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Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Nigel Warburton (the Bestselling Author) on What Philosophers Should Do


i) Introduction 
ii) The “Classical Conception” of a Philosopher? 
iii) Fake Philosophers 
iv) Real Philosophers

The British philosopher Nigel Warburton is well known as a writer of what’s often called “popular philosophy”. He’s written various introductory books on philosophy, including the bestselling Philosophy: The Basics. He runs a philosophy weblog Virtual Philosopher and podcasts interviews with established philosophers at Philosophy Bites. He’s also written for the Guardian newspaper.

The “Classical Conception” of a Philosopher?

Nigel Warburton approvingly states what he believes is the “classical conception” of a philosopher. He puts it this way:

“The classical conception of a philosopher is someone who thinks about their own life, as well as about the nature of life.”

Warburton then contrasts that conception with what he believes many (or even most) academic analytic philosophers do. He continues:

“You wonder about the competence of some people who, having thought about their own lives, have decided to devote them entirely to making a mediocre contribution to an obscure debate. It’s like deciding to spend your life solving crossword puzzles.”

Perhaps one can see why Nigel Warburton doesn’t have much time for academic philosophers because… well, he’s written a lot of popular philosophy… Yet Warburton himself has a strong and long academic background.

At first Warburton was a pupil at the fee-paying Sevenoaks School; which is one of the United Kingdom’s most expensive schools. He then gained a BA from the University of Bristol and a PhD from the University of Cambridge. More relevantly and perhaps ironically, Warburton was a lecturer at the University of Nottingham and later joined the Department of Philosophy at the Open University.

So, like so many members of the elite and so many academics, Warburton has a go at elitists and academics (i.e., for being academics, not for other things). Indeed Warburton himself recognised this when he said that he was once in an

“awkward position as a lecturer because I didn’t feel completely committed to the academic world of philosophy”.

Warburton was a professional academic from before 1994 until 2013 and a student of philosophy before that. Indeed it’s highly likely that publishers wouldn’t have been interested in Warburton’s popular philosophy if it weren’t for the fact that he’d previously gained a PhD from Cambridge University and also been an academic.

Fake Philosophers

Warburton hints at specialisation and academic philosophy. That is, he wonders why academic analytic philosophers “have decided to devote them entirely to making a mediocre contribution to an obscure debate”. What’s more, he believes that this is “like deciding to spend your life solving crossword puzzles”.

Warburton is also prepared to defend his position. He said elsewhere:

“I’d be happy to have a debate with someone who thinks that, who does what I call ‘crossword puzzle philosophy’, just footnotes to footnotes. Is that real philosophy? Is that what Socrates did? Is that what Hume did? I don’t think so.”

There’s more from Warburton on academic analytic philosophers here:

“A lot of professional philosophers lack the imagination required to think about what it’s like not to understand something. Some have got into a complacent habit of speaking to each other in a kind of technical language, which is almost at times the avoidance of doing philosophy. They’re part of a culture of people who always say the same things and make the same moves: just making finer and finer discriminations between whether they’re a particular kind of materialist or a particular kind of functionalist. People stake out little claims. When faced with the need to explain what they’re doing and why it should be of interest to anyone at all outside of that culture, many flounder.”

I agree with much of that. However, I don’t believe that Warburton’s vision of political-activist philosophy (see later) is a better alternative. Indeed isn’t that exactly what we have with much continental philosophy?

I used the words “academic analytic philosophers” above because it’s clear that such people are Warburton’s prime — or even only — target. That can be seen from what else he has to say on this matter. Yet Warburton must also realise that most well-known continental philosophers (even the “relevant” and politically-active ones) made their name as academics too.

Warburton has some more critical things to say about academic analytic philosophers. He classes (in scare quotes) “the best philosophers” as those who’ve “passed all the exams”. He then adds that they (i.e., other academics) believe these philosophers are the “best philosophers [because] their peers say they’re the best philosophers”.

Warburton then gets all essentialist (or purist) about philosophy by asking this question:

“Are they really in the spirit of philosophy when they do this?”

So what is “the spirit of philosophy”?

Was the spirit of philosophy the same in 5th century BC Greece as it was when Francis Bacon was writing in the 17th century? What about 18th-century philosophy compared to the philosophy written in the 1930s when the logical positivists were in their heyday? And do the writers of popular philosophy automatically capture the spirit of philosophy when they attempt to make sure that their philosophy is (as it’s often put) “relevant”?


All academic disciplines have their specialists and specialisms.

This means that everything Warburton has just said about philosophers can also be said about most anthropologists, economists, historians, psychologists, sociologists, literary theorists, etc. Indeed many of the academics of some of these disciplines are far worse offenders than academic philosophers.

For example, haven’t sociologists, political theorists, literary theorists, etc. “got into a complacent habit of speaking to each other in a kind of technical language”. Aren’t they “part of a culture of people who always say the same things and make the same moves”? Finally, aren’t the following words from Warburton also perfectly applicable to many — or even most - other academics (i.e., those academics outside analytic philosophy)? -

“When faced with the need to explain what they’re doing and why it should be of interest to anyone at all outside of that culture, many flounder.”

In addition to all that, many poets, novelists, composers, etc. have made (to use Warburton’s words) “mediocre contribution[s]” to their disciplines too.

So philosophy isn’t like mastering the game of Monopoly or taking up amateur gardening. But even here I must hold my horses and say that some non-academic philosophers have also written highly complex and detailed philosophy. That is, philosophy that certainly wasn’t either about (to use Warburton’s words) “their own life” or about “the nature of life”. In other words, their not being academics didn’t stop them from writing about, for example, causation (as with Aristotle) or “hyperbolic doubt” (as with Descartes).

