What Philosophers Mean by ‘Clear’

I. Two Worlds, One Hierarchy

In the preface of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein made a claim that has proved quite enduring: “What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” Throughout the rest of the opaque text we get the message that clarity is more than a theme. It motivates a whole reorientation and redefinition of philosophy. We are to become clarifiers:

Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity. […] Philosophy does not result in ‘philosophical propositions’, but rather in the clarification of propositions. Without philosophy thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct: its task is to make them clear and give them sharp boundaries. (4.112)

The injunction to say everything clearly reads as either trivial or overly-limiting. The philosopher Theodor Adorno remarks that it is “utterly antiphilosophical” and an authoritarian “extreme positivism.” He says, “If philosophy can be defined at all, it is an effort to express things one cannot speak about, to help express the nonidentical despite the fact that expressing it identified it at the same time.”

The disagreement over what philosophy is or should be, in this context, amounts to the role that clarity should play.

Even if we philosophers—including Wittgenstein himself—have come to eschew the approach put forward in the Tractatus, we still live in the world constructed in the spirit of its methodological proposal. The influence is constant. Wittgenstein succeeded in placing ‘clarity’ firmly on top of a hierarchy of values. Clarity, and the nebulous concept of ‘rigor’, distinguish our philosophy from the bad philosophy (which either happens in the other world or in the public).

For instance, W.V.O. Quine, along with others, criticized the work of a philosopher from the other world in a letter to The Times: “Derrida’s work does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour.” Who accepts these standards and why is left unclear.

The ideal also constantly reinforces itself, since any metaphilosophical attempt to reevaluate the standards of philosophical discourse is judged by the clarity ideal.

There are a number of deep ironies. The choice to value clarity above all else is far from trivial. By following Wittgenstein we are passing over numerous competing hierarchies—ones that prize creativity, profundity, inspiring others, motivating others, beauty, and, to return to our roots, wisdom. We do not necessarily disapprove of these other qualities, but when faced with a choice between clarity and, say, creativity or beauty, we defer to Wittgenstein’s maxim. We do this seemingly because we are interested in truth, and clarity is seemingly the way to get there.

What might a justification of our hierarchy look like? And why need there be a hierarchy at all? Could we be tolerant of a plurality of ideals and styles? In this case our world of philosophy would lose many of its comforting boundaries. We would be forced to engage with those whom we can currently afford to ignore.

Even within the world that defines itself through the clarity hierarchy, the concept of clarity itself has not received any real analysis. Adorno says, “Rarely has anyone laid out the theory of philosophical clarity; instead, the concept of clarity has been used as though it were self evident.” Questions like ‘What is clarity?’, ‘When does something count as being clear?’, and ‘What does clarity measure?’ do not have answers. And Adorno is right to suggest that the answers are not self-evident.

The simplest irony is that the main philosophical sense of the word ‘clear’ is vague. An examination of this fact would be central to any understanding of the concept.

These ironies serve as an outline for approaching the concept of clarity. I will discuss two questions in two sections:

  1. What are the different senses of ‘clear’?
  2. Which senses are usually employed in philosophical discourse and to what effect?

II. Paradoxes and Puzzles of Analysis

The words ‘clear’ and ‘unclear’ are the primary descriptive and evaluative adjectives in our philosophical discourse. They can be used in almost any context, from talking about whole works and traditions to single words. Both propositions and questions can be clear; we describe people as clear thinkers; and the structure and organization of a bit of philosophy, regardless of individual statements or questions in it, are subject to the standard. At any moment in which the concept is employed, numerous senses may be present and interacting in nuanced ways. Rarely is the descriptive sense of clarity easy to determine.  

There are, however, several straightforward uses. Sometimes clarity is meant to measure the limits of knowledge: “it is unclear to me whether that is true” means that the speaker does not know. It might also be a meek way of saying that something is false. The addition of “to me” suggests that limitations of the speaker. However, the personalizing qualification hides what is often meant to be a stronger claim. The limits are typically those of the group or of all human beings (“as a matter of objective, human-independent fact, it is unclear whether that is true”). Distinguishing between the sense of clarity relativized to a speaker and some type of objective clarity will be a recurring challenge.

In this use, the clarity of the statement itself is not in question. Remarking that it is unclear to me whether some statement is true implies that I understand it. It would be odd to state that I do not know whether something is true when I do not fully understand it in the first place.

