The Gordian Knot

Featured image is Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot, by Antonio Tempesta

One of the key disputes in the continental vs analytic divide in modern philosophy is one of style. German and French philosophers largely follow Hegel’s impenetrable style—or worse, Heidegger’s—while English-speaking philosophers largely follow Bertrand Russell’s approachable prose.

A problem arises immediately because the substance of philosophy is relevant to the question of its style. Consider that the conclusions of economic theory, which concern human beings, are thus relevant to the practice of economics itself.

Philosophy falls into a similar recursion, even when we are just talking about the style in which philosophy is done. Plato’s decision to write only in the form of dialogues was a conscious choice made on a philosophical basis; his master Socrates believed that written philosophy was a contradiction in terms.

What, then, are the philosophical presuppositions behind the stylistic divide in modern philosophy?

There’s a lot that can just be chalked up to bad or sloppy writing. I’m told that Kant wrote The Critique of Pure Reason in a hurry and did not get it properly edited. Analytic philosophy itself is no stranger to putrid prose. One need not be a good writer to become a professional philosopher, even in the English-speaking world.

But Hegel’s writing style was, I believe, a choice. And Heidegger’s certainly was. Heidegger believed that common language came with philosophical assumptions baked in. That point is at least defensible. His solution, however, seems worse than the problem. The relentless neologisms and wordplay are all but impenetrable. George Steiner claimed that in German, the style has literary merit. Perhaps so, but I am in no position to judge that. All I know is that Gadamer, no great stylist, nevertheless was able to wrestle with the same perceived problem in a perfectly straightforward manner.

If we are going to write, we should strive to be good writers. In this way, I stand much closer to Russell than to Heidegger. However, being a good writer does not always mean making the simplest possible point in the simplest possible way.

I fear that for all the faults of the continental tradition (the USSR used Marx to justify mass murder, while Heidegger was a registered Nazi and delivered a speech touting their virtues mere months after Hitler was made chancellor), the analytic tradition too often thinks that the world’s problems are merely a set of Gordian Knots begging for Alexander’s solution.

I often think, these days, in terms of “low context” or “direct” speech as opposed to “high context” or “indirect” speech, distinctions I learned of in Arthur Melzer’s book Philosophy Between the Lines.

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall, for example, probably the most famous and influential writer in the field, distinguishes between what he calls “low context” societies like the United States and Europe and the “high context” societies found throughout most of the developing world. In the former, when one communicates with others— whether orally or in writing— one is expected to be direct, clear, explicit, concrete, linear, and to the point. But in most of the rest of the world, such behavior is considered a bit rude and shallow: one should approach one’s subject in a thoughtfully indirect, suggestive, and circumlocutious manner.

To forestall an objection from Ryan, Melzer does not rely on evidence from theorists alone. He also draws on practical guides created for people who have to work in other cultures which emphasize the pervasiveness of indirect speech outside of the west. The book assembles a formidable corpus of such practical and theoretical discussions, all pointing in the same direction—towards the existence of cultures favoring “low context” and “direct” styles on the one hand, and “high context” and “indirect” styles on the other.

The chief distinction is not between obscurantism and clarity, but how much of an onus is put on the audience. From one paper Melzer cites:

The burden for understanding falls not on the speaker speaking clearly, but on the listener deciphering the hidden clues. In fact, the better the speaker, the more skillful he may be in manipulating the subtlety of the clues.

To a western and especially an English speaking audience, this seems the very definition of obscurantism. But Melzer emphasizes the pedagogical value of making students pay close attention to a text in order to be able to understand it. What seems superficially easy to understand too often yields only a superficial understanding.

It is an uncomfortable fact for philosophers that stories are the chief means through which societies convey wisdom, not philosophy. Philosophy and art have struggled over which was the appropriate source of wisdom since antiquity. Philosophy succeeded in achieving a certain status among intellectuals. But most people, especially children, find more wisdom from cartoons, movies, or comics than from philosophy–continental or analytic, ancient or medieval. Eastern or western.

In my view, there must be great value in conveying ideas indirectly. Of the writers here at Sweet Talk, no one has demonstrated this more thoroughly than David.

The exact opposite is not true, however. Indirect and direct, high and low context communication, both have their place.

What should not have a place are bad writing, badly organized presentation, and intentionally opaque language.

Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger were not seeking to provide well written parables or even dialogues, for all of their love of dialectic. For all the talk about “dialectical” styles, they ultimately gave lectures and wrote essays and books. And the stylistic choices they made provided cover for later, more mediocre thinkers to shroud their mediocrity in impenetrable writing.

What can be considered good writing depends on the goal as well as the audience of the piece. Good writing for a technical audience will be different than good introductory writing. Conveying wisdom through poetry, parable, or essay will also be judged differently in each case. But having different standards isn’t the same as having no standards, and philosophical writing is too often synonymous with bad writing.

2 thoughts on “The Gordian Knot

  1. cathyreisenwitz

    Not to be the stereotypical market anarchist here but, IT’S ABOUT CLASS. 🙂

    I think the difference between the rhetorical style of America and Europe is in a lot of ways a manifestation of the bigger divide between conceptions of class mobility. The American style requires the reader to bring less into the piece because Americans assume that people can and do choose at any time to seek to better themselves through various kinds of learning.

    Whereas the European rhetorical style assumes that learning is something determined/heavily informed by class. That is, certain kinds of people learn certain kinds of things in a certain order. There is no need to dumb it down for the plumber who picks you up but hasn’t read Plato. That isn’t going to happen.

    For the people who have learned the right things in the right order, an indirect style is certainly more efficient. And it’s definitely more fun to not waste time in 101 and go straight to the ambiguities of the topic at hand.

    But it’s not for me. Leaving aside your well-put point that most writers aping the European style are just pretentious and not great writers, I feel kindred with the plumber.

    A related issue is that a lot of writers are sacrificing effectiveness by “writing up.” That is, they’re writing for an audience that they wish to be a part of. They’re trying to prove they belong in the club by dropping obscure references and being oblique. At least I find myself doing this, if I’m not careful. But this is selfish, and a disservice to the readers, IMO.

    1. The funny thing is that this is pretty harmonious with what Foucault might say on the matter 😀

      The complicating factor is, though, that the plumber is much more likely to follow a story than an essay, no matter how direct the essay tries to be. So it’s not that direct speech is more egalitarian per se. A morally rich but highly accessible TV series is more egalitarian than a book on particle physics, even if the latter is said as clearly as possible with a layman audience in mind. The subject matter is a hurdle that style can only do so much for.

      That said, I think you’re completely right about the elitist vs egalitarian assumptions that tend to get baked into the continental vs analytic style divide, though the latter has some latent technocratic tendencies, too. So maybe it’s more elitist vs meritocratic than either being very egalitarian

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