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Philosophy and Style, Or Who’s Afraid of Beautiful Beasts?
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Iskra Fileva

Those who do not have a style adopt a method. – Albert Camus

Style is knowing who you are, what to say, and not giving a damn. – Gore Vidal


We live in an age of rather bland and authorless philosophical writing. The host of philosophy books published each year, much like the bulk of songs released annually by record studios, sound exactly the same: professional, satisfactory and unexciting. It is interesting to ask why that’s so. And even more interesting to reflect on whether this is how we really want things to be. My purpose here is to take up these two questions. I will start with the first one.

A long time ago Plato observed that truth does not reside in the visible. By extension, neither does true beauty. The first thing an aspiring philosopher must do is learn to avoid getting dazed by the external aspects of things, learn to perceive the “cupness” beyond the cup and real splendor beyond the pretty flower. Plato’s hero Socrates did enjoy the outer side of Being, yes. He loved pretty boys for instance. But there was some irony to that love: it was not quite what it seemed to be. For in the words of Plato himself, Socrates only pretended to be the lover – he was actually the loved one: he could do well without the pretty boys while they were dependent for their well-being on him since they were the ones enamored. It was the unsightly old Socrates who was in fact the real possessor of beauty, the real object of love.

I find it hard to summarize the role this picture has played in shaping our philosophy practice. And neither is it my goal to do so here. Suffice it to say that much of that role is positive, perhaps so much so as is hard to overestimate. What interests me now is the effect of the view on our philosophical writing style. Here, I think, we should record some damage. (On the side, the same might be true with regard to the role of this view in placing aesthetics at its current position among the disciplines that go under the ‘philosophy’ heading.)

Plato’s otherwise admirable insight has made us come to regard “internal” and “external” beauty as opposites. External beauty has, as a consequence, come to signal “danger”, as though it wears a tag saying: “Pay attention, this may be surface appearance.” By extension, one who attempts to write beautifully can easily be perceived as aiming at the wrong target. Yes, a piece of writing, philosophical or otherwise, unavoidably has an aesthetic component. A text is the sum total of that which is being said and the way in which what’s said is being said. Fair enough. But it is writers, we further think, whose job requires paying tribute to both of these aspects. And we after all, are philosophers. We want to be taken seriously. But for that, we need to show that we’ve learned how to get down to business. That’s to say, we need to focus on what is really important – on the contents, ideas and arguments. A clumsy writing style is more easily forgiven than an elegant one. A reader-friendly text may arise arouse the suspicion it has come as a result of bad resource management. We are never quite certain that a text which is fun to read will be accepted as real philosophy.

It is worth noting that the fear one may not succeed in being taken seriously and the consequent hostility towards attempts to make philosophy “externally” beautiful have outlived the metaphysics which gave rise to them. Today, few would avow belief in a noumenal realm or question the import of the “visible”. Yet many would, with or without avowal, downplay the import of what a philosophy text sounds like. All that matters to us, we insist, is what a text says. But what exactly backs this fear and that hostility? Is it that a text cannot somehow be both engaging and deep? It seems to me that this doesn’t follow. For if we think depth is not a matter of style and so not affected by a homely style why are we afraid it would suffer from comely one?

For quite some time people thought that a movie must be sad to be profound. I think today most would consider this a prejudice. I believe the conviction, albeit tacit, that a philosophical text should not aspire to be too entertaining in order to be accepted as “serious” is equally a prejudice. And one which it is high time to leave behind: after all, it isn’t seriousness that’s the opposite of engagement and beauty. Boredom is. Note that Plato, whom I charged with initiating this prejudice, did not himself share it, at least not practically. This gives rise to something like an ad hominem objection – an objection not to the effect that Plato liked pretty boys or flowers, but that Plato himself was an engaging writer. For if the “external” really doesn’t matter, you see, why care about the aesthetic side of a dialogue? And Plato clearly did care. The very point as to the lack of import of ‘the visible’ is a point beautifully made. Plato’s style encapsulates a practical commitment to the value of (external) beauty whatever his theoretical pronouncements on the subject.

