Tuesday, June 11, 2013

How to Be Boring: Faking Philosophy

When I tell someone I meet for the first time that I’m studying philosophy I usually get one of three responses. In some (rare) cases, they will light up and want to talk philosophy or bounce ideas off of me. More often, I will get a polite nod and some follow up questions. But surprisingly often, I get responses like “Wow. I would never want to do that!” or just blank stares that say more poignantly than words ever could, “What’s wrong with you?”

What’s strange to me about this is that everyone does philosophy, whether they decide to call it by that name or not. Every day, people think a lot about what it means to be who they are, what is the best way to deal with others, and what kinds of things are important to know about. These are exactly some of the big questions that philosophy attempts to tackle. But maybe even more importantly, every generation and every community carries a wealth of unquestioned assumptions about the world that fund our motivations and behavior in ways we are often unaware of. Philosophy allows us to take a step back and evaluate these assumptions and values we find in our cultural inheritance. So whether you are thinking about what’s important in life or coasting on the intellectual momentum of your culture, you’re doing philosophy.

So if everyone’s doing it, why the stigma against philosophers?

Some might say that philosophy is boring and too hard to read. Or maybe philosophy is just a bunch of people throwing terms that have nothing to do with real life back and forth at each other. Unfortunately, sometimes these come close to the truth.

I think at the core of the problem is that philosophers are sometimes just not very good communicators.

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in academic conversation and forget that the words mean nothing to someone outside of that world. But on the other hand, I wonder how far philosophy would be able to get if it constantly had to stop and translate into everyday non-philosophical terms. Sometimes terms can serve as shortcuts that allow us to talk about several complex systems all at once. But the problem comes when we use these “shortcuts” as the only supposedly untranslatable way of talking about things.

For example, Martin Heidegger creates a whole vocabulary of terms that he puts to use in his excavation of what it means to be human in a fundamental way. No other set of terms is sufficient for the task he wants to accomplish simply because it has never been done before. While Heidegger’s project is admirable and incredibly important for the forward movement of philosophy, I can’t help but wonder how necessary all the jargon is.

I find that in my own philosophical studies, I can throw around big words all day, but until I actually understand what I’m talking about and what’s at stake, I can’t explain it without propping up my explanation with philosophical shortcut terms. But once I get to the point where I really understand an idea, it’s much easier to explain it in a way that’s tailored to the listener because I can approach it with greater creativity.

It’s a little like learning to drive. I can take a class and learn what a turn signal is for and how to use the pedals, but until I get behind the wheel, I don’t really know what driving is like. Once you get real experience on the road, you can describe what it’s like to drive in creative ways because you really understand the experience. But you can’t really teach someone to drive unless you’ve driven yourself; the best you can do is throw around second-hand things you know and terms like “u-turn” and “peel out.” It’s the same in philosophy. You can string together philosophical terms and throw around jargon, but that doesn’t mean that you understand the ideas they are meant to communicate. On the other hand, you can make a u-turn without knowing the word for it, and maybe you can think about Heidegger’s ideas without knowing what Dasein is.

It’s no wonder that philosophy sounds boring to most people. All the philosophy a lot of people hear is a muddle of big words and a throwaway quote from Nietzsche rudely taken out of context: “God is dead.”

So maybe it is the task of the philosophers to take academia into real life, translating philosophy into something understandable and interesting, without compromising its integrity. This task requires an enormous amount of work and creativity on the part of academic philosophy; for translation to be possible, academics can’t hide behind shortcut terms nor can they just create new vocabularies.

It is a great tragedy when philosophy falls by the wayside because it’s too boring, and if our ideas are untranslatable and incoherent, it might just be our fault. We cannot let too much jargon drain the vitality from our philosophy.

*   *   *

How translatable are philosophical ideas really? To what extent can we talk about Heidegger (for example) in plain English without having to use his terms? Are there nuances that are untranslatable or ideas that break down when we apply different terms to them? Does philosophy benefit from this type of creativity, or is translation a burden that constricts its movement?

Matthew E. Johnson is currently a junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, serving as the research assistant for the CPRSE.

(Image 1 by Duncan Green via http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/; image 2 public domain via http://rlbert00.hubpages.com/hub/Towns-with-Humorous-Names-4)


  1. Great post, Matt! I've given this a lot of thought too - I'm glad I'm not alone. I suggest that jargon is baggage-not, however, in a necessarily negative sense. Baggage, or luggage, is a way to wrap up all your important things tightly in a temporarily inaccessible way in order to let you go interesting places without a mess on your hands. Jargon packages up networks of ideas and connotations into tidy bundles which make it easy for you and other baggage handlers to toss back and forth with ease, provided you all know the contents of the luggage. Just as an ignorant handler could damage or get injured by a package full of glass, someone not in the 'know' jargonically speaking can feel confused or even belittled by academic shorthand. As 'baggage', jargon sacrifices universal clarity (for the layperson) for local/shared clarity (for those in the know) by speeding up the process of communicative 'transit.'

    I'm borrowing this imagery from N.T. Wright, who writes, “Slogans and clichés are often shorthand ways of making more complex statements. In Christian theology, such phrases regularly act as ‘portable stories’—that is, ways of packing up longer narratives about God, Jesus, the church and the world, folding them away into convenient suitcases, and then carrying them about with us. Shorthands, in other words, are useful in the same way that suitcases are. They enable us to pick up lots of complicated things and carry them around all together. But we should never forget that the point of doing so, like the point of carrying belongings in a suitcase, is that what has been packed away can then be unpacked and put to use in the new location. Too much debate [has taken] the form of people hitting one another with locked suitcases. It is time to unpack our shorthand doctrines, to lay them out and inspect them. Long years in a suitcase may have made some of the contents go mouldy. They will benefit from fresh air, and perhaps a hot iron.” (Scripture and the Authority of God, p22).