I quoted Warburton’s use of the words “mediocre contribution to an obscure debate” earlier. So here it must be asked if Warburton means either of the following two things:

(1) That the content of much (or all) academic analytic philosophy is mediocre.
(2) That the impact of the philosophical content is (or has been) mediocre.

First things first: many great philosophical works in history had — at least initially — a mediocre impact. What’s more, who’s going to decide if the content is mediocre anyway? Indeed is the content definitionally mediocre precisely because it has (or had) a mediocre impact on society at large?


The ironic thing is that Warburton seems to argue against relevance in philosophy. Or, more accurately, he’s against the Government — and institutions and academics working on its behalf — “measuring” the relevance of academic philosophers’ works.

Specifically in reference to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), Warburton said:

“One of the most disturbing things about academic philosophy today is the way that so many supposed gadflies and rebels in philosophy have just rolled over in the face of the REF — particularly by going along with the idea of measuring and quantifying impact, a technical notion which was constructed for completely different disciplines. I’m not even sure what research means in philosophy. Philosophers are struggling to find ways of describing what they do as having impact as defined by people who don’t seem to appreciate what sort of things they do. This is absurd.”

He continued:

“Just by entering into this you’ve compromised yourself as a philosopher. It’s not the kind of thing that Socrates did or that Hume did or that John Locke did… Why are you doing this? I’m getting out. For those of you left in, how can you call yourselves philosophers? This isn’t what philosophy’s about.”

So perhaps Warburton is (or was) against the government and its representatives calling the shots when it comes to academic philosophers’ work. (This has been called “government interference”.) As it is, he nonetheless seems to be keen on political — and even party-political — commitment. That said, this isn’t my subject and it’s probably advisable not to tread on a subject that will be very dear to academics’ hearts.

Real Philosophers

So what do Nigel Warburton’s words “classical conception of a philosopher” actually mean?

I ask that because, even since the ancient Greeks, it’s been the case that not all philosophers wrote exclusively about their own lives and/or the nature of life.

Surely Warburton should have said the following instead:

The average layperson’s conception of a philosopher is someone who thinks about their own life; as well as about the nature of life.

Warburton makes it fairly clear (in various places) what he believes real philosophers do and what real philosophy is.

For example, in an interview he stated the following points:

“Philosophers are very well-placed to be critical participants about the nature of the democracy they’re living in, but very few respond to contemporary events. For instance today the big discussion is about gay marriage. It’s being discussed in Parliament.”

Warburton then goes on to tell us about fake philosophers and what they do. He continued:

“Philosophers today have mostly got their heads down. They’re concerned with writing for a journal which will publish work that takes them two or three years, and only five people will read it. These are people who could be contributing to something that’s incredibly important. Gay marriage is just one example of many. I don’t think philosophers responded particularly well to 9/11… philosophers are by and large more interested in getting a paper in Mind or Analysis than they are in commenting on the major political events of our time.”

The fact is that countless sociologists, economists, psychologists, political theorists, political writers, etc. are producing a vast amount of work on precisely the same kind of subjects Warburton mentions — as do continental philosophers! So does Warburton really want philosophical work on these subjects? Perhaps he’d also find purely philosophical work (or analysis) equally dull, boring and (to use his own words) “rather dry” precisely because it still isn’t (as the phrase has it) “politically committed” . As we’ll see, Warburton is politically committed (in a strident and obvious way) and he seems to demand political commitment from other philosophers too.

I say all that because after taking note of Warburton’s Twitter account, I soon noted that he uses his profile as a vehicle for crude and tribal political activism. More accurately, over the weeks I saw almost zero philosophical tweets or even political tweets with philosophical content. Instead, all Warburton seemed to tweet was crude and politically-tribal stuff. (It’s worth noting here that Warburton isn’t anywhere near as politically Manichean, zealous and extreme as Professor Ray Monk — see here. There are a number of other analytic philosophers on Twitter in Monk’s mould too.) Thus Warburton seemed to be no different from the countless other political activists on Twitter. Again, there was no philosophy there; though there was plenty of politics…

And then I realised that Warburton has two different Twitter accounts. He uses one account for the mainly political stuff (see here) and the other one for purely philosophical stuff (see here and the screenshots above and below). Yet that very neat-and-tidy division seems to work against Warburton’s general position on philosophy. If Warburton demands that philosophy be relevant when it comes to politics, and he also believes that philosophy can be very useful when it comes to political issues, then why has he completely separated philosophy from politics and created two distinct Twitter accounts? Again, Warburton’s politics account on Twitter contains no philosophical analysis at all; although it does contain various tweets about philosophy.

Of course Warburton will probably say something like this:

It’s only Twitter. What do you expect? Long-winded philosophical expositions?

… Well, some people on Twitter do advance cogent, if short, arguments — sometimes over a couple of tweets. (For example, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Fry, Julian Baggini, etc.) And that certainly doesn’t also mean that I agree with them either.

So Warburton has two sets of followers on Twitter. One group follows him because it likes his crude and politically-tribal tweets. And the other group is interested in the philosophical issues Warburton covers in his other Twitter account. Again, doesn’t this neat division work against what Warburton is claiming to do? In other words, why doesn’t Warburton use his knowledge and philosophical skills when he posts his political tweets? Does Warburton really need to be so crude and politically tribal — even on Twitter? Is that what being relevant is all about?

[I can be found on Twitter here.]

Friday, 30 April 2021

Derrida’s Obscure Style of Writing: A Philosophical Critique


i) Introduction
ii) Derrida Was Saying Something New
iii) Derrida Forced us to Think
iv) Translating Derrida into Basic Prose
v) Banality?
vi) There is No Outside-Text

Some of Jacques Derrida’s followers and admirers have happily acknowledged the fact that he made his style of writing “deliberately difficult”. However, they also believe that Derrida’s prose is difficult for many good reasons.

