The more general the philosophical position, the more likely it is that a “new idea” isn’t really novel. A philosopher might have something new to say about the philosophy of music, perhaps, but probably won’t have anything new to say about the philosophy of being or the philosophy of knowledge (“epistemology” in the modern vernacular.) Music isn’t a topic everyone need address, but being and knowledge are problems for all philosophers everywhere and for all time. If there is an answer to the philosophical questions of being and knowledge, someone has probably already said it. So the best way to get a deep understanding of those questions is to understand deeply the answers that have already been given, not look for someone with an allegedly novel view of the questions or – even worse – someone who says he has made a “breakthrough” with respect to them. His breakthrough is probably a repeat of an old but tempting mistake.

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