Should philosophy be easy to understand? | Page 3 | INFJ Forum

Should philosophy be easy to understand?

Discussion in 'Philosophy and Religion' started by Ren, Sep 4, 2018.

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  1. OP
    Ren

    Ren Pin's android and co-founder of Stoic Café

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    Indeed :) You're right, there are lots of Kantian ideas that people can familiarize themselves with easily if they want to.

    I'd still choose The Republic any day over the Critique of Pure Reason, though. Plato can be such a dazzling writer. I think I might be partial to him in some sense... but still, what a writer. Immanuel can't compare :p
     
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  2. Asa

    Asa Resident palindrome

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    Absolutely!
     
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  3. John K

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    I've put my thoughts into a spoiler because they are a little long, Ren -

    This is as difficult a question to answer fully as any deep philosophical issue in my view Ren.

    My feeling is that elegance in concepts and elegance in expression are two sides of the same coin and they are strongly correlated. If the elegance is lacking, the concepts are almost certainly not well defined. This doesn't matter too much in exploratory work, but vital in the finished work - and is true in all complex subjects, not just philosophy. I don't agree that such elegance must necessarily include accessibility by lay people, and this will depend on the purpose of the work. I guess being brought up with degree level maths, I'd say that in general the first obligation is to precision sufficient to the purpose of the philosopher acting within his ground (in OM terms). Intelligibility to non-experts may or may not lie within the scope of that purpose depending on what it is. For example, I find it hard to conceive of Marx getting very far without a widespread accessibility of his ideas. Whitehead and Russell don't need to communicate with anyone other than fellow experts to achieve the aims of Principia Mathematica - and I can't imagine how you would translate such a work into anything understandable by a layman other than by using metaphors which would only scratch the surface at best. I'm sure the work Asa mentioned is similar, but I haven't looked at that.
    I have no objection myself to an inspired philosopher expressing ideas in a way that is difficult for me to grasp directly. This is no different to the way my interest in cosmology works - I have neither the patience not the interest to read the technical and mathematical work done in this field. I can satisfy my interest completely by reading the layman's literature - though sometimes this does trigger my curiosity to look more deeply at the professional stuff. But I defy anyone except a highly specialised mathematician or theoretical physicist to deal directly with 11-dimensional topology in the expression of string theory - and these guys are over the boundary between science and philosophy in a number of ways. Making it accessible by lay people needs a different sort of skill to that of the researchers – and the guys with that popularisation skill are unlikely to be at the pinnacle of the research ability themselves.

    Looking at the topic from an alternative angle - we each have widely differing abilities. Some people struggle to understand what's in a tabloid, while others can grasp the outer reaches of philosophy without much mental exertion, and there are lots of stopping off places between these two. Then there is motivation - a less able intellect may be very comfortable with Kant because they really want to understand and are prepared to put a lot of effort in, whilst a more able person who isn't all that bothered gets pissed off quickly with all the cant and abandons the attempt. I'm sure there are varying expositional abilities among the Greats as well, and maybe some who are deliberately obscure. I think the ideas and their capture are more important than their ability to express them so that non-experts can understand them - maybe no-one else would come up with the same insights for hundreds more years! And some are perhaps deliberately obscure - there are works that were made esoteric in the Middle Ages so they wouldn't fall into the wrong hands and be misinterpreted, or lead to the arrest and execution of the author.

    Then there is the question of what sort of apprehension we seek individually. I quite appreciate an intellectual (thinking) kind of access myself, but what I really want is Ni insight, and if the intellectual approach doesn't lead to that insight, I am not viscerally engaged. But the kind of exposition that really connects with me may not engage someone with a very different temperament. I have been introduced to some of the most profound ideas through works of fiction and fantasy as much as through the great philosophers. For example, David Lindsay's "A Voyage to Arcturus" has given me a vivid Ni feel for gnostic ideas in a way that the gnostic gospels certainly do not - even though it is quite gauche in its literary style, the symbols it presents are extraordinarily compelling. Of course, this sort of exposition isn't going to deliver a synoptic appreciation of gnosticism, but it lights the fire within me and that's what I find lacking in many philosophical works by the masters. My own ask of the philosophers is to cut all the verbiage and just give me the deep insight - I don't need the justification because that arises directly for me “consubstantially” with the insight. This isn't a criticism of the masters and it doesn't absolve then from full intellectual expositions and justifications, which are vital - it's an illustration of how difficult it is to provide an exposition that appeals to a wide range of people, because we are all so different in what engages us.

