Philosophy, Greek for “the love of wisdom”, is one of (if not the) oldest disciplines in the realm of academia, and its questions and discoveries have influenced nearly every science and liberal study since. The rose-colored glasses philosophy creates around the newly opened eyes of a beginner philosopher, however, is quickly dissipated when the official style trumps into the picture; turning what once was a creative way to relay wisdom to the masses, to a methodological nightmare of proper word usage so as to disallow future refutations. Within the sphere of the philosophical community, though the end goal is to achieve new, revolutionary knowledge, accessible to all, the discipline has become a battle ground for supposed great thinkers so as to establish who is (or at least seems) indubitably correct; wielding the official style as their weapon of choice.
For a moment, let us revisit early philosophy and perhaps one of the greatest and well-known thinkers of all time: Socrates. Although Socrates is possibly the most famous philosopher to have ever existed, it must be noted that he vehemently opposed putting any of his lectures into writing. It could be said that this move on the part of Socrates further prohibits us from understanding his specific opinion, since all we know of him and his ideas are through the works of others, namely his student Plato; yet, the reason for this, as believed by historians, is due to his admiration of plain language usage and his habit of impromptu lectures. This then lead to the genre of the Socratic Dialogue, in which writers used the Socratic method of cross-examination in a dialogue style so as to explain their beliefs; knowing that it is easier to be understood using plain speech that is typically used in normal conversation instead of the official style. The style of the Socratic Dialogue was genius: instead of necessitating crazy lingo in order to illustrate a complex notion, one would simply give a foreword as to who/what was involved in the conversation for context and let the dialogue speak for itself, radiating truth and wisdom from an everyday situation. At the time, it was desired for one’s opinions to be widely heard and understood so as to spread the wealth of knowledge, but, nowadays, it seems as though this ideology has been replaced in favor of overly complicated, clever speech to distort weak arguments as strong.
The latter of the two principles following this concern as listed above, the idea of making a weak argument strong through the use of clever speech, was actually one of the main formal charges on which Socrates was accused of in the trial dictated in Plato’s The Apology. To those who are not familiar with The Apology, it is said to have taken place in 399 BCE (Socrates was 70), and, it is important to note that, contrary to what is implied in the title, the work is not an apology by Socrates, but rather his defense against the Athenian courts who threaten the death penality for impiety and the corruption of Athenian youth. The dialogue begins after the preliminary speech given by Meletos (the plaintiff, so to speak), in which he illustrates to the jurors what Socrates is indicted of and why he is guilty of those charges. We are not sure of exactly what Meletos said since it was not in The Apology itself, but, based off Socrates’ later statements, one can assume it was a very eloquent, well prepared, and officially-worded speech.
This is the point that Socrates first acknowledges in the course of his defense, the fact that the accusers are utilizing clever speech so as to convince the jurors of the wrongness in Socrates’ “clever speech,” he states:
“How you have felt, O men of Athens, at hearing the speeches of my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that their persuasive words almost made me forget who I was – such was the effect of them; and yet they have hardly spoken a word of truth. But many as their falsehoods were, there was one of them which quite amazed me…they certainly did appear to be most shameless in saying this, unless by the force of eloquence they mean the force of truth; for then I do indeed admit that I am eloquent. But in how different a way from theirs! […] You shall hear from me the whole truth: not, however, delivered after their manner, in a set oration duly ornamented with words and phrases. No indeed! But I shall use the words and arguments which occur to me at the moment; for I am certain that this is right, and that at my time of life I ought not to be appearing before you, O men of Athens, in the character of a juvenile orator – let no one expect this of me.” (Plato, The Apology, c. 360 BCE; some sections omitted)[i]
He, then, asks for the jury’s forgiveness for his ignorance concerning the official style that is used in the courts; pleading that they listen to what he is saying as opposed to how he is saying it. Throughout his defense, Socrates repeatedly asks the court for forgiveness at the frankness of his speech as it is (supposedly) completely improvised, bringing to light another famous Socratic virtue: modesty.[ii] Socrates’ humility and use of plain language, however, did not aid him in trial; he was voted guilty, and accepted his punishment and drank the hemlock.
It is unfortunate that such a humble approach to philosophy did not trickle more into the moderns, but it seems as though it is more important to be (or at least seem) “right” amongst peers in the professional community than it is to be understood. This problem is then exacerbated as the philosophical concept becomes more obscure. Take the German philosopher Edmund Husserl for example, who is considered to be the father of Phenomenology[iii] (a word that is pretty intimidating in and of itself), though he is not only an expert, but a founder of the field, the concepts he tries to relay through his works are unnecessarily befuddling due to his language use. Consider the introduction to the second section of his work, Cartesian Meditations:
“But admittedly, when we let our thoughts hasten on in this manner, to the conception of a phenomenological science destined to become philosophy, we immediately run into the already mentioned difficulties raised by the fundamental methodological demand for an apodictic evidence of the ego.” (Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, 1931)
By the hammer of Thor that is quite the mouthful for one sentence! To be sure though, most sane people would give up after this sentence, and that’s probably why Husserl is not known outside the philosophy department. It is too difficult for people to easily grasp (it received a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score of -5.7 with an average grade level of 27.8), so they don’t care enough to read it. To use Landham’s Paramedic Method, this paragraph is translated as:
“It is hard to make Phenomenological science a philosophy because there is no definite evidence of the ego.”
Now, I know this is still a pretty confusing passage, but at least now we know what Husserl is getting at. I was able to cut the sentence down from 44 words to 18 words and raised the reading ease to 33.5, so not too shabby. However, it did take me a while to decode this, and it would be awful (and unbelievably time-consuming) to have to apply this to every sentence in a 157-page book.