Professor Simon Critchley

Take Professor Simon Critchley on this:

“I think it is rather his use of language, because he wants to use language to make it say things that it hasn’t previously said.”

Critchley elaborates on his theme:

“And he has got different devices for doing this. I remember an argument he had with Habermas about whether or not he conflates philosophy and literature, and he denies that he does. But that doesn’t mean that some of the features of a literary style don’t appear in his work.”

And then we have some relevant details which at least partly explain Derrida’s obscure writing style. Critchley goes on to say that Derrida used

“intertextual references that aren’t explicit; allusions that aren’t explicit; neologisms; and what he calls paleonomy, where he takes an old word, and puts a new concept in it”.

Thus, if all the above is the case, then it will explain why Derrida is only understood by a very tiny section of society — academic initiates or his followers. Of course it must now be said that Derrida’s ideas — or what are taken to be his ideas — have been interpreted and expressed in many new and simpler ways. Indeed these interpretations (or “readings”) have filtered down to lesser academics, lawyers, leaders of “radical” political groups and even — very circuitously — to those agitating on the streets.

And since many academic followers and admirers of Derrida stress the importance of “primary sources”, then the following question should now be asked:

Do all — or even any — of those above ever “get” Derrida first hand?

Let’s return to Derrida’s style of writing itself.

Did Derrida write obscure prose because his technical (or complex) philosophical ideas demanded a technical (or complex) language?

Or was it the case that Derrida believed that his philosophical ideas demanded intertextual references/allusions (which aren’t “explicit”), neologisms and paleonomy in order to make language (to use Critchley’s words) “say things that it hasn’t previously said”?

Professor Christina Howells

Professor Christina Howells (at Oxford University) stresses the importance of “technical language” (as it were) in itself being relevant when she says that Derrida claimed that he had created

“a specific type of philosophy, and it was technical, and there was no reason why anyone reading it should immediately understand it, anymore than they would any other specialised, technical language”.

Of course people don’t “immediately understand” Derrida’s writing style because it can be argued that the French philosopher went out of his way to make sure that people didn’t immediately understand it. And, as already stated, this wasn’t entirely down to Derrida’s prose being a “specialised, technical language”. It was also down to— so the argument goes — Derrida making language “say things that it hasn’t said before”.

Derrida Was Saying Something New

Nearly all new written or spoken words say at least something that hasn’t been said before. (This can be related to — if indirectly — Noam Chomsky’s thesis about the “infinite use of finite means” when it comes to natural languages.) That said, it’s true that there’s a difference between saying something new in a given language and making that language itself attempt to say things it hasn’t said before. That seems to mean that any originality in Derrida’s work is largely down to the language he uses — not the content, claims, ideas, arguments, etc. expressed in that language.

But what does all this stuff about language saying something new actually mean?

If a language were completely new, then Derrida’s readers wouldn’t be able to make head nor tail of it. So surely Derrida must have kept at least something of the old. And, if that’s the case, then that may explain Derrida’s intertextual references, paleonomy, etc. So these “devices” may now allow Derrida’s readers to have a least one foot in the old in order to grasp the new.

Was Derrida saying anything with his new style of writing? Or was it was all about his style of writing?

Well, Derrida’s work has certainly been interpreted as saying all sorts of things. Indeed I myself have interpreted — parts of — Derrida’s work as saying certain things. (See my ‘Jacques Derrida on the Signifier and the Signifier’; which I wrote a few years ago.) So Derrida’s new way of writing must have been interpreted to express ideas that can indeed be expressed in old ways. Yet if any of his ideas can be expressed in old ways, then why didn’t Derrida himself express them in old ways? Many followers and admirers must presume — like Critchley — that Derrida didn’t do so because he was trying to make language say things that it hasn’t said before.

Derrida Forced Us to Think

How much does a reader need to know about Derrida’s writing style (as well as his philosophy) in order to recognise his (to use Critchley’s words) “wordplay”, “intertextual references”, “allusions”, “neologisms” and “paleonomy”?

Clearly — a hell of a lot.

Of course one can easily argue that one needs to be tuned in — at least to some extent - to any philosopher in order to understand what he or she says. Yet added to that fact — again — is Derrida’s use of language to make it say things it hasn’t previously said. That compounds the difficulties for the reader. And, of course, it’s very clear that Derrida was very happy with making things difficult. Indeed one could easily argue that making things difficult for the reader was at least part of Derrida’s (philosophical) point!

In addition to all that and according to Professor Critchley, another reason for Derrida’s abstruse writing style is that he was attempting to “try to force us to think”. Indeed Critchley makes the fantastic claim that Derrida believed that “we haven’t begun to think”.

What does that even mean?

Of course this is more or less the same position as Heidegger’s (see here). I don’t mean that the idea of making us think can be artfully extracted from Heidegger's work. I mean that Heidegger virtually used that very same expression; as well as various similar ones.

We may conclude that the obscurities of Derrida’s writing style was his attempt “to force us to think”. And, through reading Derrida’s prose, we can begin to think. So it’s ironic that when Derrida attempted to force us to think he used the ideas and language of a German philosopher who’d already said very similar things some decades before.

Translating Derrida into Basic Prose

If obscurity was part of the point of Derrida’s prose style, then it’s not a surprise that Professor Christina Howells (mentioned above) said that she isn’t

“very keen on the idea of transforming Derrida into terms that analytic philosophy can cope with and use”.

Why is that?

Howells believes that it’s because

“we’d loose much of the specificity that way, and you could we be left with banality”.

