I happen to believe that strong writing and speaking skills are a non-negotiable requirement for any intellectual and philosophers in particular. While I obviously disclaim that as a personal opinion, I don't see it as particularly controversial because how valuable are your ideas if you can't communicate them properly and to as wide an audience as applicable? The applicability scope does matter -- a publication on tardigrade reproductive behavior understandably has a much narrower audience than a philosophical treatise on ethics, which their language should reflect (hint: it's more okay for the former to be arcanely worded as its target audience is more controlled).

So when a philosopher who is speculating on matters that affect pretty much every human walking the planet has downright awful writing skills, let's mention Hegel as one of the not so few examples, why do you cut this person slack? Why, if they are so brilliant, do they need an interpretor (e.g. Kojeve) to translate their ideas to the general audience? If they are so brilliant to dispense ethical imperatives that apply to wide audiences, shouldn't they be held in high expectations to themselves make their ideas easily digestible to those audiences?

What prompted me ask this rather broad question is that I notice (even on this forum) a level of disdain for any thinker who does offer philosophical insight but is not a formal philosopher and writes in clear, understandable manner. Famously Foucault said that

In France, you gotta have ten percent incomprehensible, otherwise people won't think it's deep--they won't think you're a profound thinker."

A knee jerk response from a nonexpert armchair consumer of philosophy is that it's a defense mechanism from the academic ivory tower to protect their status in the community as the select few who can interpret something that in better conditions shouldn't require much interpretation. But I am hoping there is a better explanation that doesn't come off as some anti-intellectual elitism paranoia and in favor of this hierarchy. In short, my question is, what intellectual justification exists to forgive (good?) philosophers for terrible writing skills? Or in other words, convince me that writing skills do not correlate with general intellectual value. I'm very open to change my mind.

  • Writing long sentences with lots of incomprehensible-by-the-general-public words seems to be a very common problem. – jjack Mar 6 '18 at 16:24
  • yes. a long sentence is generally reducible to shorter, more concise units. but could that be frowned upon by anti-reductionist ivory tower dwellers concerned that edification of general populace may endanger their social status? – amphibient Mar 6 '18 at 16:30
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    Not seeing your opinion as controversial is a common opinion people have about their opinions, and a common mistake. Hegel's example shows (one reason) why, to many of his students he was the best professor they ever had, "proper communication" is subject to opinions. A bigger problem is with the brilliance "argument" which is a version of "if you are so smart why aren't you rich". Depth of ideas does not come in packages with literary talent and vice versa, righteous indignation notwithstanding. Btw, personal opinions, moralizing, and judgmental demands are not exactly SE post material. – Conifold Mar 6 '18 at 21:18
  • @Conifold ""I wish Karl would accumulate some capital instead of just writing about it." Henrietta Marx – CriglCragl Mar 7 '18 at 11:10

Why do we excuse the engineer who can't write well enough to document their code? Why do we excuse the scientist who is too messy to find their own data? Why do we excuse the artist who can't sell their own painting? The answer, of course, is that they're good at what they do!

I agree with you that I think the ability to communicate your ideas is fundamental to what I would call being a "successful philosopher." But sometimes it can be tricky. Many of the questions that are interesting in philosophy have no natural answer. Philosopher often dig very deep before finding something "close enough" to an answer, and they spend their time communicating that. Contrast that with many other businesses where there is "an answer," and you simply have to find it.

Some of the reason we excuse a philosopher for bad communication skills is simply that those who have plumbed the work for its secrets find those secrets useful. They then become a sort of priesthood, pointing to the work of the original philosopher saying, "there's some good stuff in here!" And we can trust the priesthood, or not. It's our choice.

From my own life, I can say that if you went to Cort-ten-years-ago and told him what I am finding valuable in philosophy today, I'd think you were a loon. I "knew" better than to think these sorts of things are worthwhile. I simply wasn't ready to question myself that much. So in a sense, that sort of anecdote shows a reality: philosophers are not trying to communicate to everybody all the time. Sometimes the target audience is the priesthood of philosophers who can spend the time and energy to dig into your work.

