Can academic writing be too clear for its own good?
This week, the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain (PESGB), of which I am a member, held a panel discussion at the Institute of Education in London on the topic of ‘Clarity’ in academic writing, and on what Philosophers of Education might have to say about it.
The panel was made up of the following philosophers, educationalists, and writers: Angie Hobbs , Denis Phillips, Gert Biesta and Jan Masschelein. It was chaired by Richard Smith, and it was the fourth in a series of discussions on the issue of clarity in academic writing (very unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the previous three).
The central question was: can writing ever be ‘too clear’?
According to Biesta, yes, it can. This is because excessive clarity can undermine the inherent complexity of the issues it aims to address, in this case, the issue of ‘what education is’:
The desire for clarity is an immature desire: it assumes that the world can be clear
Clarity is about the conditions for understanding
Clarity is in the eye of the beholder
Biesta’s comments echo what I think Mary Scott is saying when she draws attention to the ideological values that underpin the way we assess student writing. They also remind me of Michael Peters’ concerns about equating ‘good writing’ with ‘clarity’ because this implies a “set of values and assumptions on the relation of language, truth and logic that go largely unquestioned”.
For Hobbs, the answer is also ‘yes’, excessive clarity in writing is not an inherently good thing to aim for. This is because, in her view, ‘clarity’ does not necessarily equate with ‘accessibility’: something can be remarkably clear but incomprehensible (I’m reminded of Chomsky’s colorless green ideas sleep furiously).
Hobbs also argued that when we are searching for new ideas, we are also searching for the language we need to express these ideas. Philosophers like Kant and Hegel, who have been accused of being ‘unclear’, were doing just this, searching for the language to express concepts that perhaps language is ontologically incapable of expressing:
I want these people to write (Kant, Hegel, etc.) even if they don’t have a clear toolkit, even if the writing is opaque
She then gave examples of philosophical concepts that struggle to find clarity of expression in language (eg. ‘extreme flux’ (because continuous ‘being’ cannot be pinned down to the static meaning of the verb ‘to be’); ‘radical monism’ (the ‘oneness’ of existence); and ‘relativism’).
Her final thought on why clarity is not necessarily the sole aim of academic writing is that when writing is seen as a pedagogical tool, it can be deliberately ‘opaque’ in “order to open a discussion”:
If you want to connect with people emotionally then you need poetry, and lack of clarity. This helps you to inspire, not just get students to write down bullet points
Masschelein‘s view was that ‘clarity’ makes sense only when there is a need to be clear. He judged some texts that are generally considered to be exceptionally clear as also being exceptionally ‘boring’ and said that clarity is a worthwhile aim when educationalists are required to have impact on policy-makers:
Clarity helps others see what you can see, because policy-makers are idiots and philosophers of education need to help them understand that
He also said that
Philosophy is an exercise of thought, to expose thought, it’s not about theory: we need to look for a pedagogical art of speech and writing to give things a ‘voice’ by making them present.
He referred to the Portuguese film-maker, Pedro Costa, whose natural light, low-key lens on the marginalised people of Lisbon exposes their reality in a way that forces the observer to make the effort to understand:
I don’t want to make a film with an open door, like McDonalds, because it is easy to walk in and out of McDonalds. Rather, you have to close the door so that you have to make the effort (Masschelein paraphrasing Pedro Costa)
Phillips, on the other hand, argued that clarity is necessary but that ‘clarity’ does not equate with ‘simplicity’. He acknowledged that “there are various ways to get students to think about an issue, such as through dialogues, poems, aphorisms” and that as assessors of writing, we must not make the following two mistakes:
- judge something to be clear when in fact it isn’t
- judge something to be unclear when in fact it is clear (apparently, this is the most common error)
if Wittgenstein had been my student, I would have failed him
no journal has ever published someone for being obscure
(Errrm…I might beg to differ on that one).
These were great! They included questions from Ron Barnett who asked us to reflect on our perceived unities of meaning and to question our understandings of the following terms:
in relation to the role of academic writers and to the extent to which academics actually see themselves as writers.
A tense exchange ensued between Angie Hobbs and an audience member on the question of what modes/media are open to philosophers to communicate their ideas. Richard Smith pointed out that Iris Murdoch’s novels were better than her ‘discursive’ philosophical writings in exposing the issue of ‘homelessness’. Another audience member chipped in to remind us that in many non-UK cultures, the distinction between literature and philosophy was not as stark (cf. Sartre, Camus, etc.).
And finally, some memorable quotes to end on:
The purpose of Philosophy of Education is an endless attempt to re-articulate the aims of education (Richard Smith)
Clarity is a political trope to include and exclude (Biesta with reference to Derrida)
Confusion is the first step towards wisdom (BIesta)
I’d be pedagogically more excited about confusion and obscurity (Biesta)
There is some room for obscurity, but NOT for our ego or to keep knowledge to ourselves (Hobbs)
If we had obscurity, it would engage discussion and unsettle students (an audience member)
Why are different media needed to do philosophy? (Hobbs)
There is no moral obligation to be clear, but there is a logical obligation to be so (Phillips)
Which public? Whose public? What is ‘the public’? (Barnett)
I wonder what your views are …