March 18, 2015

"Good prose always strives to be clear and direct. Or so we all think now."

"Arthur Melzer’s remarkable book shines a floodlight on a topic that has been cloaked in obscurity: esoteric writing. Using such techniques as deliberate contradiction, parable and allusion, authors who write esoterically craft texts so that they operate on two levels. There is a surface message intended for the ordinary or inattentive reader and a deeper meaning, often diametrically opposed to the first, that is addressed to the discerning reader.... The great problem this posed for classic philosophers was that, in their view, all societies, even good ones, rested on certain myths or unexamined beliefs, which philosophy, in its relentless effort to subject everything to question and analysis, threatened.... Esoteric writing replicates on the written page what the good teacher does through discussion, which is to drop hints and start the student on a path of independent inquiry. By this view, dotting every i and crossing every t is an impediment. 'The open society,' Mr. Melzer writes, 'is highly sensitive to the dangers of obscurity but blind to those of plainness and clarity.'"

From a review in the WSJ by James Ceaser of Arthur M. Melzer's "Philosophy Between the Lines."

I like the way Amazon reacted to my search for that book with the suggestion that I might also want "The Philosophy Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained)."



That isn't perverse, actually. It makes a lot of sense. And I'm saying that to set you on the path of independent inquiry.

28 comments:

Ann Althouse said...

On the second book, the "simply explained" one, I see in the reviews that the Kindle version is disliked for a few reasons that might matter to you.

Quaestor said...

I tend to distrust "for dummies" books. I've had a few philosophy courses in my time, a couple of them taught by major figures, such as Tom Regan of "animal rights" fame, and if I learned one thing it's that philosophers tend to be concise writers who don't wonder far from their arguments. Like geometry there's no royal road to philosophy. I suspect the pedagogic inclination to boil things down to essentials for the sake of "clarity" all too often boils the meat off the bone as well.

Bob Ellison said...

Prose strives? My prose sometimes jumps off the page and runs to the fridge for a snack, but it never strives for much.

Quaestor said...

My prose tends to be bloated. Maybe I should padlock my fridge.

Bob Ellison said...

My prose is prolix. (I've loved that word ever since I first read it in Catch-22.)

Bob Ellison said...

My Haiku, howev-
Er, is too formulaic
To be worth reading.

Quaestor said...

What, in favor of oral sex?

Ann Althouse said...

"My prose is prolix. (I've loved that word ever since I first read it in Catch-22.)"

I first encountered that word in the context of friendship with a person who was prescribed the drug Prolixin.

As a conlawprof I frequently find myself saying "It does not partake of the prolixity of a legal code."

Bob Ellison said...

That's a great quote, Professor! I googled it because your link appears to be broken-- SupremeCourt.gov does not seem to sustain proper URLs correctly.

John Marshall wrote it.

Quaestor said...

What does Prolixin do, render the patient tongue-tied or loquacious?

Quaestor said...

Looked it up. It's the auditory hallucinations that are render tongue-tied.

Bob Ellison said...

Quaestor, Prolixin is prescribed for patients who, like that boy in the classic Tootsie Pop commercial, suffer from obsessive, addictive dedication to wondering about licking.

By the way, the boy in that commercial appears to be naked, and he has a prominent butt. Wouldn't get past the censors these days.

Bob said...

"a surface message intended for the ordinary or inattentive reader and a deeper meaning, often diametrically opposed to the first, that is addressed to the discerning reader"

So, kind of like old Bugs Bunny cartoons.

Ann Althouse said...

@Bob Ellison Wow, what a great commercial!.

Ann Althouse said...

"What does Prolixin do, render the patient tongue-tied or loquacious?"

I remember her saying that the drug flattened everything and eradicated the perception of humor.

rhhardin said...

Mind has no gender hasn't looked at the male mind very closely.

tim in vermont said...

The great problem this posed for classic philosophers was that, in their view, all societies, even good ones, rested on certain myths or unexamined beliefs, which philosophy, in its relentless effort to subject everything to question and analysis, threatened

It's almost as if it is impossible to drain the bathwater without killing the baby.

chickelit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chickelit said...