Why do philosophers (or people in general) use this crazy language style if it only pushes the curious away from their works? The answer is not as black and white as someone doing a quick Google search would hope it to be: the motives may be a desire for professionalism so that one sounds smart and credible amongst their peers, or perhaps one desires to hide their own confusion on the topic within abstract concepts and awkward sentence structure/word usage. Either way you slice it, the average Dick or Jane is not going to bother going past the first page; philosophy written in the official style ultimately pushes newcomers away. For example, I gave Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations to my roommate (an intelligent woman, I must note) and told her to read until she got lost, she stopped after the first paragraph and said, “Danni, I don’t know why you read this crap, it’s a whole lot about nothing useful in the real world. I wanted to stop reading after the first sentence.” I tried to defend the discipline of philosophy and myself, but all that came out was more indiscernible mumbo jumbo that hurt my case more than anything else; I have been conditioned to write (and, consequently, speak) about philosophy using only the official style because that is generally how it is presented.
To be sure, plainness and modesty in speech does not make a thought wiser, more honest, credible, or effective necessarily; however, it seems as though it could be more effectual, in the sense that one’s philosophical ideas would be more approachable by those who are not absorbed and fluent in the field itself. Philosophy, I feel like more than many other disciplines, has a very “elitist” feel about it; unfortunately, leading many to believe that all those who “properly” consider themselves a philosopher must be a sort of child-prodigy or baby genius character. Although I do like to toot my own horn and accept this as some roundabout compliment, it is disappointing how much of an effect this superficial standard has on prospective newcomers. Even those who may indeed have a natural knack for philosophy become dissuaded when they go to a PHL 101 course and have no idea what’s going on. One could say that this may be the fault of the professor, which is entirely possible; however, I feel this problem is rooted much earlier. It is a rare thing in today’s world for a pre-pubescent teen to up and decide one day to read some Epicurean thought because it sounds exhilarating, or for a child to blow off a playmate because they were so captivated by Kant. The bottom line is: we all have to start somewhere, and, I feel as though, if more philosophy were to be written in the plain language (i.e. additional entrances on the ground floor), more people would possess a desire to seek philosophy (and, subsequently, the love of wisdom which ‘philosophy’ denotes) if not as a formal study, then at least as a mentally stimulating pastime.
I do agree that, sometimes, with more abstract or “deep” concepts, that the official style (or some derivative thereof) may indeed be necessary so as to ensure the correct interpretations of the words that an author has used. Heidegger, for example, uses hyphens in his “wordy” concepts so as to prevent misinterpretations, as seen in the passage below:
“This kind of being of disclosedness of being-in-the-world, however, also dominates being-with-one-another as such. The other is initially “there” in terms of what they have heard about him, what they say and know about him. ‘Idle talk’ initially intrudes itself into the midst of primordial being-with-one-another. Everyone keeps track of the other, initially and first of all, watching how he will behave, what he will say to something. Being-with-one-another in the ‘they’ is not at all a self-contained, indifferent side-by-sideness, but a tense, ambiguous keeping track of each other, a secretive, reciprocal listening-in. Under the mask of the for-one-another, the against-one-another is at play.” (Heidegger, Being and Time, 1927; my emphases and italicizations)
Now, if you were able to follow this, and I would be extremely envious of you if you could sans context, it is basically the idea behind Mean Girls or concepts that anyone who has gone through the typical high school experience would know: people like to get into one another’s business, and most people, even friends, are two-faced in regards to one another. Why did Heidegger have to explain it so crazily then? It is because, if I were to write the explanatory sentence I gave as a philosophical argument in and of itself, other philosophers would not take it seriously and, if they did, they would surely shred it to bits due to all the hidden implications (loopholes, formal and informal fallacies, contradictions, etc.) that can easily be spotted/produced. Before the quote listed above was stated by Heidegger in Being and Time, there are about 15-20 pages explaining each of the wordy, hyphened concepts so that his asserted conclusions appear to follow necessarily, making it more difficult for a sound refutation to be given by another. This is all fine and dandy in “professional” philosophy, but, considering the sort of enlightening concepts Heidegger has in the work concerning his “authentic” way of living, it seems as though it would be beneficial for him to use the plain language so as to better enrich the lives of others.
With that being said, it is something to be revered if one is able to dictate a crazy complex thought in a clear and concise way, and few are able to do it; the official style has become that ingrained in the “professional” philosopher’s mind. However, this should then be one of the aims of written philosophy, or, if nothing else, at least something to consider in the writing process so as to sweeten the juice. It is in the definition of being a philosopher (and should consequently be in their very nature) to love wisdom and the search for truth. Implicit in this idea is inspiring later philosophers to add on, critique, or create new knowledge concerning their established works or to devise an entirely new philosophical perspective. If one truly loves wisdom and has found “truth,” one will want it known to all[iv].
[i] Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score of 71.4 with an average grade level of 9.3.
[ii] Socrates is known in history to have been a peasant, wandering the streets without shoes and a dirty toga, who gave lectures in the form of dialogue and stories to youth in the public sects of the city of Athens. Unlike the Sophists (those who were formally accusing him), Socrates did not accept money for teaching as he felt that wisdom is something to be shared with all, yet he understood that there was always more to learn. In The Apology, Socrates recollects a story in which the Oracle at Delphi told him that he is the wisest of all men; Socrates doubted this highly and went to those who believed themselves to be wise, only to discover that they were all pretentious jerks in a counterfeited ivory tower. It was through his cross-examining that he understood what the Oracle meant: he is wise in knowing that he knows nothing.
[iii] Phenomenology is a philosophical approach focused on the study of consciousness and the objects of direct experience.
[iv] Think of religions, do they not wish to inspire the masses with their supposed truths? Not to compare philosophy to a religion but it certainly is a particular way of life guided by the desire for wisdom and truth.