Bad writing

You might guess that philosophers craft lucid sentences because they strive for precision of thought. Well, guess again. Philosophers, with a few exceptions, are notoriously bad writers. Obscure jargon and interminable sentences abound. Consider, for example, this turgid passage from 20th century Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ book, Otherwise Than Being: Or, Beyond Essence (a wretched title, if there ever was one):

The ego is an incomparable unicity; it is outside of the community of genus and form, and does not find any rest in itself either, unquiet, not coinciding with itself. The outside of itself, the difference from oneself of this unicity is non-indifference itself, and the extraordinary recurrence of the pronominal or the reflexive, the self — which no longer surprises us because it enters into the current flow of language in which things show themselves, suitcases fold and ideas are understood. A uniciity has no site, without the ideal identity a being derives from the kerygma that identifies the innumerable aspects of its manifestation, without the identity of the ego that coincides with itself, a unicity withdrawing from essence — such is man.

Say what?!


3 thoughts on “Bad writing

  1. Actually, this depends a fair bit on what philosophical tradition you’re quoting from, and in the contemporary world of philosophy just who is doing the writing. There are plenty of bad contemporary writers in philosophy, and some good ones, but most of those who write in the “analytic” style are just dry (because they are actually trying to be clear). People like Peter Singer, Dan Dennett, and Martha Nussbaum are all perfectly clear and even stylish writers (at times).

    • Yes, Hans, there are exceptions to the norm of bad writing in philosophy. For a contemporary example, Martha Nussbaum is admirably clear and occasionally stylish. For historic examples, I would point to the excellent and engaging writing of Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche.

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