How To Write Like an Analytic Philosopher

by Paul Austin Murphy

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There certainly is a specific prose style when it comes to much analytic philosophy. Of course there’s a general academic prose style (or prose styles) too. The analytic philosophy prose style can therefore be taken to be a variation on that.

Academics will of course say – and justifiably so – that this style is required for reasons of objectivity, clarity, the formal requirements of academic research, stylistic uniformity and whatever. However, there’s clearly more to it than that.

One qualification I’ll make is that the better known (or even famous) analytic philosophers become, the more likely they’ll take liberties with that prose style. In parallel, postgraduates and young professional analytic philosophers will take the least liberties with it. (Possibly that’s a good thing too.) This basically means that if you’ve gone through the academic mill and proved your credentials, then you can relax a little in terms of one’s prose style.

One point I’d like to stress is how the academic style is used to hide the philosophical, subjective and even political biases of the academics concerned. That means if you employ the right self-consciously dry academic style, then very few on the outside will detect any (obvious) biases. Indeed such academics are often seen by many laypersons as algorithmic machines devoted to discovering the Truth.

As for the philosophy under the prose.

The Cambridge philosopher Hugh Mellor (D.H. Mellor) once described Jacques Derrida’s work as “trivial” and “willfully obscure”. Mellor did so in his attempt to stop Derrrida receiving an Honorary Degree from the University of Cambridge. Of course a lot of analytic philosophy is also trivial. It’s also the case that some analytic philosophers hide that triviality under prose that is wilfully obscure. Having said that, such analytic philosophy won’t of course be trivial or wilfully obscure in the same way in which Derrida’s work is (if it is). That is, it won’t be poetic, vague and oracular. Instead, analytic triviality is often hidden within a forest of jargon, schema, symbolic letters, footnotes, references, “backward Es” (to quote Hilary Putnam), words like ceteris paribus and the like. In other words, basic analytic academic prose will be used to hide the trivialities and increase the obscurities. So, again, in Derrida’s case it’s a different kind of obscurity. (Though, in the continental tradition, it can be equally academic.)

How To Write a Analytic Philosophy Paper

What postgraduates of analytic philosophy tend to do when they write a paper is focus on an extremely narrow problem and on an extremely-narrow take on that extremely-narrow problem. Then they’ll read everything that’s been written on that subject over the last five or ten years (at least by the big or fashionable players). They’ll then make notes on – and collect quotes from – what they’ve read. Thus the resultant paper will also be chock-a-block with references, footnotes, etc. (though not necessarily chock-a-block with quotes). It will be written in as academic (or dry) a style as possible, indeed, self-consciously so. That will mean that there’s often a gratuitous use of symbols, lots of numbered points, schema, and other stylistic gimmicks that sometimes have the effect of making it look like a physics paper.

In crude and simple terms, what often happens is that analytic postgraduates attempt to write like older academics and the contemporary philosophers they’ve only-just read. In that sense, they’re ingratiating themselves with a professional academic tribe.

In terms specifically of references.

Take William G. Lycan’s medium-length paper “The Continuity of Levels of Nature,” which includes fifty-two references to other philosophers’ texts. We can also cite Jaegwon Kim’s “Supervenience as a Philosophical Concept,” which has fifty-one such references.

Then there’s the sad case of footnotes.

Footnotes often make analytic-philosophy papers very difficult to read because on any given page, they may take up more space than the main text. (Click this link for an example of what I’m talking about.) In addition, if the reader was to read all the footnotes as and when they occur, then he’d loose the “narrative thread” of the central text. (For that reason,  notes are best placed at the end) Doesn’t this excessive use of long and many footnotes verge on academic exhibitionism?

Postgrad students will also focus on the fashionable/up-to-date issues or problems and read the fashionable/up-to-date papers on those issues or problems – even if such things are simply new stylistic versions of what old philosophers have already said. (Though with endless examples of Derrida’s “sign substitutions”: that is, when an old word/concept is given new name.) Indeed it has been said (e.g., by A.J. Ayer way back in the 1950s) that many postgrad students rarely read anything that’s older than twenty years old. And many postgrads are so convinced that what is new is always better than what is old that they don’t feel at all guilty about their fixation with the very-recent academic past.