Howells then goes on to say that

“when you extract from a long elaborated discussion a kernel which is then acceptable to analytic philosophy, whether it is about being with others, or about what Derrida might mean by différance, if he were prepared to express it quite differently, you’ve lost too much”.

Thus Howells’ somewhat categorical and dogmatic stance must mean that — for example — my own ‘Jacques Derrida’s Others’ must be flushed straight down the toilet. So isn’t it ironic that a follower (or admirer) of Derrida should explicitly state that at least some (or even many) readings of him — i.e., those by analytic philosophers — “loose too much” or are just plain wrong? (See later section on false readings of Derrida.)

Yet this isn’t really about translating Derrida’s writings and ideas into something analytic philosophy “can cope with and use”. It’s about translating Derrida’s writings and ideas into any other kind of prose.

Professor Keith Ansell-Pearson

Professor Keith Ansell-Pearson also makes the same mistake when he too points the finger exclusively at analytic philosophers. He claims that all analytic philosophers believe that Derrida and other continental philosophers are “pretentious and portentous”. Ansell-Pearson doesn’t like this attitude of analytic philosophers. He believes that such criticisms of Derrida are “intellectually smug” and also “ethically deficient”. What’s more, this position of all analytic philosophers is an expression of “the ideology of the ruling class”. So I can only presume that Professor Ansell-Pearson said this because he also believes that all — or at least most — continental philosophy is politically radical.

Ansell-Pearson’s words are clearly aggressive and tribal. And that’s partly why I’ve use the words “all” when mentioning his references to analytic philosophers. In other words, there’s nothing in Ansell-Pearson’s words to suggest that he believes that there are any analytic philosophers who’re exceptions to his categorical pronouncements. And he doesn’t believe that any subtle positions have ever come from analytic philosophers when they’ve discussed continental philosophy.(Surely Ansell-Pearson should have said: “Some analytic philosophers believe that some — or even many — continental philosophers are pretentious and portentous.”)

Yet despite Pearson’s and Howell’s personal problems with analytic philosophy, those problems are largely irrelevant to this issue. That’s the case because hardly anyone — other than Derrida’s academic followers and admirers —understands Derrida’s style of writing. And that fact also applies to the many highly-educated people (i.e., most of whom are completely unconnected to analytic philosophy) who’ve attempted to understand Derrida.


Professor Christina Howells was quoted above using the word “banality”.

What if it’s the case that when Derrida’s prose is made simple, it then become banal? Conversely, what if Derrida made his prose obscure precisely because he knew that the philosophy “underneath” is largely banal! In other words, do Derrida’s obscurities hide his banalities? And is that part of the reason why Howells seems to (for want of a better word) fear any translations of Derrida’s prose? That is, does she fear that such translations would display at least some of the philosophical banalities underneath Derrida’s arcane prose?

In any case, Howells concludes by saying that

“there is a risk of transforming the philosophers into something they’re not, and making them say something they weren’t saying”.

Howells seems to believe that she knows exactly what Derrida was “saying”. At least that’s the clear implication of her words above.

So what has happened to Derrida’s “interpretative play” and there being “no outside-text” (il n’y a pas de hors-texte)?

There is No Outside-Text

So it seems that Derrida’s philosophical and linguistic free play was fine — but only up to the point when it resulted in readings (or interpretations) that his admirers and followers didn’t like.

Take the example of readings of Derrida which don’t help advance the political or social goals of his followers or admirers. So when (or if) Derrida is interpreted as advancing a political or ethical position that is in any way conservative, reactionary or whatever, then most of his admirers or followers would have a deep problem with such “free readings”. Indeed Derrida himself (who once said “all our readings are misreadings”) expressed his own very-strong negative reactions against the wrong readings of his work (see here)!

So what makes some readings of Derrida’s work right and other readings wrong?

I would suggest — as I’ve already done — that Derrida and his followers are happy when they agree with the readings (say, when they advance political causes they agree with). However, they become very unhappy indeed when the readings don’t do so.

Take the specific case of the many times Derrida has been classed as a “relativist”. Professor Simon Critchley tackles Derrida’s supposed relativism. He said:

“[]Derrida, who is always perceived as a relativist. []In Derrida’s later work, we see him moving more and more explicitly towards a defence of a normative universalism, and a belief in the undeconstructability of justice, as he puts it, which is an overarching value that cannot be relativised.”

This looks very much like Derrida advanced a Grand Narrative — or at the very least he advanced a universalist conception of justice. In other words, the passage above seems to work against everything that Derrida (formerly) believed — that’s unless I’ve misread Derrida and the academics I’ve read who’ve written on him.

So if justice can be removed from “deconstructive play”, then why not truth, knowledge, ethics, specific political issues (or causes), etc. too? In other words, why on earth did Derrida single out justice? (That’s if Derrida did single out justice.) And if Derrida did focus on justice, then perhaps he also believed that certain political (or social) causes (or values) “cannot be relativised” or deconstructed either. Indeed they too may be examples of a universalised normativity.

Professor Howells (again) kind of agrees with me on this. She says that Derrida

“stated that deconstruction would never stop him crying out vive la revolution at the appropriate moment!”.

Added to that is the fact that - just to give one more example — Derrida wrote his Specters of Marx in which he gave a very-positive appraisal of both Karl Marx and Marxism. For example, Derrida wrote:

“The name of New International is given here to what calls to the friendship of an alliance without institution among those who … continue to be inspired by at least one of the spirits of Marx or of Marxism. It is a call for them to ally themselves, in a new, concrete and real way… in the critique of the state of international law, the concepts of State and nation, and so forth: in order to renew this critique, and especially to radicalise it.”

