Monday, January 18, 2021

Material Acquisitions and the Aura of Novelty

Seneca speaks of Corinthian bronze in On the Shortness of Life. Suppose I acquire a large statue made of the prized material––in the form of a swan, let us say. I place it in my room, where I can regularly turn to it with an admiring gaze. For the first few days it will be the marvel of my home, the possession I cherish above all others. But as the weeks and months go by it will more and more lose its initial splendor. What was once a marvel will become just a chunk of metal among other undistinguished objects. I will pay it less attention, perhaps none at all. Even if I give it the occasional dusting, what is in plain sight will, paradoxically, fade into obscurity.

Such is the fate that awaits all freshly acquired material possessions. The thrill of a new TV, car, pair of shoes, home, set of cutlery, or piece of Corinthian bronze will sooner or later give way to ordinariness or even monotony. It seems that so long as the object in question has what I've labeled an "aura of novelty," it can stir up excitement. But the aura begins to decay the moment the object becomes ours––as soon as we pluck it from the store shelf, for example, or drive it out of the dealership––and little can be done to slow or reverse the process. The rate of decay will decrease in proportion to the cost and size of the object, among other attributes, but in my experience the aura never survives more than a month or so, even for objects that mesmerize us at first. And once the aura for one object is gone, we experience a sense of loss and are tempted to acquire other objects to fill in the void. It's a fruitless, self-defeating temptation, of course, but one we often cheerily give into.

The neuroscientist, psychologist, sociologist, economist, theologian, and philosopher will each approach the existence and decay of the aura of novelty from different directions. Western monotheism and Buddhism, for their part, may not be able to tell us what exactly the aura is, but they do seem particularly well-qualified to instruct us on how it can be dealt with. Representing the former, Thomistic philosopher Etienne Gilson writes:

The owner of a great estate would still add field to field, the rich man would heap up more riches, the husband of a fair wife would have another still fairer . . . The experience is too common to be worth the trouble of many words; but it is of some importance to recall it here because the great fact on which rests the whole Christian conception of love is this: that all human pleasure is desirable but none ever suffices . . . The very insatiability of human desire has a positive significance; it means this: that we are attracted by an infinite good. (The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, tr. A. H. C. Downes, Charles Scribner's Sons 1940, pp. 271–272)

Neither a "fair wife" nor a fair husband is, of course, a material possession, but Gilson is discussing desire and acquisition in general, not material acquisitions in particular. And for Gilson and other Western monotheists, desire ought to ultimately be oriented to God, the "infinite good" who alone is capable of fully satisfying us. If desire is aimed exclusively elsewhere, trouble ensues. 

The Buddhist would agree that desire cannot be fully satisfied by the things of this world, but they would part ways with the Christian by maintaining that it is desire itself that is the problem, not misguided desire.  

On both accounts, the brevity and imperfection of the aura of novelty can be seen as reflecting the nature of all satisfaction achieved through material acquisitions. The proper response to disappointment or temptation upon seeing the aura fade is, for the Christian, to direct our desires to God rather than material possessions; for the Buddhist, to abolish desire in toto. Both responses are reasonable in their own way, but not free of problems. If human desire is, as it seems, truly infinite––truly without limit––then what if even an infinite being isn't sufficiently great to satisfy it? How might we even compare God's infinity with that of human desire? On the flip side, how can we abolish that which is without limit? And even if the sage can do this, what hope is there for sorry specimens like me?

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Osamu Dazai and the Impulse to Self-Destruction

Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human (1948) reads like the memoir of a man who, from an early age, often knew what he needed to do to get his derailed life back on track but chose not to do it anyway. Insofar as it reflects the author's life, it is a case study in self-destruction and a possible counterexample to the Socratic idea that wrongdoing is a result of mere ignorance. One sees in it all three of Karl Menninger's motives for suicide: the wish to die, the wish to kill, and the wish to be killed. It is tragic but perhaps unsurprising, then, that Dazai would take his own life in a double suicide with war widow Tomie Yamazaki the same year he wrote No Longer Human. He was 38 and had attempted suicide at least four times previously.

The First World War was one of the principal forces that drove Freud to move "beyond the pleasure principle" and accept the existence of a death instinct, "the task of which is to lead organic life back into the inanimate state" (The Ego and the Id, tr. Joan Riviere, W. W. Norton & Company 1960, p. 38). The whole 20th century is, indeed, a grisly attestation to the reality of a death instinct or something akin to it. But the death instinct belongs primarily to individuals, not collectives, and it will manifest itself differently in everyone. No Longer Human gives us an idea of how it manifested in the perennially troubled Dazai.

Is there a rational explanation of the death instinct and, more specifically, the human impulse to self-destruction on a materialistic view of the self, especially in light of natural selection's "preference" for self-preservation? Probably. But I suspect the explanation would come more easily if we abandoned materialism about the self, and far more easily if we went on to draw insight from the doctrine of original sin.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

How Not to Respond to Arguments From Evil

There are different ways the theistic philosopher might respond to arguments from evil against the existence of God, whether logical or evidential. The standard apologetic approach (exemplified by William Lane Craig, for example) is to begin by addressing the arguments in and of themselves, temporarily bracketing the existence of God so that the arguments can be dealt with as thoroughly as possible on terms the atheist or agnostic would find acceptable. In response to logical arguments from evil, the theist is likely to tell what is meant to be a believable story in which the existence of God is compatible with the evil we find in the world. The free will defense, originally offered by Alvin Plantinga, is one such story, and has probably received more attention than any other defense. For the evidential arguments, the theist will probably appeal to a combination of two things: theodicies, or justifications of God's ways, and skeptical theism, according to which we're epistemically ill-equipped to understand the relationship of God to evil, and so should either deem arguments from evil a failure or just withhold judgment on them. There is, of course, an apparent tension between these two approaches, as one can't consistently claim to know God's reasons for allowing evil while also claiming that we're not in a good position to know these reasons, but the theist can release some of the tension with the disclaimer that we're in a good position to know some but not all of God's reasons for allowing evil. Once these replies have been proffered, what remains in the eyes of the theist is a vanquished logical argument from evil, and nothing more than an emaciated evidential argument from evil which constitutes some, but not much, evidence against the existence of God. It is here that the brackets around God's existence are removed and the arguments of natural theology (eg, cosmological arguments, teleological arguments, moral arguments) are invoked to demonstrate that even if evil furnishes us with evidence against the existence of God, the evidence for God's existence is, on balance, far greater. Natural theology thus delivers the finishing blow to evidential arguments from evil, and the existence of God is, the theist thinks, ultimately secured. 

This seems like an eminently sensible strategy to me, and one that is most likely to win over those who are approaching theism from a stance of doubt or non-belief. But there is another strategy one can find in the literature, and it has some formidable defenders. It begins where the standard approach ends, namely, with arguments for the existence and nature of God. These established, it then proceeds to consider how the theist might understand God's relationship with evil, since the coexistence of the two would still cry out for explanation even if there were no doubt that God was real. We may have to reckon with emotional or pastoral problems if we can't come up with a compelling explanation, but these are issues of the heart, not the head. Even if we can't understand why God allows us to suffer, we can know that he exists, that he allows us to exist, and that he is good. 

The advocates of this strategy whom I'm most familiar with are the Catholic, Thomistic philosophers Edward Feser and Brian Davies. And their Catholicism isn't coincidental. As Feser has pointed out, the Catholic Church maintains that the existence of God can be demonstrated with certainty, although it––wisely––doesn't specify any particular argument or series of arguments that are supposed to bear such a weighty epistemic burden. But if God's existence can be demonstrated with certainty, why not approach arguments from evil with it already in tow?

Thus, when Feser gets around to these arguments in the final chapter of his Five Proofs of the Existence of God, he can say, in response to William Rowe's 1979 version of the evidential argument from evil, that:

The problem with Rowe's argument is that it can be rational to believe this [ie, that there is no God] only if we don't already have independent reason to think that God exists, and thus independent reason to think that there must be some greater good that God will draw out of instances of suffering like the one cited by Rowe. And we do have such independent reasons. For as we have seen in this book, there are at least five ways of demonstrating that God exists, and further arguments showing that he is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. Hence, we know, on the basis of these very arguments, that there must in fact be some greater good that God will draw out of instances of suffering like the ones Rowe has in mind, whether or not we can know what that greater good is . . . For the "evidential argument" to succeed as a challenge to those arguments [ie, the ones defended in the book], its defenders would first have to provide an independent refutation of the arguments of this book. And if they could do that, they wouldn't need the "evidential argument" in the first place. (Ignatius Press 2017, p. 298; emphasis in the original)

I'm not sure what he's getting at with the last sentence, since a refutation of Feser's arguments for God's existence wouldn't disprove or render improbable God's existence, as evidential arguments from evil seek to do, but the gist of his remarks here is clear: Rowe's evidential argument (and presumably all other arguments from evil, particularly evidential ones) simply can't work because we know, through Feser's (and perhaps other) arguments, that God exists. 

Davies operates along similar lines in his The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil. The book certainly doesn't read like your typical theistic response to the philosophical and theological challenges posed by evil, as Davies is no doubt aware:

I shall be arguing that once what I call 'basics' have been attended to in a certain way, much that has recently been written on God and evil (by both foes and friends of God) should be viewed as either beside the point, just plain wrong, or even morally dubious. (Continuum 2006, p. 3) 

What are some of the "basics?" They include: that God exists (which Davies seeks to establish with an argument resembling Thomas Aquinas' Second Way), that his existence is indistinguishable from his essence, that he is incapable of real change, that he created the world and sustains it in existence, that he is good and loving (understanding these in an analogical rather than univocal sense) in addition to being perfect, that he is not bound by any moral obligations, and that he is not an agent like us who deliberates, acts for reasons, and, more specifically, acts in accordance with means-ends reasoning. 

After filling roughly 100 pages with defenses and clarifications of these theses, Davies can finally turn to arguments from evil and show why so many contemporary thinkers are simply wrong-headed in their approach to them. The free will defense he rejects because it overlooks the role of God's causal activity in all human agency. Theodicies he rejects because they treat God like an agent who acts in accordance with means-ends reasoning. Skeptical theism he rejects for being implausible (certain instances of evil, he says, are reasonably seen neither as leading to anything good nor to preventing a sufficiently great evil) and for applying an inappropriate consequentalist standard to God. Basically, he rejects every part of the standard approach to arguments from evil except for natural theology. 

What, then, does Davies think is the nature of God's relationship with evil? Davies indicates that strictly speaking, God can't have a true relationship with evil, since evil is a mere privation––an absence of a "due good" (Ibid., p. 143). Evil (whether "evil suffered" or "evil done") is quite real and ought to be taken very seriously by us, but it isn't something that God can cause because, metaphysically, it's not a discrete thing at all. It's like a hole in the wall: the hole surely exists, but it's nothing above and beyond a defect in the wall; it isn't a thing in its own right. So God can't be the ultimate source of evil.

Nor, importantly, can any amount of evil demonstrate that God doesn't exist or, less ambitiously, that his existence is unlikely. This is because

if God exists and is, indeed, the Maker of all things (as I have argued), then anything that happens in the world has to depend on him and can hardly count as disproving his existence. A necessary condition for something being the case cannot be unreal if the something in question is the case. God has traditionally been thought of as needed for the world to be at all (and at any time), so the way the world is (at any time) cannot count against his existence if God is indeed needed for the world to be at all (and at any time). To be sure, 'If there is a God, then he is the cause of all happenings' does not mean that there can be no happenings which show that there is no God. My argument, though, is that there is a God to be conceived of as accounting for all happenings, none of which, therefore, can be deemed to count against his existence. (Ibid., p. 224)

The takeaway is that since we know God exists and is responsible for the world's upkeep, the occurrence of this or that evil (or gazillions of evils) can't possibly be incompatible with God's existence. This could only be the case, as the penultimate sentence clarifies, if God's existence were in question, which––so Davies thinks––it isn't. Since we can no more survive without oxygen than events can happen without God, no amount of pain and suffering should lead us to conclude that God's existence is improbable or impossible.

Beyond this, we ought to consider that God is the source of all good, that he is with us always, that there is much good in the world, that evil often brings about or is otherwise associated with good, and that Trinitarian theology gives Christians in particular additional resources for understanding God's love and involvement in the world. 

When all is said and done, though, Davies can't tell us why God allows evil, even if for metaphysical reasons he can't cause it. Davies can't, in other words, give us the most sought-after details of God's relationship with evil––the reasons why God allows us to suffer as much as we do. Indeed, he doesn't even think there are such reasons:

I do not claim to be able to explain why evil exists on the scale it does or why it exists at all. On my account, God could have made a world containing nothing but good. He clearly has not. Does this make him bad? I have argued against the conclusion that it does. But that argument does not amount to any kind of explanation concerning the role of evil in God's created order . . . In my view, there can be no such explanation. Trying to plot God's reasons for producing what he does or for not producing something that he does not seems, as I have argued, to proceed from an erroneous premise – that God can be thought of as acting for reasons as we do. The most we can say, I think, is what I have been trying to suggest in this book. We are right to suppose that God exists; we have a philosophical case to make for thinking of God as good and loving; we have no reason to think that God causes evil as an end in itself; if we believe in God we can hardly doubt that he creates an enormous amount of goodness; in so far as we sympathize with classical Christian thinking about the Trinity and the Incarnation, we have grounds for taking God to be loving and good. If those conclusions are true, however, then we are not, perhaps, entirely in the dark when it comes to the reality of God and the problem of evil. (Ibid., 246; emphasis in the original)

With this, Davies concludes the final chapter of his book.