It is difficult to say what the most natural philosophical meaning of clarity is. We might be inclined to say that something is clear when an attentive mind can grasp it, as Descartes said. To draw out the underlying analogy, we want philosophizing to be like clean windows, not distorting the objects on the other side. This is hardly satisfying, since we are still left to determine what an ‘attentive mind’ is, how much attention is necessary, and how much training and skill a mind must have to be capable of attentiveness.

In the same spirit, clarity is meant to occupy a space between, on the one hand, ideas that are obvious, self-evident, and therefore left unsaid, and on the other, those that require some type of demonstration. Chris Barker points out the paradox this presents. If a statement truly is clear, why would it need to be stated at all? For instance, one might say “the reasons why this doesn’t follow are clear,” leaving the reasons unsaid. Rather, “assertions of clarity are typically used when the evidence is not overwhelmingly compelling.” To label a statement as clear is, paradoxically, to claim that the statement simultaneously meets and fails to meet some standard.

It is also worth recognizing that the concept of clarity invoked in philosophical discourse is what might be called “analytical clarity,” following H.H. Price. When we examine our discourse we find that only something granular, specific, and small can be clear. With analysis we are digging down into the small building blocks, and only successful bits of this type of analysis are counted as clear. Broad or general claims, whether about figures, traditions, or concepts are seemingly not eligible for either ascription. Price asks, “Is there not such a thing as synoptic clarity, as well as analytical clarity?”

When I say, “Descartes was a major influence on Spinoza,” I have said something true, easily understandable, and agreed upon. But what I have said is not the type of statement that is considered to be clear or unclear (perhaps for Gricean reasons). We are tempted to say that a generality might still be clear, but seemingly in another, unphilosophical sense. My statement is not technical enough. Paradoxically, the more complex a statement, the more we are inclined to call it clear (though there is a limit). The exemplification of philosophical clarity is something highly specific that includes a few terms of art and hopefully some variables.

A statement might be unclear when considered by itself (or even in its immediate context) and yet be clear when considered along with arguments for it. I might conclude a lengthy bit of philosophy with a statement of the form, “Therefore it is clear that x,” where x is difficult to understand, and perhaps unclear, without a very close study of my preceding bit of philosophy. Something becomes clear after a quality bit of philosophy, even though it was always the same claim.

What about the role of understanding? Although it presents numerous puzzles, there is undoubtedly some connection between understanding and clarity. For instance, a large number of people do not understand formal logic. Yet, if I were to write a formalized argument in front of an audience with no training in logic, there is a sense in which what I have written is still clear. The uninitiated would say, “that stuff is not clear” and in a sense be right and in another be wrong. The logic would “become clear” if I taught the topic to the uninitiated. We commonly call stuff unclear based solely on the fact that it is unclear to us. So is there a sense of clarity that is relativized to the capacity of the audiences, while there is another that seeks some type of objectivity?

Consider another case. Suppose that I am also untrained in logic and happen to write a formal argument by accident or imitation. I merely scribble some symbols I had seen in various unrelated places. Is what I have written clear? (We might construct similar cases using mathematics or foreign languages.)

There is a feeling that my intention is somehow relevant. I did not know what I was writing. What turned out to be a formalized argument is unclear to me, the person responsible for it. However, since what I wrote is identical to something a logic teacher might write, if one is clear, the other should be as well.

It is also important to note that the target group of relativized clarity might vary widely in size, from a single individual to a group as large as all human beings. Objective clarity, however, is meant to capture features of statements that are independent of understanding. If there were a mathematical formula that no one understood, it might still be clear (though not clear to anyone). Then we might wish to say that, although something need not be understood to be clear, it must be understandable in principle. There could be a capacious mind that can grasp something no human being can.

Perhaps clarity is a reference to agreement or belief. What is clear would be what is agreed upon by some relevant group. The next challenge is determining the extent of the relevant group. There are numerous problems. If clarity depends on agreement, it risks becoming artificial and ad hoc. We want to say that something can still be clear even when people disagree.

If agreement presupposes understanding (at least, if agreement is meant to represent something more than silent nodding), it would be very difficult to check someone’s understanding without falling into unclarities. I can summarize a bit of philosophy without understanding the component terms or concepts. Any way of testing for agreement will require analysis. An overarching trend in philosophy is finding problems in positions that were once widely accepted.

How about some possible “standards” by which clarity is measured? Clarity is gradable. We routinely employ phrases like “not entirely/sufficiently/very clear,” “abundantly clear,” “could be clearer,” and “fairly clear.” Since, as I said, clarity occupies some in-between space, we are already speaking in terms of a spectrum. It is difficult to conceive of what perfect clarity would be. It is probably safe to say that, whatever the bit of philosophy in question, the statement “it could be clearer” will always be true. Whereas if a statement is unclear, it is never fully unclear. All unclear statements are at least intelligible.