Yet to many commentators Marx was an essentialist, universalist and rigid ideologue who basically rejected all philosophy and politics that didn’t abide by his strictures. Of course to Marxists, and perhaps to Derrida too, Marx was none of these things.

Finally, Derrida’s followers and admirers will probably explain all these possible (to use a word Derrida often used) “contradictions” away — perhaps by “deconstructing” my claim that Derrida was a universalist about only selective political (or ethical) causes and issues . They may also say that I’ve embraced, say, various “binary oppositions” (or whatever) when doing so. That said, it’s hard to understand what Derrida’s followers/admirers say in response to criticisms of his philosophy and style of writing because much of what they do say (or write) — as with Derrida — is designed to be understood only by a tiny number of (usually academic) political and philosophical initiates.

[I can be found on Twitter here.]

Saturday, 24 April 2021

Quantum Mechanics is About What-Ifs: Interpretations of QM are About What Is


The science writer Philip Ball simply and graphically deflates the (to use his own word) “weirdness” of quantum mechanics in the following way:

‘here is a particle, there is a wave’
‘if we measure things like this, the quantum object behaves in a manner we associate with particles; but if we measure it like that, it behaves as if it’s a wave’
‘the particle is in two states at once’
‘if we measure it, we will detect this state with probability X, and that state with probability Y’.”

The basic gist of all the above is that it isn’t the case that x is both a wave and particle. Instead, it’s that, according to different measurements, observations and experiments, it’s interpreted as being that way. Similarly, a particle isn’t in two states at once. Instead, according to one measurement, it’ll be in one state; and, according to another measurement, it’ll be in another state. So, in basic terms, it’s as if before any measurement, x was both a wave and a particle and/or in “two states at once”.

(Of course it’ll need to be specified exactly how measurements themselves turn the — as it were - noumenal x into a wave or particle or bring about this state rather than that state. But this isn’t the place to go into those details.)

All this is problematic for many scientists, all scientific realists and for the many laypersons who consider these issues. That’s because, according to Philip Ball again, “we’re used to science telling is how things are”. Basically, most laypersons (if not scientific realists) don’t think in terms of measurements, observations or experiments at all. Such people see these things as being peripheral to the scientific enterprise. They believe that such an enterprise is really about “what is”. To Niels Bohr and the many other physicists connected to the Copenhagen interpretation (yes, interpretation) of quantum mechanics, on the other hand, measurements, observations and experiments are both essential and ineliminable. (This position has an air of the obvious about it.)

Ball also stresses the difference between “is” and “if”.

Scientific realists focuses on what is. Scientific (for want of a better term) anti-realists focus on what will be the case if we do this or do that. The “Isness” is a result of the “Ifness”. However, if the Isness is actually a result of the Ifness, then realists won’t take it to be genuine (or true) Isness at all!

So is there an “Isness beneath the Ifness”?

There may well be.

But please tell me something about it.

You can’t.

The only way you can do so is via (or through) measurements, observations or experiments. And then, arguably, you’re no longer talking about Isness at all. Thus isn’t it the case that Isness is a (to use Nancy Cartwright’s words) “metaphysical pipedream”? Surely it can never be discovered or found. Strangely enough, around 250 years ago, the philosopher Immanuel Kant realised something very similar when he began to distinguish phenomena from noumena… But that’s another story.

[I can be found on Twitter here.]

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Continental Philosophy vs. Analytic Philosophy: Clarity, Obscurity, Argument


i) Introduction
ii) Analysis and Argumentation
iii) Clarity
iv) Obscurity
v) Deconstruction
vi) Conclusion

The subjects covered in this piece have often brought about much heated debate. Indeed the very title of this piece will make some philosophers and commentators get very hot under the collar.

Of course the following words are bound to be biased — at least to some extent. That said, critics of my position will be — to some extent — biased too. So all that should simply be taken as given.

Put basically, my own bias leans toward analytic philosophy. Yet that doesn’t mean that I’m entirely positive about analytic philosophy or entirely negative about continental philosophy.

What’s more, the very terms “analytic philosophy” and “continental philosophy” have inevitably been fiercely criticised by philosophers and commentators. Some have classed them as worthless generalisations which have many exceptions. (A couple are discussed in this piece.)

So now let’s take Professor Simon Glendinning’s rhetorical — and almost shouty — words. Firstly we have this:

“[C]ontinental philosophy could not have conceived itself, because crudely speaking, there is no continental philosophy.”

Indeed Simon Glendinning believes that “the term ‘continental’ is an Anglophone designation”. Oddly enough, he most certainly does believe that there is such a thing as “Anglophone analytic philosophy”. And if you want to know the position of (to use his own words) “self-styled analytic philosophy” on continental philosophy (which, remember, doesn’t exist), it’s

“the false personification… the possibility of being empty, the possibility of sophistry”.

What’s more, for analytic philosophy (in its “rhetoric”), continental philosophy is its own “other”.

Ironically there are some “binary oppositions” (not Glendinning’s own words) which have been set up between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy which Glendinning completely rejects and which I — to some extent at least — believe are very real. He cites the cases of

“logic and rhetoric; clarity and obscurity; precision and vagueness; literal language and poetic language; analysis and speculation”.

Yet despite all of Glendinning’s problems and his rejection of the terms, in the very same book from which his words come (i.e., New British Philosophy: The Interviews), Professor Simon Critchley not only accepts that there is such a thing as continental philosophy, he also tells us what its “goal” is. (Incidentally, Critchley explicitly states he’s more sympathetic to continental philosophy than to analytic philosophy). In full:

“The goal of continental philosophy is both individual and social emancipation.”