As one can probably guess from the title of this post, I find the Feser-Davies approach to arguments from evil highly problematic, as much as I respect these two and understand where they're coming from. The source of my misgivings is, in a nutshell, that the approach fails to fully come to grips with the dialectical context in which arguments from evil are offered.

We can start unpacking this claim by asking: what exactly is the "dialectical context" of arguments from evil? It depends, of course, because such arguments pop up in different contexts for different reasons. A group of theists may raise an argument from evil solely amongst themselves for the purpose of refuting it and thereby removing possible barriers to their continued belief in God's existence and goodness. Aquinas, for instance, briefly considers a logical (and curiously Spinoza-esque) argument from evil when discussing God's existence in the Summa Theologica, which was (incredibly) written for "beginners" in the faith as opposed to, say, pagans. But these days, it seems that the context of paramount importance in which arguments from evil are offered is one in which one group of thinkers––skeptics––are locked in an ongoing struggle with another group of thinkers––theists––on the topic of God's existence. Each side wants to convince the other, and arguments from evil are one of the most powerful instruments of persuasion available to the skeptic. In this context, arguments from evil are no mere in-house issue: they pose a serious external threat––much like the Romans besieging Carthage––and the thoughtful theist is compelled to respond lest their theism be shorn of rational justification.

This brings us to the two theistic strategies surveyed above. There is the standard strategy, in which the arguments from evil are weakened as much as possible before natural theology is invoked to make a positive case for God's existence, and there is the alternative, Feser-Davies strategy, in which natural theology is utilized from the get-go and the arguments from evil are not addressed until after God's existence and nature have been (putatively) established.

Both sides of the debate want to convince the other, as I've already observed, so now we can ask: which of the two strategies is most likely to win over the skeptic? This is, to be clear, an empirical question, and I don't have any systematically collected data with which to answer it. But, a priori, the standard strategy seems far more likely to convince skeptics than the Feser-Davies strategy. 

Here's why. Suppose I'm a skeptic in dialogue with a theist, and I present a number of logical and evidential arguments from evil in the course of our discussion. If I'm a rational and open-minded individual, I will be very receptive to a theist who does their best to rebut my arguments while standing on "neutral territory," that is, in terms that I, as a skeptic, find acceptable. And this is precisely what the standard strategy does, at least initially: it seeks to demolish the arguments from evil on the supposition that God may or may not exist. Defenses, theodicies, and skeptical theism don't require the existence of God to be successful since they can be stated in a conditional form such as, "If God existed, he would tolerate evil if it meant we could possess free will," or "If God existed, we would be epistemically ill-equipped to understand why he allows there to be so much suffering." Thus, the skeptic can't object to these responses on the grounds that their arguments from evil cast doubt on God's existence. 

So the theist who employs the standard strategy will offer a variety of responses to my arguments, and if the responses have something to say for them, then––again, assuming I'm rational and open-minded––my arguments will come to seem far less persuasive than they initially did, and I will therefore not be so resistant to the idea that God exists. This, of course, would be an opportune moment for the theist to introduce the arguments of natural theology. If the theist plays their cards right, by the end of the discussion I will have been convinced not only that arguments from evil are weak, but also that even if they did constitute decent evidence against the existence of God, that evidence would pale in comparison to the evidence for his existence. If this is too fanciful an outcome to imagine, then we might simply suppose that I have come to appreciate that arguments from evil aren't as compelling as I once thought they were, and that the theist is well within their rights to turn to natural theology to salvage belief in God should their responses to arguments from evil prove insufficient.

Let's now see how things might play out if the theist adopts the Feser-Davies strategy when I present them with my arguments from evil. If the theist jumps right into proving the existence of God––and with arguments that are meant to establish his existence with certainty, no less––then I'm going to be inclined to put up a good fight. After all, at the start of the discussion my arguments against God's existence seem airtight to me, so why take their arguments for God's existence seriously if my confidence in the case against God's existence hasn't in any way been eroded?

To illustrate, consider a maximally watered-down form of Aquinas' First Way, a roughly 50-premise (!) version of which is presented by Feser as his first "proof" in Five Proofs:

1. Change requires the existence of a purely actual actualizer (ie, God).

2. Change exists.

3. Therefore, God exists.

Now consider the following argument from evil, which can be understood either logically or evidentially:

1. God wouldn't allow 5-year-olds to be raped, murdered, and/or dismembered.

2. 5-year-olds are raped, murdered, and/or dismembered.

3. Therefore, God doesn't exist.

Obviously, much could be said about the cogency of these arguments, both of which (when understood in greater detail) are, at a first glance, supported by powerful intuitions, but I'm not interested in specifics here. The point I wish to get across is that if a theist advancing the former argument were to enter into discussion with a skeptic advancing the latter, deadlock will, in theory, quickly ensue.

For how can the theist who utilizes the Feser-Davies strategy make the skeptic budge once both arguments are on the table? To reiterate a point made above: the theist might echo Feser and say that the skeptic's argument is flawed since––via the theist's argument––we have independent reasons for accepting God's existence, but the skeptic can just retort that the theist's argument is flawed since––via the skeptic's argument––we have independent reasons for accepting God's nonexistence.

Perhaps the theist will claim that their argument carries greater probative weight because it's a "strict metaphysical demonstration" (Five Proofs p. 288, emphasis removed), and metaphysics is more foundational than axiology, on which the above argument from evil depends. The latter two points seem correct, but there's no apparent reason why metaphysical truths should be any more evident than axiological ones. Indeed, we humans seem far more adept at axiology than metaphysics, given that societies of all times and places have almost universally agreed on certain basic axiological truths (eg, that one shouldn't murder, that it's good to care for one's family members, that there is much beauty in nature) but not on any metaphysical truths (compare, for example, the metaphysics of Eastern religions with that of Western ones). So whether the above argument from evil is interpreted logically or evidentially, it may strike the skeptic as more plausible and thus in possession of greater probative weight than the theist's "strict metaphysical demonstration."

The theist might also dig their heels into the ground and insist that their argument(s), when grasped properly, is far more decisive than arguments from evil have ever been, and the reason the skeptic fails to recognize this is because they haven't sufficiently wrapped their heads around the elaborate metaphysical framework within which the argument is ensconced, or they're operating with certain modern biases which are inconsistent with this framework, or they're just dishonest or irrational (though a cordial theist probably wouldn't say this to the skeptic's face). But philosophy is, alas, hardly known for producing decisive arguments on any topic, so why should the theist's argument(s) be any different? One suspects that the theist finds their argument decisive only because the Church claims that somewhere in conceptual space there are arguments demonstrating God's existence with certainty, or, more simply, because they want to believe in God's existence for irrational or non-rational reasons, just as the skeptic may want to reject God's existence for such reasons. 

Either way, it's not hard to find criticisms of not just Feser's arguments in Five Proofs, or Davies' argument in The Reality of God, but of any theistic proof that's out there. And not just criticisms, but forceful ones offered by competent critics whom the theist can't accuse of misrepresenting or failing to understand the essence of the arguments. The precocious Joe Schmid, for instance, has (if the phrase can be pardoned) done God's work in showing just how many cracks and holes can be found in some of Aquinas' Five Ways, and a number of other serious philosophers such as Graham Oppy, J. L. Mackie, and Anthony Kenny have offered plenty of interesting criticisms of these and other theistic proofs. Obviously, not all criticisms are equally impressive, and Feser and other theistic philosophers have responded––oftentimes persuasively––to many of them. But if there were such a thing as an honest, well-informed, and completely unbiased observer, they would, I imagine, have to conclude that the theistic argument above, along with any other theistic argument we might put in its place, is, at best, not much more decisive than the opposing argument from evil (or any other argument from evil we might put in its place, such as one of Michael Tooley's equiprobability-based arguments from evil). Theistic arguments may be good, but they're not that good. They are, like every non-trivial philosophical argument, replete with controversial assumptions to which the skeptic isn't rationally obligated to assent, and some may even have glaring flaws.

We return to our state of deadlock, then. Such, it seems, is the price paid by those who choose the Feser-Davies approach when confronted by arguments from evil.

And the price may be even greater than plain deadlock. Recall Davies' conclusions about the typical theistic responses to arguments from evil: neither the free will defense (and presumably any other defense we might devise), nor theodicies, nor skeptical theism are capable of stopping arguments from evil in their tracks. We must instead rely on our knowledge of God's existence and nature to get the job done. 

But what if the skeptic isn't convinced by the arguments of natural theology? What if they find the arguments downright rotten? If this were the scenario, the theist who adopts the standard strategy in responding to arguments from evil can, at least, fall back on their natural theology-independent reasons for rejecting arguments from evil, and in this way they might persuade the skeptic that the case for God isn't completely moribund. But this isn't an option for Davies, for he stakes out his defense point and burns the bridge behind him, wagering everything on the ability of natural theology to fight off the encroaching arguments from evil. Should his natural theology fall, he's virtually defenseless––a sitting Thomistic duck, more or less.

I'm concerned that there exist committed theists who aren't prepared to so much as entertain the idea that their natural theology is a failure, but it's not so much the theist themselves who interests me here as it is their skeptical interlocutor. This is an individual, it will be recalled, whom the theist could, at a minimum, probably have kept close to the border between theism and atheism (as opposed to just a vague skepticism) if they had taken the standard approach to arguments from evil. But this Davies did not do, and now, on the presumption that his natural theology has failed, the interlocutor (the reader, in this case) has had the road to atheism meticulously paved for them, and they may very well be several miles down it by the time they finish Davies' book. Speaking from personal experience, I can say––with all due respect to Davies, a philosopher's philosopher whose work I've admired for several years now––that The Reality of God is maybe the only theistic text I've read which left me more atheistic than when I started it. And can I be blamed? I'm not very sympathetic to his natural theology, and he gives the reader a number of helpful tools for critiquing typical responses to arguments from evil. I may be wrong to take away from the text what I did, but (I hope) it doesn't seem like I've been illogical.

Davies––and, more generally, the proponent of the Feser-Davies approach to arguments from evil––might reply to all of this in the following manner: 

Regardless of what you did or did not get out of The Reality of God, there was no other way in which the book could have been structured. Any discussion of God and evil can only end in conceptual confusion if we don't begin with an adequate understanding of God. And for the Thomist, God's essence is his existence, so to understand God, we must also understand whether he exists. Once we have gotten clear on God's existence and nature, only then are we ready to explore arguments from evil. If we were to do the latter before the former, as the "standard strategy" does, then, again, we're headed for a muddle––hence the difficulties that beset the free will defense, theodicies, and skeptical theism. So it is not just prudent for the theist (particularly the Thomist) to begin their response to arguments from evil with natural theology, it is philosophically necessary.

I can appreciate the logic here, but I don't think it's correct. I've already argued that the Feser-Davies approach isn't prudent: the standard approach will generally stand a better chance of getting the skeptic to join the theistic camp. Nor do I think it's philosophically necessary. This is probably uncontroversial in the case of those who don't subscribe to a Thomistic (ie, Classical Theistic) view of God, but it also seems true of those who do. An in-depth analysis of Davies' arguments in The Reality of God would get us too far into the weeds, but I can at least use the book as a springboard for offering a few remarks on why I think a Thomistic notion of God doesn't preclude the employment of typical, natural theology-independent responses to arguments from evil. 

When it comes to defenses and theodicies, the central task for the Thomist will be to present them in such a way that they don't treat God as an agent who, like us, has moral obligations, operates with means-ends reasoning, and deliberates and acts for certain reasons in general. And this seems entirely possible. As Davies grants, even though God doesn't act "for reasons as people do," he does possess both will and intellect, and he can do certain things "in order that something or other might come about" (p. 216). So there is a broad (perhaps analogical?) sense in which God can be said to act with certain reasons in mind. And this is a welcome notion for the Thomist, as without it, they would be saddled with some awkward questions about God's agency and the natural order of things. It seems quite reasonable, by way of example, to ask why God created the world the way it is. He (as Davies grants) presumably could have created it differently: seaweed didn't have to exist, for instance, nor did electrons have to have a mass of 9.10938356 × 10-31 kilograms. If things did have to exist the way they are, the Thomist owes us an explanation for why seaweed, the mass of the electron, and so many other things in our world reek of contingency. If they didn't have to exist the way they are, then, to avoid any ascriptions of indeterminacy or non-rationality to God's agency (God's not a cosmic slot machine, after all), we must acknowledge the existence of something that "led" (scare quotes necessary) God to create this world rather than a different one. And it seems most natural to describe this something as a reason, albeit a special type of reason that doesn't correspond to any human reason for action. 

Different schools of Thomism may have different ways of making sense of the idea that God acts for reasons, but, as the example demonstrates, it's hard to see how any Thomist could entirely dispense with reasons-talk (which encompasses talk of means and ends) when discussing God's relationship with the world. Davies evinces a desire to do just this, but he struggles with the task. He will, for example, say things like: "'God wills X so that Y might come about' does not leave us with a God acting for reasons . . . [but] with a God who, in fact, brings Y about by virtue of X" (p. 218), but the shift from a reasons-and-actions framework to a causes-and-effects one treats God more like an algorithm than a living entity. At the end of the day, reasons-talk seems not just unavoidable but appropriate in the context of theological discourse. Nor must we reference anything like God's "moral obligations" when we engage in such talk about God; we can just observe that, to avoid the logically impossible, God cannot act in contravention of his goodness.

None of these claims are, to be sure, straightforward or uncontroversial, but they seem sturdy enough to suggest that the Thomist need not fear defenses and theodicies.

