Why Analytic Philosophy Papers Are Pretentious and Hard to Read


This is a critique of many (i.e., not all) analytic philosophy papers. Indeed it mainly focuses on the papers of postgraduates and young professional analytic philosophers. That’s those people who feel a strong need to display their academic credentials.

So one qualification I’ll make about this piece (as just hinted at) is that the more well-known (or even famous) an analytic philosopher becomes, the more likely he’ll take liberties with his prose style. Postgraduates and young professional analytic philosophers, on the other hand, will take the least liberties with their prose style. (In at least certain respects, that’s a good thing.) This basically means that if a philosopher has gone through the academic mill and displayed his credentials, then he can relax a little in terms of his prose. (For example, he can use the word “I” rather than the royal “we”.)

In any case, what often happens (in simple terms) is that analytic postgraduates and young philosophers attempt to write like older academics and the contemporary philosophers they’ve only just read. In that sense, they’re simply ingratiating themselves into a professional academic tribe.

Academics involved in analytic philosophy will, of course, say — and justifiably so — that academese is required for reasons of objectivity (or “intersubjectivity”), clarity, the formal requirements of academic research, stylistic uniformity… and whatever. However, there’s clearly much more to it than that.

So don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe that academic research is a bad thing. And I’m not keen on unstructured stream-of-consciousness philosophy in which the writer doesn’t seem to be aware of what other philosophers have said on the very same subject. This means there must be a happy medium between infinite footnotes, references and endless name-doping (see later section) and, on the other hand, a philosophical free-for-all. Having said that, some of the greatest papers in analytic philosopher don’t have any footnotes or references. Indeed some don’t even refer to other philosophers. (For example, Bertrand Russell’s ‘Existence and Description’, Max Black’s ‘The Identity of Indiscernibles’, David Lewis’s ‘Possible Worlds’, etc.)


What Philosophers Have Said on X

Sometimes I get the impression that far too many academic philosophy papers are simply long lists of what philosophers have said on subject x in the last 100 years or so. Or, if the academic is a postgraduate or young philosopher, then they’ll list of everything academically fashionable that’s been said on the subject in, say, the last 20 or 30 years. This means that most postgraduates pride themselves on being up-to-day. In these cases, then, not much will be referenced that’s more than 15 years old. And even when it comes to obscure areas of philosophy, there’ll still be a lot written on that subject.

As I’ve just said, what academics often do is comment on what Philosopher A said on subject x, then on what Philosopher B said on subject x, then on what Philosopher C… Sure; each time the academic does that he’ll offer a tiny opinion on what’s just been said by Philosopher A, Philosopher B, Philosopher C, etc. However, there’s still no deep thread of argument because the academic concerned endlessly moves from what one philosopher said to what another philosopher said. This approach is, after all, a display of the academic’s “research skills”. Thus I presume that it is seen as being arrogant, naive and… well non-academic to philosophise for too long without referencing other philosophers. At its most extreme, a postgraduate paper on problem/subject x amounts to no more than commenting on what every philosopher under the sun has said on x. And then such an academic will offer a tiny tweak on x. So is that modesty and “academic standards”? Or, on the other hand, is it part of a long production line of academic papers?

Since the academic concerned is simply offering an endless citation of other philosophers’ comments and positions, then he doesn’t have to do much thinking himself. Nonetheless, he does (as stated) have to do a tremendous amount of research. And it is through that research that he displays his academic and (future) professional credentials. Hopefully (for the academic at least), all that research may well secure him “academic tenure” (i.e., a well-paid job and career security).

That’s the focus on what philosophers have said on x. What about x itself?

Postgraduate students and young analytic philosophers usually focus on a fashionable (or up-to-date) “problem”. Then they read the fashionable (or up-to-date) papers on that problem — even if such a problem is simply a new stylistic variation of what older and dead philosophers have already written. 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. That’s mainly because 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. (Note: this present-mindedness has rarely anything to do with accommodating new findings in science.)

As just stated, what postgraduates of analytic philosophy and young philosophers tend to do when they write a paper is focus on an extremely narrow problem; as well as an extremely-narrow take on that extremely-narrow problem. (I suppose that this is the exact antithesis of Hegelian “system-building”.) Then they’ll read everything that’s been written on that subject (at least by the fashionable players) in the last five or ten years. They’ll then make notes on — and collect quotes from — everything they’ve read. Thus the resultant paper will also be chock-a-block with references and footnotes; though not necessarily chock-a-block with quotes. It will also be written in as academic (or dry) style as possible: indeed, self-consciously so. That will also mean that there’s often a gratuitous use of symbols, lots of numbered points, schema, and other stylistic gimmicks.