In terms of the philosophizing itself.

When a postgraduate student (of analytic philosophy) thinks about the nature of an aspect of the philosophy of mind (to take an arbitrary example), primarily, all he does is read and think about what Philosopher X and Philosopher Y (usually very recent philosophers) have said about the nature of that aspect of the philosophy of mind. This often means that he may well be caught in a intertextual trap. (Though, of course, it’s unlikely that any student would rely on only two philosophers of mind.) Indeed all the student’s responses, reactions and commentaries on that aspect of the philosophy of mind will also be largely intertextual in nature.

So in order to get a grip of why I’ve used the word ‘intertextual’ (a word first coined by the Bulgarian-French semiotician and psychoanalyst, Julia Kristeva), here’s a passage from the French literary theorist and semiotician, Roland Barthes:

Any text is a new tissue of past citations. Bits of code, formulae, rhythmic models, fragments of social languages, etc. pass into the text and are redistributed within it, for there is always language before and around the text. Intertextuality, the condition of any text whatsoever, cannot, of course, be reduced to a problem of sources or influences; the intertext is a general field of anonymous formulae whose origin can scarcely ever be located; of unconscious or automatic quotations, given without quotation marks.

Thus when students study philosophy at university, it seems that reading texts often seems far more important than independent thinking or reasoning. Indeed, isn’t that called “research”?

On the other hand, many philosophers (or wannabe philosophers) would like to flatter themselves with the view that their own philosophical ideas have somehow occurred ex nihilo. Yet genuine ex nihilo philosophical thought is as unlikely as ex nihilo mental volition or action (i.e., what philosophers call “origination”). 

In Praise of Style and Clarity

The analytic philosopher Simon Blackburn has little time for those philosophers who glory in the complexity of their own philosophical writings. Blackburn believes that philosophy’s“difficulties were compounded by a certain pride in its difficulty.” It’s ironic, then, that some of the great philosophers were also good writers. Blackburn himself cites Bertrand Russell, Gilbert Ryle and J.L. Austin. (I strongly disagree with Blackburn’s final choice, but there you go.) I would also cite Plato, Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, Schopenhauer, and others. As for the 20th century: Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty, Thomas Nagel, Jaegwon Kim, John Searle and various other American analytic philosophers (as opposed to English ones).

Bad writing, technicality and sheer pretentiousness, however, shouldn’t imply that all work on the difficult minutia of philosophy should be shunned or limited in any way. Some papers are bound to be complex and difficult,  necessarily because of the subject’s difficulty, but because the issues will be technical in nature and employ a number of unfamiliar terms. Oftentimes, however, technical terms are used gratuitously, though it depends on the philosopher concerned.

Blackburn makes some other interesting points about philosophical prose – at least in its bad guise. He quotes John Searle: “If you can’t say it clearly you don’t understand it yourself.”

This position is backed up by the science writer, Philip Ball (who writes about scientists, not philosophers):

When someone explains something in a complicated way, it’s often a sign that they don’t really understand it. A popular maxim in science used to be that you can’t claim to understand your subject until you can explain it to your grandmother.

Perhaps this is where Searle got his view from.

So when we criticize ourselves for not understanding a particular analytic philosopher’s prose, we should consider whether, perhaps, he may not have understood his own prose. Or, perhaps, he didn’t understand the philosophical ideas he was trying to express. Or perhaps it’s just a matter of the philosopher concerned being a poor writer, regardless of the complexity of his ideas. Or maybe he’s just pretentious!

Certainly, such people don’t follow the Quintilian dictum (as quoted by Blackburn): “Do not write so that you can be understood, but so that you cannot be misunderstood.”

Of course, literally speaking, if one writes “so that you cannot be misunderstood,” then one must also be writing “so that you can be understood.”  The two things go together. Despite that, the philosopher Bernard Williams (also quoted by Blackburn) offered a riposte to this “impossible ideal”:

Williams snapped at that and said it was “an impossible ideal. You can always be misunderstood,” and of course he’s right. But I think the point of Quintilian’s remark isn’t ‘write so as to avoid any possible misunderstanding’ but to remember that it’s difficult and that it’s your job to make it as easy as you can.

