In /r/philosophy a Redditor claims that certain continental philosophers deliberately write in a muddled (obscure, complicated) style; because they believe that to truly understand some ideas, a reader of philosophy should struggle with the text, fight through it, repeatedly trying to re-interpret mysterious sentences. They also say that the practice probably originated with Kierkegaard.

Did any continental philosopher admit to such practice?

For those who did not admit so, who could confidently state that did? When did this practice start? What would be their exact reasons for the obfuscation?
If I become a philosopher, for what reasons could I adopt this strategy?

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    Lacan is a good example (very close to imposture actually). I would't advise this strategy, unless you want to start a sect. – Quentin Ruyant Jan 17 '15 at 22:19
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    Having (tried to) read Kierkegaard that feels very likely. – user2953 Jan 18 '15 at 0:21
  • adorno says all philosophy should resist paraphrase.. – user6917 Jan 19 '15 at 11:28
  • It looks like to me, starting around the early 20th century, after the successors "dug up" the intrinsic part of the "philosophy", so called "philosophers"' purpose seems to be "contesting" with the difficult words in order to make they themselves find a new idea so that he or she can be an inheritor but with the aim to keep their position to be safe at their other hand. – Kentaro Apr 16 '15 at 10:17
  • I should have said the "philosophy for the philosophy's sake" is quite waste of time. Now I understand the importance of the application of the philosophy-social-science on human society, but here we encounter another problem. The failure is not allowed. Oh way yes, Stalin ( actually more by Kaganovic and Kruschev ) killed millions of Ukraineans by the imfamous famine-industrializaition, but can we call them "thinkers"?? More likely power pursuers. But you know now the main stream economists are applying their own theory. Well Greece is a nice example of their fault. – Kentaro Apr 16 '15 at 11:16

Kierkegaard did use a technique called "indirect communication" through which he sought to emphasize the need for the reader to actually engage what was being said. In his case, this is as specific response to Danish Hegelianism which claimed that everything was understood. For Kierkegaard, the point is that some things (specifically, things like what it would mean for God to become a man, the resurrection) were, in fact, not being understood at all but rather presumed to be understood.

There are some 20th and 21st century "continental" philosophers who write in unclear ways. They might claim that their practice has an origin in Kierkegaard, but I don't know of any who do so for the same motive. Maybe in the broadest terms they do, because they might deny that everything is understood or that language can help us to understand everything. Surely, however, they don't agree with Kierkegaard's specific claims. In a weird way, they also see the specific claims of Christianity as speed bumps on the way to something else.

In regards to who consciously engages in this practice among 20/21st century continental figures, it would be nearly impossible to catalogue them all. Derrida, at least according to my dissertation advisor, promised his mother never to write clearly.

Regarding who we can confidently state does this, I don't know how that would be anything but contentious. First, the true believers in whichever figure X may deny that it's obscurantist. Second, there is a legitimate distinction between really hard to understand and gibberish.

So for instance, returning to Kierkegaard, I wouldn't say every single sentence in every single work is lucid prose that is easy to decipher. But I do think he's actually a very good stylist, and the difficulty in understanding his philosophy stems not from obscurantism but from the wide-ranging source materials he's familiar with and the fluency he has in using them (incorporating deep knowledge of standard interpretations of the Greek and Latin philosophers).

Sharing just my own opinions on some of the bigger figures:

Husserl - very difficult ideas, very bad writing, not with the goal of obscuring
Heidegger - simpler ideas, bad readings of other texts, not as hard to understand if you can read German, sometimes obscuring in style due to idiosyncratic usages. Sometimes obscurant for philosophical reasons related to his views of our understanding.
Sartre - clearer if you understand Hegel and Husserl, difficult due to the style, not prone to obscurantism
Levinas - hard to follow because of idiosyncratic vocabulary. In desperate need of an editor, somewhat intentionally obscurant due to opposition to what he sees as traditional modes of relating to the world
Foucault - hard to follow to due to historiographic method of argumentation
Derrida - sometimes intentionally obscurant

Those are the main continental figures I know from the 20th and 21st century.

