“…when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” –Nietzsche
For some people, this quote is very evocative. It feels important, and beautiful. Others feel like it doesn’t mean anything at all, because the idea of a deep hole looking at something is absurd. Many people have both reactions. What are we to make of passages like this?
By the middle of the 20th century, philosophy seemed to have split in two. The so-called analytic philosophers wrote in a way that was intended to be clear and unambiguous—almost an extension of the natural sciences. Flowery prose was discouraged. Continental philosophy, on the other hand, allowed itself to be more poetic and ambiguous, and had an approach more integrated with history, society, and the arts. Other fields started filling up with this kind of writing, including postmodernism, poststructuralism, and literary Marxism. Scientists and analytic philosophers criticized these writings (I will refer to them as “abstruse writings”) on the grounds that they were sometimes so ambiguous as to be meaningless.
Even from within the humanities, abstruse writing received criticism. Art critic Denis Dutton held a “Bad Writing Contest” in the late 1990s. Winners were often highly acclaimed scholars. In 1998 philosopher Judith Butler won the prize for the following text:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
In his most recent book, about how to write well, psycholinguist Steven Pinker attacks Butler’s winning passage thus: “Insofar as the passage has a meaning at all, it seems to be that some scholars have come to realize that power can change over time.” It is not simply a matter of jargon—unlike an abstract in a biology paper, which is equally incomprehensible to the layperson, abstruse writing requires significant interpretation even for the people it’s written for. Abstruse writing encourages you to come up with meanings yourself, and some postmodernists have been explicit about encouraging this in their writing, noting, for example: “It is the reader who writes the text”.1 It is written with intentional ambiguity. Scientists like claims that are meaningful, and a part of that means that they could potentially be found to be right or wrong, correct or incorrect. As physicist Wolfgang Pauli reportedly said, some things are so bad they’re not even wrong. Indeed, how can we evaluate a theory when three people reading it come up with three different interpretations of it?
I myself have criticized this kind of writing. I published an article in Skeptic magazine with some conjectures about why people might like writing like this—my assumption being that it’s so close to nonsense that an explanation is required. One of the reasons I suggested is that people value meanings they come up with themselves more than meanings that are explicitly stated—something I called “idea effort justification.” Another is that when faced with ambiguous information, we tend to choose meanings we already agree with—something called the congruence bias2.
But is it fair to dismiss all of these writings by saying that their perceived value is due only to some cognitive quirks?
Foucault replied that 10 percent of your writing needs to be incomprehensible nonsense to be taken seriously by French philosophers.
Some truths are ultimately indescribable. The purpose of some abstruse texts is for you to generate that meaning in yourself, to feel or get the impression of truth, inspired but not explicitly described by the text. Can you communicate in sentences the feeling you have when you first go snorkeling? Not really: There’s nothing quite like it, and you have to experience it to know what it’s like. Can you explain what romantic jealousy is to even a precocious 7-year-old so he or she will really get it? Abstruse writing, both in scholarly work as well as in poetry, sometimes tries to generate mental states in the reader that are hard to communicate explicitly. This is part of why poetry, and arguably any form of art, is valuable. You can’t translate poetry into simple, unambiguous sentences without losing a lot of its impact.
The writings of philosopher Immanuel Kant are notoriously difficult to understand (though he preceded that analytic/continental distinction). His writings seem to provoke endless discussion, perhaps in part because different people get different meanings when they read them. However, Kant had a great influence on the modern science of psychology. As described in the essay collection The Prehistory of Cognitive Science, Kant described our minds as needing conceptual frameworks to be able to make sense of the world—that we could not understand what we saw and heard without having concepts within us to match them to. This view of mind is now practically taken for granted in the cognitive sciences. Jean Piaget basically started the field of developmental psychology, and he took many of his initial ideas—such as where morals came from (from peers rather than authority figures), and the idea of “schemas” (frameworks for internalizing new information)—from Kant.
Michel Foucault is also famous for writing difficult text. John Searle, a friend of his and a fellow philosopher, asked him why his writing was so difficult, and Searle says Foucault replied that 10 percent of your writing needs to be incomprehensible nonsense to be taken seriously by French philosophers. Nevertheless, his work on madness helped spark changes in how we view and treat mental illness3.
We can look at difficult writers and see their influence, but we can’t tell whether the success they had in generating scientific theories in others was because of, in spite of, or unrelated to the abstruseness of their writings. Would Kant have been just as influential if he’d written like the no-nonsense Scottish philosopher David Hume? Would he have been even more influential? We can’t know.
Rather than looking at ambiguous writing as inferior, perhaps we should see it as being more like poetry. It has a different function. It inspires. More hard-headed writers can even use it to articulate their own clearer, falsifiable ideas, as Piaget did with Kant’s work. For some writing, whether it might be right or wrong should not be an important attribute, just as we should not judge a chair by its taste. For this kind of prose, what’s important is whether it generates ideas in us, and inspires us to think of new ideas.
Maybe Pinker’s summary of the primary meaning Butler’s passage is spot-on, but it might be right in the same way that it’s right to assert that Picasso’s Guernica says that “war is bad.”
A lot is lost in translation.
1. Latour, B. & Woolgar, S. Laboratory life: The social construction of scientific facts. Princeton University Press, 1986.
2. Wason, P. C. “On the Failure to Eliminate Hypotheses in a Conceptual Task.” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 12, 129–140; 1960.
3. Gutting, Gary. Michel Foucault’s Phanomenologie des Krankengeistes. 1994.
Jim Davies is an associate professor at the Institute of Cognitive Science at Carleton University in Ottawa, where he is director of the Science of Imagination Laboratory.