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. Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 22:19
  • 3
    Having (tried to) read Kierkegaard that feels very likely.
    – user2953
    Commented Jan 18, 2015 at 0:21
  • adorno says all philosophy should resist paraphrase..
    – user6917
    Commented Jan 19, 2015 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.
    – user13955
    Commented Apr 16, 2015 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.
    – user13955
    Commented Apr 16, 2015 at 11:16

9 Answers 9


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
    Commented Jul 10, 2015 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
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 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. Commented Jan 20, 2015 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. Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 22:13
  • Urs Schreiber Lmao.He is just making potential readers go away. lol.
    – user13955
    Commented Apr 16, 2015 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.

  • 2
    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
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 22:27

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".


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.


My personal theory is that French philosophy is the way that it is, because of the way that it is taught in French high-schools. See [https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22729780]

In French high-schools, for the BAC, philosophy is mandatory. Philosophy is taught primarily via excerpts from the pre-20th century "Greats", that is: from before the time when positivism, linguistic philosophy, and analytic philosophy pretty effectively discredited traditional metaphysics. It emphasizes notions -- abstractions such as consciousness, The Other, art, existence and time, matter and spirit, society, law, duty, happiness. This, as Gilbert Ryle pointed out in his essay "Phenomenology vs. The Concept of Mind", is a good way to go wrong.

Brainwashing students into believing that philosophy consists of random maundering on such abstractions as Truth, Beauty, and Justice is the perfect way to set them up to accept the kind of rubbish that now passes for philosophy in France. That's what they think philosophy is; that's what they expect from philosophers; and that's what their philosophers give them.

This means, in part, that we can't expect French philosophy to change. As long as BAC philosophy continues to be taught the way it is now, French philosophy will continue to be as messed-up as it is now.

  • The thing is this is not really unique to philosophy or France. Take how maths are taught at high-school level in the US... Commented Mar 20, 2021 at 0:43

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
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 20:22

John Searle has said that both Foucault and Bourdieu told him that they deliberately obscured their French texts, and that their peers would not perceive their writing as profound if not for this unclarity. It sounds like a kind of academic sprezzatura.

I once had a conversation with a famous French philosopher who's a friend of mine. And I said to him, "Why the hell do you write so badly?" ... And this was Michel Foucault. He was a very smart guy and wrote a lot of very good stuff but in general he just wrote badly. When you heard him give a lecture in Berkeley, it was perfectly clear, just as clear as I am. ... And he said, "Well, in France, it would be regarded as somewhat childish and naive if you wrote clearly. ... In France you've got to have 10% incomprehensible." Otherwise people won't think it's deep. They won't think you're a profound thinker.

And I gave a series of lectures in Paris at the Collège de France with another very famous French philosopher as my host, Pierre Bourdieu, and I told this story to Pierre, ... And he said it's worse than 10%, more like 20%. And I have to say if you read Bourdieu, yeah, 20% at least ...

You see, there was a time when I learned French when the slogan was, "Si ce n'est pas clair, ce n'est pas français. If it's not clear, it's not French." That has been abandoned in French philosophy and a lot of it is very obscure.

Source: UC Berkeley Philosophy of Language (Philosophy 133), lecture 21, ~40:00, Fall 2010

  • Interesting answer. I would like to see primary sources from any such French philosophers themselves saying such a thing. Let me know if you know of any. Thanks. Commented Jan 16 at 14:48

There is no such thing as continental philosophy or insular philosophy ("insular" functioning here as the opposite of "continental"). These are xenophobic words meant to disparage, not to understand.

Each and every philosopher develops a personal way of using language -- and in that sense, every philosopher develops a "private language" -- some more complex than others. It's part of that philosophical terrain; you occasionally need new concepts.

I believe some people aggravated the trend by not being disciplined enough in their concept creation drive. Kant and Leibnitz started that, then Hegel basically proved that one could pass for a philosopher by just using obscure language.

From there on, rare were the philosophers who dared to express themselves clearly, even in the anglosphere. Check Wittgenstein's or Rorty's writings if you don't believe me.

It takes a lot of work to write clearly, far more work than to write confused gibberish à la Wittgenstein or Lacan. And when your writing is clear, it offers no escape in case of contradiction, whereas someone purposefuly ambiguous like Derrida can always pretend, when faced with contradiction, that his contradictor did not understand him correctly... :-)

In short, ambiguity is part of the philosophical territory; it's just that some authors try to fight it, while others wallow in it.

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