In regards to "when did this practice start," without a clearer idea of what the practice is, I have no idea.

In regards to "what would be their exact reasons," this part of your question is fundamentally unanswerable. Because (1) there may not be a common practice, (2) each thinker may have their own reasons for doing similar or common practices, and (3) no thinker was forced to write down why they wrote in the way we did.

If you become a philosopher, I would strongly recommend against adopting the practice. While you might find a few universities that will let you write in this way, my experience has been that regardless of sub-field, philosophical writing is best done with clarity and directness. Or to put it another way, academic philosophy is different from famous people philosophy.

The so-called "analytic continental" divide is a weird one, because "analytic" at this point refers to a method (having shifted from the claim that denied there is an metaphysics and saw philosophy just as the analysis of language) -- seeking clarity in our writing, and "continental" refers to a subject matter, i.e. certain philosophies from the continent of Europe starting from about Hegel onward.

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    " Derrida, at least according to my dissertation advisor, promised his mother never to write clearly." Such a good gem. – hellyale Jul 10 '15 at 4:51

Interesting that Hegel himself writes about this in Phänomenologie des Geistes;

Auf diesem ungewohnten Hemmen beruhen großenteils die Klagen über die Unverständlichkeit philosophischer Schriften, wenn anders im Individuum die sonstigen Bedingungen der Bildung, sie zu verstehen, vorhanden sind. Wir sehen in dem Gesagten den Grund des ganz bestimmten Vorwurfs, der ihnen oft gemacht wird, daß mehreres erst wiederholt gelesen werden müsse, ehe es verstanden werden könne; — ein Vorwurf, der etwas Ungebührliches und Letztes enthalten soll, so daß er, wenn er gegründet, weiter keine Gegenrede zulasse. — Es erhellt aus dem Obigen, welche Bewandtnis es damit hat. Der philosophische Satz, weil er Satz ist, erweckt die Meinung des gewöhnlichen Verhältnisses des Subjekts und Prädikats und des gewöhnten Verhaltens des Wissens. Dies Verhalten und die Meinung desselben zerstört sein philosophischer Inhalt; die Meinung erfährt, daß es anders gemeint ist, als sie meinte; und diese Korrektion seiner Meinung nötigt das Wissen auf den Satz zurückzukommen und ihn nun anders zu fassen.

In English translation this is paragraph 63 here:

This unaccustomed restraint imposed upon thought is for the most part the cause of the complaints concerning the unintelligibility of philosophical writings, when otherwise the individual has in him the requisite mental cultivation for understanding them. In what has been said we see the reason for the specific charge often made against them, that a good deal has to be read repeatedly before it can be understood – an accusation which is meant to convey something improper in the extreme, and one which if granted to be sound admits of no further reply. It is obvious from the above what is the state of the case here. The philosophical proposition, being a proposition, calls up the accepted view of the usual relation of subject and predicate, and suggests the idea of the customary procedure which takes place in knowledge. Its philosophical content destroys this way of proceeding and the ordinary view taken of this process. The common view discovers that the statement is intended in another sense than it is thinking of, and this correction of its opinion compels knowledge to recur to the proposition and take it now in some other sense.

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    i read the preface of the phenomenology of spirit and it was a pretty bizarre experience, probably the weirdest i've had reading philosophy. – user6917 Jan 20 '15 at 1:31
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    It seems to me the right perspective is to read it as a piece in gnosticism or mysticism. Chapter III is maybe the most astounding: a conciousness after perceiving its own existence and reflecting on it sees in that reflection the dynamics of the forces of nature appear. – Urs Schreiber Jan 20 '15 at 11:16
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    Yeah, isn't that fun, Hegel's explanation of why philosophical writing is hard to understand is itself hard to understand. But, take it easy. Some people like Jazz, others don't. Nothing to get worked up over. – Urs Schreiber Jan 24 '15 at 22:13
  • Urs Schreiber Lmao.He is just making potential readers go away. lol. – Kentaro Apr 16 '15 at 9:58

'Deliberate obfuscation' suggests that, privately, these philosophers have a clear formulation of their thoughts, but in writing they try to obscure them. I can't think of any reason to believe this would be true for any great philosopher.