I tend to prefer to think as you do. I love Alan Watts' work not just because of their content, but because he was an incredibly accessible man. He wasn't interesting in preaching and having everyone miss the point. He talked to their level, whatever that level was. I value the work of philosophers like him. But I also have to admit that there is "that other thing," that seems so difficult to attain without crossing a bridge of sorts and finding onesself unable to communicate what they have seen.

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    The essence of your answer is philosophers are not trying to communicate to everybody all the time. Sometimes the target audience is the priesthood of philosophers who can spend the time and energy to dig into your work., which is why I upvoted it – amphibient Mar 5 '18 at 19:16

Vincent VanGogh, painter of the world's most valuable body of paintings (judged by insurance valuations because no one sells them anymore), never sold a single painting in his whole life. I saw Andre Geim speak, who shared in a Nobel Prize for discovering graphene - terrible public speaker, clearly didn't want to be doing that. Dirac is probably the greatest scientist you've never heard of, because we was so disinterested in talking to those outside his field. Darwin wouldn't publish until forced to, and crucially required popularisers and advocates like Huxley, to be heard.

convince me that writing skills do not correlate with general intellectual value.

A philosopher's job is original thought, not self-publicity. Wittgenstein never formally published beyond his Tractatus; the work he is most famous for, and certainly among the last centuries most important, only survived from informal notebooks, and in the inspiration of his students - and it's so unclear there are a huge variety of interpretations. Nietzsche similarly was way far ahead of his time, but more than made up in original thought what he lacked in self-promotion or frankly, clarity. Great philosophers get discussed, that is more important than who can read their original texts. Most of Marx is as bad as Hegel, and Hegel is only even read now because of his influence on Marx. But 20th C. politics and history cannot be understood without addressing the impact of Marx's thought.

Meanwhile many philosophers popular in their own times for giving intellectual backing to people's prejudices, are remembered at best as footnotes, or else as villains.

There is nothing wrong with popular science or philosophy, and public intellectuals are essential to informed healthy public debate. But we will remember the breakers-of-new-ground, in telling the story of how we got where we are, not some kind of popularity contest like you seem to suggest. We will record the path to todays unanswered questions, and areas of concern.

Intellectual snobbery is no good, wilful obscurantism, and jargonising - I feel analytic philosophies obsession with formal logic is more about gate-keeping than utility. But proposing anti-intellectualism is no better it is the path, not only to ignoring great thinkers and thoughts, but those which disagree with and challenge you too easily, by labelling them 'difficult'.

  • painter of the world's most valuable body of paintings (judged by insurance valuations because no one sells them anymore), never sold a single painting in his whole life. -- not really relevant. A painter's selling skills are not essential to painting but a conveyor of idea's presentation skills are – amphibient Mar 6 '18 at 15:42
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    @amphibient The writing style and publication form is more like the frame & curators blurb. Maybe Picasso or Marcel Duchamp are better examples, who's challenges to subject and presentational orthodoxies was exactly part of the content. Nietzsche & Wittgenstein both challenged subject & presentation orthodoxies too, in ways also forming part of what their thoughts & methods were – CriglCragl Mar 6 '18 at 17:57

Mathematics is fetished as the epitome of clarity, yet there are many mathematicians who are bad writers. Others are good writers but their system of thought is so self-inter-related and complex that it can be hard to establish the truth and validity of it. For example, the verification of the proof of the abc conjecture by Mochizuki has been going on for three years and counting now. Nevertheless people are prepared to work on his system as the conjecture is important.

Similarly, philosophers are engaged in complex dialectics and dialogue with other philosophers. To understand them one has to be prepared to work at them. For philosophers who have written some time ago, like your example Hegel, historical circumstance has to be taken into account.

Hegel by the way can write clearly, try his Philosophy of Right which I found particularly clear. Whether or not you agree with it is another matter.

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