He then continues by saying that the

“continental tradition can be summarised in three terms: critiquepraxis and emancipation”.

So because there’s disagreement on these issues even among the fans of continental philosophy and the critics of analytic philosophy, I may as well stick to my guns by stating the following words.

In most cases one would recognise if a paper were written by an analytic philosopher (as opposed to one written by a continental philosopher — even if written in English!) almost within seconds. More particularly, if a paper by, say, a post-structuralist accidently found itself in a analytic philosophy journal (such as Analysis or Mind), then it would stick out like a sore thumb and readers would spot it immediately. Similarly, a piece on, say, mereological nihilism by Ted Snider which somehow found itself in a continental philosophy journal (such as Continental Philosophy Review or Deleuze and Guattari Studies) would immediately bring about similar responses on the (scare-quoted) “other side”.

Again - of course there are exceptions! Yet the prose styles and subjects used and covered by analytic and continental philosophers are — in many cases — so monumentally different that the exceptions may not tell us as much as some commentators (such as Glendinning) claim.

To sum up.

The large and obvious differences between most analytic philosophy and much continental philosophy obviously don’t factor out the often small and rare similarities.

Analytic Philosophy

Many analytic philosophers stress the point that analytic philosophy isn’t about the sharing of views or positions. They claim, instead, that it’s about the sharing of philosophical tools and a basic commitment to clarity. And all this is regardless of what philosophical position a particular analytic philosopher may advance.

In his book What is Analytic Philosophy?Hans-Johann Glock elaborates on this position in the following:

“Philosophy is not about sharing doctrines, but about a rational and civilised debate even about one’s own cherished assumptions.”

It can be seen that Glock doesn’t use the words “analytic philosophy” at the beginning of the passage above. However, he does conclude by saying that

“[s]uch a debate remains easier among analytic philosophers than between analytic and continental philosophers”.

Of course it’s also the case that many analytic philosophers do actually “share doctrines”. However, it’s just that the sharing of philosophical tools and practices is deemed to be more important than sharing doctrines. It also seems to follow that from the sharing of philosophical tools and the commitment to clarity there can be “rational and civilised debates even about one’s cherished assumptions”. That is, the sharing of philosophical tools and a commitment to clarity enables (or allows) rational and civilised debate.

Certain questions naturally arise here:

i) Do analytic philosophers really share many — or indeed any — philosophical tools?
ii) Is there 
genuine civilised debate between all analytic philosophers at all times?

Many commentators have questioned this claim that analytic philosophers share tools. Others might have questioned the deepness (or genuineness) of the “civilised debate” too. This basically means that there’ll be exceptions to i) and ii) above — and no one should expect otherwise. However, on the whole, it’s easy to see that most analytic philosophers do indeed share many tools and practices.

All this runs parallel to an account of science as a whole which can be distinguished from any accounts of individual scientists. That is, individual scientists can be very unrepresentative individuals: they can falsify experimental data, stick dogmatically to their theories, be told what to say and do by big business, let their politics influence their science, etc. Nonetheless, unrepresentative scientists certainly aren’t the norm in most science. Sure; all this will also partly depend partly on which science we’re talking about; which period of scientific history; the country in which scientists work; etc.

The same kinds of distinction can be made between individual analytic philosophers and analytic philosophy itself. There may indeed be unrepresentative analytic philosophers. It may even be the case that poor standards (however that’s defined) are sometimes displayed within books or academic papers. (They’re certainly displayed by many analytic philosophers on Twitter when they discuss anything even remotely political.) However, as with science, none of this is really true of analytic philosophy as a whole.

Analysis & Argumentation

In broad terms, it can be said that Philosopher X is an analytic philosopher simply because he uses the tools of analytic philosophy and indulges in philosophical analysis. Of course we’d need to specify exactly what the tools of analytic philosophy are and what, precisely, philosophical analysis is. Indeed these issues have caused a lot of dispute actually within analytic philosophy— especially in the last couple of decades.

So analytic philosophers have also provided analyses of the words “philosophical analysis” and subsequently asked some questions about the term. For example, Professor Barry Dainton and Professor Howard Robinson have this to say about philosophical analysis within the tradition of analytic philosophy:

“[T]here are many different conceptions of analysis to be found within the analytic tradition. For some ‘analysis’ means an investigations into concepts. For those impressed by Russell’s theory of descriptions, analysis is a matter of revealing the true but concealed logical form underlying ordinary language statements. For others it is a matter of carefully studying the way expressions are actually used in ordinary language, with a view to dissolving rather than solving philosophical problems.”

These are very different accounts of philosophical analysis. However, surely we can still count them all as being philosophical analysis. Though this raises the questions as to what other types (or examples) of philosophy bypass analysis altogether; and, indeed, if that’s even possible.

One thing that analytic philosophers do share is a commitment to argumentation. That is, the “investigation into concepts” mentioned above will also usually involve argumentation of some kind. The same is true of Bertrand Russell’s approach and the stress on the expressions of ordinary language. All these approaches will include argumentation and also be defended with argumentation.

Argumentation, then, is opposed to simply making statements or offering “occult pronouncements”. That is, when someone engages in argumentation, that basically means that he’s defending (or justifying) what it is he has said.

In much continental philosophy, on the other hand, there are many statements which don’t appear to be the result of prior argument. That is, they aren’t conclusions of claims or premises which themselves contain arguments, data, or empirical evidence. At its worst, such philosophy makes philosophical pronouncements that aren’t argumentatively defended (or justified) at all. Of course here I’ve simply shifted the debate here from an account of the words “philosophical analysis” to references to “argument”, “justification” and the like. So it can now be said that analysis either is argumentation or that it includes argumentation.