Now for more on the academic prose style itself.


Academese

Professional analytic philosophers pride themselves on their “clarity”. Yet the writings of such academics are often not very clear at all. True, such philosophers offer arguments and “conceptual clarifications”. However, these things don’t — in and of themselves — bring about clarity. Indeed they often do the exact opposite. In addition, they can encourage a degree of pedantry (which I’m also prone to).

It can also be said that the notions clarity and “explicit explanation” may simply be relative to specific analytic philosophers and what they take these things to mean. In other words, analytic philosophy may only be clear to other (professional) analytic philosophers. And the explicit explanations found in analytic philosophy may only work as explanations when it comes to other analytic philosophers. This means that those on the outside (including highly-educated people) will not appreciate (or even recognise) that supposed clarity or take the explanations to be explanations. Of course this is a sceptical view. Nonetheless, even if clarity and explicit explanation are relative only to analytic philosophers, it’s surely still the case that most analytic philosophers have the goals of clarity and explanation in mind… Well, not always.

Following on from that.

There’s usually — i.e., almost every time — absolutely no effort to make what’s discussed as simple as possible (though no simpler). In fact quite the opposite. That’s because there is indeed an “academic style”. Sure; each discipline has its own academic style. So just as many philosophers on the Continent will write in one way, so many analytic philosophers will write in another. And such prose styles will be equally academic.

One thing I’ve also noted is that many academics are simply bad at writing decent English. For example, they often don’t seem that keen on commas and even full stops. This can result in very long and convoluted sentences. Indeed sometimes this stylistic trait seems to be deliberate. Now why is that? It’s because if the academic’s ideas were put in the simplest manner possible, then that would show how simple his ideas or arguments are. And that will also show how trite, obvious or dull his ideas/arguments are.

The other thing that can often be noted is the extremely long paragraphs and a lack of subheadings. It’s as if the academics concerned are displaying how dense and esoteric their thought-processes are. Perhaps this is also because they believe that subheadings are for amateurs or popular-science books.

Now for those damned footnotes and references.

Often there are numerous references and footnotes in the papers of analytic philosophers. Indeed sometimes there are so many footnotes on the page that they take up more space than the main text. (Click this link for an example of what I’m talking about.) And this, of course, is extremely off-putting if the reader is only reading the main text. (For that reason, aren’t notes best placed at the end?) Yes; the reader’s flow is constantly being broken by a postgraduate or young philosopher displaying his research credentials (rather than doing philosophy). Finally, doesn’t this excessive use of long — and many — footnotes verge on academic exhibitionism?

Other stylistic gimmicks include the gratuitous use of symbols. (Most of the symbols used are logical; though sometimes they’re very peculiar to the academic concerned.) Schematic representations of positions or arguments are also used. And there may even be pointless graphs.

Then there’s the superabundance of technical terms. Sure, in all disciplines technical terms are required. Having said that, they aren’t required in each and every case. So sometimes a technical term is used when a everyday term will do the job just as well. This means that such terms are often used for reasons of pretentiousness; or so the writer can display his academic credentials.


The Takeaway

Criticising bad writing, technicality and sheer pretentiousness, however, doesn’t also mean that all work on the difficult minutia of philosophy should be shunned or limited in any way. Of course not. Some papers are bound to be complex and difficult. That’s not necessarily because of the subject’s difficulty; but simply because the issues and problems will be technical in nature and therefore include a high number of unfamiliar terms. Yet the use of technical terms can often be gratuitous (though it depends on the academic concerned).

Thus analytic academese can disguise what is often banal.

A lot of analytic philosophy is “trivial” (to quote what David Hugh Mellor said about much Continental philosophy). It’s also the case that some analytic philosophers hide that triviality under prose which is “wilfully obscure” .(This is another quote from Mellor, this time he was referring to Derrida.) Then again, such analytic philosophy won’t be trivial or wilfully obscure in the same way in which, say, Jacques Derrida’s work is. That is, it won’t be poetic and oracular. Instead, analytic triviality is hidden within forests of jargon, schema, symbolic letters, footnotes, references, “backward Es” (to quote Hilary Putnam), words like ceteris paribus and the like. In other words, such academic prose will be used to hide the trivialities.

28 views0 comments