As a newbie here (though not on SO or on the net before that) I am surprised at the number of questions about what some philosopher meant.

Examples, just picked from the time point of writing this and back a few days, include

In general the abundance of such questions seems to indicate that readers here are seeking clarification because the opinions are regarded as important, but are insufficiently clearly communicated to be possible to understand without clarification.

Then, assuming that the readers who make these questions are reasonably intelligent, and they're evidently also eager to learn, is not the philosophers' failure to communicate their views to such people an (1)indication that they did not think clearly about the relevant issues?

And if so, why are these opinions held to be important enough to ask about?

Or are there other explanations, such as e.g. dyslexia?

(1) I included the George Boole question as a possible counter example. When I read that book I already knew a lot about him and his works, and so I understood his general drift even though it wasn't very clearly communicated, and in spite of some logical fallacies that he was criticized for by others at the time. It's possibly an example that greatness that does not require perfection? But I think the other questions are not about perfection but rather about inability to communicate halfway clearly, at all. Possibly. ;-)

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    Incidentally, @Cheersandhth.-Alf, if you find math simple, you're not doing hard enough math. It scales to whatever difficulty level you want to take it.
    – Rex Kerr
    May 13, 2015 at 8:27
  • @RexKerr: I also find programming simple. [edited out ad hominem [mod]] May 13, 2015 at 10:13
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    @Cheersandhth.-Alf - math scales, so your comment doesn't make much sense (especially as a response to a comment that basically says "complex math is the interesting stuff"). Maybe you meant that the logical structure in these examples is simple (at least for you), or would be if only the philosophers expressed themselves clearly, so issues of underlying complexity don't seem to be the issue? [some editing applied by mod]
    – Rex Kerr
    May 13, 2015 at 15:47
  • @Cheersandhth.-Alf I'm sorry I didn't see the comments you left here most recently because the letter in maior is an i -- not a j. I'm not really grasping how I is that I am "repeatedly perform[ing] a series of personal attacks." As you state, you've been on SE for a while, so you should know that if you have an issue with a mod, take it to meta. / I've deleted a smack ton of comments that went somewhere strange.
    – virmaior
    May 18, 2015 at 2:53
  • I don't think @virmajor's quote here is accurate. Anyway he/she has now deleted all context. He/she has changed one of my comments above to falsely indicate that it included an ad hominem attack. I don't think it would be fruitful to speculate about his/her reasons. I just note that the very first thing I did here on Philosophy was to point out his/her abuse of his/her mod status wrt. another user. May 18, 2015 at 3:24

4 Answers 4


I'll try to provide a partial answer as I do think this is an interesting question about philosophy.

Reasons Philosophy is Hard to Understand

First, I would say that you might be losing something in describing the works of philosophers as "opinions". On a certain trivial level, they are opinions, but on this trivial level so is C The Programming Language, the weather forecast, and the dictionary. Presumably, you mean something more negative -- i.e., that philosophy is composed of mere opinions about which people can just choose to disagree. And on a larger scale, that's probably got some validity. But on the smaller scale, good philosophers produce relatively coherent systems that make internal sense.

Second, the task of understanding philosophy is somewhat like understanding the spec for a programming language, there are going to be some points of obscurity inspired by what we don't understand in what the author is saying. I remember when I was 12 or so that I didn't understand the programming concept array, and even when I read about it, I had trouble fathoming what they were. It didn't help that the language I started with was GW-BASIC. My point here is that for some things, we might not know the terms because we're unfamiliar with the terms people use to solve and speak about a particular problem in philosophy (and because this is philosophy, the terms are often idiolectic).

Third, a lot of philosophy refers to obscured events in history or in language. Using contemporary examples, the word "copy" has for me largely changed meanings to mean CCing in an e-mail. Phrases like LOL, IMO, FTW, and others have appeared in our language, and will either eventually become completely acceptable or become obscure enough that future generations wouldn't understand them if they read them. Hegel, for instance, cares a lot about plays that we haven't heard of. The sort of history everyone in Aristotle's time knew is something you would need a specialist to decipher now. Some of the difficulty in understanding philosophy comes from this.

Fourth, some of the philosophers are bad authors -- or at least bad authors by the standards of our times. Contemporary philosophy aims to be clear and concise, but philosophy around the era of Kant aimed to be complex. Medieval Christian philosophy is a giant system built around answers to a set of questions first answered by Bernard Magnus -- it'd be nearly impossible to understand why Henry of Ghent is bothering to word something the way he is without a basic grasp of that.

