What good is philosophy that is not clearly reasoned? Questions like this have already come up, but I specifically would like to know what the more obscure philosophy can, on account of its lack of clarity, accomplish, which clear and careful analysis and reasoning cannot.

I'm asking because while I totally agree that being as clear as we can isn't always the best way to present, let alone generate, a claim, I can't see what that obscure style can do, that only it can argue rather than bring about (e.g. political change, or personal satisfaction, or some exclusionary effect).

Which I think breaks down into two questions:

  1. Why are some philosophical arguments difficult to follow?

  2. Can a willful lack of clarity be justified?

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    Can you explain what you mean by commonsense and exhaustive clarity ?
    – Stefan_W
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 21:12
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    Clearly you haven't read Heidegger...... Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 22:18
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    What is it that you think "clear and careful analysis and reasoning" have "achieved" in philosophy? As far as I can tell, nothing has been "achieved" in or from philosophy of any description, clear or otherwise. The more obscure philosophers might be likened to a work of art, to be judged on it's subjective merit to the reader, but the clear analytical works are more like an ongoing game of chess, great fun for the players, but it doesn't mean the current winner has actually achieved anything in the real world.
    – user22791
    Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 8:01
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    @isaacson, do you regard the advancements in logic (since Aristotle) to be non-achievements? Do you also regard nominalism in mathematics to be on equal footing as Platonism in mathematics? I think your perspective might might seem tenable only if you mistakenly compare advancements in engineering and the sciences (which have brought about clear physical benefits) to philosophy (which is purely conceptual). Advancements in the latter realm have most certainly led to better reasoning in certain people; I take that to be as "real world" as you can get. Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 21:33
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    @Isaacson Why should "achievement" be reaching an objective, let alone a clearly defined one? One of dictionary descriptions is "a result gained by effort", so its colloquial meaning is broader. Indeed, even works of art are often called artists's achievements, so I see no problem with using the word here. Moreover, what you call "achieving in the real world" is just as vague an objective, and is based on a personal value system, to which others are not obligated to subscribe.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jul 4, 2017 at 2:44

5 Answers 5


Generally, philosophers are not trying to be unclear or obscure as an end unto itself. Philosophy is about original thought, and truly new thoughts are hard to communicate. The problem is that they proceed from an idiosyncratic perspective, thought process and set of assumptions. When someone like Hegel is obscure and hard to follow, it's because he's working so hard to be clear and distinct. When someone like Kierkegaard takes a tortuous path to a simple destination, it is because without the journey to get there you'll mistake his concepts for others that are only superficially similar.

To elaborate on the justification for willful obscuity: You can view it like walking a labyrinth (one just laid out as a set of paths, not one with physical walls). You could just walk directly to the center, and not follow the path, but people do find it valuable to take the longer route.

It's also worth nothing that philosophy can also get harder to understand as it ages because it was written to communicate with a time and set of attitudes that may no longer exist. With that in mind, as mentioned elsewhere, there have been times and places where wilful obscurity has been prized in writing. It is possible that some philosophers (say, the French postmodernists) have deliberately pursued this trend, but in that particular case, the obscurity is not because of the philosophy but because of the times.

  • I actually read a citation by either Lacan or Baudrillard, that some of the French postmodernists and post-structuralists were deliberately trying to be obscure, and that it was a tendency forced on them by a general attitude amongst French academics at the time that if it wasn't hard to read then there must be little substance to it. (Having grown up in a Francophone academic environment myself, that's not a stretch at all). Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 23:07
  • See this also: philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/38145/13808 Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 23:11
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    @AlexanderSKing Arguably, that still matches the general case of striving to reach the desired audience by communicating in a way that will "speak" to them. It just so happens that in that time and place, obscurity was the favored trend. The fact that this overlaps with unintentional or unavoidable obscurity muddies the waters, but I stand by my original thesis. Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 1:53
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    @AlexanderSKing edited to address. Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 19:56

It could be true that intentionally obscure writing might force certain readers to struggle with a text. It might also be true that struggling with a text (for some) might result in better comprehension since the reader was forced to re-read and ruminate throughout the day. However, none of this is necessary if a person wishes to adopt these good study habits.

You appear to be asking something slightly different than the question presented in the link you've provided, however: whether imprecise (unclear, mysterious, poetic, verbose, etc) writing might be able to prove things that clear and intentionally clear writing cannot prove. In my opinion, the answer is obviously "no". I wonder if anyone within other disciplines (mathematics, logic, or one of the physical sciences) would give such a theory any serious consideration. Probably not! Why? Because demonstration, evidence, and clear-thinking is the best we've got (when possible).

But even if obscurantism cannot have access to its own unique methods of proof or uniquely prove certain classes of assertions, it CAN entertain individuals who are easily bored or skeptical of dry sciences. Additionally, if the vast majority of the dry (or rigorous, unpretentious, evidence-based) sciences rule against some idea in unison, perhaps the only way to respond is by constructing a seemingly elegant, mysterious, and "deep" exposition that pretends to offer readers more than "mere" evidence or reasons for accepting some description of the world (i.e. a method of obtaining authenticity, life-direction, a new level of consciousness, or access to God's mind).

