Obscurantism

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I congratulated a colleague yesterday on some lovely prose. His concise, interesting and informative writing made me happily read about 80 Moments which changed history – learning a lot in the process.

This morning, I read another piece of quasi-Academic writing; but which was much more of a slog. It was saying some important things, but in a rather portentous – even pretentious style. The few key points, could have been made a lot more simply.

Then, by happenstance I moved onto to a super article on ‘Obscurantism’ in the equally super Philosophy Now magazine. The question it poses is: when is being complex and hard to decode legitimate, useful; even necessary – and when is it plain unhelpful.

Here’s some of what Siobhan Lyons has to say:

‘Obscurantism’ can indeed be an effective manoeuvre, provoking greater thought-processes and intellectual investigation.

This couldn’t be illustrated more clearly than in Rembrandt’s The Holy Family with a Curtain (1646). I am less concerned with the religious meanings of this painting than I am about the curtain itself; a seemingly innocuous, pointless part of the work, and yet it provokes the viewer to wonder what lies behind it.

The curtain, blood red and purposefully pulled partly to the side, teases the viewer, offering not even a partial glimpse of what it completely obscures. The Virgin is plainly seen; and there is Joseph, semi-obscured in the background, near the curtain; but whatever is behind the curtain itself is left unanswered.

The painting thus features three forms of creative depiction: the Virgin’s clear visibility, Joseph’s semi-obscured form, and the curtain itself, a symbol of obscurantism, or rather, of the ability of obscurity to be creative, by emphasising the ambiguity that so often confronts us, which may however be the source of great art, and indeed philosophy.

For the greatest philosophies are aware of their own limits – aware of when they cannot answer the questions their philosophers ask. As Wittgenstein stated, language must be beset by certain limits.

So obscurity in language can be seen as not always self-defeating, but, ironically, as sometimes illuminating. Moreover, if language were a purely functional tool for communication, we would cease to have literature as we understand it.

If all curtains in all art were pulled completely aside to expose what lies behind them, then the need for imagination would deteriorate. This also explains why good writers are those who not only have a masterful grasp of language, but who also know how to pull it apart and put it back together in different ways.

Nicely put. Not everything in life, thought or Art can be expressed simply; and some things can’t be expressed at all. The art is in knowing which. But also, I think, in having a try. Only practice makes more perfect.

Language

Re-reading a chapter of Herbert McCabe’s ‘On Aquinas’ last night, the outline of a new understanding emerged from the complex conceptual haze of the ‘philosophy of language’.

Language is the means through which we transcend individual experience and share our lives, ideas and culture with others. So far so obvious – Stephen Hawking’s is a brilliant mind but without a twitch sensor and a computer voice he’d be lost to us, alone trapped in his own head.

McCabe, following Aquinas and Wittgenstein considers language as exclusively ‘public’. It exists outside and apart from the sense perceptions of people – it has to otherwise it would not work as a means of sharing understanding.

So while my ‘red’ might look and feel different to yours (although probably not that much) as soon as we name it, it ceases to be my ‘property’ and becomes a shared one. As McCabe points out, my sense perceptions are my own, but my words ‘belong’ to the English language and are public, shared and ‘intersubjective’ – i.e. most people would agree on what they mean, otherwise they wouldn’t work.

Why is this so important? Well as Aristotle said: ‘It us the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’.

Similarly it is the mark of an animal with language to be able to describe, contemplate and imagine actions, not simply to feel, jump and act. Without language there is no reflection, just action and reaction.

For Aristotle, Aquinas, Wittgenstein and McCabe, language is not just a fancy tail feather or ornament on human intellect – it is human intellect. Language is the difference between pure instinct and intelligence, communication and culture.

The penny has dropped for me – something I didn’t ‘get’ when I did philosophy at University. David Hume and others persuaded me that sensations come first and language just describes them. But I now reckon it’s the other way around – language marks off and frames sensations so we can contemplate them. Language is not just communicating, it’s everything.

Language also connects us across boundaries of space and time. Herbert McCabe lives on through his limpid, lively philosophical prose. Like Montaigne, you feel you know the man when you read what McCabe has written. Shrewd, perhaps a little stubborn, quick-witted, sharp – and for a monk, disarmingly worldly and funny.

As Aristotle said, we are we repeatedly do. Perhaps, also, we are what we repeatedly write – poetry, prose or philosophy.