Kierkegaard's difficulty is for me mainly that, besides being long-winded, he speaks in 'hegelese', in the language of Hegel. Hegel's language is difficult because a lot of his terms differ (strongly) in meaning from (current) everyday usage. This, however, has been a feature of philosophy from the start. Plato used 'idea' (image) in an idiosyncratic way. The same goes for Aristotle's 'morphe', Descartes' 'cogito', Kant's 'Vorstellung', Carnap's 'framework', etc.

Ernst Tugendhat (in Selbstbewußtsein und Selbstbestimmung, English: Self-consciousness and self-determination) described Heidegger's use of language as 'evocative'. Inspired on that I would differentiate between two forms of language in philosophy:

  1. analytical: trying to break up and separate unknown notions into understandable, known notions. The goal is description, clarification. Its style is therefore critical, clear, argumentative.
  2. evocative: trying to conceive a change in meaning, a semantic shift, a mutation in terminology. The goal is a modified or new perspective. Its style is more obscure or, positively, more poetic, because the philosopher has to convey the new meaning using the 'old' words.

I think both strands can be found in most philosophers. Some are more on the analytical side, while others on the evocative side.

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    You don't see why? Schopenhauer wrote a full book about it. In short: when a philosopher don't have any good or new idea, but lives on the pretension of being a deep thinker, he/she will obfuscate his/her writings exactly to hide the fact the he/she have nothing to say. – Rodrigo Nov 16 '15 at 22:27

Whitehead gives one of the best defenses of the use of what we might call 'difficult' language in philosophy (IMO) in his Lecture titled "Understanding" in the Modes of Thought book. It is perhaps an evolution of an Aristotelian line on partial and full knowing/understanding:

Philosophy is the attempt to make manifest the fundamental evidence as to the nature of things. Upon the presupposition of this evidence, all understanding rests. A correctly verbalized philosophy mobilizes this basic experience which all premises presuppose. It makes the content of the human mind manageable; it adds meaning to fragmentary details; it discloses disjunctions and conjunctions, consistencies and inconsistencies. Philosophy is the criticism of abstractions which govern special modes of thought.

Language halts behind intuition. The difficulty of philosophy is the expression of what is self-evident. Our understanding outruns the ordinary usages of words.

His argument goes on to connect a number of different things, such as the relationship between the exposition of philosophical language to the more self-enclosed languages of logic and mathematics (and aesthetics, as he defines it). But the basic idea is here that the use of ordinary language and the references our minds make to ordinary usage poses an obstacle for philosophy to define what it attempts to posit in a novel fashion.


There is the assumption here that the argument and its exposition are different things. This is not always the case, Adorno's philosophy is a case in point I think.

So you'd be better off asking: why is some philosophy so convoluted.

The answer to that is probably about both the knotted history of philosophy, and thought itself. You could say that a philosophy should always be clear etc., but as long as it isn't composed of nothing but naive questions, but philosophy also generates its own problems, then it seems quite fitting that their answer won't just be a resolution, but actively generates further questions, which may be of increasing complexity.

  • I wasn't the down vote but if you could rephrase your last point for clarity, you will have my up vote. As it stands, your last sentence is unintelligible. Other than that, I think your point that the argument is not always separate from the exposition is right on par and very interesting. – Dylan Williams Jan 20 '15 at 20:22

My theory: Yes, it is deliberate. Why?

Science has explained enough to make people self-aware, thus threatening the "nobility" and the lies they use to keep their privileged position.

That's why "nobility" attacks the sciences, clarity, and logic itself. I consider these to be three traits of "post modernity." Thus confusing the students that could enlighten the masses even more, to the point where the "nobility" would not just be threatened, but "extinct".


