On bad writing in philosophy: Derek Parfit on Kant

“It is Kant who made really bad writing philosophically acceptable. We can no longer point to some atrocious sentence by someone else, and say ‘How can it be worth reading anyone who writes like that?’ The answer could always be ‘What about Kant?'”

—Derek Parfit on Kant, in On What Matters

(Reading reviews of philosophy is often more interesting than the philosophy itself, since the reviews tend to be more comprehensible. That was certainly true for On What Matters. Despite, for example, Tyler Cowen’s review, I still wonder if a lot of philosophy, in its quest for rigor, paradoxically cannot find rigor in a confusing world limited by our language’s ability to describe it. Recursiveness in language is great right up to the point where you have to endlessly drill down to figure out what words mean. Cowen says, “In the subject areas of On What Matters the semantics are too slack, too open to multiple interpretation, and too many of the central concepts cry out for formalization. There are not compelling new metaphors and examples to pin down the discourse.” I wonder if the semantics of philosophy in general are simply “too slack” for them to do much. Note how I say “I wonder” at the start of the preceding sentence: this is not a rhetorical device. I also wonder if technology drives culture far more than vice-versa; when I read some philosophy, I think “yes.”

Two caveats: I haven’t read enough philosophy to grok it. In addition, what philosophy I do read I often view as material for fiction rather than in its own terms. One reason I may have liked Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is simply because he argues that fiction goes places philosophy can’t and thus might have the intellectual high ground. )

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