    A book I have been reading recently is "What We Can Never Know" by David Gamez. It is a defence of positive scepticism, though I suspect with the author's own slant on the subject. It is a really good read, well written and it fired my imagination and enthusiasm - the way he expresses his ideas rang a lot of echoing bells for me and I was able to internalise a lot of his concepts almost effortlessly. It is not a professional philosopher's exposition and to my mind is an excellent example of a book on a complex philosophical subject that makes it accessible to lay people. It works for me! David Gamez is the nearest we may be able to get to an "applied" philosopher. His main work is on the practical creation of artificial intelligence and I have attached a link to his PhD thesis details. It is fascinating because he is trying to take deep philosophical ideas about consciousness and convert them into practical implementation in artificial intelligence devices. This is the web link:
    http://www.davidgamez.eu/mc-thesis/index.html
    I have done no more than skim through this material, but it looks like a pretty glorious example of intertwined easy to understand and profoundly difficult material - and why would we expect anything different.

    I do love the idea of applied philosophy - it seems to make it come alive .....
     
  4. Faye

    Faye ^_^
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    It can be, and in my view, it should be insofar as is possible. Here is the issue: Philosophers tend to become famous as a result of their writings being open to interpretation. That is just how it works out. Things left open to interpretation are more useful to politicians, scientists, and individuals because people can then adapt those philosophies to suit their needs. In contrast, philosophers who are precise and clear in their meaning do not generate so much dialogue or interest, and they fade into obscurity.

    Think of some of the most famous philosophers of the 19th century like Nietzsche and Marx. Both have been interpreted in so many wildly conflicting ways that it will melt your brain. In Marxism alone, there have been so many violent splits over disputes in doctrine (with each side claiming to be the true Marxists) that its difficult to keep track of them. Nietzsche's work was selectively published and used to justify Nazism, but it is used for wildly different purposes in today's universities like teaching drunk freshmen the value of individual authenticity.

    There are some philosophers who, in my view, are more clear and easy to understand in their writing than their more famous counterparts, but these philosophers tend to only be read by other academic philosophers. So there is a selection bias that all philosophy is obscure and intellectually inaccessible, but that does not need to be the case.
     
  5. OP
    Ren

    Ren Pin's android and co-founder of Stoic Café

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    Oh, by the way: heathen :p Quoting this out of context makes it sound like I'm being willfully obscurantist!

    Signed, Rennida (failed anagram of Derrida)
     
  6. OP
    Ren

    Ren Pin's android and co-founder of Stoic Café

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    But Nietzsche is easy to understand, and I think his popularity comes from the fact that many people find something of value in his writings. Isn't that rather a great beauty of the philosophical enterprise, when it does take place?

    Plus, you can write in an accessible style and be open to interpretation all the same. I think being open to interpretation is what keeps a work, and the legacy of a thinker, alive. Especially in philosophy, the supremely questioning discipline.
     
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  7. Hostarius

    Hostarius Scooby Doo Villain of Fate

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    I always enjoy reading your reflections @John K, always so insightful and full of critical analysis, and I agree with practically everything you say.

    Let me clarify my position though: I don't see anything wrong with allowing the experts to be experts, and to use the most precise terminology/jargon available, but - as I think you mentioned - there is a difference between technical writing and needless grandiloquence/obscurantism.

    And by the way, I don't necessarily think that 'obscurantism' is always necessarily deliberate - sometimes we just don't have the language to express certain ideas adequately, and yet at the same time authors in particular disciplines feel compelled to try to express them in prose. Often I come to the end of a whole chapter thinking, 'he really should have just drawn a diagram'.

    @Ren :tearsofjoy::tearsofjoy:Sorry, dude, but you've set yourself up as the strawman of continental philosophy, and now you need to live with the consequences :wink:

    @Ren @Faye I don't think it's the quality of being 'open to interpretation' that makes these works/authors more popular over time, but rather that they are 'open to exploitation', which is a crucial distinction I feel.

    In this context, what we're really asking is 'which qualities of ideas make them more capable of spreading', which is a key question of social epistemology.

    Just to address what you're saying here, my position is that very precise ideas have an equal chance of spreading well depending upon their other content.

    And let's frame this in the terminology of 'memetics' - a branch of social epistemology which sprang up after Dawkins and then died a death, but which viewed the spread of ideas in terms of epidemiology or selective pressures. Its simple enough.