When did it begin? Before Schopenhauer, for sure, since he writes about this in his "The Art of Literature" ("A Arte de Escrever", in portuguese). He says that when somebody doesn't have anything to say, it's useful to hide this absence under obscure sentences.

In the 20th century, this has become more common, and even widespread in what has been called "post-modernism". One of the basis of this movement is the attack of reason. Their justification is that reason enables technology, and modern technology is enslaving humankind. Beautiful, BUT: the industry will keep on using technology AND reason to enslave humankind, but humankind has everyday less reason to defend itself.

What I think it's going on is: the Enlightenment, and the science and philosophy after it, have gradually reduced the power of religion to enslave humankind. Darwin gave the "mercy shot" in the monotheistic god, Marx developed a system where religion was abandoned, and humankind could at last (in theory) be free. Of course there would be a reaction. The power of the religious elite is big enough to put "thinkers" inside important universities, to publish their books, to make flattering reviews and so on. It seems to me it began with the so-called "Frankfurt school" (composed mostly of jews, a group that owns lots of things, from universities to newspapers and industries).

Other points they repeatedly assert: "there is no truth", if there is no truth, than there is no lie, and the religions again can lie without anyone say they're lying. They also write a lot about "fragmentation", since a fragmented society is weak to defend itself against the powerful ones (be it the industry or the churches).

But why use a cryptic style to convey such message? Because, in a rational society, their lies would be immediately unveiled. With their style, they can always answer "that's not what we said!" But there is more to their style: they mix cryptic passages with very clear ones - and the clear ones are of two kind: 1) the one that makes obvious claims, thus serving as an anchor to the reader's thinking ("oh, now I'm getting what he is saying...") and usually giving a left-wing sensation, what makes them popular in the "developing" world; 2) some subliminal passages where they spread their real values, i.e. putting theology and philosophy as "equal", and both above the natural sciences; accusing science of mistakes made by religion; saying that "the world is a human construct", that "the truth is inside each head"; etc.

Part of it has been explained by Sokal in his famous "affair". But other critics have said similar things about other "thinkers", for instance, Derrida.

Finally, if you should write in such style? Of course not! One who thinks clearly must write clearly. If one is on the side of the people, it should be able to communicate with the people. I suggest writing as clear as possible, like Bertolt Brecht, Schopenhauer, Noam Chomsky, Bertrand Russell, Mark Twain, Dostoievski and many others.

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    “composed mostly of jews, a group that owns lots of things, from universities to newspapers and industries”—dude, seriously? Some Jews were super-rich, some Jews were writing on philosophy, these 2 groups mostly did not intersect. Being a Jew is just one property, among many. It's basic set theory/logic, WTF. – Mirzhan Irkegulov Jan 22 '15 at 17:03
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    "Mostly did not intersect"? How do you know? So you believe in that story that they attacked the logic trying to help people? Why not attack the industries that used logic and technology to enslave people? That's the approach used by Noam Chomsky, and it seems far more useful to me. – Rodrigo Jan 22 '15 at 20:07
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    I didn't speculate what you think. I ASKED what you think. And you didn't answer. It seems you are one more interested in keeping the religious status quo, most western philosophers are exactly like that. Jews dominate the west. Most of the tv channels in Brazil and other countries are pro-Israel. If hundreds of palestines die, they don't give a damn. Only one jew dies, that's news. One must take a look at the big picture, before trying to grasp what is and what is not logical. – Rodrigo Jan 22 '15 at 21:38
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    And those downvotes are completely foreseeable. Say the monotheism is a disgrace to the world, and most philosophers won't even ask why, they'll just knock you out. – Rodrigo Jan 22 '15 at 21:40
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    They are promoting a neo-obscurantism, upon which they profit. What haven't you understood? Philosophy long ago was about trying to understand the world. Today it is more about citing the "great ones" and pretending they have to be right, since they are "great". THIS is a fallacy. Now, if you were a philosopher, you would try to understand what I'm saying, instead of saying I'm wrong just because you didn't get it. – Rodrigo Jan 22 '15 at 21:57

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