    The whole point of jargon, or luggage, is that it can be unpacked when it needs to. The real question is knowing the proper time when to leave it bundled for speedy transit (the back-and-forth of those sharing your language game, in order to allow more complex conversation in shorter time) and when to open it up to be used in public.

    Again, great thoughts on a tricky issue!

    1. I love the luggage metaphor! I think it gets at the issue really well. And I think you're right when you say that jargon can make for "speedy transit" within a particular discourse.

      To extend your metaphor, I also think it's really important for our philosophical discourse that we're able to open our luggage. If we don't regularly do this, we might not realize that we forgot to pack our socks. So I think translating philosophical ideas into vernacular often helps to sharpen the philosophy itself.

  2. Hi! Great post -- but what do you mean about the throw-away quote of Nietzche being taken out of context? What is the full context? Thanks!

    1. The full context of this quote is from a small book called The Gay Science. An alternative translation to this text is also The Joyful Wisdom. It's one of Nietzsche's most influential works and the work is divided into sections. Nietzsche writes in an aphoristic style which presents Nietzsche's ideas in short bursts - since Nietzsche was suffering from a disease at the time which caused him great pain, possibly syphilis, this was a way that Nieztsche could present his ideas in a concise manner while dealing with his illness.

      This line is often claimed to be taken out of context because people interpret it as a literal death of God. However, Nietzsche's argument wasn't that God as a Being existed and was slain, but rather that our orientation towards religion and our reliance on religion had come to an end. Instead, he argues that, as slayers of the divine, and with His blood on our hands, we have to rise to the occasion and become something more than human. He uses the term ubermensch occasionally in his work. The ubermensch is not some blond-haired Aryan race superior to humanity, but it's rather a state of being that occurs when humanity has transcended traditional morality.

      People often use this quote to paint Nietzsche as a nihilist and hater of life, but that is as far as the truth as one could possibly get. Time and time, Nieztsche has been misunderstood and misportrayed. The Nazi party coopted Nietzsche's work into a bastardized collection called The Will to Power. Nietzsche actually hated nihilism with a passion and much of his work was dedicated to trying to teaching how humans should live with a new form of morality once our traditional forms of morality (God) had been exhausted (see Beyond Good and Evil). In addition, Nieztsche hated Nationalism and blind dedication to the state, and it's questionable whether or not he was ever anti-semitic.

      Thus, you can see how easily people take his works out of context.

      Postscript - I don't necessarily agree with Nietzsche's works as I am a Fundamentalist Baptist. However, his work is fascinating and suppression of knowledge only leads to ignorance. In addition, Nietzsche was classically trained in the ancient texts and his father was a Lutheran Pastor leading to a high familiarity with biblical terms and structure. Nietzsche often wrote his aphorisms in a biblical style, and if nothing else, he was a genius who had a talent for words and inflaming passions.

  3. Great post Matt, and a topic close to my heart as I believe that it isn't just possible but also necessary for translation into common language to take place.

    Of course, Nietzsche offered much more to this particular topic than the throwaway quote reveals. Luckily this is a blog discussion so I don't have to provide citations, but in Twilight of the Idols, at least, we get marvellous lines like "Honest things, like honest men, do not have to explain themselves so openly. What must first be proved is worth little." He exposes the why of a popular mistrust of philosophy so well that it's a wonder that anyone still wonders about it.

    1. Doing a self-followup because I remembered that I meant to point out that we have a closely related post here from back in August of 2011 titled "Does Philosophy Matter". That post begins the discussion by reference to an article by Stanley Fish and is well worth the read if this topic interests you.


    2. Thanks Daryl! Very interesting thoughts by Stanley Fish. It makes me wonder about pronouncements of the death or the end of philosophy. A couple years ago, Stephen Hawking pronounced the death of philosophy because of its irrelevance and inability to keep up with the arts and sciences: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/google/8520033/Stephen-Hawking-tells-Google-philosophy-is-dead.html.

      What should relevant, cutting edge philosophy look like today? Does it need to be compelling first and "reasonable" only secondarily, like Nietzsche seems to think? What does that say about our philosophical pursuit of precise analysis?

      I think some of what's at stake here is how we treat philosophy in general: is it a science or the pursuit of practical wisdom?

      Thanks for stirring up of these questions!

    3. Hi Matt. I'm sure you didn't mean for ME to try to answer those questions, but I will say that I'm pretty confident that Hawking sees philosophy only as analytic philosophy, and sees it as asking after the foundations of existence, just as he believes science to be . It's not hard to see how that viewpoint would lead him to consider philosophy obsolete. If the ability to command billions of dollars for research equipment like radio telescopes and hadron colliders is the measure, he's obviously right. :)

  4. Must philosophy be science? Practical wisdom? I think of the sort of architechtonic wisdom of Lambert Zuidervaart in Art in Public. He provides a structural account of "society" that is neither scientific nor practical. Rather it provides a framework in which practical matters can be viewed to be sure but does so not via a scientific research into that framework so much as through what might be termed "normative-descriptive" analysis. This is where a lot of the best philosophical work takes place in the continental tradition of philosophy: that is, in a place to be found somewhere between scientific and practical wisdom.