Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Philosophical style and content

I’ve been working through a backlog of submitted papers for review for a variety of journals. Like the external examiner system, it is an aspect of university life that runs on a kind of trust. Clearly if one benefits from the journal system (or running a course which is externally validated), one ought to be prepared to return the favour. But how many times should one do this? Roughly twice for every paper one ever submits?

Reviewing papers obviously involves assessing the strength of the arguments. More than that, it involves assessing how interesting and novel the argument put forward is (interestingly flawed is better than tediously true). In addition to that, however, I think it should involve a more general defence of the aim of clarity that is so much part of the self-image of broadly analytic philosophy.

An interesting contrast is with European / Continental philosophy which, I think, does not have this quality as part of its self-image. (That wouldn't stop it being clear; it just may not take itself to have that aim over all else, having not started in the logical analysis of Frege and Russell.) I recall at the end of the first conference of the Society for European Philosophy some years ago, Andy Bowie arguing that, whilst European / Continental philosophers in the UK often complained about the lack of respect for their discipline, this might have been encouraged by the almost deliberate difficulty of its literary form. He was not well received.

It is, of course, one thing to say that broadly analytic philosophy has a self-image of clarity; it is another to say it lives up to it. And that raises an interesting question of when a forbidding style has a kind of point (the early Wittgenstein, paradigmatically) and when it is instead a matter of regret but compensated for by the philosophical content dimly visible through it.

My hunch is that in Charles Travis’ work, for example, the style is an accidental impediment to getting to the philosophy. I took a week to study his Thought’s Footing last year and got a great deal out of it. But I couldn’t help feeling it might have been written in a more forgiving manner without any loss of depth. So, similarly, had I reviewed his substantial paper ‘The silence of the senses’, should I have referred it back for changes to make it more comprehensible?

Perhaps a too thorough defence of a particular style of style of philosophy would be the kiss of death to the discipline and the price of innovation is a subset of papers that seem almost deliberately frustrating. But let’s keep it a subset.