But maybe there is a reason of a slightly different sort behind our attitude, a reason which has less to do with historical heritage and more with pressing everyday concerns. We can, perhaps, in the end admit that we all enjoy good writing. I suppose most of us have favorite philosophers who write well – among mine are Plato, Kierkegaard, Nagel, Camus, Thompson and Murdoch. The problem is that if one undertakes to emulate a philosopher both engaging and deep one risks becoming neither. And that’s an outcome we want by all means to avoid. A friend said once he was a fan of Murdoch but would not recommend her as an example to anybody. I am not exactly sure what he meant but I think he meant exactly this – it is risky to attempt to be that kind of philosopher. This risk, admittedly, did not exist for Plato for in his time there were no criteria of what philosophy must be like, such as his writings were answerable to. No criteria independent of those same writings, that is. Murdoch and the rest of the colleagues on my list were not standard-setters, they simply got away with it. But it just isn’t very likely that many of us would; I mean – that many of us would get away with it. And here in comes our reason of a “slightly different sort”: being seen as a serious philosopher or, perhaps, a philosopher enough is a prerequisite of professional survival, not just of friendly reception. At stake is not simply the extent of one’s popularity within the community but one’s ticket for a seat at the philosophical table. But that’s rather high stakes; most certainly to do philosophy, albeit in a bland and authorless style is, for most of us, better than not doing philosophy at all. So one should be forgiven for abiding by the rules of the game rather than attempting strategies which might, indeed, make her a hero but may bring her peril too.

Now I don’t mean to argue against this point. Not, because I don’t think anti-Hobbesian arguments are likely to work in practice. What I want to suggest instead is a different, less painful and, to the extent possible, risk-free way to proceed. We can simply modify the rules of the game. We can acknowledge that the beauty of a text is a value and unabashedly proceed to promoting that value. I think it will be worth it. (On the side, texts by aestheticians seem, as a rule, to be much better written than those of philosophers from other areas. I think that’s because of a tacit assumption to the same effect.)

A change along the lines I suggest can help bring what we do in a more close accord with what we want to do. For we do, at some level, want our writings to have some aesthetic merit. Imagine you’ve just given a conference paper. What do you hope people will say afterwards? I think you are hardly hoping to hear, “That was a perfect technical exposition”, or “That seemed really professional.” You surely want people to think that as well but you are more likely hoping you’d be told something like: “I enjoyed your paper.” You are because you don’t want to bore people. And this no matter how important you consider the issue you want to talk to them about.

But we don’t want others to bore us either. That is my second point. True a life with a lot of philosophy and little style is preferable for the “tempted” to a life with a lot of style and very little philosophy. Still, our days will pass more pleasantly if more of the readings we go through daily are somewhat pleasant. I don’t know about you but if I have to choose an article for students or friends I try to find something that’s actually engaging. I think others like it when I do so and I hope they’d do the same in return. It seems to me somewhat ironic, then, that so few of us take as a model the philosophers we like to read. Why so? Is it because we believe our readers are not human beings like us, like our friends and students? Is it, perhaps, because we consider them “real philosophers” – i.e. unconcerned by the “externalities” of style?

But I wish to forestall a misunderstanding here. By no means do I intend to commend “entertaining” as the chief virtue of a text, much less one to be promoted at the expense of other values. Such a strategy would likely backfire. (Some professors try it, or something like it, when teaching undergraduates. I believe it leaves their students with the impression the professors themselves are amusing enough but the subject matter really tedious.)

What I have in mind is a different kind of enjoyment – delight. With all the caution which the following claim requires, there is something of a continuum between argumentation and rhetoric. A good piece of philosophy has elements of both though the elements of the former, no doubt, dominate. Some philosophical ideas have stuck in our heads because of the way in which certain philosophers have talked about them. And to make others see the import of a problem or an idea is by no means a trivial achievement in philosophy or elsewhere.

My last point is this. The connection between good philosophy and good style is something like authenticity. Iris Murdoch writes that to do philosophy is to explore one’s temperament and to look for the truth at the same time. This claim is very nearly right. A philosopher is more likely to convince and to make readers see the import of the problem at stake when he speaks in his own voice. Also in a voice whose timbre goes well with the content he wishes to express. A good writing style is one appropriate both to its author and to its content. Authorless writing, on the other hand, results from an attempt to conform both oneself and one’s ideas to something which one has, in advance, taken to be an “appropriate” writing style. The boldness of speaking in one’s own voice most often goes hand in hand with the boldness of thinking one’s own thoughts. The good news is, then, that the source of beauty and the source of philosophical depth and insight may converge in a single point.

In conclusion, I wish to note that I am quite certain there would (shall I say: ‘Thank god?’) always be those who would do what I’d like more of us to do even if the rules of the game are never modified as I just suggested. They are the brave spirits – the ones we all like to read. This essay is not addressed to them. My thought is that things might get better for all of us if more of us learn from them. Learn not by imitating their style since we must, of course, develop our own. Learn from their self-trust. So that we too might join the stylish crowd of men and women who know who they are. Say what they we have to say. And don’t give a damn.


2006 © Iskra Fileva

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