Reasons People care to bother trying

The most trivial reason is that it's considered at many schools part of a university-level education, either to familiarize people with the great "canonical" thinkers of the past or to teach analytic skills related either to reading hard texts or logic.

More substantively, we still bother reading (some of ) these authors, because they developed interesting systems that have insights for contemporary problems, or at least raise arguments that still pose challenges. I'll give two famous philosophers that have few true contemporary followers: Plato and Descartes. But people responding to them and coming in their wake do have contemporary followers: Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Mill. It helps to understand the thought of the former to make sense of what the latter are responding to and to understand the problems they took seriously.

So for instance, there are many contemporary ethicists with a generally Kantian persuasion in their approach. Which means they need to address the problems that Kant faced and explain how their view overcomes them. Part of that task is deciphering Kant's prose. (In answer to why Kant, there's two pieces of that puzzle: (1) it may partially be luck that his is the view of a group of similar ones that people baptized into the canon but (2) he offers one of the more promising approaches to a universal non-arbitrary approach to morality that doesn't center on God (or at least not directly)).

A third reason is that some of the people who post questions are as you suggest, not the brightest or most diligent in their efforts. Some of them cannot write nearly as clearly in English as you or I. We get probably a question each week on the difference between validity and soundness -- which is basically about definitions.

To wit, you could have found lots of explanations by googling "why study philosophy" (https://sites.google.com/site/whystudyphilosophy/ http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/02/why-study-philosophy-to-challenge-your-own-point-of-view/283954/ / http://users.ox.ac.uk/~worc0337/why_phil.html / https://gustavus.edu/philosophy/answers.php ) but instead you asked here.

Some of our askers ask great questions though which demonstrate a solid grasp of the subject matter in question and point to obscure issues. Or people ask questions that want comparisons or integrations of philosophical texts that are hard to access. The untrained eye cannot decipher a paragraph of Hegel (old German style of authorship, obscure method, references to history we don't study any more), but I can think of at least one user here outside of myself who can.

  • Thanks for that answer. I think much of it is worth keeping in mind, although I feel it's not a complete explanation of the apparent communication failure, and the statement that I've asked about "why study philosophy" is, uhm, baffling. Anyway I'm sorry about my English; I'm Norwegian. May 12, 2015 at 1:35
  • @Cheersandhth.-Alf I've always believed Scandanavians speak better English than native speakers like myself. I guess your question is legitimately closer to "why do people have trouble studying philosophy" but I see that as kind of a mirror of "why study philosophy"
    – virmaior
    May 12, 2015 at 1:45

As should be obvious to anyone who genuinely thinks, and has any concern whatsoever for the thoughts of other people, not all ideas occur equally naturally to all minds.

As noted by Plato, there is a degree to which any important idea is less formulated than recognized. He went so far as to believe all important knowledge must therefore already be in the mind. But the oversimplification does not make this common experience less true.

To the degree Plato's observation is true, one cannot clearly communicate most important ideas directly, but can only lead people to states in which those ideas might be recognized. Often only once related ideas are integrated can truly new ones be addressed. This is going to be harder for certain people, and certain ideas.

Most easily comprehensible philosophers are either not original, or not actually saying what they mean, but interpreting for others. Someone like Bertrand Russel can be clear in almost every line. But if you take his body of basic (solo) work as a whole, it thoroughly contradicts itself, because he takes up one, and then another stable position formed by others, lays it out and moves on. He knoweth as he listeth. This is a great introduction to how ideas evolve. But we are left not really knowing what Russel, himself, ultimately thought, except on very specific technical questions, or on ethical questions about which the was quite passionate.

At the other extreme someone like Nietzsche, or the later Wittgenstein can be much clearer about all of he work he is contrasting himself with, than about his own position. Such original notions are hard to communicate for anyone, because they come as a response to very basic conflicts, and they contradict things we might all wish were true, and that we seem to depend upon the truth of. But they are, at root, right.

So anyone who imagines all philosophers would be equally easily comprehended by any one person, even if expressed perfectly, is basically delusional, or has no perspective and no understanding of the variations in human personality.