    So does being 'open to interpretation' encourage an idea to spread well? Yes, because different authors can pick it up and use it to their own ends, as you say.

    However, it's not the only, or strongest way this happens, and I don't think it would be wise to create ideas or complexes of ideas with this quality specifically to capture this purpose. It may very well be the case that the environment changes, and such ideas become extremely unpalatable for thus very quality, and therefore die.

    These are not universals we're talking about: there's always an interaction between the idea and the intellectual environment it needs to survive within.

    Just because the political circumstances of the 20th century made this kind of 'interpretation' acceptable and useful does not mean that it will continue into further centuries, and indeed its not that hard to imagine an environment in which precision is prized above all.

    Anyway, if you take memetics seriously, the only thing you need to make sure that your idea has is the direction to have lots of children and teach it to them, preferably by banning contraception or something like that. :wink:
     
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  8. Wyote

    Wyote Con Risa Absoluta
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  9. Faye

    Faye ^_^
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    Fair enough. :D

    I suppose it is a matter of perspective.
     
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  10. Matt3737

    Matt3737 Similes are like songs in love.

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    I think being unintelligible would be a much quicker suicide than being difficult to understand. I can't say whether it should or should not be easy to understand, but I believe all philosophy is capable of being easily understood (depending on how "ease" and "understand" are being employed).
     
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  11. John K

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    I like this a lot Ren. I think that the richest work in any field is full of bounded indeterminacy that opens one or more doors for others to walk through, maybe for centuries afterwards. It's the same with great art that acts as a catalyst for change within a society - even the philosopher or artist may not fully understand the implications of their work which may well be rejected by their contemporaries as nonsense, then become part of the canon of mainstream culture and thought two generations later. I’ve never had any formal exposure to philosophy and maybe that colours my views, but I think a work that is open ended and full of symbols that can only be partially grasped by any one generation is vastly more compelling across the whole story of humanity than work that is closed off and single valenced. Perhaps we could take a work like the I Ching as a glorious extreme example. Is it philosophy or is it a book of magic and oracle? It's certainly obscure, open-ended in an archetypal ancient Chinese way, and has been in constant use for over 3000 years in one form or another. It has developed organically over all these years, providing different sorts of insights to different generations - perhaps the most important is that it was one of the inputs to the founders of Taoism. The introduction that Jung wrote to Wilhelm's translation is rewarding because it lifts the book out of the realm of pure divination and places it back where it belongs within a philosophical frame that provides a refreshing Eastern alternative to the Western obsession with causality.
     
    #51 John K, Sep 16, 2018
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2018
  12. Pin

    Pin "Magnificent Bastard" / Ren's Counterpart

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    More people need to read ancient Greek and Roman philosophers.

    As far as the Greek, I learned a lot about politics from Aristotle. In fact, I can trace a lot of my political beliefs back to him. Aristotle's Politics and Nicomanchean Ethics are fantastic because they follow from one another.

    As far as the Roman, I learned a lot about life from Seneca. Life's short, so you shouldn't waste the days you get on bullshit. Tell people you love them, do your work, clean your room. You can't do that stuff when you're dead. Doesn't matter if you're bald or have hair, have some fun.
     
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  13. Faye

    Faye ^_^
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    I disagree. If Nietzsche were easy to understand, people would not be debating what he meant over a hundred years later. His perspectivism is particularly controversial.

    I do not think one can be easily accessible and open to interpretation. If they are open to interpretation, that is because they are vague in their meaning or they regularly contradict themselves like Nietzsche did (or apparently contradict themselves, spawning another level of controversy). Here is a link describing a book on the issue: https://www.sfgate.com/books/article/Sorting-Out-Nietzsche-s-Contradictions-2762987.php
     
  14. OP
    Ren

    Ren Pin's android and co-founder of Stoic Café

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    I appreciate the fact that you shared this article, but there have honestly been a plethora of other articles and books celebrating the clarity of Nietzsche’s style in the presentation of his ideas, as well as his consistency.

