Are there any guides on how write clearly, especially when writing about philosophy?

I ask because I am usually baffled when someone says that they don't understand me, and at a loss as to how to begin to explain.

Also, how does that work in rhetoric: is it ever a fallacy to claim to not understand?

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    This particular question is quite coherent and clear. I think that's a result of the fact that the question you want to ask is very clear in your mind. So maybe that's an approach to clarifying your philosophical writings: work hard to ensure what you're writing about is crystal clear to you, yourself, first. If you're exploring a new idea and kind of feeling it out, kicking the philosophical ball around in our head, so to speak, that fact is likely to be reflected in your writing. And I'd say to claim you don't understand when you do is unethical in rhetoric, a lie, but not logical fallacy. – Dan Bron Sep 6 '15 at 1:10
  • There are quite a few such guides. One I saw the other day from someone with common research interests as myself: academia.edu/15012656/Techniques_for_Writing_Better_Essays – virmaior Sep 6 '15 at 1:52
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    @DanBron i am usually very clear on what i think about things, my opinions, and how to read philosophy etc.. – user6917 Sep 6 '15 at 13:12
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    @virmaior thanks for the link, most of it is stuff i already do, but the section on "adopt the reader's perspective" is potentially helpful – user6917 Sep 6 '15 at 13:33
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    To me, an untutored hobbyist, the most welcome signpost in a philosophy text is any sentence beginning, "For example...." Also, there may be some value in the old journalist's adage: "Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em. Tell 'em. Then tell 'em what you told 'em." – Nelson Alexander Sep 7 '15 at 18:20

There are many good guides to clear philosophical writing available online. Probably the best is Jim Pryor's, and you should also take a look at his guide to reading philosophy, as the processes of learning to think, read, and write clearly about philosophy are intimately related. There's a very long, but interesting guide to philosophical writing from Cambridge, particularly noteworthy for its analysis of sample topics and essays. And Joshua May has a quick guide that covers the major points, which might be a good thing to read first. As for whether claiming not to understand someone is a fallacy: philosophers tend to find talk of logical fallacies uninformative, since there is much more to the goodness/badness of an argument than its logical validity. If readers often have trouble understanding your prose, chances are they have correctly identified an area (clear writing) in which you should improve. On very rare occasions, philosophers use the accusation that a certain author (say, Wittgenstein or Derrida) is incomprehensible as a reason to dismiss their work, but the vast majority of philosophers genuinely mean what they say when they report being unable to understand a given sentence, paragraph, or paper.

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As was posted in the comment section, there are guides to writing good essays. Most advice you will read IME can be summarised as: keep trying to say it. i.e. don't expect the reader to get it without a concerted effort to structure, write and summarise it as clearly as possible.

What is more puzzling (for me) is how to know what you should say.

One example from my study: I was writing an essay on a poet, who treats the landscape as something that depends on her; toward the end of the essay I noted that she doesn't imagine the landscape is created by her.

This caused the reader great confusion, when I could simply said e.g.:

  • I have explained how the landscapes she describes "depend" on her (highlighting a possible contradiction), but nevertheless, the landscape isn't something she "creates" (explicitly saying it isn't a contradiction). The world she writes about would have existed without her, but not in the manner it does (trying to elaborate to show how the contradiction is only an apparent one).

This is a subset of the need to adopt the reader's perspective. From the linked to guide:

Adopt the reader’s perspective. One of the most valuable techniques for improving a rough draft is to get out of your own head and read the essay as someone else would see it. Imagine a reader who is intelligent and sympathetic, but also thoughtful and constructively critical. Will this idealized reader understand what you are saying and find it plausible? It often helps to imagine a specific individual as your idealized reader. Whether you use a friend or even your instructor as an imagined reader, you may be surprised how many helpful suggestions he or she has to improve your essay. Another trick to adopt the reader’s perspective is to read your essay out loud. You will often hear things that you have trouble seeing. The basic point of this technique is that we should, in the words of best-selling author Kurt Vonnegut, “pity the readers,” because “they have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and identify them immediately.” 2 This is hard work, and we have to make it as easy for them as possible

So, making the right things explicit is important. Aside from making sure the reader doesn't think something self contradictory, what other things must be made explicit?

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    I wouldn't at all summarize the advice as "keep trying to say it." I would say the central point is try to make it clear and try to structure it so well that each sentence fits perfectly where it is to support what you want to say. – virmaior Sep 6 '15 at 14:16
  • @virmaior i suppose so, but that ("fitting perfectly where it is...") is a stage up / on from what i mean - which is just to get the point across. right ? – user6917 Sep 6 '15 at 14:19
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    Doing it perfectly is a stage up (and basically a Platonic Form that can never really be achieved), but trying to do it well is a feature of good writing. You should after you write, look at each sentence, and ask (a) if it expresses something clearly and (b) how it connects to the surrounding sentences. If it fails either test, try again. – virmaior Sep 6 '15 at 14:20
  • how should a sentence connect to what is going on around it? is there a term for the ideal quality between sentences? – user6917 Sep 6 '15 at 14:23
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    'Keep trying' is sound advice; and just means being determined; 'keep trying to say it' might be 'philosophising with a hammer' but in a bad way; I mean not making your point both clearly and strongly. – Mozibur Ullah Sep 7 '15 at 22:39

George Orwell wrote an essay on The English Language, Writing and Politics which you might find useful:

A man may take to drink because he feels himself a failure, and fail the more completely because of this

It is rather the same thing happening with the English Language; it becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish; but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts.

The point is the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one takes the neccessary trouble.

If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a neccessary first step towards political regeneration.

He then quotes a number of passages from political writing current then; and then tears into them, since as he drily notes:

Each passage has faults of their own, but quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to them both. the first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision.

The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent to whether his words mean anything or not.

This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose; and especially of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised the concrete melts into the abstract, and no-one seems to be able to think of turns of phrase that are not hackneyed:

Prose consists less and less of words chosen for their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

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