  • The surprising statements made without supporting evidence (most notably, "one cannot clearly communicate most important ideas", but the stuff about Russel and Nietzsche and Wittgenstein also is at very least more controversial than is suggested) make this a poor answer.
    – Rex Kerr
    May 12, 2015 at 7:44
  • You can consider Plato mistaken, but the support is there. And you can deny that opinions that directly contradict common deeply-held but simplistic interpretations are difficult to communicate, but I don't think that is controversial. Nor is it controversial that those two authors do that and that most folks find either one or the other of them either hard to read, or hard to relate to. Sometimes it is not worth enumerating the obvious.
    – user9166
    May 12, 2015 at 16:04
  • Mere opinion and procedural knowledge are each difficult to convey. But you're essentially claiming that deep philosophical "rightness" is more procedural than declarative, which is really odd given that philosophy is the paragon of study of declarative knowledge. Surprising things that we know to be right are often easy to communicate: "the stars are like the Sun, just much farther away"; "whooping cough is caused by tiny invisible creatures that can be killed by soap or boiling"; "an infinitely powerful being could delude you with a 'reality' constructed solely to trick you", etc..
    – Rex Kerr
    May 12, 2015 at 17:52
  • Stated and communicated are not the same thing.
    – user9166
    May 12, 2015 at 18:33
  • I can state the germ theory of disease to a chipmunk, but I have not communicated it. Philosophy is neither declarative, nor procedural. The deconstruction of Positivism kind of proves the former, work like Lacan's and Wittgenstein's kind of proves the latter. (You need to 'buy the game', or reproducing it procedurally will not produce meaning.) Being understood is more work than speaking, and truly original ideas will only be understood easily by those whose personalities are predisposed to find them amenable. I am claiming that no one is predisposed in all directions at once.
    – user9166
    May 12, 2015 at 18:41

I haven't read the book by Boole; but it can be an instructive example simply because since the time it has been written much about has gone main-stream and it has been endlessly commentated on and rendered into a prose in which Booles ideas have been rendered transparent.

Those that look at Boole when he was writing the book forget that at the time no one, or very few were interested in the direction he was pioneering; they have the hindsight of history - a history of which he began one of the main lines of thought.

So, when one looks at his prose it's difficult to understand; as are the ideas.

Another example would be Russell's Principia, or a contemporary one would be one of the early papers by Giraud on Linear Logic.

In a separate discipline, have a look at Newtons Principia where he uses geometrical proofs in the style of Euclid; and this from the inventor of calculus - one suspects that he thought the mathematical public, small then, were not ready for two impossible things before breakfast; this didn't hold back Liebniz (hence the priority dispute that rumbled on for a century); the point is - he wasn't being obscure for the sake of it; but using a language which was regarded as the epitome of precision - neccessary when the arguments when one is making are new and controversial.

Of course, now, when one looks at it, it does look obscure and old-fashioned...

  • Thank you also for answering. Just re "no one, or very few were interested in the direction he was pioneering", if you check the dates you'll find (or may find, if that info is available) that Augustus De Morgan and George Boole published within a week of each other. They were sort of competing, in a friendly way, trying to put an end to endless philosophical debates... ;-) The idea was a bit silly, that in the future machines could decide, if one just got logic formalized. Anyway, this is one of my fav connections, that de Morgan was private tutor to the world's first programmer, Augusta Ada. May 12, 2015 at 1:09
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    Sure; they were part of what counted as scientific circles then; so was Newton & Liebniz; the same goes today; and you'll find the same goes for literary circled or Bloomsbury for an example; the point I'm making is that this is in no way comparable to the vast numbers of people who are educated into logic by the methods of mass education; I think I was nine or ten when I was introduced to Venn Diagrams at a school. May 12, 2015 at 1:16

What makes philosophy significant is that it expresses things outside the preexisting understandings of the world. A philosopher is a philosopher precisely because he or she thinks or perceives in ways not readily accessible to others. Accordingly, the hardest challenge of philosophy is not to think, perceive or understand, but to communicate that understanding successfully.

Different philosophers have attacked this challenge in different ways. Hegel is noted for being difficult to understand, but in my estimation he was actually striving for complete clarity. Conversely Plato, one of the most readable of all philosophers, started with the assumption that his philosophy could not be communicated directly, and chose instead to nudge the audience in the direction of gaining the same insights for themselves.

Some philosophy remains forever obscure, but many philosophical insights do eventually pass into the general worldview, thus making them seem easily understood in retrospect. As discussed elsewhere here, however, this arguably means they no longer qualify as philosophical.

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