TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

On Philosophical Clarity

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Charles Kollmer looks at Nicholas Joll’s “How Should Philosophy Be Clear? Loaded Clarity, Default Clarity, and Adorno,” from Telos 146 (Spring 2009).

In an apropos piece of metaphilosophy entitled “How Should Philosophy Be Clear?” Nicholas Joll offers several insights on the concept of clarity in relation to philosophical texts. On initial inspection, Joll’s style seems to reveal a bias towards the Analytical tradition in philosophy: his argumentation is clearly organized, rigorous, and formulated in logical propositions. Yet his work also attains the savvy and self-awareness that renders metaphilosophy convincing, as demonstrated in his first proposition, which states that any notion of clarity will be partisan with regards to the Analytical-Continental divide. In spite of this partisanship, Joll champions a concept of “default clarity” and demonstrates its aptitude for judiciously evaluating argumentation. He shrewdly refuses to overdetermine the prescriptive force of default clarity. Far from an immutable law, default clarity offers broad guidelines with the caveat that “the justificatory burden lies with those who would eschew such clarity.”

Default clarity has four general features: explication of unclear terminology, hypotaxis, precision over generality, and lack of willful obscurity via technicality or esoteric allusions. Without the caveat above, these criteria would establish that the vast majority of primary philosophical texts are flawed. Joll anticipates this criticism, insisting that default clarity demands not perfection but “reasonable efforts” or reasonable justification. He concedes that Continental philosophy’s emphasis on emancipation might provide such reasonable justification, but the generality and imprecision of the term make it insufficient justification in and of itself. Additionally, default clarity brings the technicality of notable Analytical works under scrutiny. This observation foregrounds an interesting tension of default clarity: standards of rigor and precision could potentially entail a level of technicality that might lead to obfuscation. Joll defuses this objection by anticipating it and reasserting that a happy medium can be achieved via “reasonable efforts.”

These qualms also find redress in Joll’s emphasis on the importance of default clarity for the production of secondary texts. On matters of clarity, it makes sense to extend latitude to breakthrough primary texts and withhold it from explanatory texts produced by “commentators” and “epigones.” An unclear commentary of an already unclear, yet “putatively great,” text results in confusion and “uncritical . . . discipleship.” And though there is a plethora of poststructuralist arguments for the virtues of creative (mis)interpretation and appropriation, creative “fecundity” does not nullify the role of critical appraisal of a text. Some texts are clearer and more accessible than others, and thus better manifestations of default clarity.

In the final section of Joll’s essay, the discussion turns toward the works of Theodor Adorno, who “insistently, and more explicitly than is usually realized . . . rejects default clarity.” Because of this explicit rejection, Adorno’s work provides Joll with an opportunity to explore the degree to which departures from default clarity can find alternative justification. Adorno’s various criticisms of an ideal clarity decry the inadequacy of “autonomous” concepts to do justice to “particularity.” Instead he advocates a mode of thinking based on “constellations” of the diverse concepts through which a particularity is mediated. Only through these complex and mutable configurations can concepts begin to do justice to the contingency of the particular.

Karl Jaspers thought Adorno’s writing consisted of “hodgepodges of anything and everything that comes to mind.” Now certainly Adorno did not mean to proceed that way. The apparent arbitrariness of constellation means to disclose the manifold determinations of objects of analysis. But Adorno’s approach does tend to work well only under a condition: the condition that a reasonably specific explicandum is already at hand. Such is the case when he is treating a particular musical work, a Kantian thesis, or a well-defined experience. It is less often the case when he analyzes society, or reads Heidegger, or means to set out his own position on, for example, freedom or nature or identity. In such cases, which is to say in those circumstances where Adorno is unable to import precision, his techniques often fail to supply it. I adduce the following as evidence: the excessive generality of Adorno’s analyses of society; the notorious weaknesses in Adorno’s reading of Heidegger; and the general difficulty of determining the content of Adorno’s own central philosophical notions. The foregoing criticisms prompt the following claim. Imprecision, and especially excessive generality, mean that too often Adornian intelligibility does not live up to its name. That is so despite Adorno’s avowed aim of doing justice to that which Hegel denigrated as faulen Existenz (foul or lazy existence), i.e., to particularity. If the conclusion is thought too fast, I recall that, since the advantages of default clarity are not to be foresworn quickly, the burden of proof is Adorno’s. But in fact the conclusion is fast. For Adorno does urge that there is no better alternative to his techniques. One locus of that contention is the notion of “identity thinking” (Identitätsdenken). Sometimes that notion seems intended to make the following claim. Concepts necessarily occlude their referents by implying or suggesting that the concept entirely identifies the referent. Better, and showing the connection with Adornian intelligibility: only concepts placed in constellation avoid, or at least minimize, such occlusion. But is the ostensible problem here, the problem that constellation means to solve, a real one? In effect, “the nucleus of all second-generation critical theory critiques of Adorno” is that it is not. Certainly it seems bizarre to fault concepts for being unable to do something that they cannot and need not do and appear, pace Adorno, not to intend. Still, the criticism misses Adorno’s more considered or charitably construed position. Describing someone as, say, black, or homosexual, or as a shopkeeper, may be a kind of identity assertion. Such judgments can take, or tend to take, the person in question to be only as predicated, or as most saliently as predicated. Yet identity thinking so construed hardly suffices to warrant Adorno’s stylistic procedures.

Despite the difficulty inherent in Adorno’s rejection of clarity, Joll maintains that there is much to be learned from his work. Default clarity, however, demands a laborious untangling of the notoriously knotty Adornodeutsch, so as to render commentary or explanation accessible. Though I have invariably failed to capture much of the nuance in Joll’s proposition, the full text offers a refreshing primer on clear thinking in a discipline often noted for its opacity and obscurity.

Read the full version of Nicholas Joll’s “How Should Philosophy Be Clear? Loaded Clarity, Default Clarity, and Adorno” at the TELOS Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at the low rate of $10/article.

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