As for skeptical theism, there doesn't have to be anything distinctly anti-Thomistic to it. If someone like Davies finds the view intrinsically implausible or unhelpful, then fine; they're in good company. But, contra Davies, skeptical theism doesn't assume "an arguably objectionable consequentialism that tries to trump evil by focusing attention away from victims of suffering" (The Reality of God, p. 159). Maybe some iterations of skeptical theism do, but not all. The skeptical theist might, for instance, simply say that we are in no position to understand why an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and loving God would permit so much evil. Such a claim can be developed without appealing to "hidden goods" or a similar concept, and can therefore steer clear of consequentialist overtones. 

The Thomist thus seems free to respond to arguments from evil without recourse to natural theology. And, significantly, this is something with which Feser, despite presenting natural theology as his first reply to Rowe's evidential argument from evil, seems to (at least partly) agree, for in Five Proofs he endorses the free will defense as well as a defense based on recompense in the afterlife, he says that theodicy-construction is "beyond the scope of this book" but suggests it's worthwhile (p. 299), and he also suggests that he's sympathetic to skeptical theism or something like it when he writes that "it is not just that we happen not to know, of every instance of evil that exists, what the reasons are why God allows it. That we don't know is precisely what we should expect . . ." (p. 298). And it is not as though Feser is unaware of Davies' The Reality of God: he even chose it as one of the "best books on arguments for the existence of God." Now, perhaps Feser is in agreement with Davies that defenses, theodicies, and skeptical theism are, at bottom, no good, and he merely played along with the typical responses to arguments from evil in Five Proofs because he didn't have enough space to advance and defend the controversial theses found in Davies' book. But at the very least it seems as though he's open to the idea that several of Davies' theses are untenable, which should make us more comfortable in asserting that it isn't philosophically necessary for theists in general and Thomists in particular to launch their response to arguments from evil from the platform of natural theology. 

So the standard strategy for responding to arguments from evil is, in my view (and assuming there's scant empirical data to guide us on this topic), much more advisable than the Feser-Davies strategy. The theist who initially turns to natural theology to overcome these arguments is oftentimes headed for deadlock or, if their natural theology fails, a heavy blow to their and/or their interlocutor's belief in God. And intellectual humility arguably demands that the theist acknowledge that their natural theology could fail. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Nietzsche's Sense of Smell

May I be allowed to hazard a suggestion concerning one last trait in my character, which in my intercourse with other men has led me into some difficulties? I am gifted with a sense of cleanliness the keenness of which is phenomenal; so much so, that I can ascertain physiologically—that is to say, smell—the proximity, nay, the inmost core, the "entrails" of every human soul.... This sensitiveness of mine is furnished with psychological antennæ, wherewith I feel and grasp every secret: the quality of concealed filth lying at the base of many a human character which may be the inevitable outcome of base blood, and which education may have veneered, is revealed to me at the first glance. (Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, Why I Am So Wise 7, tr. Anthony Ludovici)

But we learn––might we say pungently?––that smell can be deceiving from the scene in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov in which the corpse of the devout Father Zosima is not, to the surprise of many who knew the holy man, miraculously spared from rotting and consequently stinking up the space around his coffin. Things are not always what they seem, as the saying goes...nor what they smell. 

Dostoevsky was, for Nietzsche, "the only psychologist . . . from whom I had something to learn" (Twilight of the Idols, Raids of an Untimely Man 45, tr. Richard Polt), but one wonders just how much he was willing to learn from someone who "goes against my deepest instincts" (Letter to Georg Brandes, November 20, 1888, in Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche, tr. Christopher Middleton, Hackett 1996, p. 327). Whatever the case, no one seems to know whether Nietzsche read The Brothers Karamazov.

Comments on the Philosophy of Horror

As philosopher Noël Carroll notes in his highly readable monograph The Philosophy of Horror (1990), two of the central questions in the philosophical analysis of the horror genre are: (1) how can we be horrified by things which we know are fictional?, and (2) what makes the genre so appealing, given how unpleasant it is to be horrified?

In response to the first question, which belongs to the more general topic of how and why we relate to fictional entities as we do, Carroll discusses three answers: the illusion theory, the pretend theory, and the thought theory. The illusion theory states that we are horrified by horror movies, novels, comics, paintings, and other media because they dupe us into thinking that we're not actually dealing with ficta, that the zombies/ghosts/demons/werewolves/vampires/Great Ones or whatever is depicted are real and pose a real threat to us. Carroll rejects the theory (rightly, I think) for several reasons, the main one being that it fails to explain how, in the course of enjoying a work of horror, we don't act as though a zombie, ghost, or other malicious entity were really in our midst, for if we truly were duped into thinking this, we would presumably panic and run for our lives––something that not even the most squeamish among us do when engaging with a work of horror. 

The pretend theory says that when we're consuming a work of horror, we're aware that it's ficta we're interacting with, but we nevertheless pretend they're real and experience "quasi-horror" in response to them, as though we were playing a game of make-believe. Carroll rejects this theory as well (rightly again, I think) because we have good reason to believe it is true horror we feel in response to compelling horror media, not some sort of quasi-horror. 

The thought theory, which is Carroll's preferred answer to the first question posed above, claims that the horror we feel in response to what we see, hear, or read in the horror genre is genuine and is caused by our thought of the ficta we're confronted by, where "to have a thought is to entertain it [i.e., a proposition] nonassertively" (Routledge, p. 80). Carroll elaborates with an analogy:

Standing on a precipice, though in no way precariously, one might fleetingly entertain the thought of falling over the edge. Commonly, this can be accompanied by a sudden chill or a tremor which is brought about, I submit, not by our belief that we are about to fall over the edge of the precipice, but by our thought of falling, which, of course, we regard as a particularly uninviting prospect. It need not be a prospect we believe is probable; our footing is secure, there is no one around to push us, and we have no intention of jumping. But we can scare ourselves by imagining a sequence of events that we know to be highly unlikely. Moreover, we are not frightened by the event of our thinking of falling, but by the content of our thought of falling––perhaps the mental image of plummeting through space. (Ibid.)

Thus, when I'm horrified by the sight of a levitating Annie Graham menacingly looking down at her son Peter in the attic at the end of the film Hereditary (2018) as she––first slowly, then furiously––decapitates herself with a piano wire, what is doing the heavy lifting are the thoughts that fill my mind as I take in the ghastly images. 

But this doesn't seem right. Set aside the fact that the thought theorist, qua thought theorist, isn't entitled to appeal to the faculty of imagination to clarify their theory, as Carroll does in the precipice analogy, since thoughts are often unaccompanied by mental images, and sometimes necessarily so (eg, "I suspect the Riemann hypothesis will be resolved by the end of the century," "God's essence is his existence"). The main problem with the thought theory is that it's too cognitive. I'm not thinking about anything in particular while consuming horror media. Indeed, I'm pretty sure I'm generally not thinking about anything at all. How can I be, when all of my attention is––whether I like it or not––being absorbed by whatever work I'm interacting with? Thinking about the worlds presented to me by the likes of Stephen King, Guillermo del Toro, Junji Ito, and Francisco Goya would in many ways detract from my raw experience of them. And not just that: the best horror often seems to positively abolish thought. When I inspect Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son, or I watch the scene in Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018) wherein one of the female leads, now pale and impossibly mydriatic (presumably from possession), whispers rapidly and unintelligibly to the camera during a close-up of her face, or the scene in Lake Mungo (2008) in which the young Alice captures, in a blurry cell phone video, the gradual, ominous approach of a spectral doppelganger that bears the bloated appearance of her soon-to-be corpse, it's not just that I don't want to think about what I'm seeing, lest I be hindered from experiencing it to the fullest, I can't; I'm simply too engrossed to do so. And while everyone has their own irreplicable experiences when dipping into the horror genre, I suspect that on a fundamental level, the experiences of many others are similar to my own. 

So the thought theory is unacceptable, at least in the context of this discussion. How, then, can we explain why ficta are capable of genuinely horrifying us? A neuroscientist might reply with something to the effect that the brain––particularly the limbic system––provokes feelings of horror in response to certain kinds of stimuli, whether or not they're fictional. But even if there is some truth to this (and there probably is), I doubt that our emotional responses to ficta are fully explicable in neurological terms (I am no mind-brain identity theorist), and even if they were, it might still be the case that these responses are causally overdetermined and have a more metaphysical explanation as well. I can't claim to have a compelling and universally applicable account of the metaphysical element inherent to the central question, but I can perhaps gesture in its direction. 

The requisite theory of the relationship between ficta and the experience of horror will, I believe, have to draw primarily from the illusion theory while, it goes without saying, avoiding its shortcomings. We might call it the immersive theory, and the basic idea would be this. Every work of horror presents a certain world to the consumer, understanding a "world" to more or less be a structured and self-contained environment that often (but not necessarily) has distinct inhabitants which are not found in other worlds. Thus, we can talk of the world of Verónica, the world of Event Horizon, the world of Rosemary's Baby, or the world of Noroi: The Curse. The actual world is the one that presses its demands upon us most forcefully, but we can still interact meaningfully with these and other worlds of the horror genre, as suggested above in connection with legends of the genre such as Stephen King and Junji Ito. 

What seems to occur when we're horrified by a work of horror is that the actual world in some way blends with the world being presented to us, so that the border between what is actual and what is fictional is blurred. To avoid the central pitfalls of the illusion theory, this must occur in such a way that we are, at virtually all times, aware that we are interacting with a non-actual world, but one that nevertheless has its own components and operates according to its own logic––both of which we might be deeply taken in by. This "absorption" into the world wouldn't amount to Coleridge's "suspension of disbelief," the utility of which Carroll persuasively argues against, but rather to something more experiential. We would know not only that we exist, as always, in the actual world while we experience the fictional world in question, but we would also come to appreciate, in a vague or roundabout manner, that the boundaries between the actual world and the fictional one are fluid enough for us to be rightfully horrified by the events of the latter.

What I'm clumsily getting at is that there seems to be a sense in which I can, phenomenologically, remain firmly planted in the soil of the actual world while nevertheless experiencing––maybe even weakly (very weakly) participating in––the events of a world presented to me in a work of horror. This would explain not only why we can feel so invested in the events that unfold in a convincing work of horror––especially why we can be so unsettled by them––but also why, after we've finished with the work, our corner of the actual world is covered in the residue of the fictional world we were just engaged with. This residue compels us to move through the actual world with apprehension and maybe even dread, as though at any moment eerie noises might start coming from the garage, or some malevolent being might take up residence beneath our bed, or we might see strange lights speeding across the night sky. The fictional world quite literally "sticks with" us. In my case it often takes several hours, and sometimes several days for its residue to fully evaporate, for the actual world to resume its regular, predictable, and generally mundane course. The greater the work of horror, the more seamlessly our minds seem to conjoin the actual world with the fictional one, and thus the longer is required for the latter to return to the shadows once we've had our final encounter with it. 

Those are the lines along which I suspect the first question ought to be answered. As for the exact mechanism by which the mind can "blend" a fictional world with the actual one while nevertheless remaining well within the territory of the latter, I'm going to have to plead ignorance. The notion may very well be incoherent.

Now for the second question. Carroll grants that there might be different reasons why consumers of horror are attracted to the genre despite its attendant discomforts. Some viewers, for instance, may seek it out simply for the thrill of being horrified, and our neuroscientist from earlier may come barging back in at this point to force-feed us the neurochemical details on the matter. Carroll's concession, in any event, is an appropriate one, since the question relates to aesthetic tastes, which are highly variable and often difficult to articulate. However, Carroll still has his pet theory here, which builds on some of the main ideas developed earlier in the text:

In general, I think that we can account for the pleasure that average consumers take in horror fiction by reference to the ways in which the imagery and, in most cases, the plot structures engage fascination. Whatever distress horror causes, as a probable price for our fascination, is outweighed for the average consumer by the pleasure we derive in having our curiosity stimulated and rewarded. (Ibid., pp. 192–193)

"It is my impression," Carroll says a couple of pages later, that this answer "is pretty obvious," even if "it may sound platitudinous" (Ibid., p. 195). I, at least, don't find it objectionable, nor am I sure how one might even object to it without doing fieldwork on horror aficionados and their motives. But I can say that as far as I'm aware, I'm not attracted to horror by the fascination factor. 

I'd say there are a few things that rope me in, but one has pride of place, and it happens to be of a piece with the immersive theory I sketched above. In a sentence: horror presents me with threats which drown out all other concerns I have. 

Here's what I mean. Our personal and professional problems are contextual. What strikes us as a serious problem at one point in our lives may seem like a petty inconvenience at another, and what may be a problem for one person may be a blessing to someone else. Not being able to hold one's liquor is more likely to be problematic to the 22-year-old fraternity president than to the 70-year-old grandfather with severe acid reflux, for instance, just as a toothache in someone with otherwise impeccable health will be perceived as far less bothersome by someone with metastatic cancer who is accustomed to diffuse and relentless pain. And I believe it was Stendhal who advised that young women (I don't know why he singled out young women) who were suicidal be persecuted, as this would provide them with a potent stimulus to continue living. As a clinical recommendation this is utterly barbarous; as a reflection on human nature it has much to commend it.

So let's say that I, with my ever-evolving list of problems (and whose list isn't?), watch a good horror movie from start to finish without so much as pausing. By the time the credits roll my mind will have blended the world of the movie with the actual world. Once I look upon my problems in the context of this new hybrid world, they seem less urgent, less asphyxiating. (Some may even be transiently abolished, depending on how effectively the movie abolishes my thinking in general.) Why care about a rift in one's personal relationships or a bit of back pain if one is living in a haunted house or trying to survive the night in a zombie apocalypse? Obviously, I've done neither of the latter, but if the immersive theory has some truth to it, I can, by consuming the appropriate works of horror, experience some of the sensations and emotions I might have in such dire situations, thereby creating a context in which most of my ordinary problems are sapped of significance. The effect may be temporary, but if my immediate goal is simply to make it through a rough day or week, a transient effect is all I need. 

Whether this answer to the second question stands or falls with my answer to the first isn't clear to me, but I suspect that if necessary, I could rephrase the former without making use of the latter.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Heeding Bertrand Russell on...Romantic Relationships?

A companionship which has lasted for many years and through many deeply felt events has a richness of content which cannot belong to the first days of love, however delightful these may be. And any person who appreciates what time can do to enhance values will not lightly throw away such companionship for the sake of new love. (Marriage and Morals, Ch. 10)

One wonders, in light of what's known about his stormy love life, whether Russell ended up doing just that. But even if he did, his observations remain sensible.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

An Exploration of Obscurantism in Western Philosophy

Introduction

If the history of Western philosophy were bisected so that ancient and medieval philosophy stood on one side while modern and contemporary philosophy stood on the other, one would notice a curious asymmetry in the quantity of authors who are, even to sympathetic readers, obscure, or difficult to understand. And not just obscure, but intentionally so. To be sure, almost all philosophers are obscure in the sense that the lay reader cannot just crack into one of their books or essays at random and hope to make sense of everything they find there. Aquinas, for instance, is so lucid as to be robotic, but his meaning can be difficult to grasp if one isn't familiar with the terminology he inherits from his philosophical and theological forebears, particularly Aristotle, aka "the Philosopher." Philosophers can hardly be blamed for this type of obscurity. Whether done in the garden of Epicurus or the prison cell of Boethius, philosophy is hard work. Philosophical questions have no obvious and universally accepted answers; as time passes, more and more philosophers will have weighed in on these questions, creating their own systems and terminologies which later philosophers then adopt while creating their own, and so on ad infinitum; and oftentimes the philosopher finds themselves working at the ill-defined border that separates the sayable from the unsayable (recall the early Wittgenstein's "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent"), so putting thoughts into words can be quite the challenge. A measure of obscurity is thus expected in substantive philosophical works, though, as Plato and perhaps one or two others (eg, Hume in his Dialogues) have shown, it isn't necessary.

Here, as I've indicated, I'm not interested in this ubiquitous "baseline" obscurity, but in obscurity the author was aware of and could, by all appearances, have done without. In other words, I'm interested in obscurantism, or the practice of deliberate obfuscation, especially when it occurs consistently rather than just sporadically in a philosopher's writings. I'll begin with a historical survey of the phenomenon and end with some thoughts on whether obscurantism in philosophy is justified, as well as what the future of obscurantism might look like.

Obscurantism in Western Philosophy

Ancient & Medieval Philosophy

Returning to our bisected history of Western philosophy, we see, on the ancient and medieval side, hardly any obscurantists. Indeed, I can't find a single obscurantist among the medievals. Not one. To them, clarity in writing seems just as non-negotiable as the existence of God. They (particularly later authors such as Aquinas, Peter Abelard, Anselm, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Maimonides, Averroes, and Al-Ghazali) may be tedious, labyrinthine, and hair-splitting, but one is rarely left to guess their meaning. I even pulled up a list of medieval philosophers to make sure I'm not overlooking a major figure known for obscurantism. The enigmatic Pseudo-Dionysius is regarded as difficult, but not as obscurantist. We don't even have all of the guy's (or girl's?) writings, which fact alone makes him hard to read. Anyone else who might make the cut? Not that I can discern. If there's a medieval obscurantist, it's someone lesser-known. 

We turn to face the ancients. Do any obscurantists stand out? There is one, as a matter of fact, who does. No, it's not Aristotle. Certainly, the Stagirite has his hyper-obscure moments. De Anima III.4–5 is quite notorious, for instance, and it's said that the redoubtable Avicenna (980–1037 CE) couldn't make sense of the Metaphysics even after reading it a full 40 times. Aristotle isn't averse to using illustrations but, as everyone from Aristotle scholars to Philosophy 101 students can appreciate, their ability to filter out ambiguity and vagueness is inconsistent. In general the grace and intelligibility of his prose compares rather unfavorably with that of his teacher Plato's. 

Or does it? Cicero––one of the finest prose stylists of the ancient world––spoke of the "incredible richness and sweetness of his [Aristotle's] eloquence" (Topica I.3), referring to it elsewhere as a "golden stream" (Academica Posteriora XXXVIII.119). Would a palate as refined as Avicenna's fail to appreciate the luscious taste of a golden stream after sampling it 40 times? Surely not. It is no coincidence, then, that Aristotle's surviving works are thought for the most part to be lecture notes, private research texts, or something equally untempered. Taken together, they don't show him at his best. Even then, they're typically not that indigestible. The Nicomachean Ethics and Politics, for example, don't make for pleasurable reading, but there is an admirable clarity to their spartan prose. And would it not be more than a little strange for a man with an unwavering devotion to rational inquiry and the search for truth to go the way of obscurantism? All in all, it seems unreasonable to label Aristotle an obscurantist.

It turns out that the fellow who stands out within the crowd of cloaked and bearded ancient philosophers would, unlike Aristotle, probably revel in the obscurantist label. This is none other than Heraclitus, he of "can't step in the same river twice" fame. It is fitting that the life of a man known for intentionally obscure teachings should itself be obscure. He hails from Ephesus (at the western border of present-day Turkey) and lived around 500 BCE. Most other details of his life are hazy. It is commonly believed that he wrote a book but some scholars (eg, the late G. S. Kirk) suspect he didn't. All that remains of his verbal teachings and/or writings is a collection of more than 100 aphoristic "fragments," some of which are incomplete, most of which are only a sentence or two in length, and all of which can be read in a few minutes. They're eminently quotable, so rather than reproduce any here, I'll simply refer the reader to the link.

Heraclitus was very much the enfant terrible of the ancient world. In his first volume of A History of Greek Philosophy, classicist W. K. C. Guthrie compiles an entertaining list of reactions to him and his teachings from the who's who of the ancient world. Aristotle complains about his grammar in Book III Part 5 of the Rhetoric; Diogenes of Apollonia (not that Diogenes) said "he sets out nothing clearly;" Timon of Phlius called him "the Riddler" (no, the Riddler of the DC Universe wasn't the first of his kind); Plotinus observes that "he seems to teach by metaphor, not concerning himself about making his doctrine clear to us, probably with the idea that it is for us to seek within ourselves as he sought for himself and found" (The Enneads IV. 8. 1); Lucretius describes him as "a man celebrated for obscure speech" (On the Nature of Things I.639); the character Cotta in Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods remarks that he spoke "with intentional obscurity" (I. 26); and another character––this time Theodorus, in Plato's Theatetus––notes how Heraclitus' disciples in Ephesus "are downright mad . . . [for], in accordance with their text-books, they are always in motion," and "[if] you ask any of them a question, he will produce, as from a quiver, sayings brief and dark, and shoot them at you; and if you inquire the reason of what he has said, you will be hit by some other new-fangled word, and will make no way with any of them, nor they with one another" (179D-180A). The nature of Heraclitus' reputation was, in short, not in doubt among the ancients who studied him.

Why did he choose the obscurantist path? It's anyone's guess, but the fragments as well as anecdotes about his comportment leave some clues. Plotinus, quoted above, provides one explanation: Heraclitus wanted the reader to come to the truth themselves rather than simply taking his word for it. Following Guthrie (pp. 413–415 of HGP), we can add three more. First, he was, like Plato, an elitist. More than that, he was something of a misanthrope––see fragments 2, 17, 29, and 70, for example. Thus, he saw no obligation to make his teachings comprehensible to the hoi polloi, and presumably went the extra mile to make sure they weren't. Second, as one of the first to have ventured all the way to the sayable/unsayable border, he found the language of his time inadequate to articulate what he encountered there, so "[symbol] and paradox were sometimes his only resource." Finally, he appears to have viewed himself in a somewhat prophetic light ("I have sought for myself," says fragment 101), and the oracular language of the prophet is often ambiguous, as seen in, for instance, the Oracle of Delphi, or the Book of Isaiah. Such explanations leave something to be desired, but they're some of the best available.

Regardless of his motives, Heraclitus was an obscurantist in the full sense of the term. What's more, he was the first obscurantist in the history of Western philosophy, and perhaps the only one for roughly two millennia. Of course, it would be easier to search for other obscurantists among the Presocratics and the rest of the ancients if vast portions of their writings weren't lost, but we can only work with what we have, and what we have shows Heraclitus to be the only philosopher among the ancients wearing an obscurantist badge. The guy may rub us the wrong way (seen fr. 121 yet?), but behind his misanthropy and iconoclasm there is a fascinating independence of thought.

Modern Philosophy

Let's jump over to the other side of our original divide––the one on which are gathered all modern and contemporary philosophers. We are, let us say, in the year 1500 CE, or thereabouts. The medievals and their arid tomes are a thing of the past; the Renaissance is in full swing; and Descartes with his cogito and ill-fated quest for certainty are on the horizon. Are there any obscurantists in sight? No, not yet. I can't claim familiarity with most of the Renaissance philosophers, but among those I have read––Montaigne, Erasmus, Mirandola, Machiavelli, More, and Bacon––none are remotely obscurantist. 

We advance two or three centuries and take another look around. Some thinkers with a reputation for obscurantism are now in view, the first and most illustrious being Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), the "Sage of Königsberg." Kant's central project, as is well-known, was to steer a middle course between the rationalism of Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, and Wolff and the empiricism of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. His ingenious solution––referred to as his "critical philosophy"––is presented in its most abstract, metaphysical form in the Critique of Pure Reason (1st edition in 1781, 2nd in 1787) and then applied to ethics in the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and, later, to aesthetics and teleology in the Critique of Judgment (1790). All three are infamously difficult texts, particularly the massive and tortuous Critique of Pure Reason. Even with a good commentary in hand, reading it is like chewing one's way through a well-done steak. 

There is a convincing case to be made that Kant was a bona fide obscurantist, that he deliberately made his writings inaccessible to the "unworthy" reader. In an undated note, he writes:

If, like Hume, I had the power to embellish my work, I would hesitate to use it. It is true that some readers will be frightened away by its dryness. But is it not necessary to frighten some of them away, with whom the matter would come into bad hands? (Lewis White Beck, A Commentary on Kant's Critique of Practical Reason, University of Chicago Press 1960, p. 3)

Along similar lines, he gently suggests at the end of the Preface to his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics––published in 1783 as a summary of the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, which Kant, unsurprisingly, thought was prone to being "misjudged because it is misunderstood"––that if the reader finds both the daunting Critique and the slimmer Prolegomena too impenetrable, then perhaps the reader is simply not fit for weighty metaphysical investigations, and they are better off "[applying] their talents to other subjects." Basically, if one (and Kant presumably had some of his critics in mind) is too stupid to understand Kant, then one may simply be too stupid for metaphysics. If this is the case, better to, you know, read fairy tales, or join Hume for a game of backgammon.

This has to be one of the finest, most devastatingly genteel "F yous" in the history of philosophy, but Kant should've taken a good long look in the mirror before firing it off. Although some of his obscurity may have been due to the complexity of his subject matter, or even to his smoking habits, much of it was likely the result of Kant's shortcomings as a writer and thinker. Even sages can be sloppy.

It's worthwhile to go in for a closer look. Kant's sloppiness––with or without an admixture of intentional muddling––is on clearest display in the Critique of Pure Reason, which "is the product of nearly twelve years of reflection," but was "completed . . . hastily, in perhaps four or five months, with the greatest attentiveness to its content but less care about its style and ease of comprehension" (Letter to Mendelssohn, August 16, 1783). You can say that again. The first Critique is typically regarded as a "patchwork" of writings from different periods which Kant threw together to create the book, presumably in those four or five months before publication (T. E. Wilkerson, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason: A Commentary for Students, Clarendon Press 1976, p. 47). So, although Kant was clearly capable of writing not just with clarity but with artistry (see, for instance, his letters, or his 1784 essay "Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?"), the entire Critique and several of its sections are distressingly disorganized; he will frequently contradict himself or come very close to doing so; his use of terms such as "intuition," "substance," and "representation" will be inconsistent; and he will needlessly repeat himself.

The pungent scent of the ad hoc is also present throughout. The categories Kant derives from his "table of judgments" are so contrived that some scholars (eg, H. J. de Vleeschauwer) posit that he came up with the categories first and then produced his list of judgments, rather than actually deriving the categories from the judgments. Wilkerson, to give another example, suspects that Kant regarded geometry as the mathematics of space and arithmetic as the mathematics of time out of "a misguided passion for a systematic presentation of the Critical philosophy" (p. 68), especially because the latter idea is highly dubious.

To be fair, all of the Critiques––particularly the first, least readable one––would likely have been better written if Kant hadn't started working on them relatively late in life. Kant had a "delicate constitution" and was presumably aware that medicine was something of a crapshoot in his time (a quote attributed to Voltaire [1694–1778] runs, "Doctors are men who prescribe medicines of which they know little, to cure diseases of which they know less in human beings of whom they know nothing"), so he must have approached the task of completing the Critiques with a strong sense of urgency. Given better health and/or more time, it's plausible he would have made them not lucid, necessarily, but at least more comprehensible.

When all is said and done, though, Kant wrote like an obscurantist in at least one major work and endorsed obscurantist motives, so he can be reasonably charged with obscurantism. 

How does Kant's obscurantism differ from Heraclitus'? Judging from the information available to us, it seems that Heraclitus' obscurantism was more planned, more desired. Sure, Kant suggests that he engaged in deliberate obfuscation, but I wonder whether he did so only after his contemporaries had complained about the impenetrability of his work, as a means of protecting his self-image from such accusations. Indeed, for the most part Kant shows a clear interest in getting his ideas across, even if he frequently stumbles over himself or can't figure out how best to convert the ideas in his head into words on the page. So I also wonder whether it's fair to consider him a full (as opposed to a quasi) obscurantist, particularly if we ask ourselves what the Critiques would have looked like if he didn't see the Grim Reaper peering over his shoulder while writing them. With Heraclitus, at least, we know we're dealing with an obscurantist. As we've seen, he appears to have been more content with letting readers of his or his disciples' writings stumble over themselves, or to let them figure out how to convert words on the page into ideas in their heads. Heraclitus' obscurantism is thus less ambiguous than Kant's, though how much so, and in what other ways the obscurantism of the two might differ, is hard to specify without knowing more about Heraclitus and his mostly missing writings.

The death of Kant drops us off around the year 1800. The rate at which we encounter obscurantists––up to this point, about 1 per 1,000 years of philosophizing (and that's assuming Kant was in fact one)––is about to experience a dramatic increase, and later on I'll speculate as to why. I may not give equal attention to the many candidates who are waiting to be assessed, but I plan to say enough to justify all ascriptions of obscurantism, as the obscurantist label bears negative connotations and so should not be doled out indiscriminately. 

There are three significant 19th-century philosophers who might qualify for the obscurantist label: G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). 

We begin with Hegel, a Swabian idealist who wrote several works notorious for their abstruseness, the crown jewel of which (and only one of two principal works he published in his lifetime) is the Phenomenology of Spirit––a monster of a text that was (eg, by Schopenhauer) and still is derided for being unintelligible to what seems like 99.9% of those who have dared to crack into it. Even Hegel's admirers don't deny his obscurity. Utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer, who (heaven save the mark!) authored the OUP Very Short Introduction to Hegel, writes:

That Hegel does present a challenge is undeniable. Commentaries on Hegel are studded with references to the 'Himalayan severity' of his prose, to his 'repulsive terminology', and to the 'extreme obscurity' of his thought. To illustrate the nature of the problem, I have just now picked up my copy of what many consider to be his greatest work, The Phenomenology of Mind, and opened it at random. The first complete sentence on the page on which it opened (p. 596) reads: 'It is merely the restless shifting change of those moments, of which one is indeed being-returned-into-itself, but merely as being-for-itself, i.e. as abstract moment, appearing on one side over against the others.' Admittedly, I have wrenched the sentence from its context; even so, it indicates some of the difficulties one has in making sense of Hegel. Equally formidable sentences can be found on every one of the Phenomenology's 750 pages.

Another example is provided by philosopher and translator Walter Kaufmann, who, in criticizing Karl Popper's scathing treatment of Hegel in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945; see p. 230–231 of the PDF for some choice words on Hegel's prose), admits that an "obscure style" is one of Hegel's "grievous faults," and that it "may have evened the way for later obscurantism."

So Hegel was obscure, but was he an obscurantist? It strains credulity to think that someone could write so unintelligibly and not be one, but there are Hegel scholars who seem to think that his writings really aren't that unintelligible, that if one takes the time to master Hegel's terminology and understand his historical context, his meaning will shine through in even his densest passages. In Reading Hegel's Phenomenology, for instance, John Russon remarks:

The first time I read Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, I did not understand the text; in a way, this now seems to me odd, since it now seems quite clear to me. Indeed, when students come to me with troubles, I sometimes have to fight the urge to say, "But can't you see? The text lays this out very straightforwardly: it is self-explanatory"; this, of course, is not how they experience the text, just as it was not how I first experienced the text. When I first approached this text, it was simply words on paper that did not communicate to me something understandable; it was, to continue my earlier language, an alien set up in front of me. Now it was written so as to be understood––indeed, one might say that it is trying to be understood––and I was trying to understand it, but both my efforts and the text's efforts were not sufficient, singly or in conjunction, to produce immediately the experience of understanding. I approached it, however, with the assumption that it would make sense, and eventually, through study, it did. (Indiana University Press 2004, p. 180)

I don't doubt Russon's sincerity, but the substance of what he conveys here is belied by comments he makes elsewhere. In his endnotes, for example, he'll say that he disagrees with the interpretation of certain sections of the Phenomenology offered by this or that Hegel scholar. But how can there be room for not just a few, but many conflicting interpretations if the Phenomenology were "self-explanatory" and "written so as to be understood?" If it were truly either of these things, it presumably wouldn't lend itself to multiple, sometimes radically divergent interpretations. Nor, more importantly, would we find either Hegel's contemporaries or modern-day Hegel scholars saying that his prose was one of his "grievous faults," or that it had a "Himalayan severity." Kaufmann in particular was not just any old Hegel scholar: he was a native German who would become one of the 20th century's greatest translators of German philosophical literature. If he found Hegel obscure, then Russon's claim that the Phenomenology is "self-explanatory" must be met with a long and incredulous stare. Even if Hegel's obscurity can be alleviated with years of study, an appreciable amount of obscurity will, it seems, forever remain.

I conclude that Hegel has earned the obscurantist label, but I'm open to the idea that he hasn't. 

We proceed to Kierkegaard, a fierce critic of Hegel, a champion of subjectivity, an unbelievably prolific author, and one of the quirkiest but most scintillating philosophers of modernity. Often thought of as the father of existentialism, the Danish master of pseudonyms was, in today's lingo, a troll. There is a delightful anecdote in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript (CUP; 1846) that conveys his basic modus operandi. The author of CUP is technically the character "Johannes Climacus," but Kierkegaard is listed as the editor (an unusual occurrence in his pseudonymous works), and the anecdote may very well reflect real-life events.

It is now about four years since I got the notion of wanting to try my hand as an author. I remember it quite clearly. It was on a Sunday, yes, that's right, it was a Sunday afternoon. I was sitting as usual outside at the café in Frederiksberg Garden . . . I sat there and smoked my cigar until I fell into a reverie. Among others I recall these thoughts. You are getting on, I said to myself, and are becoming an old man without being anything, and without really taking on anything. Wherever you look about you on the other hand, in literature or in life, you see the names and figures of the celebrities, the prized and acclaimed making their appearances or being talked about, the many benefactors of the age who know how to do favours to mankind by making life more and more easy . . . I smoked again, and then suddenly this thought flashed through my mind: You must do something, but since with your limited abilities it will be impossible to make anything easier than it has become, you must, with the same humanitarian enthusiasm as the others, take it upon yourself to make something more difficult. This notion pleased me immensely . . . Out of love for humankind, and from despair over my embarrassing situation, having accomplished nothing, and being unable to make anything easier than it had already been made, and out of a genuine interest in those who make everything easy, I conceived it as my task everywhere to create difficulties. (pp. 155–157 of CUP)

Kierkegaard's writings––particularly his pseudonymous works––are indeed difficult, but judging from the ones I've either read or read about, they aren't the products of obscurantist impulses. Or, if they are difficult to an obscurantist level, it is only in point of form, not content. Kierkegaard is eminently readable, and indeed is a great pleasure to read. On a paragraph-by-paragraph basis, he is thus––except on rare occasions (eg, the opening pages of The Sickness Unto Death)––no obscurantist. What bears more of an obscurantist aspect in the Dane is his method of "indirect discourse" and the bevy of pseudonymous characters through which he enacts it. Throw in his prodigious wit, his use of irony, humor, and parody, and his playful but sometimes exhausting verbosity, and you may end up with a reader who can't figure out what exactly they're supposed to take away from the pseudonymous writings. And this is how Kierkegaard would have it. His cheekiness is self-aware. He was quite explicit about why he wrote the way he did (see the most recent link), and, in light of his central themes, beliefs, and objectives, his unorthodox methods seem amply justified. Given this, along with the fact that his prose itself generally isn't hard to follow, I can't bring myself to call the father of existentialism a true obscurantist. 

Neither do I consider Nietzsche one. The only reason I include the German Dionysus as a candidate is that, although he writes in The Gay Science 173 that "[he] who knows that he is profound strives for clearness; he who would like to appear profound to the multitude strives for obscurity," he will also say things like this:

The Question of Intelligibility.—One not only wants to be understood when one writes, but also—quite as certainly—not to be understood. It is by no means an objection to a book when someone finds it unintelligible: perhaps this might just have been the intention of its author,—perhaps he did not want to be understood by "anyone." A distinguished intellect and taste, when it wants to communicate its thoughts, always selects its hearers; by selecting them, it at the same time closes its barriers against "the others." It is there that all the more refined laws of style have their origin: they at the same time keep off, they create distance, they prevent "access" (intelligibility, as we have said,)—while they open the ears of those who are acoustically related to them. (The Gay Science 381)

But this is more bark than bite. I've read most of Nietzsche's oeuvre and don't recall having to regularly struggle through it. Nietzsche unquestionably presents a number of exegetical problems to scholars, but up-close his writing is far from "unintelligible," even if from a bird's-eye view his objectives are sometimes murky. Not even The Antichrist and Ecce Homo, which contain harbingers of the mental breakdown that would soon leave him permanently incapacitated, are particularly tough reads. He's not only an excellent writer: he's extremely blunt. If, for instance, he brings up someone or something he doesn't like (eg, Christianity, basically everyone but Caesar, Napoleon, Goethe, Emerson, and Stendhal), he will make it quite clear that the thing or person in question does not––to borrow the phraseology of Marie Kondo––spark joy for him. The only time I felt I had to repeatedly speculate about his meaning was in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, but Zarathustra is a work of fiction––an extended parable, more or less. Whatever it is, it isn't a standard philosophical treatise, so Nietzsche can't be declared an obscurantist on the basis of it alone.

Contemporary Philosophy

Advancing into the 20th century, we are greeted by the next group of candidates, all three of whom also wrote in German. I would get right into them if there were not such a large elephant in the room, namely, German itself. Is there something about the German language that fosters obscurantism? We've examined six philosophers so far, three of whom wrote in German, and we've got three more coming who did the same. The German-speakers are, as it were, the life of our little obscurantist house party. Why the overrepresentation?

I don't speak a lick of German, so I can't answer from personal experience. But Hegel, in a blessedly lucid passage of the Science of Logic, seems to furnish at least a partial explanation:

It is to the advantage of a language when it possesses a wealth of logical expressions, that is, distinctive expressions specifically set aside for thought determinations . . . Much more important is that in a language the categories should be expressed as substantives and verbs, and thus be stamped into objective form. In this respect, the German language has many advantages over other modern languages, for many of its words also have the further peculiarity of carrying not just different meanings, but opposite ones, and in this one cannot fail to recognize the language's speculative spirit. (21.11)

It's no shock that Hegel, with his dialectical propensities, would delight in the inherent ambiguity of his mother tongue. But I don't know how much truth there is to what he says. 

Any other possible connections between obscurantism and the German language? Apparently the typical German sentence tends to be relatively long, but as Matthias Brinkmann notes while considering some of Kant's longest sentences (438 words takes the cake!), this need not detract from the clarity of what's being said. Mark Twain lodges a number of complaints against German in his humorous "The Awful German Language," but I don't see why any of them should imply that German is uniquely fertile soil for obscurantist farming. Insights on this matter from those proficient in German would be much appreciated.

Our first 20th-century philosopher is the bespectacled (at least in some photos) Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), fountainhead of contemporary phenomenology and teacher of such illustrious figures as St. Edith Stein, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Martin Heidegger (who's next in line). I remember cracking into Husserl for the first time around 2014 and having distressingly little success in understanding him. Husserl is difficult to read for at least two ostensibly non-obscurantist reasons. First, his prose is, shall we say, less than voluptuous. In keeping with his initial training as a mathematician, he writes with a scholastic austerity that typically allows him to get his point across, but does not conduce to a cozy reading experience. He has his pleasant moments (eg, any time he uses extended illustrations, such as the blossoming apple tree or the Dresden Picture Gallery in Ideas I §88 and §100–101, respectively) as well as his painful ones (eg, Section Three of The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness, the lengthy Fifth Meditation of the Cartesian Meditations), but, as a perusal through the texts I've linked to will show, most of his writing is simply bland.

The second reason for Husserl's difficulty is his use of a dizzying number of technical terms and neologisms. I'm no authority on Husserl, but his penchant for neologizing seems to me to border on the pathological, as if Adam had gotten a tad too excited when God let him name the animals. Heidegger suffers from a similar condition, as we'll see, so perhaps it's contagious. 

Whatever the case, one can find Husserl dictionaries that are chock-full of such muscular terms as "analogizing apperception," "eidetic intuition," "hyletic data," "noema," "polythetical acts," and "introjection." In all fairness, Husserl was interested in ultimate philosophical matters, such as the nature of the self and the structure of experience, and he was a system-builder to boot with a strong understanding of the Western philosophical tradition. Thus, it's not unreasonable that he employed a new vocabulary, especially one with as many ancient Greek and modern European precedents as his possesses. 

Still, one suspects he took things too far. For example, when discussing the process of "bracketing" (epoché), or setting aside various features of our "natural attitude" toward the world to discover the fundamental structure of experience, he will, across the course of his writings, speak of and/or distinguish between the "philosophical reduction," the "eidetic reduction," the "epistemological reduction," the "reduction to the sphere of ownness," the "phenomenological reduction," the "transcendental reduction," the "psychological reduction," the "universal reduction," the "phenomenological-psychological reduction," the "transcendental-phenomenological reduction," the "positivistic reduction," and the "primordial" or "primordinal reduction," as well as related concepts such as "neutrality modification" and different ways of doing the reduction such as the Cartesian, through the natural sciences, through ontology, through psychology, or through the "life-world" (i.e., the world of everyday experience). We are engaging in the below-the-belt tactic of ripping these terms from their native contexts and lining them up elbow-to-elbow just to create a spectacle, but this doesn't free Husserl from the charge of linguistic promiscuity, especially because he has been accused of employing technical terms laxly and, at times, without adequately developing them. 

However, I'm not aware of any good evidence that Husserl intentionally bloated his terminology to make his transcendental phenomenology more obscure. If I were to speculate, the mathematician within him wouldn't allow such a thing, even while it was nudging him towards a dull, uninspiring writing style. 

Whether or not the speculation holds water, Husserl's obscurity generally doesn't seem to rise to the obscurantist level, and when it does, there are plausible non-obscurantist explanations for why. Ergo, I don't think he's an obscurantist.

The case for Martin Heidegger's (1889–1976) obscurantism is more compelling, but let's put on our detective hats and investigate. 

Heidegger's Being and Time (1927)––his chef-d'oeuvre––made a huge splash when it was first published, and would end up being one of the most influential philosophy texts of the 20th century. Its difficulty is legendary. And this even though it was originally planned to have two parts, only the first two-thirds of the first part of which were ever published. To give some idea of the challenges it poses to readers, here's a representative passage:

Anxiety is not only anxiety in the face of something, but as a state-of-mind, it is also anxiety about something. That which anxiety is profoundly anxious about is not a definite kind of Being for Dasein or a definite possibility for it. Indeed the threat itself is indefinite, and therefore cannot penetrate threateningly to this or that factically concrete potentiality-for-Being. That which anxiety is anxious about is Being-in-the-world itself. In anxiety what is environmentally ready-to-hand sinks away, and so, in general, do entities within-the-world . . . Anxiety throws Dasein back upon that which it is anxious about––its authentic potentiality-for-Being-in-the-world. (187)

To those unfamiliar with Heidegger's central project in Being and Time (ie, to uncover the meaning of Being, or that which makes things intelligible, through an analysis of human beings), hyphen-laden passages such as this will be opaque or downright nonsensical. And those who can't make heads or tails of Heidegger––especially if they're taught by professors who consider his writings a vacuous muddle––are not to be blamed. Heidegger commentators such as Hubert Dreyfus will acknowledge that parts of Being and Time are unintelligible even to them (see p. viii of the linked-to text). They will also note the difficulty of translating the behemoth book into English, as Heidegger is zealous to avoid the philosophically loaded terms of his predecessors (eg, "mind," "subject"), and so, as mentioned above, he follows Husserl in creating his own distinct vocabulary. (Yes, there are Heidegger dictionaries as well.) Even worse, he loves to pick philosophical terms apart, showing how their etymology reveals their true meaning. For example, he notes that aletheia, the Greek word for truth, is literally the unhiddenness of things, or things showing themselves (a- = negative prefix; letheia = hidden, forgotten), which is more primitive than the standard definition of truth as "correspondence to reality" (see B&T 219–220). Nor is he afraid to engage in a bit of Kierkegaardian word play, being, as a matter of fact, a diligent student of the great Dane.

But for all these barriers to comprehension, I've come to believe that Being and Time is, with sufficient preparatory labor, generally understandable. And this is something I cannot say of a text like Hegel's Phenomenology or other contemporary works we'll encounter in a bit. If one reads, say, Dreyfus' commentary, with or without a second commentary such as Michael Gelven's, and has a good Heidegger dictionary on hand (I've acquired and benefited from this one), and reads something like William Barrett's What Is Existentialism? to build enthusiasm for reading Heidegger, and takes time to familiarize themselves with some of Heidegger's many philosophical influences (eg, Aristotle, St. Augustine, the Scholastics, Luther, Kierkegaard, Kant, Dilthey, American pragmatism, Husserl), then I dare say they will not just understand much of Being and Time (and perhaps Heidegger's later works as well), but will appreciate and enjoy it. As Dreyfus observes:

Most of those who read Heidegger in German or English are at first put off by his strange new language, but after passing through a stage of trying to put what he says into more familiar terms, they come to feel that Heidegger's vocabulary is rigorous, illuminating, and even indispensable for talking about the phenomenon he wants to reveal. (p. xiii)

So I understand where those who, after trying and failing (as I have) to read Being and Time, label Heidegger an obscurantist are coming from, but I would contest their conclusion, and ask them to give a man whom some consider the greatest contemporary European philosopher a second chance. Heidegger's anti-Semitic remarks and association with Nazism have rightfully tarnished his reputation, particularly since the recent publication of some of his notebooks, but Being and Time cannot but be seen as a magisterial work that is unmatched in its profundity by anything else either Heidegger himself or most of his contemporaries produced. It is no doubt a challenging work, but arguably not an obscurantist one.

Shifting from the continental to the analytic side of things, our next philosopher is the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), whom we briefly encountered at the beginning of this post. Wittgenstein and I happen to go way back. His Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus––which runs less than 100 pages in length, and was the only philosophical text he published in his lifetime––was the first philosophy book I read on my own. One of my high school professors had made an offhand remark in class about how Wittgenstein was quite an intelligent fellow, and my interest in philosophy was beginning to grow around the time. So, in what has to be one of the worst decisions a philosophy neophyte has ever made, I decided to commence my personal studies with the Tractatus, since I had been assured that its author was smart, and I thought the title of the work sounded pretty cool. Bless my poor little teenage heart––I read the book cover to cover and understood none of it. None. I processed the words of the text but they didn't correspond to any ideas. I may as well have been reading Lorem ipsum, or the Voynich manuscript. I think the experience even temporarily squashed my budding attraction to philosophy, as I don't recall picking up another philosophy book for a few months afterwards.

The Tractatus is a poor place to start one's philosophical journey for several reasons, one of the principal ones being that to someone who doesn't know what the early (as opposed to the later) Wittgenstein is all about, the work is bound to be indecipherable. The Wittgenstein of the Tractatus does not beat around the bush. After a one-page preface, he jumps right into his hierarchically ordered theses. There is little argumentation, per se, just logically connected claims with the occasional example or clarification. It is, in my opinion, one of the driest texts in the history of Western philosophy; much more exciting is the later Wittgenstein's posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, which has a stream-of-consciousness feel and––to continue with the theme of record-setting––harbors more rhetorical questions than any other book I know.

Now, is the Tractatus indecipherable not just to the philosophically uninitiated, but to experts as well? Sir Anthony Kenny suggests as much when he writes:

The twenty thousand words of the Tractatus can be read in an afternoon, but few would claim to understand them thoroughly even after years of study . . . [it] is austerely beautiful, but uncommonly difficult to comprehend. (Wittgenstein, Blackwell 2006, p. 3)

Alright then: the Tractatus is obscure. But obscurantist? I suspect that few Wittgenstein scholars would say so, for multiple reasons. First, let's zoom out and consider Wittgenstein's reception among the analytic luminaries of his day. He impressed and befriended Bertrand Russell, who wrote a mostly sympathetic introduction to the first English edition of the Tractatus, published in 1922; the Vienna Circle, in which logical positivism received its most rigorous elaboration, imbibed the teachings of the Tractatus and apparently worked through the text line by line over the course of several months; and Elizabeth Anscombe––known for her revival of virtue ethics, her work on causation, her staunch Catholicism, her criticism of C.S. Lewis' argument against naturalism in Miracles, and her marriage to fellow philosopher Peter Geach––was also his friend, in addition to being a committed student of his, a translator and expositor of his work, and ultimately one of his literary executors. It seems unlikely that such hard-headed thinkers would've been attracted not just to Wittgenstein's work, but to the man himself if they thought he routinely engaged in obscurantism, particularly in the one and only philosophy book he published while alive.

Second, he practiced what he preached. And throughout his adult life, he preached that philosophy was a purely descriptive activity, one whose central purpose was to clarify our thoughts and ordinary language practices. "Philosophy simply puts everything before us," he writes in Philosophical Investigations 126, "and neither explains nor deduces anything.––Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain." In being reminded of the obvious, we realize that what passes for traditional philosophy is either tautologous, in which case it "say[s] nothing" (Tractatus 6.11), or simply nonsensical. Am I free? Is Beauty a form of the Good? Does God exist? Is life worth living? For the early Wittgenstein, there is nothing in the world to which these questions might refer (Tractatus 6.53); for the later Wittgenstein, they utilize words outside of their proper language-games, their "original home[s]" (Philosophical Investigations 116). For both Wittgensteins, the questions are gibberish. The central problems of philosophy are solved by being dissolved. And not even Wittgenstein's own philosophical writings are to be spared from the linguistic acid bath: they too are nonsense. Once the reader has grasped what Wittgenstein wishes to show, they can discard his propositions like one who throws away a ladder after climbing it (Tractatus 6.54).

One of the reasons the Tractatus is so hard to read is that it seems to embody these core beliefs more than any of Wittgenstein's other works. The early Wittgenstein doesn't need frills or furbelows because what he says is self-evident. If the reader doesn't see what is shown, they will continue to busy themselves with illusory topics such as God, the soul, and the Good. No major philosopher these days considers the project of the Tractatus a success, but its form can hardly be accused of failing to match its content. If it's too obscure for us, then perhaps we're just not ready to kick the ladder away.

Third, it's plausible that the Tractatus and everything else Wittgenstein wrote are difficult not because Wittgenstein wanted them to be, but because they are reflections of the man himself. Wittgenstein is one of the most eccentric personalities in the history of philosophy, which––in a world inhabited by Diogenes, Socrates, Bentham, Kant, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, McTaggart, Feyerabend, and Morgenbesser, among many others––is quite an achievement. This is a man who: walked away from academia for 10 years after the publication of the Tractatus because he truly believed that, with a single 20,000-word volume, he had solved all of the problems that had baffled more than two millennia of the world's greatest minds before him; knew he was one of the most impactful and well-respected philosophers of his generation but constantly had doubts about his vocation, drifting in and out of Cambridge and being at different times an engineer, a soldier, a hospital porter, a rural school teacher, and an architect (might he be the most influential "part-time" philosopher of all time?); was reputed to have beaten his students while a school teacher and to have told patients not to take their prescribed drugs while a hospital porter; would give his lectures at Cambridge without notes, and with prolonged silences and lively questioning of his audience, in a Trinity College sitting-room in which he would place about 20 cane-bottomed chairs; and rebuked his friends for such actions as letting a potted plant die, or conveying a dislike of powdered eggs.

So I will be forgiven for maintaining that Wittgenstein was an obscurantist neither in the Tractatus nor elsewhere. Considered in isolation, the above reasons are perhaps insufficient to rebut all accusations of obscurantism, but together, I believe they can get the job done.

We are approaching the present, so only a few philosophers remain to be examined, the majority of whom are French. Actually, "examined" is too strong. There is considerable agreement that the philosophers we're about to discuss are obscurantists to some degree or other. Each has their defenders, to be sure, but there has to be something fishy about a philosopher's prose if their reputation for obscurity is entrenched and widespread.

Before we embark on any fishing expeditions, though, there is one fellow I want to discuss––a man whom I personally have struggled with. This is the Frenchman Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980), whose meandering Being and Nothingness presents his own brand of phenomenology in contradistinction to Heidegger's (one can see the influence of Heidegger in the title of the work) and Husserl's. But we need not dwell on Sartre. He's not a bad writer at all. He even won, but declined, the Nobel Prize in Literature. And Being and Nothingness has a number of memorable passages, such as the sections on bad faith in Part 1 and the discussions of love and related topics in Part 3. Where Sartre is obscure or inconsistent in this or other works, it can usually be chalked up to non-obscurantist reasons. One of these is that he wasn't the most careful of thinkers, as commentators (eg, Paul Spade, Christopher Macann) are wont to point out. Another is that, like Kierkegaard, he was basically born with a pen in hand. Philosophical treatises weren't the only thing he wrote: he also produced novels (eg, Nausea), plays (eg, No Exit), biographies, and essays. He even wrote an autobiography with the remarkably apt title of The Words. "One does wish that Sartre would pause for a while and regroup his forces," William Barrett muses in Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. "The man really writes too much" (p. 252 of the 1962 Anchor Books edition). Spot on. His argumentation in Being and Nothingness probably suffered as a result of him wanting to wrap up the book as soon as possible so that he could move on to his next project. Passages of the text that are deliberately obscure may just reflect Sartre's unwillingness to think through them more circumspectly. Regardless, such passages don't seem to occur frequently enough to earn Sartre the obscurantist label, especially when we consider the lucidity and eloquence of his other writings.

With that, we arrive at the top of the obscurantist mountain. Or is it the bottom of the obscurantist sea? The answer itself is obscure. Good! These are the cream of the obscurantist crop we're about to encounter; best to put ourselves in the proper mindset before standing in their midst.

We begin with Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), chief architect of deconstruction, and one of the most controversial figures in contemporary philosophy. This is a man whose prose was so cryptic that the title of his New York Times obituary refers to him as an "abstruse theorist." A random sampling of his work will show the logic behind the appellation. From Of Grammatology, one of three books published in 1967 that would thrust him into the limelight, we have:

If the trace, arche-phenomenon of "memory," which must be thought before the opposition of nature and culture, animality and humanity, etc., belongs to the very movement of signification, then signification is a priori written, whether inscribed or not, in one form or another, in a "sensible" and "spatial" element that is called "exterior." Arche-writing, at first the possibility of the spoken word, then of the "graphie" in the narrow sense, the birthplace of "usurpation," denounced from Plato to Saussure, this trace is the opening of the first exteriority in general, the enigmatic relationship of the living to its other and of an inside to an outside: spacing. The outside, "spatial" and "objective" exteriority which we believe we know as the most familiar thing in the world, as familiarity itself, would not appear without the grammè, without differance [sic] as temporalization, without the nonpresence of the other inscribed within the sense of the present, without the relationship with death as the concrete structure of the living present. (pp. 70–71)

From an interview on 9/11:

Giovanna Borradori: September 11 [le 11 septembre] gave us the impression of being a major event, one of the most important historical events we will witness in our lifetime, especially for those of us who never lived through a world war. Do you agree?

Jacques Derrida: Le 11 septembre, as you say, or, since we have agreed to speak two languages, "September 11." We will have to return later to this question of language. As well as to this act of naming: a date and nothing more. When you say "September 11" you are already citing, are you not? You are inviting me to speak here by recalling, as if in quotation marks, a date or a dating that has taken over our public space and our private lives for five weeks now. Something fait date, I would say in a French idiom, something marks a date, a date in history; that is always what's most striking, the very impact of what is at least felt, in an apparently immediate way, to be an event that truly marks, that truly makes its mark, a singular and, as they say here, "unprecedented" event. [emphasis in the original]

From Specters of Marx:

What does not happen in this anachrony! Perhaps "the time," time itself, precisely, always "our time," the epoch and the world shared among us, ours every day, nowadays, the present as our present. Especially when "things are not going well" among us, precisely [justement]: when "things are going badly," when it's not working, when things are bad. But with the other, is not this disjuncture, this dis-adjustment of the "it's going badly" necessary for the good, or at least the just, to be announced? Is not disjuncture the very possibility of the other? How to distinguish between two disadjustments, between the disjuncture of the unjust and the one that opens up the infinite asymmetry of the relation to the other, that is to say, the place for justice? [brackets and emphasis in the original; p. 26]

Reading some of his letters to friends isn't any less of a slog:

Athens, 18–21 December 1997

. . . saw all the friends from "Demeure . . " once again, those you talk about in your chapter on "The Greek Delay." You know them now. Still in the same hotel, on the Lycabette. Didn't sleep last night: the Acropolis, visible from the balcony, illuminated through the mist until sunrise, I loved . . . I also love "through," the word "through" [à travers]. What if one were to perform the shibboleth of this viaticum? Just about untranslatable, like the subtle difference between à travers and au travers de, or de travers [side-ways, crooked], like the nouns le travers [foible] and la traversée [crossing] (by sea rather than by air or land, except for crossing the desert, and the desert within the desert was referred to on an island, Capri, during the first of two trips there). The crossing is the figure for every voyage: between the trance or transport, and overdoing it, the extravagance [outrance] that crosses the frontier. But if one traverses (traveling, crossing, or going through the Latin memory of) this word, one finds in it, besides the idea of a limit being crossed, that of a deviation [détournement], the oblique version of a detour. It says, in a word, everything about my crosstruths. My little truths, if there are any, are neither "in my life" nor "in my texts," but through what traverses them, in the course of a traverse that, right at the last moment, diverts their encrypted references, their sidelong wave, down a counterpath [le salut en contre-allée] . . . [brackets and emphasis in the original; letter to Catherine Malabou, in Counterpath: Traveling with Jacques Derrida, tr. David Wills, Stanford University Press 2004, p. 259]

A few observations will help us find our bearings after taking in this vertiginous prose. First, Derrida isn't talking total gobbledygook. He doesn't read like Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky," graffiti on the wall of an abandoned warehouse, or a word search puzzle. If we don't pay too much heed to his verbal fireworks, focusing instead on whatever messages he's (presumably) trying to get across, we can often make out at least the beginnings of a thought or two.

Second, one will frequently hear Derrida's defenders saying he didn't actually say [insert patently absurd claim]. Here, for example, Peter Benson tells us that Derrida didn't hold that "sentences can be taken to mean whatever we want." But in an interview with Henri Ronse, Derrida says that "it is necessary in such a space [ie, the conceptual space in which he tries to write] . . . that writing literally mean nothing," which comes dangerously close to the claim that sentences (his sentences, at least) can be taken to mean whatever we want (Positions, tr. Alan Bass, University of Chicago Press 1981, p. 14). Of course, the Derrida apologist might admit that yes, Derrida did say such a thing here or similar things elsewhere, but they will add an emphatic "but" clause such as: "but elsewhere he clarifies that . . . ," or "but if you keep reading you'll find that . . . ," or "but what he really means is . . ." The fact remains, though, that the guy said some truly kooky stuff, "[there] is nothing outside of the text [there is no outside-text . . .]" being another one of his most infamous pronouncements (see p. 158 of Of Grammatology; brackets in the original).

Third, and finally, Derrida was like Wittgenstein in that with his prose, he put his money where his mouth was. In Derrida's deconstructionist world, "the authority of the text is provisional . . . contradicting logic, we must learn to use and erase our language at the same time" (p. xviii of the Translator's Preface to Of Grammatology). Words are semantically open: their "definitive" meaning is always deferred. They have lost their logocentricity and cannot be naively thought to refer to some transcendental realm of Platonic Forms or Augustinian ideas in the mind of God. And yet, we cannot philosophize without them; philosophers are, in a sense, forced to play a broken instrument. But they can do so without "subscribing to [the] premises" of language (ibid.), and all of Derrida's ambiguity, logorrhea, divagation, neologizing, bantering, qualifying, haphazard reading of past philosophers, and perhaps even outright inconsistency can be seen as so many ways of doing just this.

What emerges from these considerations is a picture of a complex thinker who, in my opinion, deserves our attention, but only long enough to see if he has anything of lasting interest to say. Whether or not he does, Derrida is an obscurantist to the core. He knew what he was doing with his writings, and he did it anyway. That he put his theory into practice in his prose is not exculpating, as it was with Wittgenstein, because Wittgenstein's prose seems like something out of Locke or J.S. Mill by comparison. Even his colleague Michel Foucault said that Derrida practiced a "terrorism of obscurantism" which allowed him to gracefully evade all criticism of his work. He could be the greatest philosopher of our time, or one of the worst; I can't make enough sense of his writing to know. But an "abstruse theorist" he is indeed.

I'm starting to feel a bit logorrheic myself in this historical investigation, so I'll switch to a bullet point format for the remaining philosophers.

  • Michel Foucault (1926–1984), who admitted (as the above article documents) that he engaged in obscurantism for the simple reason that that's what was expected of 20th-century French intellectuals like him. ("In France, you gotta have ten percent incomprehensible, otherwise people won't think it's deep . . .") However, Foucault is leagues more readable than Derrida.
  • Jacques Lacan (1901–1981), a psychoanalyst whose impenetrable Écrits ("writings") is laced with such sublime claims as:

It is thus that the erectile organ––not as itself, or even as an image, but as a part that is missing in the desired image––comes to symbolize the place of jouissance; this is why the erectile organ can be equated with the √–1, the symbol of the signification produced above, or the jouissance it restores––by the coefficient of its statement––to the function of a missing signifier: (–1). (Écrits 822)

Lacanian psychoanalyst Bruce Fink even says of Lacan––whom Noam Chomsky referred to as a "total charlatan"––that his "explicitly announced goal . . . is to put the reader to work . . . [but this] goal does not necessarily excuse all the obscurantism that Lacan indulges in" (Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely, University of Minnesota Press 2004, p. 130).

  • Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995), with or without his frequent co-author Félix Guattari (1930–1992), who, echoing Derrida, wrote that "[writing] has nothing to do with signifying. It has to do with surveying, mapping, even realms that are yet to come" (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, pp. 4–5). According to one author (in one of the more conspicuously titled articles I've seen):

Deleuze and Guattari's deliberate obscurantism and typically postmodern suspicion of rhetorical clarity renders their theory resistant to straightforward explanation . . . if [the notion of "becoming-animal"] lacks stable, linear meaning, this lack is precisely one of its defining characteristics and serves to underline Deleuze and Guattari's general distrust of semantic stability and transparency. (p. 6)

  • Judith Butler (1956–), who constitutes a number of "firsts" for us: our first living philosopher, our first distaff one, and our first American. Martha Nussbaum describes her prose as a "thick soup" that is "ponderous and obscure," and Kathleen Stock says––presumably with reference to Butler, whom she discusses immediately above this passage in her article––that "[new] academics quickly learn the basic rules of the academic feminist language game and then run with it, taking it further and further into unintelligible technical language . . ." 

Two other living philosophers who may pass for obscurantists are Slavoj Žižek (one of few celebrity philosophers of our time) and Gayatri Spivak (author of the Translator's Preface to the edition of Of Grammatology I linked to earlier, and a commanding thinker in her own right).

On that perfunctory note, our history of obscurantism in Western philosophy comes to an end. Summing up: we found one obscurantist (Heraclitus) among the ancients, none among the medievals, a couple (Kant and Hegel) among the moderns, and a handful among the contemporaries. 

The aforementioned imbalance between the number of obscurantists in the ancient/medieval camp and in the modern/contemporary camp is obvious. What causes might help explain the imbalance, particularly the spike in obscurantism in the past century? I don't mean: what arguments can be given in defense of obscurantism? That's for the next section. Here I'm inquiring into large-scale causes, not specific reasons, and I can think of three causes for the relatively recent uptick in obscurantism––one trivial, one philosophical, and one sociological. (There may be linguistic causes as well, but I've already touched on German, and I don't see any reason to speculate about French.)

The trivial cause is that some obscurantists may be genuinely awful writers. I call this trivial because it strikes me as simplistic and probably of minimal explanatory value. Kant appears to be the only obscurantist to which it might apply, and even then, Kant––as I briefly mentioned earlier––could write well when he had the time and motivation to do so. Everyone else on the obscurantist list (with the exception of Heraclitus, whose writings are mostly lost) demonstrates somewhere in their corpus that they weren't compelled by a dearth of literary ability to write as they did.

The philosophical cause has to do with a divergence in outlook between the ancients/medievals and the moderns/contemporaries. Without blotting out individual differences between the many philosophers and schools of philosophy of these epochs (the ancient Cynics would feel very ill at ease alongside the Scotists, for example), we can observe that in general, the ancients and medievals operated under the assumption that there was an inherent intelligibility to the world––a Logos, a Truth––that can be grasped by human reason. Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus, says Aquinas (Summa Theologica Question 16, Article 1)––truth (lowercase T) is agreement of thing and intellect. This couldn't be so if the intellect weren't fundamentally oriented to the thing, if the thing were totally alien. We desire not just truths but capital T Truth as well, as Aristotle famously suggests in the opening line of the Metaphysics. And language is one of our primary means of comprehending Truth and sharing it with one another. Thus, in the ancient and medieval frame of mind, we are adequated to grasp Truth; we want to grasp Truth; and language is among the best ways we can obtain and share Truth. No wonder obscurantism is so rare back then: their philosophical climate was utterly hostile to it.

Then along comes Descartes, with his method of doubt; Hume, with his radical skepticism; Kant, with his inaccessible world of noumena; the abandonment of formal and final causation by the founders of modern science, along with the mathematization and mechanization of the cosmos; the individualism of Protestantism; and eventually the death of God and the soul as well as the linguistic turn in philosophy. Since the inception of modernity, then, we have seen the erosion of capital T Truth. No longer are we adequated to grasp it; no longer do we want to grasp it (for how can we desire that which may not even exist?); and no longer can language link us to it. As Derrida collaborator and well-respected American philosopher John Caputo writes in the Introduction to his More Radical Hermeneutics: On Not Knowing Who We Are:

The claim that circulates throughout this book, which is more of a confession than a claim, is that we are not (as far as I know) born into this world hard-wired to Being Itself, or Truth Itself, or the Good Itself, that we are not vessels of a Divine or World-Historical super-force that has chosen us as its earthly instruments, and that, when we open our mouths, it is we who speak, not something Bigger and Better than we. (Indiana University Press 2000, p. 1)

Of course obscurantism is more likely to thrive in an intellectual environment permeated by such ideas. If, after all, Truth is inaccessible, irrelevant, or nonexistent, then what exactly is there to obscure?

The sociological cause is commonsensical: philosophers tend to ape their influences, teachers, and peers. One will see the names of Kant and Hegel (particularly Hegel) dropped quite frequently in the writings of the contemporary obscurantists, even when they aren't among the main topics of a particular book or essay (eg, as Hegel is in Derrida's Glas). This shows their influence on these thinkers, much as the latter might disagree with them. And, presumably, it's not just their ideas that have been influential, but their writing style as well; it was they who seem to have gotten the obscurantist snowball rolling. "If the great Hegel wasn't afraid of muddying the waters, then why should I be?", the contemporary obscurantist might think before cranking out a 400-page treatise that even the Almighty would struggle to understand. Husserl and Heidegger also hold sway in contemporary obscurantist circles, and while I've argued they aren't obscurantists, their writings are no model of clarity. Finally, recall Foucault's claim about French intellectuals needing to have 10% incomprehensibility in their writings, which was, according to Searle, extended to 20% or higher by Pierre Bourdieu in private conversation. Just as one is more likely to smoke if all of one's friends and acquaintances do, so one is more likely to dabble in obscurantism if that's what's in vogue in one's wing of the ivory tower. Obscurantism has never been fashionable in the analytic wing of the tower (unless one takes issue with my claim that Wittgenstein wasn't an obscurantist), which is just one reason why most contemporary obscurantists are associated with the continental tradition.