    Since you have given one example, I will also give one. It is none other than Bertrand Russell himself, who is well-known for having little patience with vagueness and obscurity of prose. In addition, he openly disliked Nietzsche and is therefore to be safely regarded as unbiased in his appraisal of Nietzsche’s clarity and consistency. I quote from his chapter on Nietzsche in the History of Western Philosophy:

    “Nietzsche regarded himself, rightly, as the successor of Schopenhauer, to whom, however, he is superior in many ways, particularly in the consistency and coherence of his doctrine.” (p. 760)

    “But I think the ultimate argument against his philosophy, as against any unpleasant but internally self-consistent ethic, lies not in an appeal to facts, but in an appeal to the emotions. Nietzsche despises universal love; I feel it the motive power to all that I desire as regards the world. His followers have had their innings, but we may hope that it is coming rapidly to an end.” (p. 772)

    I intentionally let the second quote illustrate Russell’s dislike of Nietzsche. However, his intellectual integrity forced him to admit that the philosophy itself is self-consistent. I actually think that Russell is exaggerating that self-consistency somewhat. But by the standards of philosophers, Nietzsche is far from being the most deserving of the accusation of philosophical obscurantism, in my humble opinion. Scholars are still debating what Plato and Aristotle meant on an incredible variety of different subjects, more than two millennia after Plato and Aristotle flourished. It is what keeps the Plato and Aristotle scholarships alive. Same goes for Nietzsche.
     
    #54 Ren, Sep 16, 2018
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2018
  15. OP
    Ren

    Ren Pin's android and co-founder of Stoic Café

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    I agree that Aristotle's Politics and Ethics are both very important books. I'm also quite impressed that you enjoyed the Ethics so much. I mean, it really is an amazingly dense and rich book, but I found it so difficult to read! The density of the intellectual punches he packs on every page is staggering. I'm wondering if, as an ENTJ, you found it easier to break into, given that Aristotle is most likely to have been ENTJ?

    I never managed to get into Seneca. I find his style too dry and calculated, somehow. Among the Stoics, I much prefer Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius (which I heartily recommend to anyone interested in the topics that Seneca deals with). As a whole, the Stoic school is actually quite remarkable for its clear, concise, and accessible style. I wonder if any school has ever been so "easy to understand".
     
  16. Faye

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    Saying that Nietzsche is clear in relation to Schopenhauer is not the same as saying saying he is clear in general. Schopenhauer did not exactly set a high bar. Also, Bertrand Russel is an academic philosopher and renowned genius for whom the issue of intellectual accessibility would not be an issue regardless.

    To your typical non--brilliant-philosopher though, he can prove a headache. I can selectively quote Russel as well: "He is fond of expressing himself paradoxically and with a view to shocking conventional readers. He does this by employing the words "good" and "evil" with their ordinary connotations, and then saying that he prefers "evil" to "good". How is someone supposed to make heads or tails of this? What precisely does he mean by good and evil? Was the Holocaust, which his work was used to justify by the Nazis, not evil? Would he have really preferred that?

    Any answer to these questions requires a long jaunt through his perspectivism and with several hangups (bashing women, Christianity morality, other philosophers) and hurdles (constant obscure references to ancient Greeks). Does your typical educated person have any idea what it means to be Dionysian instead of Apollonian?

    I will admit he is not as bad as some other philosophers, but those philosophers all have numerous issues in understanding their writings. He is still vague overall.
     
  17. OP
    Ren

    Ren Pin's android and co-founder of Stoic Café

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    I don't think it is easy to understand the concepts of Dionysian and Apollonian, but I think it's relatively okay. Interestingly, I read Hermann Hesse's novels Narcissus and Goldmund and Steppenwolf recently, which both seem to be literary explorations of these concepts.

    I personally wouldn't go as far as calling Nietzsche vague, but I respect your position as entirely defensible. I'm also bit of a disciple of Nietzsche in some ways, so I probably have a vested interest in defending him. :) Though let me make it clear that do not endorse what he says about women in any way. There is a lot in Nietzsche that I dismiss outright.
     
  18. OP
    Ren

    Ren Pin's android and co-founder of Stoic Café

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    I don't have much to add John, except that I agree wholeheartedly. :)
     
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  19. hn&#Gu

    hn&#Gu Community Member

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    Philosophy should just be. As a river runs it just is. To whomever observes the natural characteristics of it let they be scientific. To those who ask the question concerning it's existence to answers unknown let the philosopher ponder a fragmented idea. For those who care not they shall swim, capturing the beauty in their carnality. All will be happy to just be for they know it is.
     
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  20. Hostarius

    Hostarius Scooby Doo Villain of Fate

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    Have you had sex with a river, Chris?
     
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