Ann Althouse said...
@Bob Ellison Wow, what a great commercial!

I agree! Peter Lorre voicing Mr. Fox is classic. He's also available as a celebrity ringtone.

Quaestor said...

I remember her saying that the drug flattened everything and eradicated the perception of humor.

Downer. It would be better to be nuts, I think.

Quaestor said...

Peter Lorre voicing Mr. Fox is classic.

Are we sure about this? There were a lot of voice actors in the sixties who did Peter Lorre as a stock character, Bill Scott and Daws Butler come to mind. Heck, I do a pretty good Peter Lorre myself... heh, heh.

Laslo Spatula said...

"Downer. It would be better to be nuts, I think."

A close call, sometimes.

I am Laslo.

Roughcoat said...

Quaestor said: "I tend to distrust "for dummies" books."

Not me. I like them. I tried to read Kant and didn't understand him. Ditto for other philosophers, especially the German ones. "For Dummies"-type books helped. Sure, you can take a class in the subject, but isn't that a just another kind of "for dummies" approach? Except it's more expensive and you have to take tests.

traditionalguy said...

I thought Prole Speak was the Enemy of the People. All Proles must be re-programmed with Marxist Speech or else.

Richard Dolan said...

Hah. I read that review in the WSJ last Oct when it was published and got Meltzer's book (haven't read it yet, though). Philo is cursed with lots of writing that might be called esoteric, perhaps not in the same sense as Meltzer intends, because it prizes deadly dullness combined with impenetrable obscurity. Heidegger is an exemplar. The Anglo-Americans have preferred a version of the clarity and directness approach -- JL Austin being a personal favorite, but there are many to choose from. PMS Hacker (a Brit professor and long-standing official keeper of the Wittgenstein flame) is also a delight in cutting through the usual semantic fog that other philo profs churn out. A particularly good example is in
Maxwell Bennett, Peter Hacker, Daniel Dennett, John Searle, Neuroscience & Philosophy: Brain, Mind & Language -- a symposium at Columbia featuring Hacker and Bennett (a neuroscientist) debating Searle and Dennett (two philo profs of distinctly different views about brain/mind issues). For my money, Hacker and Bennett have much the better of the argument.

The "simply explained" approach is hard to pull off well. If anyone delves into this one, I'd be interested to hear whether it was worth it. One effort in that genre that I liked was Michael Kellogg's Three Questions We Never Stop Asking. Kellogg is a lawyer in DC with a strong academic background in philo, and has the lawyer's knack for writing clearly.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

Roughcoat said...
Quaestor said: "I tend to distrust "for dummies" books."

Not me. I like them.


Seconded--intro/survey-type books can be quite useful in at least letting me know what's worth learning more about. I think of Wikipedia the same way, but there you usually have a few good sources linked. The downside to such books is that you have to put a lot of faith in the author (their taste, judgement), but from an efficiency standpoint they're tough to beat. The actual "Dummies" series was usually pretty good, although the last one I skimmed had annoying formatting (tons of irregular text boxes, asides, unnecessary graphics).

HoodlumDoodlum said...

Re: esoteric writing--I'm sure there are a few writers who successfully work on multiple levls (Strauss is a commonly-cited example), but in my experience most of what's passed off as esoteric is really just bad writing, and often bad thinking too. That's definitely the case with most academic writing, where jargon and reference-filled prose stacks up ponderously, daring you to find a parsable point. Although ideally such writing would use specialized "shorthand" of that type for concision's sake, in practice it's more likely a smokesceen designed to conceal the empty hollow where actual ideas should be.

When someone claims their writing is too esoteric for [a layman like] you to understand, your reaction should be increased skepticism. That's true even when they're genuinely (in good faith) encouraging you to "think deeply" about what they've written.

Chris N said...

'I remember her saying that the drug flattened everything and eradicated the perception of humor'

For a second there Althouse, I thought you were describing a possibly lifelong reaction to first and second-wave feminism.

Makes you rather interesting intellectually.