Can You Figure Out What These Philosophers Are Saying?

Three passages that will pay dividends when parsed carefully by a patient reader.

In a double-edged diss against lovers of wisdom in a Republican presidential debate earlier this year, Marco Rubio declared, in speaking up for vocational education, that “welders” not only “make more money than philosophers,” but are more productive citizens to boot. “We need more welders and less philosophers,” he declared, ungrammatically, turning W.E.B. Du Bois’ call a century ago for a “talented tenth” on its head, to riotous applause. Philosophers, the nation’s demeaned and ostracized ne’er-do-wells, hid their faces in their berets.

Among other things, philosophers often get a bad rap for their impenetrable prose. In a new post at Aeon, Keith Frankish, an English philosopher, discusses this tendency and notes some possible justifications for philosophical obscurantism. “Maybe these difficulties exist because great philosophers operate at a higher intellectual level than the rest of us,” Frankish writes, “packing their work with profound insights, complex ideas, and subtle distinctions. We might need these difficult thoughts unpacked by interpreters and, since these are usually less gifted than the original authors, they might differ on the correct reading.”

But ultimately Frankish argues that philosophical unclarity is no virtue. “[I]f a clear interpretation of the ideas can be provided,” he asks, quite reasonably, “why didn’t the original authors do it themselves? Such a failure of communication is a defect rather than a virtue. Skilled writers shouldn’t need interpreters to patch up holes in their texts.” Frankish then cites a few philosophers — David Hume, Arthur Schopenhauer and Bertrand Russell — whose prose, in his estimation, measures up. He invites readers to do the same, and more models of philosophical clarity (Michael Sandel, Saul Kripke, Peter Singer, Richard Rorty) appear in the comments.

But this post is not a place to showcase clarity. It’s a celebration of dense, eye-crossing prose that pays dividends when parsed carefully by a patient reader. Following are three passages from important philosophers writing from three distinct perspectives and in three different languages. It’s admittedly a bit tough to do justice to complex ideas in small chunks of text, so I’ve chosen lines that are relatively self-contained and convey ideas that are central to each philosopher’s ideas. Have at it, and, if you’re inspired, jot down your interpretations of one or more of the passages in the comments below.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, p. 43

"Now here we see philosophy placed in fact at a perilous standpoint, which is to be made firm, regardless of anything either in heaven or on earth from which it may depend or by which it may be supported. Here it should prove its purity as self-sustainer of its own laws, not as a herald of those that an implanted sense or who knows what tutelary nature whispers to it, which, taken collectively, although they may be better than nothing at all, yet they can never yield the principles that reason dictates and that must have their source fully a priori and therewith at the same time their commanding authority: expecting nothing of the inclination of the human being, but everything from the supremacy of the law and the respect owed to it; or else, if that fails, condemning the human being to self-contempt and inner abhorrence."

Jacques Lacan (1901-1981): “Beyond the Reality Principle,” Ecrits, pp. 61-62

"The dynamism of concepts borrowed from a transcendental dialectic is thus such that associationist psychology, in attempting to base itself on that dialectic, fails to constitute its object in positive terms, failing all the more fatally in that it receives those concepts emptied of the reflection they bring with them. Indeed, once the phenomena are defined in that form of psychology as a function of their truth, they are submitted in their very conception to a classification on the basis of value. Such a hierarchy not only vitiates, as we have seen, the objective study of the phenomena as regards their import in knowledge itself, but by subordinating all of the psychical pregiven to its perspective, it also skews the analysis thereof and impoverishes its meaning. By assimilating the phenomenon of hallucination with the sensory order, associationist psychology thus merely reproduces the absolutely mythical import that the philosophical tradition attributes to this phenomenon in the standard question regarding the error of the senses. The fascination characteristic of this theoretically scandalous role no doubt explains the true misrecognitions in the analysis of the phenomenon that allow for the perpetuation of a position regarding the problem that is so erroneous, yet still tenaciously held to by many a clinician."

Judith Butler (1956-), Gender Trouble, pp. 7-8

"My suggestion is that the presumed universality and unity of the subject of feminism is effectively undermined by the constraints of the representational discourse in which it functions. Indeed, the premature insistence on a stable subject of feminism, understood as a seamless category of women, inevitably generates multiple refusals to accept the category. These domains of exclusion reveal the coercive and regulatory consequences of that construction, even when the construction has been elaborated for emancipatory purposes. Indeed, the fragmentation within feminism and the paradoxical opposition to feminism from “women” whom feminism claims to represent suggest the necessary Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire limits of identity politics. The suggestion that feminism can seek wider representation for a subject that it itself constructs has the ironic consequence that feminist goals risk failure by refusing to take account of the constitutive powers of their own representational claims. This problem is not ameliorated through an appeal to the category of women for merely “strategic” purposes, for strategies always have meanings that exceed the purposes for which they are intended. In this case, exclusion itself might qualify as such an unintended yet consequential meaning. By conforming to a requirement of representational politics that feminism articulate a stable subject, feminism thus opens itself to charges of gross misrepresentation."


Steven V. Mazie is Professor of Political Studies at Bard High School Early College-Manhattan and Supreme Court correspondent for The Economist. He holds an A.B. in Government from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan. He is author, most recently, of American Justice 2015: The Dramatic Tenth Term of the Roberts Court.

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Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

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