Clarity and Confusion

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

# · Thomas

I feel that there is a defence of the quotation to be made here, since it does not say that philosophy is simply clear thought.

Having said this, I do feel that thinking clearly is essential and significant ingredient of good philosophy. Whilst I have room to respect the continental philosophy that you mention, I have always felt that obscurantism should be the beginning rather than the end of a train of thought.
The essence of my own approach to philosophy has been to take something vague and to gain understanding from it, and I find clarity of thought to be the simplest way to understand.

# · Will

To be sure, Thomas, thinking clearly is essential and the pursuit of obscurity for its own sake is pretty fatuous. But I also find that if you begin in perplexity, when you bring some clarity to the situation, you are often faced with further perplexities, and there is no absolute end-point of clarity to be reached. This, of course, keeps philosophy interesting.

# · Pali Gap

Is there not more to philosophy than the English linguistic analysis mafia and our wordy continental brethren! Can we not admit to any philosophical wisdom from the other side of the Atlantic?

# · Will

Yes, indeed! There is far more. Although much philosophy in North America falls into the analytic/continental traditions historically speaking, there are other strains such as pragmatism which are much more home-grown over there. And, of course, there are plenty of venerable traditions from elsewhere in the world as well.

All the best,


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