How To Write Like an Analytic Philosopher
by Paul Austin Murphy
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/