Now we see how clear statements can meet and fail to meet some standard. “A#$djoh) jj%sdj,, kqpoe ^^pojqw” is neither clear nor unclear. It is simply unintelligible. (But maybe “Adjoh jjsdj kqpoe pojqw” is clearer?)

The concept of clarity is vague, meaning there is no firm line dividing the clear from the unclear. Unlike other vague concepts, there are no obvious parameters. In the case of ‘tall’ or ‘bald’, the concepts track or gauge ‘height’ and ‘amount of hair’. Here are some candidate parameters.

  1. The meaning of words

    Words have different senses, and not knowing which sense is operating in a sentence or phrase can lead to the ascription of unclarity. We might be confident in our reading of a word, but we can never be certain. (What have I been meaning by ‘bit’ of philosophy or ‘we’?) And our degree of certainty will vary, leading us to determine that a statement is more or less clear insofar as we are more or less certain of the meaning of the words in the statement. We are also forced to reflect on our level of incredulity when it comes to interpreting the meanings of words. Critical and engaged reading seems to lie between the poles of captious pedantry and inattentive acceptance.

  2. Amphiboly

    Sentences can have ambiguity or vagueness in their structure. This will vary by language. For instance, there is an ambiguity in the sentence, “We see the light of the stars, without which we cannot sail.” The relative pronoun ‘which’ might refer to either ‘light’ or ‘stars’. When we label the sentence or the word ‘unclear’, we could be referencing the ambiguity. However, the grammatical indeterminacy does not exist in Latin,. In “Lecem astrorum videmus, sine quibus navigare non possumus,” the relative pronoun quibus refers to the the stars. In “Lecem astrorum videmus, sine qua navigare non possumus,” qua refers to the light. The Latin sentences are not unclear in their structure, at least in terms of the relative pronouns. There are many other forms of indeterminacy. Sometimes sentences are poorly or awkwardly constructed, all of which is cause for unclarity.

  3. Connection to context

    This is perhaps the most crucial (or only) parameter. There is something right about Frege’s second principle in the Foundations of Arithmetic: “never to ask for the meaning of a word in isolation, but only in the context of a proposition.” Sometimes the meaning of a word requires more context than what is provided by the proposition. Further, the meaning of a proposition likely requires the context of a paragraph or even the whole work. A statement might also require a connection to the tradition, including the historical circumstance, in which the statement and work exist. Although it is obvious that context is relevant for clarity, the more context a statement requires (for instance, knowledge of the whole work, the whole oeuvre of the writer, or the whole tradition of the writer) the less likely we are to call the statement clear. This is true for the simple reason that few people will have all of the necessary background knowledge.

  4. Complexity of the subject-matter

    When a bit of philosophy is treating a subject matter that does not lend itself to simple and straightforward language, we tend to be more patient with our ascriptions of clarity. The idea goes back to Aristotle. He saw that it was a mistake to assess all works with reference to the same standard of precision. This parameter may be wholly reducible to the others. If a subject-matter is inherently challenging, we do not trust ourselves to have all the relevant background knowledge. We are more inclined (especially if the author of the bit of philosophy is still alive) to think that we are analogous to the person uninitiated in formal logic.

The division among the parameters might be artificial. It is difficult, for instance, to see how context and the meanings of words are separable. There may also be parameters missing. But even if my list is correct, there is no precise way of weighing or measuring these parameters and thus determining correct and incorrect uses of the word.

There is no clear way forward.

III. The Power of Clarity

An analysis of clarity has a recursive tension: we are hoping to make clarity clear—using our tools to make discoveries about our tools. We never loosened our grip on the clarity hierarchy. Maybe you took issue with the preceding section because I wasn’t clear or rigorous enough (for example, I didn’t distinguish the pleonastic ‘it is unclear that’ from the statement that some bit of philosophy ‘is unclear’).

