Is great philosophy, by its nature, difficult and obscure?

Have you ever tried to read the works of great philosophers and struggled to understand, and finally shut the book in frustration. You are not alone ! Article below sheds light on it.(f.sheikh)

Great philosophy is not always easy. Some philosophers – Kant, Hegel, Heidegger – write in a way that seems almost perversely obscure. Others – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein – adopt an aphoristic style. Modern analytic philosophers can present their arguments in a compressed form that places heavy demands on the reader. Hence, there is ample scope for philosophers to interpret the work of their predecessors. These interpretationscan become classics in their own right. While not all philosophers write obscurely (eg, Hume, Schopenhauer, Russell), many do. One might get the impression that obscurity is a virtue in philosophy, a mark of a certain kind of greatness – but I’m skeptical.

To some degree, all texts need interpretation. Working out what people mean isn’t simply a matter of decoding their words, but speculating about their mental states. The same words could express quite different thoughts, and the reader has to decide between the interpretations. But it doesn’t follow that all texts are equally hard to interpret. Some interpretations might be more psychologically plausible than others, and a writer can narrow the range of possible interpretations. Why should philosophy need more interpretation than other texts?

Academics assume an advanced knowledge of their field, as well as familiarity with conceptual nuances, contemporary references, cultural norms. All this background needs filling in for those outside the tradition. When dealing with work from another time or culture, different scholars might produce different interpretations of the original. But this openness to interpretation is merely an accident of distance. The text could have been quite clear to its original readers, and with sufficient knowledge we might settle on a definitive reading. This doesn’t explain the special difficulties presented by some philosophical texts.

Maybe these difficulties exist because great philosophers operate at a higher intellectual level than the rest of us, packing their work with profound insights, complex ideas and subtle distinctions. We might need these difficult thoughts unpacked by interpreters and, since these are usually less gifted than the original authors, they might differ on the correct reading. But then, if a clear interpretation of the ideas can be provided, why didn’t the original authors do it themselves? Such a failure of communication is a defect rather than a virtue. Skilled writers shouldn’t need interpreters to patch up holes in their texts.

Another explanation focuses on the nature of philosophical enquiry. Philosophers do not simply marshal facts: they engage reflectively with a problem, raising questions, teasing out connections, investigating ideas. Readers can respond with their own questions, connections and ideas. Consequently, great works of philosophy naturally generate different interpretations. But is that because readers engage with the problem being discussed and explore their own ideas about it? Or because they engage with the problem of what the author meant and try to come up with hypotheses? Only the former is the mark of good philosophy. A work can be tentative, exploratory and suggestive without being hard to understand. The options canvassed can be set out with precision and clarity.


One thought on “Is great philosophy, by its nature, difficult and obscure?

  1. Thanks TF USA Editors for posting this article.
    It is profoundly informative, intetesting and enlightening.
    I will be reading it, enjoying it and intellectually benefitting from it for a long time to come.

    Hyperlink for this article is very helpful for in depth reading.
    I read few comments under hyperlink – very enlightening. I will strongly recommend to spend some time there. I will.

    I read somewhere that literature and history are written for the masses.
    Philosophers write Philosophy for philosophers.
    Hence we need interpreters to interpret Philosophical works for laymen.
    I used to believe it to be true.
    After reading this article, I might have to reconsider that point of view.

    A great philosopher will ask important questions about human life/existence.

    Great questions remain same.
    The answers to those questions keep changing as the human knowledge is continuously expanding because of persistent efforts of Scientist and Mathematicians – artists, historians, poets and prose writers are included too.

    Philosophical structures are based on the following important pillars.

    (1) Logic (right and wrong)
    ( 2 ) Ethics/Morality (good and bad)
    (3) Psychology (how human mind works)
    Latest and modern inclusion.
    (4) Neuroscience (how human mind is structured)

    This article tells us, the precision of expression which philosophic writings need.
    This article is sheer intellectual pleasure – I would say – INTOXICATION.
    It is just the beginning.


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