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. )

Bad academic writing:

I’m reading for an essay on Tom Perrotta’s Election and Anita Shreve’s Testimony and came across this, from Timothy Aubry’s “Middlebrow Aesthetics and the Therapeutic: The Politics of Interiority in Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife:” “Although occasionally called upon to perform certain emeritus functions, the omniscient narrator has retired decisively from the scene of contemporary United States fiction.” Translated from academic-ese to English, this roughly means, “Contemporary writers seldom use omniscient narrators.” If absolutely necessary, you could say, “Contemporary American writers seldom use omniscient narrators.”

EDIT: And, for an entertaining counterpoint, Paul Dawson says in “The Return of Omniscience in Contemporary Fiction:”

I want to begin this essay by pointing out what I think has become a salient feature, or at least significant trend, in contemporary British and American literary fiction: namely, a prominent reappearance of the ostensibly outmoded omniscient narrator. In the last two decades, and particularly since the turn of the millennium, a number of important and popular novelists have produced books which exhibit all the formal elements we typically associate with literary omniscience: an all-knowing, heterodiegetic narrator who addresses the reader directly, offers intrusive commentary on the events being narrated, provides access to the consciousness of a range of characters, and generally asserts a palpable presence within the fictional world.

So what’s happening to omniscient narrators? Are they “seldom use[d]” or making “a prominent reappearance?” Or both?

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