The Value of Obscure Writing

Again and again, critiques of philosophers focus on their purported obscurity. Hegel, Kant, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Lacan, etc. are often cited as authors who are unnecessarily obscure and difficult. The critics will think: Why couldn’t X write more clearly? After all, I can understand the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on, say, Hegel, but reading the man himself is painful. Hegel wrote in 19th-century German, but since this happens with contemporary thinkers just as often, there must be more to it. These critics often assume that clear writing is unconditionally good, and obscure writing is unconditionally bad. In this essay, I will question these assumptions and show that when the reader’s familiarity with the style of writing is not the determinant of obscurity, not being easily understood can be the justified aim of the author.

First, consider what it means to say that some piece of writing is objectively obscure. If a text is understandable to some yet incomprehensible to others, that text cannot be objectively obscure. Instead, we can call it relatively obscure. But I’ve yet to see a book that is incomprehensible to all. Frege, for example, tried to turn this around and say that all concepts used by philosophers should always be clear and univocal. The late Wittgenstein responded:

“But is a blurred concept a concept at all?” — Is a photograph that is not sharp a picture of a person at all? Is it even always an advantage to replace a picture that is not sharp by one that is? Isn’t one that isn’t sharp often just what we need?
Frege compares a concept to a region, and says that a region without clear boundaries can’t be called a region at all. This presumably means that we can’t do anything with it. — But is it senseless to say “Stay roughly here”? Imagine that I were standing with someone in a city square and said that. As I say it, I do not bother drawing any boundary, but just make a pointing gesture — as if I were indicating a particular spot. (Wittgenstein, 1953/2010, p. 38)

What we call clarity is usually context-dependent. The most important part of this context is what we wish to do with the concept. Since there are many ways we can use this or that concept, the idea of absolute or objective clarity turns out to be an illusion. But what about clarity for the general public? — Is it never justified to make your writing difficult to understand?

Poems, for example, are not trying to speak clearly. If the meaning of a poem is explained succinctly in simple language, the poem becomes uninteresting. If all there is to a poem is its meaning, why was it written as a poem? Why not just get to the point? Here obscurity becomes a positive. You can read Kafka’s parables many times and find something new because Kafka is difficult. Difficult writing provides a sort of space where you can think. It directs your attention to something you would not ordinarily pay attention to, but it leaves the mystery. It tells you nothing you don’t already know. I believe this is what Paul Celan was pointing out in the preliminary draft of the Meridian Speech when he wrote:

Weshalb uns die Gedichte früherer Epochen ‘verständlicher’ vorkommen als die unserer Zeitgenossen? Vielleicht auch deshalb, weil sie sich als Gedichte, d.h. mitsamt ihrem Dunkel verflüchtigt haben.

Why do the poems of earlier epochs seem more ‘understandable’ than those of our contemporaries? Perhaps part of the reason is that they have evaporated as poems, that is, together with their darkness. (Celan, 1960/1999, p. 85)

And here’s Raymond Geuss:

For a poem to be a poem is for it to be obscure: not completely to fit into our usual forms of speaking, acting, and reacting. Celan speaks of the “congenital, constitutive darkness” of the poem; to “clarify” this would be to destroy the poem. (Geuss, 2014, p. 43)

Poems are just one example, but this applies to literature in general — any good piece of writing that isn’t trying to be as direct as possible (in contrast to court documents and treatises) is not so for a reason.

Considering Wittgenstein’s argument about “absolutely clear” concepts and that obscure writing is quite often exactly what we need, we can moralize less about obscurity and focus instead on when and how to use it. Whenever you see a text that seems deliberately obscure, ask yourself: (1) Is this text deliberately obscure, or is it obscure for me? (2) If it is deliberately obscure, why?

  • Celan, P. (1999). Der Meridian: Tübinger Ausgabe. Frankfurt/M. (Original work published 1960)
  • Geuss, R. (2014). A World without Why. Princeton University Press.
  • Wittgenstein, L. (2010). Philosophical Investigations. John Wiley & Sons. (Original work published 1953)

2 responses to “The Value of Obscure Writing”

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