The idea that analytic philosophy isn’t a matter of doctrines is again stressed by the European Society for Analytic PhilosophyIt writes:

“Analytic philosophy is characterised above all by the goal of clarity, the insistence on explicit explanation in philosophy, and the demand that any view expressed be exposed to the rigours of critical evaluation and discussion by peers.”

It can be said that the notions “clarity” and “explicit explanation” may simply be relative to analytic philosophers and what they take those words to mean. In other words, analytic philosophy may only be clear to analytic philosophers. And the explicit explanations found in analytic philosophy may only work that way according to analytic philosophers. This may mean that those on the outside (including highly-educated people) may not appreciate (or even recognise) the clarity or take the explanations to be explanations. Of course this is a sceptical view of both analytic philosophy and the passage above. Nonetheless, even if clarity and these explicit explanations are only relative to analytic philosophers, it’s surely still the case that most analytic philosophers have the “goals” of clarity and explanation in mind. And that takes analytic philosophers one step beyond many continental philosophers; who, it can be argued, often revel in obscurity and pseudo-profundity.

The final passage in the above also seems to explicitly and strongly tie all analytic philosophy to a university setting in that it stresses the “critical evaluation and discussion by peers”. Presumably these peers will be fellow academics. This also highlights the fact that analytic philosophy is more closely tied to university departments than continental philosophy. Of course there’ve also been many continental philosophers who’ve been professors or academics. (Virtually all the critics of analytic philosophy have been — and still are — academics/professors too ; as with those names cited and quoted in this piece.) However, when it comes to analytic philosophy, virtually every well-known (or even not so well-known) analytic philosopher has made his name at some university or other. Indeed analytic philosophy outside of a university setting seems to be like a fish out of water.

Analytic philosophers rationalise this extreme university-centric bias by stressing the technicalities and specialisms of the subject. They may say, for example, that most physicists and biologists are also tied to — and reliant upon — universities. Yet even in the case of physicists and biologists there have been far more people who’ve done good work outside universities than analytic philosophers. (This includes the many “amateur scientists” who did great work from the 17th century onward.) Of course once a philosopher has established himself in a university (or in a handful of universities), then he’s free to move beyond academia. However, even this is very rare within analytic philosophy. It seems, then, that contemporary analytic philosophy really is a university phenomenon and that partly explains the European Society for Analytic Philosophy’s reference to the “critical evaluation of peers”.


Hans-Johann Glock referred to “rigour, clarity, scholarship and intellectual honesty” in the passage above. Of course these virtues aren’t the sole domain of analytic philosophy. After all and to take only three examples, Aristotle, Hume and Descartes all predate analytic philosophy and their work was analytical. There were also 20th century continental philosophers who were rigorous and analytical. On the other hand, many continental philosophers have indeed been obscure and pretentious. But this simply begs the question as to what analytic philosophers mean by the word “obscure”.

So let’s go into a little more detail as to what the word “clarity” may mean within a philosophical context. I will quote the American philosopher Gary Gutting here. He wrote:

“My concern, however, is about the obscurity that arises because authors do not make a sufficient effort to connect their novel concepts to more familiar (even if technical) concepts that would all an informed and conscientious reader to make an assessment of their claims. The result is writing that is hermetic in the sense that it cuts itself off from the very issues of common concern that it is trying to address.”

First things first.

It will be said that that passage is a gross generalisation. Is this meant to be about all continental philosophy? After all, I doubt that Gary Gutting had Frege, Husserl, Carnap and others in mind when he wrote the above. Indeed I doubt that what he says can be applied to (much of) Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and other continental philosophers. Yet the reason for this is simply that Gutting only had Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas in mind.

In the passage above there’s also a hint (rather than an explicit statement) that such uncertainty and obscurity is deliberate. That is, such philosophers

“do not make a sufficient effort to connect novel concepts to more familiar concepts”.

This means that the writing Gutting has in mind is intentionally “hermetic”. In other words, there can be philosophical writing styles which are unclear or even obscure — yet not deliberately so. This may apply to a philosopher like Kant or perhaps to certain works by Husserl. More clearly, I doubt that Kant went out of his way to be unclear or obscure. Yet Kant is indeed often unclear (depending on translations) because of his writing style, his academic audience and the complexity of the issues he was addressing. Nonetheless, his writing is rarely also rhetorical or oracular; as much continental philosophy is.

So why this deliberate obscurity or unclarity?

The American philosopher John Searle comments on this issue in a seminar he once gave in which he referred to Michel Foucault (whom he classed as a “good friend”). This is Searle’s account of the conversation:

Searle“Why the hell do you write so badly?”
Foucault“Look. If I wrote as clearly as you do, people in Paris wouldn’t take me seriously. They’d think that I was childlike. Naive.”

Searle went on to say:

“You’ve got to be 10% incomprehensible otherwise people won’t think it’s deep. They won’t think you’re a profound philosopher.”

Many commentators have also accused these philosophers of hiding mundane or trite ideas under pretentious prose. Others have even said that “nothing is hidden” because effectively there’s nothing to hide. Or as Professor Hugh Mellor (at Cambridge University) said about Jacques Derrida: this stuff is “bullshit”. Mellor also wrote:

“That is much latter work which seems to be wilfully obscure. If you spell out these later doctrines plainly, it becomes clear that most of them, if not false, are just trivial.”

Mellor then added that Derrida “goes in for mystery-mongering about trivial truisms”. Having said that, before those words Mellor had also said that “some of Derrida’s early work was interesting and serious”. However, “this isn’t the work he has become famous for”.

Of course a lot of analytic philosophy is also “trivial”.

