Wednesday December 12, 2007
The other day I stumbled across the following sentence written at the beginning of a philosophy book: “Philosophers are people who like to think clearly.” It seemed to me a rather minimal and impoverished definition of philosophy. There are, no doubt, pleasures in clear thought (and not just pleasures, but virtues as well!), but at the same time, I could not help thinking that philosophy is about rather more than this, that philosophers should do rather more than just think clearly. Perhaps thinking clearly is a necessary condition for any good or interesting philosophy, to put it in the jargon; but it is certainly not a sufficient condition.
From the viewpoint of the traditions of analytic philosophy, still the dominant philosophical tradition over here in the UK, the job of the philosopher is that of clearing up conceptual confusion. Which is why those depraved characters across the other side of the Channel, with their croissants and their Gauloises are considered to be pretty much beyond the pail. Curse those Frenchies with their wilful obscurantism and their strange dietary habits! They are less interested in clearing up conceptual confusion than they are in creating it! Well, fie upon them! Let them keep their continental philosophy and their mollusc-based gastronomy! We care not!
But I wonder whether any philosophy worth its salt needs both these strains: on the one hand a commitment to clarity; but on the other hand a commitment to opening up ever more perplexing questions and confusions. As Aristotle (who knew a thing or two about philosophy) wrote, “it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophise.” This wondering, this questioning, and the attendant bewilderment, perplexity and confusion, seem to me to be entirely necessary.
Experience shows that, when thinking about anything at all, clarity and confusion are two constant companions. Sometimes the clarity outweighs the confusion (or, to put it another way, the ‘perplexity’), sometimes the confusion outweighs the clarity. Both, I suspect, are necessary to any kind of creative thought. And if philosophy is a process of moving from clarity to confusion, it is not this process alone. It is also a process of looking for the perplexities and the wonders beneath what seems superficially clear. Which is why I like reading Jacques Derrida as well as Gilbert Ryle, Michel Serres as well as John Searle. Clarity and confusion together: these seem to be our travelling companions. We’d better get used to them.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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