On Not Speaking into the Air

“Yet lifeless things giving a sound, whether flute or harp, if they do not give a distinction in the sound, how will it be known what is being piped or harped? For also if a trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who will get himself ready for war? So also you, if you do not give a clear word through the language, how will the thing being said be known? For you will be speaking into air. So it may be many kinds of sounds are in [the] world, and not one is without [distinct] sound. If, then, I do not know the power of the sound, I will be a foreigner to the [one] speaking, and he speaking to me, a foreigner. So also you, since you are zealots of spiritual things, seek to build up the assembly that you may abound. So then, the [one] speaking in a language, let him pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. What then is it? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the mind; I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the mind. Else, if you bless in the spirit, the one occupying the place of the unlearned, how will he say the amen at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you say?” (1 Corinthians 14:7-16; underlining mine)

A couple of relevant quotes (in my estimate) from Brand Blanshard’s On Philosophical Style:

“Lord Macaulay once recorded in his diary a memorable attempt — his first and apparently also his last — to read Kant’s Critique:

‘I received today a translation of Kant . . . . I tried to read it, but found it utterly unintelligible, just as if it had been written in Sanscrit. Not one word of it gave me anything like an idea except a Latin quotation from Persius. It seems to me that it ought to be possible to explain a true theory of metaphysics in words that I can understand. I can understand Locke, and Berkeley, and Hume, and Reid, and Stewart. I can understand Cicero’s Academics, and most of Plato; and it seems odd that in a book on the elements of metaphysics . . . I should not be able to comprehend a word.’

What sort of writing was it that Macaulay was called upon to read? I quote a single fairly typical sentence:

‘Because a certain form of sensuous intuition exists in the mind a priori which rests on the receptivity of the representative faculty (sensibility), the understanding, as a spontaneity, is able to determine the internal sense by means of the diversity of given representations, conformably to the synthetical unity of the apperception of the manifold of sensuous intuition a priori, as the condition to which must necessarily be submitted all objects of human intuition.’

In a recent book Hans Reichenbach records a similar adventure with his illustrious countryman, Hegel. He picked up Hegel’s Philosophy of History and, before getting past the introduction, read the following:

‘Reason is substance, as well as infinite power, its own infinite material underlying all the natural and spiritual life; as also the infinite form which sets the material in motion. Reason is the substance from which all things derive their being.’

Now, says Reichenbach, ‘the term ‘reason,’ as generally used, means an abstract capacity of human beings, or to be modest, in parts of the behaviour. Does the philosopher quoted wish to say that our bodies are made of an abstract capacity of themselves? Even a philosopher cannot mean such an absurdity. What then does he mean?’

Reichenbach discusses it for two pages, but gives it up as hopeless.

I venture to give another example. One of the most eminent philosophers of this century conceived logic as the theory of inquiry, and it was therefore important for him to define inquiry in the clearest possible terms. He thought much about it, and finally offered this as the considered result:

‘Inquiry is the controlled or directed transformation of an of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole.’

Bertrand Russell, having to comment of this definition, points out that, far from distinguishing clearly one intellectual process from others, it could be taken with at least equal propriety as describing a sergeant drilling a group of recruits, or a bricklayer laying bricks.

Here are three philosophers of the highest standing writing on subjects of which they were masters. And here are three readers of the highest intelligence who have to confess that to them the philosophers seem to be talking gibberish. How is this failure in communication to be explained?” (Blanshard)

I am certainly not saying that it is always the case, but I wonder if at least in some cases, they (e.g., certain philosophers, theologians, etc.) don’t want to be understood. Anyway, some more from Blanshard:

“Now the way to save work for the reader is simply to write clearly. How easy it is to say that! ‘Simply to write clearly’ — as if that were not one of the hardest things in the world! It is hard even to say what clearness means, let alone exemplify it in speech and writing. Indeed, there is no such thing if taken by itself; it lies in the relation between a giver-out and a taker-in. If there is trouble, it is sometimes wholly with the taker-in. Many a schoolboy has thought Euclid abominably obscure, and so he was — to the schoolboy. We have all known students who sat helpless before philosophers who were classics of clarity. On the other hand there are some purveyors of philosophy who pass all understanding, no matter whose. A master expositor, W. K. Clifford, said of an acquaintance:

‘He is writing a book on metaphysics, and is really cut for it; the clearness with which he thinks he understands things and his total inability to express what little he knows will make his fortune as a philosopher.’

Unhappily, the gibe has point. There are philosophers, or pseudo-philosophers, to understand whom would be a reflection on the reader’s own wit. But suppose, to revert to our opening illustrations, that the reader happens to be Macaulay reading Kant, or Reichenbach reading Hegel, or Russell reading the logician whom we quoted. If there is failure to understand in cases like this, it is not normally because the writer has nothing to say, and certainly not because the hearer is witless. The writer has simply failed to cross the bridge. Why?

There are many reasons for such failure. One of the commonest is excessive generality in statement. Look at the statement by the eminent logician whom [Bertrand–CD] Russell had trouble with. One’s thought has to travel so great a distance from the point where this generalization leaves it to the thing it is supposed to describe that it might lose itself in a hundred different directions before hitting on the right one. It is unjust, I grant, to tear a passage from its context in this way, and the context would undoubtedly help; but if the context is of the same sort, that too will be obscure.

Listen to this from a great philosopher leave out only the first word and ask you to form the best conjecture you can of what he is talking about:

‘X is the self-restoration of matter in its formlessness, its liquidity; the triumph of its abstract homogeneity over specific definiteness; its abstract, purely self-existing continuity as negation of negation is here set as activity.’

You might guess the writer of this — it is Hegel — but I would almost wager the national debt that you do not have the faintest suggestion of what he is actually talking about. Well, it happens to be heat — the good familiar heat that one feels in the sunshine or around fire­places. I strongly suspect that this farrago is nonsense, but that is not my point. My point is that even if it is not nonsense, even if a reader, knowing that heat was being talked about, could make out, by dint of a dozen re­readings and much knitting of eyebrows, some application for the words, no one has a right to ask this sort of struggle of his reader.

Barrett Wendell, in his admirable book on writing, points out that clearness and vividness often turn on mere specificity. [Using the Bible as a template we see that clarity and vividness does NOT mean inordinately detailed descriptions that crimson the cheek of Christian modesty–CD] To say that Major André was hanged is clear and definite; to say that he was killed is less definite, because you do not know in what way he was killed; to say that he died is still more indefinite because you do not even know whether his death was due to violence or to natural causes. If we were to use this statement as a varying symbol by which to rank writers for clearness, we might, I think, get something like the following:

Swift, Macaulay, and Shaw would say that André was hanged. Bradley would say that he was killed. Bosanquet would say that he died. Kant would say that his mortal existence achieved its termination. Hegel would say that a finite determination of infinity had been further determined by its own negation” (Blanshard).