It’s also the case that some analytic philosophers hide their triviality under prose which is “wilfully obscure”. Then again, such analytic philosophy won’t be trivial or wilfully obscure in the same way in which Derrida’s later work is. That is, it won’t be poetic, vague 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, basic analytic academic prose will be used to hide the trivialities. In Derrida’s case it’s a different kind of obscurity; though, in the continental tradition, it can be equally academic.

Hugh Mellor also said that some of Derrida’s “doctrines” are “simply false”. Well, Mellor most certainly must believe exactly the same thing about many doctrines offered up by analytic philosophers. However, I suppose that he must also believe that even though such doctrines are false, they aren’t also “trivial”. And my bet is that he certainly won’t see them as being examples of what he calls “mystery-mongering”.


Despite Gary Gutting saying that Derrida and others deal in “obscurity” and don’t make any effort to communicate to those outside their own particular philosophical cults, he nonetheless does claim to understand one of Derrida’s positions: namely, that “every concept deconstructs itself”.

Now whether or not this is true (or whether or not it can be true), this belief in self-deconstructing concepts may partly explain Derrida’s obscurity or unclarity. After all, if all concepts do indeed deconstruct themselves, then isn’t that f̶a̶c̶t̶ (sous rature!) going to be reflected in Derrida’s prose itself? Or, to be more accurate, if Derrida believed that concepts deconstruct themselves, then he might have wanted to display that reality within his philosophical prose. Indeed isn’t that precisely what Derrida did attempt to do? In other words, since Derrida (at least at one point in his career) emphasised what he called philosophical and/or linguistic “play” (i.e., “the play of the sign”), then it seems that Derrida himself might have embraced obscurity or at least arcane play.

Gutting also says that French philosophers believes that “contradictions can never be avoided”. Here again, if some French philosophers really do believe this, then surely they’re going to display (or reflect) that t̶r̶u̶t̶h̶ in their philosophical prose. And won’t that very acknowledgement and highlighting of philosophy’s (or language’s) inherent contradictions inevitably lead to an unclear or even obscure prose style?

On the other hand, one can indeed have Mellor’s “trivial truisms” which are expressed in a prose which is bizarre and strange. This suggests, then, that obscurity and unclarity are sometimes chosen, rather than forced upon a philosopher by either the world or by inherent philosophical contradictions. Then again, it can be argued that even if a philosopher stresses and acknowledges such inescapable contradictions, it’s still possible to do so in a prose which isn’t obscure. Think here of the philosopher Graham Priest who upholds a dialethic position on logic and philosophy in which what he calls “contradictories” and “inconsistencies” are acknowledged and even embraced. Nonetheless, all this is carried out in a prose which is both clear and unpretentious. Having said that, a distinction can be made here between embracing and acknowledging contradictories and actually displaying them in one’s prose. In addition, physicists who concentrate on quantum mechanics can also express their physics in a prose which is clear and unpretentious. In this case — and perhaps in Priest’s too — it is the world (nature) itself which is bizarre and strange, not the prose which describes that bizarre and strange world.


It’s not a surprise that “debate” between analytic philosophers and other analytic philosophers is “easier” than debate “between analytic philosophers and continental philosophers” (as mentioned in the Glock passage above). After all, debate between biologists and physicists is harder than between physicists and physicists. Then again, you’d expect — prima facie — that a debate between analytic philosophers and continental philosophers would be easier than between biologists and physicists because, after all, we’re talking about philosophers debating with other philosophers here (even if from different traditions). Having said that, both biologists and physicists are scientists — so the same can be said about them.

At it’s most extreme, if analytic philosophers and continental philosophers use different tools and technical terms, do philosophy in a different way, and don’t even discuss the same issues, then it’s not a surprise that there’s a lack of debate between the two traditions. As it is, however, things aren’t always this bad. Apart from the fact that some philosophers on the continent have also been analytic philosophers, even when they aren’t some of the issues both traditions have discussed have indeed been the same. However, it’s still the case that these same issues have been — and still are — discussed in very different ways.



(1) There are of course many other areas of this subject which might have been discussed.

For example, the following quote from Federico Amadeo has enough material in it for an entire piece. (Incidentally, this passage is a reaction to the words of John Searle quoted above.) So I’ll quote it in full as food for thought:

“I agree that the sort of literature in question has awful prose and it could be clearer. However, I’ve become weary of the way much of the analytic tradition fetishizes ‘clarity’. This is how they subject themselves to criticism of their own: the focus on thinking about aspects of the world that are the most intelligible. But the most intelligible isn’t necessarily the most important. There’s something extremely artificial about avoiding ambiguity at all costs, as language itself is ambiguous. If in considering the world in its most meaningful depths we find obstacles within the language to express it, must we give up the world? A little ambiguity is inevitable, perhaps even desirable. If continental philosophy sins in obscurantism, analytic philosophy sins in superficiality.”

The obvious response to Federico Amedeo is that some (or much) continental philosophy is both obscurantist and superficial. In parallel, some (if not much) analytic philosophy is both clear and deep. So is Amadeo assuming some kind of strong link between obscurantism and a lack of superficiality? Similarly, does he believe that clarity often (or even always) comes along with superficiality?

Amadeo also says that “language itself is ambiguous”. Yet that’s to ignore much of what’s been said in the article above about the philosophers who indulge in deliberate (or intentional) ambiguity — for whatever reasons. Unless, of course, that ambiguity isn’t deliberate and is simply a result of philosophical responses to “the world in its most meaningful depths”. So is Amadeo’s poetic phrase itself an example of the meaningfully deep and non-superficial?

In addition, what is it to “fetishize clarity”? Is seeing clarity as being of vital importance automatically to fetishize it? Do other philosophers fetishize unclarity and arcane prose?

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