It’s interesting to note here that Williams’ impossible-ideal argument can also be used in favor of the idea that there will always be someone in one’s own culture (or even profession) – no matter how rational – who’ll misinterpret at least something you write or say. Indeed perhaps everyone who reads or listens to you will misinterpret you in some small or large way. The idea of a perfect communication of a complete and perfect meaning to a perfect interpreter seems to be a ridiculous ideal. It seems to be almost – or even literally – impossible… and for so many reasons.

So philosophers will always be “misunderstood” by someone in some way. Indeed each person will misunderstand a philosopher in some way, whether that way is large or small. All we have left (as writers or philosophers) is to realise that “it’s [our] job to make it as easy as [we] can.” We can’t be expected to do more than this. We can’t guarantee the perfect communication of our ideas or the perfect understanding of our ideas by other people (as anyone who uses social media already knows). And even if we allow this slack, perhaps, in the end, it simply doesn’t matter that much because communication doesn’t require either completely determinate meanings or completely determinate interpretations. We seem to manage quite well in most situations without perfect languages or other philosophical ideals. So perhaps we can’t (to use a term from Derrida again) “mathematicise” meaning, interpretation and understanding.

Paul Austin Murphy is a writer on philosophy and politics, living in the north of England. He’s had pieces published by Philosophy Now, New English Review, Human Events, and others. His philosophy blog is called Paul Austin Murphy’s Philosophy and can be found here: http://paulaustinmurphypam.blogspot.com/

9 Comments »

  1. ‘Certainly, such people don’t follow the Quintilian dictum (as quoted by Blackburn): “Do not write so that you can be understood, but so that you cannot be misunderstood.”

    Of course, literally speaking, if one writes “so that you cannot be misunderstood,” then one must also be writing “so that you can be understood.” The two things go together.’

    Isn’t there a logical error here? There isn’t a simple disjunction between being understood and being misunderstood, because there is also the possibility of being not understood. The point of the Quintilian dictum, presumably, is to avoid being misunderstood, even if you remain not understood (e.g. because your ideas are difficult). If I saw something written in a language I didn’t know (e.g. Arabic), then I would say that I don’t understand it, not that I misunderstand it.

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  2. Quintilian’s remark (“quare non ut intellegere possit sed ne omnino possit non intellegere curandum” 8.24) is not a general rule for writers, but a specific reminder to the orator that he will sometimes end up arguing a case in front of magistrates who may not be particularly bright or paying particularly close attention and who will need important points spelled out and repeated for them in order to be persuaded.

    The reader of an academic paper, by contrast, is assumed to be endowed with 1) sufficient time for more than a single read-through and 2) the interest necessary to read closely for understanding. In that context, the excessive use of footnotes can admittedly make the initial read-through difficult; ideally though it can also provide the student or generalist (who is not intimately familiar with the particulars of the larger discourse in which the paper is situated) with the context and additional resources necessary to eventually re-read the main text with greater fluency and comprehension.

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  3. Quintilian’s remark (“quare non ut intellegere possit sed ne omnino possit non intellegere curandum” 8.24) is not intended as a general rule for writers. In context he is reminding the prospective orator that he will sometimes end up arguing a case in front of magistrates who are not particularly bright or paying particularly close attention. In such cases it is not enough to merely “try to be understood” but rather the orator must spell out important points spelled out and repeat them if necessary so that the magistrates cannot help but understand what is being said.

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      • I do agree. It seems unlikely that either Blackburn or Williams has read Quintilian; or, if they have, they don’t seem to remember any of it apart from this quotation (which Blackburn has deployed elsewhere without apparent awareness of the fact that Quintilian was not providing guidance for *writing* at all but for public speaking). Ancient authors deserve better than to be used this way, as mere ornaments that lend a patina of authority and erudition to academic debate.

