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Saturday, April 03, 2021

The limits of clarity


Clarity – or clearness, a word that blemishes the clear, slightly, with the -ness – has an almost universal claque. It is the rare soul who says anything against it. Such applause for something that is at once so direct and so... hard to define, even vague, is a phenomenon that is worth looking at. There are few papers out there entitled: against clarity. Alison Stone wrote a paper entitled the “Politics of Clarity” (2015) which tries to sort out the utilization of clarity concerns by “analytics” to deflate “continentals”. It is a good paper, and it makes good points about how the call for “clearness” is often used to enforce an ultimately patriarchal norm.

“Pushing this concern further, we might say that the notion of clarity is itself a myth. "Clear" thinking is merely thinking that fits in with, embodies, and fails to challenge the hegemonic power relations of the surrounding society. Such thinking seems "clear" merely because it is familiar, and this is because it is thinking in which dominant power relations are naturalized. To celebrate clarity is to mask the real issue: power.

Stone’s paper is built on an opposition between “transparency” and the “mask”. Clarity has long been caught up in this opposition – it easily shifts to transparency. It is interesting that the clarity-transparency terminology, when applied to speaking, only work as “masked” metaphors – as metaphors referencing light and vision. Joyful things, one would think. So why is it that clarity so often comes with a ruler to rap the student’s blundering hand – or the continental philosopher’s?

Bryan Magee, writing about clarity in philosophy, makes the argument that clarity is a property of the structure of the philosophical text, and not of the elements – the sentences – that make it up (which sentences instead of paragraphs is one of the unclear things about the essay.) He also inserts a rather astonishing  understanding of these issues through the example of Kant:

“Some philosophers, most importantly Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason, lay out a structure like this with the utmost clarity, yet in unclear sentences. In his case it was because he had spent many years thinking his critical philosophy through, but then wrote it down hurriedly because he was afraid of dying before he finished writing the book. The result is clear thinking expressed in unclear sentences.

I am not sure what this account references. Kant spent years “thinking his critical philosophy” would seem, to me, to mean Kant spent years writing notes on what he was thinking. But for Magee it seems to mean, literally, that Kant built it up in his head, like it is said that Mozart heard his compositions – although unlike Mozart, who supposedly wrote down his compositions without an erasure, Kant, afraid of death, rushed his work. This might be the most doubtful account of the Critique of Pure Reason I’ve ever read – especially in as much as Kant made significant changes in the editions of the Critique, not a thing a man fleeing death tends to do. If Magee were correct, the correlary would be that Kant’s Vor-kritische Schriften are probably written more clearly than his Critical work. I don’t know who claims this – I doubt Magee has actually made the comparison.

However, the notion that the approach of death tends to lend a premonitory obscurity to one’s writing is very much part of the “myth of clarity”. Clarity requires some lifting of stress – a bourgeois insight that, I think, could help us think about what clarity is, why its desireable, and what its limits are.

In Stone’s essay, she points to a classic instance of polemical “clarity-making” – Carnap’s analysis of Heidegger’s phrase, Nichts nichtet – nothing nothings. Stone moves from this to Adorno’s notion that clarity, attached to “common sense”, has a repressive function. It should be noted, though, that Adorno was quite as convinced that Heidegger was speaking “jargon’.

This points to the problem with taking the “analytic” and “continental” schools as homogenous blocks, rather than didactic fictions that arose in the post World War II academic scene. Jargon, Adorno’s word, points to the connection between slangs and subcultures – Adorno’s own prose, to a certain ear, is incorrigibly Weimar-ish, the mixture of Karl Kraus’ attempt to discipline all thought into the bounds of the epigram and sociological terms derived from not only the Marxist but the Simmelian and Weberian traditions.

Am I saying the limits of clarity are the limits of my own subcultural group? This goes too far, I think, exaggerating how far from the main these subcultures are. I admit that Heidegger’s riff on nothing can be danced upon with some glee, but that “analytical” philosophers go all reverent with admiration when Tarksi comes out with the news that a metalogical truth is possible

“A materially correct truth-definition logically entails all instances of the form: (T) «(A) is true if and only if A*, where '«(A)' is a name of the sentence A and 'A*' is its translation into a metalanguage.”

A veritable font of unclarity for the laity,  starting with “materially correct” and moving onto “translation” and “metalanguage.” The notion of the translation seems, uh, to make this whole thing rather  circular – in the best Heideggerian tradition.

Is there a form of clarity that can take into itself our deathhauntedness and our tendency to make explanations more important, and more cumbersome, than the object of explanations? A question for philosophers.  


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