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Omit Needless Words

 
 
Reply Mon 15 Feb, 2010 12:42 am
Omit Needless Words. I have never forgotten this phrase from Stunk and White's "The Elements of Style."

Let's talk about the writing style of philosophers. Let's talk about the medium as part of the message, the form as content. Personally, I'm suspicious of tomes, fat fat philosophy books. I'm also suspicious of new jargon if the old words are just as good. For instance, Blake is better when he is writing his views in plain English, in his annotations. (His annotations are clear enough for me to treat them as philosophy, yes.)

Anyone have any comments about philosophy and writing style, book length, chapter organization, footnotes, etc.? Or about how this contributes the overall effect?
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jeeprs
 
  1  
Reply Mon 15 Feb, 2010 12:56 am
@Reconstructo,
'Brevity is the soul of wit' goes the old saying, and one which illustrates itself rather beautifully.

Some writers are systematic, and some subjects lend themselves to systematization. But I don't think you would insist that writers ought to be systematic. Some are aphoristic or poetic. Plato is not overtly systematic yet his ideas are very well organised.

On the other hand, look at Spinoza, his text is all constructed as if written by a contractor. A superbly organised mind. But then Wittgenstein and Heiddegger were very aphoristic.

Anyway, hard to generalise. Depends a lot on the topic, the writer and the kind of subject.
0 Replies
 
jgweed
 
  1  
Reply Mon 15 Feb, 2010 11:00 am
@Reconstructo,
A philosopher must necessarily pay attention to his words, since he is attempting to articulate an often new position or concept using older or more common definitions. Most are extremely careful about what they write, and make the attempt to write with as much clarity as the subject permits.
In some respects either the style "is" the philosophy, or at least follows a particular philosophical method. Spinoza, following what seemed to him to be the best method of mathematical deduction, reads like geometry, and with purpose. JS Mill, or Descartes choose a more personal style and diction, as if to say that anyone even untutored in philosophy can make sense of what they are saying. Nietzsche, one of the great prose writers in German, took his writing seriously despite (or because of) his literary style.

To say that all philosophers should be brief seems to be saying at the same time something about knowledge and the way it must reflect the truth. Yet truth, such as it is, seems neither obvious nor simple, but rather a very complex notion that requires the use of many perspectives and many different voices in attempting to reach an understanding. Plainsong or Gregorian chant is one approach to musical vocality, but there are also the full choruses of Handel or Verdi to be cherished for their own visions.
kennethamy
 
  1  
Reply Mon 15 Feb, 2010 11:22 am
@jgweed,
jgweed;128497 wrote:
A philosopher must necessarily pay attention to his words, since he is attempting to articulate an often new position or concept using older or more common definitions. Most are extremely careful about what they write, and make the attempt to write with as much clarity as the subject permits.
In some respects either the style "is" the philosophy, or at least follows a particular philosophical method. Spinoza, following what seemed to him to be the best method of mathematical deduction, reads like geometry, and with purpose. JS Mill, or Descartes choose a more personal style and diction, as if to say that anyone even untutored in philosophy can make sense of what they are saying. Nietzsche, one of the great prose writers in German, took his writing seriously despite (or because of) his literary style.

To say that all philosophers should be brief seems to be saying at the same time something about knowledge and the way it must reflect the truth. Yet truth, such as it is, seems neither obvious nor simple, but rather a very complex notion that requires the use of many perspectives and many different voices in attempting to reach an understanding. Plainsong or Gregorian chant is one approach to musical vocality, but there are also the full choruses of Handel or Verdi to be cherished for their own visions.


So you should say more than necessary because it sounds better? Philosophy is not music. The analogy is flawed.
0 Replies
 
Twirlip
 
  1  
Reply Mon 15 Feb, 2010 11:35 am
@Reconstructo,
Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler. A clever bloke said that, or something like it.
0 Replies
 
Reconstructo
 
  1  
Reply Mon 15 Feb, 2010 02:21 pm
@jgweed,
jgweed;128497 wrote:
e.

To say that all philosophers should be brief seems to be saying at the same time something about knowledge and the way it must reflect the truth.


Good post. I would like to emphasize that the thread is called "omit needless words." If a tome is needed, bring on the tome.

I've spent much of my life reading, as you probably have yourself. One develops rules of thumb about first-impressions of books, as one does about people. I admit that sometimes these rules-of-thumb work against us.
kennethamy
 
  1  
Reply Mon 15 Feb, 2010 02:27 pm
@Reconstructo,
Reconstructo;128607 wrote:
Good post. I would like to emphasize that the thread is called "omit needless words." If a tome is needed, bring on the tome.

I've spent much of my life reading, as you probably have yourself. One develops rules of thumb about first-impressions of books, as one does about people. I admit that sometimes these rules-of-thumb work against us.


In philosophy, as elsewhere, less is generally more. See Rorty, where more is generally less.
Reconstructo
 
  1  
Reply Mon 15 Feb, 2010 02:31 pm
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;128611 wrote:
In philosophy, as elsewhere, less is generally more. See Rorty, where more is generally less.


Rorty is a great example of great style. It's hard to believe you've read him.
kennethamy
 
  1  
Reply Mon 15 Feb, 2010 02:32 pm
@Reconstructo,
Reconstructo;128613 wrote:
Rorty is a great example of great style. It's hard to believe you've read him.


Yes. For me too. It took some doing, I'll tell you!
0 Replies
 
jeeprs
 
  1  
Reply Mon 15 Feb, 2010 03:56 pm
@Reconstructo,
actually an amusing anecdote about Jean Paul Sarte. I recall a story whereby a group of friends was around at his flat and a conversation started, and Sartre launched into one of his expositions which went on at some length. After a while, the group all decided to go for coffee, but Sartre kept going.

They were away for some time, and when they came back, he was still talking.

Having tried to read 'Being and Nothingness', this anecdote rings true for me.
kennethamy
 
  1  
Reply Mon 15 Feb, 2010 05:57 pm
@jeeprs,
jeeprs;128650 wrote:
actually an amusing anecdote about Jean Paul Sarte. I recall a story whereby a group of friends was around at his flat and a conversation started, and Sartre launched into one of his expositions which went on at some length. After a while, the group all decided to go for coffee, but Sartre kept going.

They were away for some time, and when they came back, he was still talking.

Having tried to read 'Being and Nothingness', this anecdote rings true for me.


People like Sartre often talk, write, and think for themselves. Audiences are incidental.
Reconstructo
 
  1  
Reply Mon 15 Feb, 2010 09:58 pm
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;128711 wrote:
People like Sartre often talk, write, and think for themselves. Audiences are incidental.


I don't agree. He seemed like a bit of a media whore. He wanted to be heard. He cracked on his friend Camus. That's my opinion.

---------- Post added 02-15-2010 at 11:02 PM ----------

jeeprs;128650 wrote:
actually an amusing anecdote about Jean Paul Sarte. I recall a story whereby a group of friends was around at his flat and a conversation started, and Sartre launched into one of his expositions which went on at some length. After a while, the group all decided to go for coffee, but Sartre kept going.

They were away for some time, and when they came back, he was still talking.

Having tried to read 'Being and Nothingness', this anecdote rings true for me.


I hadn't heard that, but I can believe it. And yet his plays were good, or good enough. Nausea had its moments. I will grant him some good phrases. Way back I was always fascinated with that title: Being and Nothingness.

I get my Being and Nothingness from Kojeve these days. And his translator who is quite good.
0 Replies
 
jeeprs
 
  1  
Reply Mon 15 Feb, 2010 10:34 pm
@Reconstructo,
I got some good insights from Sartre, but I don't think anyone can deny that he was exceedingly verbose, especially in his formal works, such as Being and Nothingness. In fact the French philosophes generally seem to have an amazing talent for generating vast amounts of verbiage with a very slight meaning quotient.
Reconstructo
 
  1  
Reply Mon 15 Feb, 2010 10:45 pm
@jeeprs,
jeeprs;128808 wrote:
I got some good insights from Sartre, but I don't think anyone can deny that he was exceedingly verbose, especially in his formal works, such as Being and Nothingness. In fact the French philosophes generally seem to have an amazing talent for generating vast amounts of verbiage with a very slight meaning quotient.


Ain't that the truth! I have found one book by Derrida that isn't guilty of this. "Spurs." It was good. I hate not knowing about any big name. Call it vanity. Or curiosity. Or 50/50. Well, the French are generally annoying. Foucault didn't say much that excited me, but I wasn't impressed enough to read much. I felt like Nietzsche said much of what F and D are driving out without all the needless words. D also said that his work was impossible w/o Heidegger. Well, our German friend is actually exciting. But then he's German. (I may be biased. I have a German last name.)
0 Replies
 
kennethamy
 
  1  
Reply Tue 16 Feb, 2010 09:44 am
@jeeprs,
jeeprs;128808 wrote:
I got some good insights from Sartre, but I don't think anyone can deny that he was exceedingly verbose, especially in his formal works, such as Being and Nothingness. In fact the French philosophes generally seem to have an amazing talent for generating vast amounts of verbiage with a very slight meaning quotient.


Yes, since Descartes. After Descartes, le deluge. But the Germans after Kant did no better.
0 Replies
 
Zetherin
 
  1  
Reply Tue 16 Feb, 2010 09:55 am
@Reconstructo,
Reconstructo;128369 wrote:
Omit Needless Words. I have never forgotten this phrase from Stunk and White's "The Elements of Style."

Let's talk about the writing style of philosophers. Let's talk about the medium as part of the message, the form as content. Personally, I'm suspicious of tomes, fat fat philosophy books. I'm also suspicious of new jargon if the old words are just as good. For instance, Blake is better when he is writing his views in plain English, in his annotations. (His annotations are clear enough for me to treat them as philosophy, yes.)

Anyone have any comments about philosophy and writing style, book length, chapter organization, footnotes, etc.? Or about how this contributes the overall effect?


I'm consistently working on being more concise. I value brevity. I believe that if a philosopher has a clear thought, he or she shouldn't need many words to articulate it. If I see too much fluff in my writing, I know I haven't a clue what I'm talking about.
0 Replies
 
jgweed
 
  1  
Reply Tue 16 Feb, 2010 09:55 am
@Reconstructo,
Sokrates, before a major battle, was said to have remained standing for a good part of the day and and night thinking through something that puzzled him (Symp. 220e); I have not heard the story about Sartre, but perhaps he was determined to talk through a problem whether there was an audience or not.

While I didn't find B&N verbose, I did have some trouble with "the being of nothingness is the nothingness of being" and such Gallic witticisms (but the Restoration poets were not above that, either).

In literature as in philosophy, I think a sympathetic reader should allow the author the advantage of deciding what and how he should communicate as best he can. Husserl's Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenolgy was my own bete-noir, and I struggled through it as best I could; but the more I struggled, the better I think I understood what he wanted to say, and then reading Mill was a sheer relief and delight.
kennethamy
 
  1  
Reply Tue 16 Feb, 2010 10:14 am
@jgweed,
jgweed;128985 wrote:
Sokrates, before a major battle, was said to have remained standing for a good part of the day


Hmmm. I see you also misspell "Socrates".
Zetherin
 
  1  
Reply Tue 16 Feb, 2010 10:15 am
@kennethamy,
kennethamy;128996 wrote:
Hmmm. I see you also misspell "Socrates".


He was the same person with whom you pointed out the misspelling before.
kennethamy
 
  1  
Reply Tue 16 Feb, 2010 10:17 am
@Zetherin,
Zetherin;128997 wrote:
He was the same person with whom you pointed out the misspelling before.


I don't think it was.
 

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