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  4. Paul:
    There’s a problem with philosophy in that it deals very often with the strangeness of the obvious. That sort of explication runs close to the margins of sublime dullness. Add to that the timorous philosophic baby steps that seek the frail support of hedging locutions such as ‘suspect’, ‘feels’, ‘intuition’ and the patient reader wants to shout ‘come out with it girl where do you stand’. Even provisionally?

    For the great ones the footnotes drop away like Clark Kent’s suit and they stand revealed ready to rescue reason. Or Reason!

    What I notice and my noticing is probably a function of my prejudice, is that the analytically orientated mostly read science fiction in their leisure from the onerous doom of being thinkers. This I gather from their blog expressed enthusiasms. S.F. in general is not where good style is found. My view is that unless you read well you won’t write well.

    Can there be creative misunderstanding? Coleridge remarks in Biographia Litteraria:

    In the perusal of philosophical works I have been greatly benefited by a resolve, which, in the antithetic form and with the allowed quaintness of an adage or maxim, I have been accustomed to word thus: until you understand a writer’s ignorance, presume yourself ignorant of his understanding.

    Clarity allows the reader to see where the ordinary writer is lacking. In the case of the great; Coleridge gives the example of Plato in the Timaeus, the understanding of his ignorance is beyond us at our most bumptious. We are therefore ignorant of his understanding.

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  5. I really enjoyed this essay. I found it both enlightening and entertaining. I appreciated especially both its subtle wit and its even handed approach to the variant traditions.

    Not only every field, but every tradition within a field develops its own language and its own style. I think one of the impulses behind the development of formal logic was the hope that a language of purified symbolics could be achieved such that there could be no misunderstanding, and no statements made that were not wholly and undeniably true. If so, this was doomed to failure, because such a language would not be able to communicate any idea convincingly. An idea is never simply true or false, it is a compound of what is held to be true and the frame of reference that would make it true. “There is no present king of France” means nothing to one who doesn’t know what a king is, and doesn’t know where France is, or what its history might be. Formal logic has its own uses, but communicating ideas convincingly is not one of these. Ultimately prose will have to do. This makes communicating convincingly, within the language of the tradition, easier, but it also adds a new demand, that of writing persuasively. “Let me explain the history of France, and why the absence of a king there might be interesting.” That in turn necessitates stylistics, which brings in the personal, because it involves the person. Either one has a feeling for the material one writes, or one is simply engaged in mere reportage.

    The challenge to young writers in philosophy, with which this essay presents us, is to find that feeling for the material, even if the material itself suggests that such feeling has no place in philosophy. Philosophy is a social enterprise, and where people are involved, we cannot gain-say feeling entirely.

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  6. Paul

    Nicely observed. You make a number of good points.

    “The idea of a perfect communication of a complete and perfect meaning to a perfect interpreter seems to be a ridiculous ideal. It seems to be almost – or even literally – impossible… and for so many reasons.”

    And maybe the problem is not just a matter of the degree of communicative effectiveness being sought (“perfect” being an unreasonable goal) but also with the implied metaphor, with this very way of speaking/thinking (i.e. taking meaning as a thing being passed from one person to another).

    I am not doubting that distinctions can be made between style and content, but in many instances — especially in respect of our ordinary, mundane communications, as well as in academic fields which lack strong empirical or formal foundations — the style, in a sense, *is* the content.

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  7. There may be some characteristic features of Anglophone philosophical writing, but I see more similarities than differences when I compare it to academic writing in general, especially the contemporary theses and monographs in philosophy, history, psychology, anthropology and law I have read over the past few years. Just like the the usual trope about human races, the range within any one discipline is larger than the average between-discipline difference, once you eliminate certain topic-specific technical terms.

    And of course there is an academic literature on the topic, where you will read sentences like:

    “Whilst the use of hedging or mitigation of claims in academic writing has received attention recently, little empirical research appears to have investigated boosters, even though they may perform an equally important role…The investigation involved quantitative and qualitative analysis of a 1,250,000 words corpus gathered from 216 articles published in leading journals (six journals from each discipline and six articles from each journal).” 😉

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