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).
I’m going to summarise the gist of what was said for my own records, but also because I would like to know what others think of these ideas*.
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 …
*Disclaimer: I apologise to all the speakers for any of my misunderstandings of what was said. This post is based on my synchronous handwritten and selective notes:
5 thoughts on “Clarity in #acwri: a philosophical discussion”
My view is that being “too clear” is a bit like being “too balanced”. It’s hard to make sense of what that means, since clarity is just the ability to see something without distortion or obfuscation. It’s not like the light being “too bright” (glaring, blinding); it’s like the window pane being “too clean”.
Of course, in order for there to be a paradox, the purpose of the window has to be to see through. The glass on a bathroom window may be frosted; its purpose is to be unclear, i.e., to hide behind. But why would we ever want to scholars to use their prose to conceal something?
I think it’s silly, when it’s not distressing, when teachers cultivate “confusion” and “obscurity” as virtues. These are necessary parts of learning, of course. But they are interesting precisely in the way we overcome them. And that’s why clarity is an essentially absolute virtue. A scholarly article cannot be too clear. If it’s style obscures the complexity of a situation it is doing precisely that: obscuring, not clearly presenting the facts.
We should never confuse “easy to understand” with clear. A clear presentation of a complex situation will, necessarily, be complex. Oversimplification is a kind of obfuscation.
I’ve had this conversation with Jonathan Mayhew (comments) about facts and nuances in writing. To say that “Franco killed Lorca” is a gross oversimplification (that is essentially an untruth). Sure, there’s a sense in which it is a “clear” prose sentence. But I wouldn’t make Jonathan’s point about oversimplification by accusing it of being “too clear”. It’s just too simple. And, mostly, wrong.
Ironically, to say that “a scholarly text can be too clear” is itself an oversimplification that pretends to be clear. Clarity is not an “ideological” or “political” trope, but, as Philips rightly points out, it’s a logical one. If we have no moral obligation to be clear (I tend to agree, to a point) then it’s nonsense to see clarity as some sort ideological force. Actually, it’s just an academic norm. If people want to do something else, like be intense or profound or amusing, that’s fine. It just won’t/shouldn’t get them (all the way to) tenure. (No, I did NOT just say academics are not allowed to be passionate, deep or funny. I just said they should also, and more importantly, be clear.)
Thanks Thomas – I think the normative question of whether #acwri ‘should be clear’ hinges on what we consider the purpose of academic writing to be. I think that many of the panelists were framing it as a pedagogical tool and therefore as a trigger for ‘education’; they considered the aims of education to include confusion and obscurity – not for its own sake or for their own ego or to gatekeep knowledge – but to instill curiosity and to ensure students ‘make an effort’. In this sense, the academic text itself becomes the site of/for discussion and negotiation of meaning, rather than the text giving the impression that it has had the final say.
For example, ambiguity in academic writing is actually quite common, and often necessary and deliberate, and can be expressed through the use of exophoric references (whereby nothing in the text can explain the meaning of a referent, and therefore comprehension relies exclusively on shared meanings between the writer and the reader – ie, full shared meaning is de facto impossible) and by the use of grammatical metaphor, such as nominalisations (Halliday, 1994, p. 68 and Hasan, 1994, p.80), whereby actions, and therefore the subjects of those actions, are deliberately removed from the text – cf Halliday’s example “youth protest mounted” – in order to achieve either a textual effect (related to mode, eg. fewer words) or an an ideational one (related to field/situation), or both.
I therefore think that the very notion of ‘clarity’ is contested because it assumes that shared knowledge and understanding is actually possible. It also assumes that it is always intended and desirable.
What I took from the panel discussion is that ‘clarity’ does not have to be a defining property of academic writing because the purpose of writing is also to make us think beyond the text so that meaning is created jointly. Isn’t that also one of the aims of higher education?
I suppose I just don’t see how writing can ever fully be like a pane of glass nor do I think that it is always desirable for it to be transparent (much as I adore George Orwell) because ambiguity is sometimes more educationally desirable and more epistemologically honest than clarity.
Halliday, M.A.K. (1994) ‘Spoken and Written Modes of Meaning’ in Media Texts: Authors and Readers, Graddol, D. and Boyd-Barrett, O. (Eds), Multilingual Matters and Open University Press
Hasan, R. (1994) ‘The Texture of a Text’ in Media Texts: Authors and Readers, Graddol, D. and Boyd-Barrett, O. (Eds), Multilingual Matters and Open University Press
First, let’s distinguish between ambiguity and obscurity. If I write a text that elegantly affords two or three different meanings given two or three different audiences, I’m not being unclear. To each of those audiences, my style is plain as day.
Second, let’s think about the purpose of academic writing again. My view is the classical one, that the purpose of academic writing is to communicate what you know to other knowledgeable people for the purpose of discussing it with. The main goal is to make sure that your knowledge can correct others’ errors, and others’ knowledge can correct your errors. This definitely requires clarity.
You propose a secondary purpose to academic writing, namely, to “make us think beyond the text so that meaning is created jointly.” This has two or three parts. The first is to “make us think”, which I think forgets that scholars are, presumably, predisposed to thinking, i.e., considering what is written carefully. They don’t need my writing to make them think, but to support their thinking. The same goes for “thinking beyond the text”. What self-respecting scholar would not bring everything he or she knows to bear upon a text, what scholar would imagine that there is only this text? “Thinking beyond the text” just is scholarship.
Finally, there’s writing in a way that encourages us to “create meaning jointly”. But, again, that is given academic writing. It’s one of the things we can expect of the reader-writer relationship. And once the text has been absolved of the obligation to “make” us do any of these things, and only needs to help us do them, clarity becomes the primary virtue of writing.
You say that education proceeds from confusion. I’m not at all sure that’s healthy. Education proceeds from either ignorance or error towards the light. We see that light through Orwell’s prose, shining, as it were, though a window pane.