My opinion, however, is that obscure writing is dishonest at best ... an unfortunate methodology often relied upon when the thinker is either unable to think scientifically (perhaps in terms of intellectual ability) or when he finds himself in need of an extravagant-sounding theory in order to convince gullible people of some alternative.

Rigorous study, actual research, and creative problem-solving is infinitely more difficult than heavily politicized wand-waving. It's easier to feel like you're progressing and it's easier to indoctrinate people when you've chosen the latter as your M.O. But hey, do what you need to do, I guess.


To me, this question comes down to whether it is better to communicate something that is at the edge of one's ability to communicate, or to always stay firmly in the territory where one is certain.

Nietzsche in particular considers it pointless to simply say the things one can be reasonably certain of. Others have already said those things better, and they are boring to him. They cannot be put 'presto', as he puts it in one place: they do not continually surprise you enough to sustain a high tempo and a bright tone -- they end up pushing instead of pulling insight. Instead, in many of his books, in particular The Gay Science, he probes the boundaries of things that appear obvious, hoping to communicate more than one might by simply stating the part one can consistently convey clearly.

The result is that what is said is often captured as a matter of taste, or in objection to other positions that are commonly held. And this leads to people seeing him as basically a critic of everyone else, who just won't be clear about what he means. Instead, you have to sit with the impressions, and take in the work of philosophy as one would take in a work of art.

Other names who are 'big for being deep' produce the same issue. It is difficult to talk about something as normal as time and existence (e.g. Heidegger/Hegel), meaning and reaction (e.g. Lacan), truly basic moral necessities (e.g. Kant), the kind of psychological furniture that people use automatically (e.g. Kierkegaard), the essential features of perception (e.g. Husserl) etc. without getting trapped in models that intervene and distort our interpretation. One has to process them very thoroughly, or subject oneself to them very completely and put forward the subtle effects that others have missed. That involves stating edge cases that threaten to be hidden by the simplifications of the everyday model.

The drawback is that you may, in fact only be conveying impressions that are special to yourself, or that are omitted from the common model exactly because they are utterly pointless (to be a bit catty, e.g. Adorno).

  • s'adorno is a good one
    – user25714
    Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 15:13

Here's my idea, and it's short.

We use Philosophy to create discussion; to prove to our selves we aren't the only ones that think the thoughts we think.

It's to confirm our suspicions; to prove that we aren't crazy, and that we might be correct; this is why even math has philosophy. So the people asking know other people come to the same conclusions.

I also believe people shouldn't agree on one inherent philosophical idea, because if we did, we would stop learning, and our discussions would then stop.


Thanks for structuring your answer better. I still have the feeling that you already know the answer by implying that clarity (what kind of and who can judge on which basis?) cannot be achievied by writing more complex and in a different style. Hence, I would like to highlight 3 aspects.
Firstly, the clarity of a philosophical argument depends to some extent on its historical context (including social, cultural, political etc factors). Spinoza has written in a different time period than Hegel or Rawls and therefore, they used a different style of argumentation and addressed problems in their specific way. We have to take this into account when we talk about the readability of texts and I think hermeneutical approaches have stressed this point quite convincingly. Secondly, reading different approaches to philosophical thinking might expand your way of understanding the world and I enjoy this plurality. For instance, arguing with Rawls on justice is nice and can help to see the obstacles to achieve justice or a just society. However reading Foucault or Derrida and using their ideas for an argument on justice, you could engage in a discussion not so much on what is a just society, but why is justice such a dominant idea in philosophy in the first place and what are the consequences of a disciplines which is so much influenced by this term since a few decades? I think both approaches are interesting for philosophy, but come from different angles
Thirdly, claiming that there is a philosophy which is clear, engages in serious problems and helps to understand the world while the other philosophy is just (as jeffreysbrother said):

dishonest at best ... an unfortunate methodology often relied upon when the thinker is either unable to think scientifically (perhaps in terms of intellectual ability) or when he finds himself in need of an extravagant-sounding theory in order to convince gullible people of some alternative.

Such an accusation is not helpful and answers not the qestion. Additionally and here I quote again from the former comment:

I wonder if anyone within other disciplines (mathematics, logic, or one of the physical sciences) would give such a theory any serious consideration. Probably not! Why? Because demonstration, evidence, and clear-thinking is the best we've got (when possible).

I am not familiar with the natural sciences, but when you look at economics, you find highly complicated theories and approaches to understand the world and measure X or Y to find (significant) evidences. You might find their theories understandable, because they use formulas, equations, so formal theory, to understand and explain. But how many people if not to say researcher can actually follow such thoughts and reproduce it? How many people actually understand all the assumptions (behind these theories) which are, as Paul Romer for macroeconomics recently argued, quite far away from the real world (despite the fact that with such models, problems are not solved too).
Interestingly, such perhaps also obscurant approaches are not often criticised. Instead, the typical bashing of Hegel, Nietzsche or Adorno starts and based on my experience, such harsh criticisms are often based on some examples, but not on actually engaging with their texts. I am not implying that this is the case here, but as I said in the beginning, to me, your question is tendentious in regard to the expected answers.