Philosophy and Obscurity

In the 20 or so years I’ve spent trying to get people to appreciate philosophy, I’ve learned that most people find the discipline irrelevant, obscure, and kind of pointless.

In the 20 or so years I’ve spent trying to get people to appreciate philosophy, I’ve learned that most people find the discipline irrelevant, obscure, and kind of pointless. The general idea is that philosophy may be fun for some people but at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter all that much to how people live and that’s where we really should put our energy. I tend to get verbal pats on the head, and the kind of smiles that one gives to small children who think they are doing something important. Few people I’ve met who aren’t in the discipline think philosophy has any bearing on the things that really matter in life.

I’ve kind of gotten used to it. I’m attempting to write an article for the Huffington Post and had a friend read my draft. His feedback was typical of what I usually get: you don’t draw any conclusions, you don’t take a position, you use a lot of big words that I don’t understand and the like. Of course he was absolutely right—all those things were true. But as I thought about his feedback, I had to admit that they were somewhat intentional. Philosophy is like that. It’s hard to take a hard-and-fast position on topics for which there shouldn’t be hard and fast positions. Big words help consolidate ideas that might take 2 or 3 sentences to describe. Opinions are legion so I try to avoid them. But in order to make my article palatable and relevant to a larger audience I have to break all the rules of philosophy (or become a better writer which is something I know I need to do).

I was browsing through my RSS feeds this evening and I came across a quote that somewhat summarizes the situation. The quote applies to poetry—an equally obscure discipline—but it applies to philosophy just was well. Paul Dirac said:

"In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite."

In philosophy its exactly the opposite as well. Philosophy attempts to dig into things most of us know and “unpack” them. It tries to go beyond the surface and bring clarity to ideas with a goal of understanding them better. What it ends up doing much of the time is bringing clarity only to other philosophers. Non-philosophers typically ask for a common sense rewording of the philosophical jargon and then respond with, “Oh, I already knew that. You needed all those big words to say that?” followed by the polite and slightly irritated smile and a request for more wine.

In response to the feedback on my paper, I joked to my reviewer that I would just add longer and deeper quotes. “So you like obscurity then . . .” he replied. Maybe I should look into poetry.

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