Is Obscurantism in Philosophy Justified?

I have resisted the temptation to dismiss any of the philosophers I've labeled obscurantist as frauds, sophists, or worse, partly because I have a Leibnizian desire to learn something from every book I pick up, no matter how bad it may at first seem, and partly because whether this or that philosopher is an obscurantist is separate from whether their obscurantism is justified, understanding justification in a partly moral, partly pragmatic sense. I'll now turn to the second question, the question of justification. I'll proceed by stating and then responding to some of the most common arguments offered in defense of obscurantism by either obscurantists themselves or their acolytes. 

1. Those authors you consider obscurantist wrote difficult texts largely because much of their work is done at the previously mentioned border between the sayable and the unsayable. Extraordinary ideas require extraordinary language, and extraordinary language is bound to seem perplexing, perhaps even nonsensical, from the ordinary perspective. Indeed, the transcendence of ordinary language, with all of its decrepit metaphysical and epistemological baggage, may be a prime objective of these authors, further augmenting the need for extraordinary language.

There is something to be said for such claims, but it's not much. Set aside Foucault's admission that our French obscurantists added nonsense to their writings for the mere sake of being taken seriously; I don't want to place too much stock in a single confession. Who among the greatest philosophers of the West didn't work at the border of the sayable and the unsayable? The ancients and medievals in particular passed much of their intellectual lives there: the ancients because they were the first to philosophize (let us not forget that Aristotle created logic virtually ex nihilo); the medievals because of their admirable dedication to figuring out what it could possibly mean for something to be Self-Subsistent Being Itself, or That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Conceived. Yet we found only one obscurantist among them, and he was rumored to be a quite peculiar fellow. Apart from him, they wrote lucidly, even though much of their prose can be justly described as "extraordinary" by virtue of its intricacy and precision. Thus, they are proof positive that one need not resort to obscurity to do productive work at the sayable/unsayable border.

As for the idea that ordinary language needs to be transcended or somehow abandoned, it isn't clear how to operationalize such a program. If one comes right out and says, "ordinary language is broken and ought to be superseded by something less problematic," either this is an ordinary-language claim, or it is not. If it is, then doesn't it suggest that ordinary language can do its job just fine––that we don't need to resort to some extraordinary language to convey what we want to? If it's not, then its meaning isn't what it appears to be, in which case I don't know what point(s), if any, the speaker is trying to express. Either way, the speaker comes across as confused. 

Even worse, probably the vast majority of readers believe that extraordinary language cannot be understood on its own terms, that it depends on ordinary language to have relevance. Unless one reads an obscurantist philosopher exclusively for the performative aspect of their writing (more on this later), one will constantly be thinking, "what does the author mean when s/he says such-and-such?" In other words, what is the ordinary-language translation of the author's extraordinary language? Commentaries on the most difficult works of philosophy, whether obscurantist or not, almost always strive to express the philosopher's central claims in ordinary language. And for good reason: if they themselves were written in extraordinary language, the reader seeking a greater understanding of the original philosopher's work would be disappointed that the commentary was of no assistance in their quest, and may have even sent them on unwanted detours. The best commentaries are written in ordinary language because ordinary language is the language in which almost all of us, I assume, think and reason, and thus to which all uses of extraordinary language in philosophy must eventually return. If a philosopher wishes to do away with ordinary language, they may as well do away with language in general.

But let's suppose these objections are no good, that they're a little too cute for the serious-minded reader. Another problem is: how to distinguish between extraordinary but ultimately intelligible language, and sheer nonsense? As the Sokal affair memorably showed, the gap between profundity and gibberish is dangerously narrow. Both may be unintelligible at first sight; both may be open to various interpretations; both may be inspiring and thought-provoking. But with gibberish, the unintelligibility will be more persistent; there will be greater flexibility in how the text can be interpreted; and whatever beneficial effects the text has on the reader are likely to reflect the sophistication of the reader's mind more than that of the text itself. I see no way of determining whether a certain piece of writing is merely hard rather than gibberish without closely inspecting it, but it suffices to note that there are very many sincere, intelligent readers (among whom I probably shouldn't include myself) who have found the work of those I've called obscurantist closer to gibberish than merely hard language, even after a careful study of it.

Altogether, then, the defense isn't very convincing. It may justify a bit of obscurantism here and there, but not hundreds of pages of it.

2. Particular texts are obscure only to those unwilling to wrestle with them. You have argued that such obscurantist-seeming works as Heidegger's Being and Time and Wittgenstein's Tractatus are not in fact so. What makes you think the same cannot be true of something like Derrida's Dissemination, or Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia? Do you know enough about these works and their authors to comfortably drop them into the obscurantist bin?

I can appreciate the sentiment here. What gives me, a nondescript layman, the right to call this or that philosopher obscurantist? Is this not like a staff sergeant telling their lieutenant general how to command the troops, or an apprentice plumber critiquing the techniques of their master? Wouldn't I need a much greater fund of knowledge before competently handling the works of Derrida, Deleuze, and other demanding authors?

No, not necessarily. Although I've been choosy about whom I label an obscurantist, none of my opinions are original. It's not going out on a limb to find the likes of Derrida and Deleuze guilty of obscurantism; it's channeling mainstream views. And even if it weren't, I just don't see myself ever making sense of something like Dissemination or Anti-Oedipus.

Is it possible that such texts would be significantly more transparent if I passed a few weeks or months with them, if I really dedicated myself to understanding what their authors have to say? Yes, but mere possibilities come cheap. (It's possible I wake up to find a $100 bill under my pillow, but I'm not banking on it.) Again, countless readers have found the texts of the authors I've deemed obscurantist more or less unreadable no matter how much they wrestle with them. To quote a commenter on this article:

Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and all those guys were one of the main reasons I left grad school. Particularly annoying were the wannabees clinging to this dying trend. I started out taking those readings seriously, wanting to give it my best shot, blaming myself for not understanding. But in the end I didn't get much from my efforts. You can't really say that in class though: you have pretend [sic] to engage with the ideas – whatever they are.

That such a thing could even occur casts serious doubt on the claim that the texts of Derrida and co. aren't really obscurantist material. 

3. One can't pick up someone like Derrida and expect to find discrete arguments and propositions in their work. There may be arguments and propositions there, but they're not an essential part of the philosopher's central projects, which are too fluid, freewheeling, and exploratory to be undertaken through any combination of "clear and distinct" ideas.

I don't see what this has to do with obscurantism. Indeterminacy need not entail impenetrability. One can write clearly without having clear ideas––see Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, for instance, or even St. Augustine at times. It's not their general lack of discrete arguments and propositions that makes Derrida et al. unreadable; it's the density and abstruseness of their prose.

4. What good could come from venerable philosophical ideas falling into what Kant called "bad hands," particularly hands of those too slothful to read and re-read a text that at first seems unreadable? A bit of intentional obfuscation may be necessary to prevent such a thing from happening.

The strategy is neither practical nor commendable. It isn't practical because it's too imprecise. If the philosopher goes out of their way to write obscurely, they risk being understood by no one. Even if they are understood by a select few, the author may find that these few don't match their preconceived notion of the "fit reader." Worse still: the more obscurely one writes, the easier it is for those who are malicious or simply naive to come along and read the text in a way that would make the author wince. Basically, obscurantism is message-in-a-bottle business. Perhaps the message makes it to the (apocryphal) fit reader, but it's much more likely to end up at the bottom of the ocean, on the shore of an uninhabited island, or in the belly of a fish.

The strategy isn't commendable because it's elitist. Suppose a philosopher is rightly convinced that they have hit upon a number of brilliant and valuable ideas. Would we admire them if they cloaked these ideas in a cloud of obscurity in their writings, so that the average man or woman on the streets could never see them? Is this not like a greedy dragon hoarding up treasures in its lair and raining down fire upon practically all those who dare to enter? Does this accomplish anything other than the satisfaction of the philosopher's egotistical desires? Indeed, it seems not just unadmirable, but reprobable. It would be far more commendable if, like the freed prisoner who returns to Plato's cave to rescue his fellow prisoners, or the bodhisattva who defers enlightenment to help save the unenlightened, they were to make their valuable ideas as accessible to both lay and professional readers as possible. The harder this task is, the more the philosopher is to be commended for trying to carry it out. But if they not only fail to try but go in the opposite direction––by making their ideas as inaccessible as possible––they have earned condemnation, not praise. Brand Blanshard had a point when he wrote, in "On Philosophical Style," that "[persistently] obscure writers will usually be found to be defective human beings." (Credit goes to the Maverick Philosopher for the reference.)

5. Impenetrable prose is meant to have a certain shock value. It forces the reader to reconsider how philosophy is done and whether their most cherished beliefs about the proper uses of language might be more suspect than they were otherwise willing to admit.

I imagine that for most readers, impenetrable prose is too frustrating to have shock value. Personally, reading Derrida makes me question my beliefs much less than it makes me wonder why I'm blindly digging for treasure here when I know I'm virtually guaranteed to find it in many other locations. I read philosophy to learn, in the most general terms possible, about myself and the world, and that's tough to do when I can hardly understand what I'm reading.

6. But––and this is the crux of (3)––perhaps your obscurantists don't see philosophy in the same light you do. You see philosophy as the love of wisdom; they may see it as more of an art. Art is performative, and performance grants the performer certain creative liberties, among which is the freedom to write however one pleases. The performance may not be intelligible by common standards, but––as such timeless works as Joyce's Finnegans Wake and Beckett's The Unnamable demonstrate––it may still be riveting and insightful. Or they may think that philosophy is indeed the love of wisdom, but it's the journey that matters just as much as, if not more, than the destination; and they may even doubt that there is a fixed destination. Either way, they may prefer to write texts which are inaccessible to most or even all readers, and they are perfectly entitled to do so.

This is probably the single best defense of obscurantist practices. We wouldn't consider an author obscurantist if we didn't approach them with a preexisting idea of what philosophy is and how it ought to be done. If the boundaries of philosophy aren't so hard and fast as tradition holds them to be, there may very well be considerable overlap between it and other disciplines such as the visual arts or literature. This wouldn't demand the use of obscurantist writing styles in philosophy, but it would justify them, at least provisionally. 

The most compelling response to such a proposal is, it seems, that it's simply absurd. The classical view––to build on what was said at the end of the previous section––is that there is such a thing as capital T Truth (whether or not this is understood theologically), and that philosophy is one of our highest means of discovering it. The postmodern idea that "we are not . . . born into this world hard-wired to . . . Truth Itself," as John Caputo expresses it, is self-defeating because it presupposes an orientation to the very thing it says we aren't oriented to. Without Truth, there are no true or false statements. There clearly are true or false statements, though––Caputo's being just one of them––so there must be Truth, and it is the central task of philosophy to discover it. Philosophy may have a performative side, and the journey to Truth may have its own merits, but it is arriving at Truth that ultimately matters, and that ought to guide the manner in which we philosophize. Hence, if we're committed to Truth, we should steer clear of needlessly obscure writing.

Everyone can decide for themselves whether they fall more on this or on the other side of the debate. Further argumentation is unlikely to resolve any conflict of visions here.

The Future of Obscurantism: Some Noncommittal Thoughts

I'll conclude by reflecting on how much of a presence obscurantism is likely to have in Western philosophy moving forward. I'm no prophet, so take the following with a sizable grain of salt. 

I don't see obscurantism vanishing anytime soon, for a few reasons. First, obscurantism now has strong precedents, which could scarcely be said as recently as a century ago. Second, it can––as illustrated by the French obscurantists of the 20th century––be glamorous. The less understandable you are, the more cultured people may feel for reading (or at least trying to read) you; the more students and defenders you may acquire; and the more time you may have in the spotlight. Third, it grants you invincibility, like a dip in the river Styx. This is Derrida's terrorism of obscurantism: if someone criticizes something you've written, you can always say they have simply misunderstood you. More than that, if they really want to offer a serious criticism, they should read your text more carefully. Give the exact same response if and when they return with additional criticisms. 

So obscurantism will probably have a few takers for as long as philosophy is a thing. And "a few" is a reasonable expectation. Even if it has its distinct advantages, the obscurantist route is risky: one's chances of failure are probably far greater than those of success. It is, if nothing else, safe to be readable. One's philosophical views may get eviscerated, but at least others know what one's views are. Most young, enterprising philosophers are presumably aware that if they write obscurely enough to dodge all criticism, there's a good chance they'll simply be ignored.

Another reason why I don't think obscurantism will ever gain too much steam is that from birth, we are trained to express ourselves clearly in both speech and writing. If a mother accuses her child of stealing a cookie out of the oven, it will not do for the child to reply that mommy has failed to specify the morphogenetic processes that result in the actualization of cookies; down that road lies a trip to the child psychiatrist's office, or maybe just a spanking. And in school we are penalized if we can't write or speak "properly," i.e., clearly. It is only after years of having a drive for clarity hammered into our heads that we might fall under the spell of obscurantism. Because of this, obscurantism doesn't come naturally to us: some of our most primitive social instincts must be overridden for us to practice it. 

I thus venture the underwhelming prediction that obscurantism will remain what it is now: neither prevalent nor totally absent. But we'll see.

This is all in the West, in any case. There doesn't seem to be much discussion of obscurantism in Eastern philosophy, and even if there were, I wouldn't know enough to remark on it.