How about considering the relationships of those taking part in philosophical discourse? Instead of holding fast to Wittgenstein, perhaps we should follow Adorno, who at least took notice of these problems:

Rationalist in the historical sense, the ideal of clarity demands that knowledge trim and shape its object a priori, as though the object had to be a static mathematical object. The norm of clarity holds only where it is presupposed that the object itself is such that the subject’s gaze can pin it down like the figures of geometry. When that ideal is declared to be generally valid, an a priori decision is made about the object, and knowledge, understood in the simplest sense of the scholastic and Cartesian adequatio, is supposed to orient itself accordingly. Clarity can be demanded of all knowledge only when it has been determined that the objects under investigation are free of all dynamic qualities that would cause them to elude the gaze that tried to capture and hold them unambiguously. The desideratum of clarity becomes doubly problematic when consistent thought discovers that the object of its philosophizing not only runs right over the knower as though on some vehicle but is inherently in motion, thereby divesting itself of its last similarity with the Cartesian res extensa, matter extended in space. The correlate of this insight is that the subject too is not static like a camera on a tripod; rather, the subject itself also moves, by virtue of its relationship to the object that is inherently in motion.

The clarity hierarchy is not presuppositionless. It holds to a certain picture of the nature of the objects of analysis. The picture might well be correct, but it would be a mistake to assume so without an examination of the impact that ascriptions of clarity have on  discourses. I believe we can begin to see ways around the puzzles when we shift the discussion away from a search for objective standards and towards an analysis of the effects that the concept of clarity has on the power relations of a community.

My proposal is that the concept of clarity functions primarily as a political concept.

It creates, enforces, and perpetuates community boundaries and certain power relations. Within the world of philosophy defined by the clarity hierarchy, since the hierarchy concerns ideals, there is no practical distinction between the descriptive and evaluative senses of clarity. Not only is an ascription of clarity a claim about quality, but it is seemingly a claim that references objective features of the bit of philosophy.

So far we have been attempting to analyze the concept of clarity by first drawing out the descriptive senses and standards—i.e. by understanding the evaluative in light of the descriptive. The better approach is the opposite. What does the word do?

The assumption that clarity begins with descriptive features leads to an array of problems partly because such an approach “runs right over the knower.” Instead, first, certain bits of philosophy are called clear or unclear as a feature and consequence of the power relations of the group and world more broadly. And then second, what gets called clear or unclear becomes subject to philosophical analysis.

Consider an example. Teachers frequently exhort their students to write clearly. To the students the command is obvious and supremely unhelpful. On a pedagogical level, it is synonymous with exhorting the students to write well. “This is unclear” instead communicates a general indeterminate disapproval. In other words, saying “this is unclear” is unclear. The evaluative is privileged over the descriptive.

Yet this use of the concept nevertheless communicates something identifiable. Instead of communicating a specific shortcoming on the part of the student, the ascription of unclarity has an embedded practical and political effect: it implicitly affirms the teacher’s intellectual superiority. It serves as a reminder and validation of the asymmetrical power relation. The teacher’s simple comment, from the perspective of the student, implies one of the following:

  1. “I understood what you were trying to say, but I understood it in spite of your failed or inadequate attempt to say it. To do so I needed to overcome your poor communication, grasp the idea, and also recognize that there is a better way to express the idea (which I could demonstrate if I desired).”
  2. “I did not understand what you were trying to say. And if I am unable (or unwilling to try harder) to understand it, there must be something wrong with your attempt to express it.”

Ascriptions of unclarity can often be elaborated into more helpful messages. More often, however, teachers have a difficult time elucidating why something marked as unclear is actually unsatisfactory. The comment has little to no descriptive content. The primary function of the concept in these contexts is to mark a bit of philosophy as something that is not counted as satisfactory in our world.

The political nature of the concept of clarity becomes more evident when we see that it functions differently in different social contexts. For instance, a student is unlikely to call a teacher’s bit of philosophy unclear. If a student does, they are sure to add the qualification “to me.” The qualification adds a sense of meekness and serves as an invitation to the teacher to explain the philosophy in simpler terms. Saying “It is unclear to me whether that follows,” in this context, does not challenge the fact of “whether that follows” but communicates that the speaker, at some fault of their own, is missing pieces.

It would be quite bold for the person at the bottom of a power relation to call the philosophy of the person at the top unclear. To level the charge is to call into question the quality of the philosophy and, more than that, to express a sentiment similar to (1) or (2) above. But how that sentiment functions is different when spoken from the bottom. Because the power dynamic is omnipresent in philosophical discourse, the ascription of unclarity from the bottom registers as daring, arrogant, or insubordinate. The concept would be wielded as a type of challenge. To challenge someone with more power, all critiques must take the form of humble requests for clarity. It is often a false modesty, much in the spirit of Socrates, but it is a tacit acknowledgment of the rules of the discourse.

How is clarity able to function in this way? Barker, talking more generally and not about philosophical discourse in particular, gives an account of the concept in which asserting clarity reveals “information concerning the prevailing epistemic standard that determines whether a body of evidence is sufficient to justify a claim.” