Why Clarity Is Important in Philosophy

Many philosophers are very difficult to read.

Not because what they write is conceptually difficult to understand (this is subjective) but because of the way they use language.

Some philosophers use language in a metaphorical way that has very few ways where a clear picture can be drawn.

Much like poetry, the reader fills in the gaps in their own mind what they would like the meaning to be.

The same can be said of watching a film.

A film can have many different meanings.

I watched the movie “Arrival”, for instance. One of the central premises of the movie is centered on a concept known as a “universal language” (the aliens that arrive want to give humans a universal language so that they can live in peace—like the Tower of Babel.

I don’t know if this idea is studied in linguistics or researched. Esperanto is perhaps the closest natural language to a universal language. Formal languages are fairly universally applicable but not necessarily. Math is math no matter who is telling you what the numbers or geometry are and what sense they are trying to convey to you—take a vector for instance (I’m not claiming these objects exist in a platonic sense). But there are different types of logic so this is problematic if signs mean different things for different people.

However, numbers don’t mean anything, they just are. Mathematical objects don’t mean anything, they just are also.

Okay, that was an aside. This ties into meaning because the film’s screenwriter had an idea in mind when he wrote the script.

Who knows whether he was trying to convey the message that we should all try to speak the same language—in a metaphorical way—and be more understanding and empathetic with each other and so on, or whether the screenwriter meant the movie to be about how humanity comes together when faced with a crisis (this is what occurs in the movie).

There is really no way to say. It is completely up to interpretation.

Back to philosophy.

Some philosophers are readable in the same way. There isn’t really one or a few definite interpretations, only that which you wish to see.

For anybody who wants to uncover some semblance of truth about the universe, this is repugnant.

The way I see it, a philosopher’s job is not to tell us that there are many different interpretations of the same notion. Their job is to clarify what we mean when we say something.

I am all fine for those who want to write about things with the express intent that the meaning behind the words is vague and very unclear and subjective but this is the realm of literature. Literary analysis, critical theory, social theory, and so forth. Idealism is not very helpful for uncovering the facts about the world.

I don’t count “ideological facts” as facts either.

Therefore, clarity is important in philosophy. The philosopher wants to break down the intent of the person who is making an utterance, writing or showing by gesture what they are trying to get at. To get to the crux of the sense they had in mind.

In the philosophy of language if ultimately what you find out is that there is no way two people can mean the same thing (at least to the point where their meanings overlap to the degree necessary to communicate with each other effectively) then the task of the philosopher is redundant.

Being precise with what you mean is the key to good philosophy. Being obscurant and convoluted is the key to talking in circles.

We should be pragmatic in our approach to understanding the world.

Some arguments are more effective than others. The reason being is because what one needs to state can be stated in a way which is less prone to an erroneous comprehension between all parties involved. This parsimonious use of language attempts to reduce the time we waste fundamentally talking cross purposes.

If two people cannot agree on the definitions of the words they are using, effective communication is impossible. The two parties may communicate but whether their meaning is preserved when communicating to the other person, is highly unlikely.

Why is this important? Because we undertake philosophy to build our epistemology of the world. We can clarify what scientists are saying is real, why this is real, how this is real, in what ways these beliefs are justifiable and coherent with each other and so forth.

If we were to say, “Oh, no, sorry, the facts today aren’t the same facts as they were yesterday because there is a new way of thinking about the facts,” then this is absurd (unless there is a Kuhnian paradigm shift)

What we know through the scientific method is true as far as we can know reality. This exists in the same way for every person regardless of how they think about it. Ultra-relativism is a cancerous way of thinking. It degrades respect we have for seeking knowledge and understanding. It is regressive. It is not useful.

I cannot deny that all things are subjective. But this is only insofar as we are talking about things with an evaluative aspect.

Take the most austere of facts such as those of physics or mathematics. One mathematical proof or mathematical presentation of the same mathematical object or mathematical relationship may be more beautiful, simpler or more elegant than another, but this doesn’t change the nature of the mathematical phenomena you are describing in nature (even if this is only telling us about the nature of the human brain).

A straight forward example: here are 54 ways to prove that the Pythagorean theorem is true: http://www.faculty.umb.edu/gary_zabel/Courses/Phil%20281b/Philosophy%20of%20Magic/Arcana/Neoplatonism/Pythagoras/index.shtml.html

These are all describing the nature of a right-triangle.

Mathematics models the universe. This does not mean that the universe is made of math (some think it does—such as Max Tegmark). It means that the universe follows the exact nature—in physics at least—of the mathematical relationships which are formulated using functions, numbers, and so forth.

One may say they prefer one theory that models the nature of quantum mechanics in ways that another theory doesn’t. It wouldn’t change the fact that the nature of particles is quantum mechanical.

So where is the interpretation there? Where is the subjectivity? Where can a new “theory” tell us that particles aren’t quantum mechanical, this is just a linguistic trick?
If there is no respect for even these facts, then somebody is either being intentionally deceptive or is an idiot.

I like to think that we build our knowledge of the world upon science. Mathematics is the central language to all of the branches of science. We can have factual knowledge. We can know the world in ways which are consistent and form a web of coherent facts which are part of a bigger whole.

Yes, we could argue all day whether we can know anything at all (extreme philosophical scepticism) but this is a pointless and fruitless exercise I have no interest in.
What role does philosophy play in helping us understand the world then? One is tempted to say very little. When it comes to discovering the nature of the universe perhaps very little if not nothing.

Philosophy is used to tell us what we ought to do with the knowledge that science uncovers. Even that can be looked at through a scientific lens.

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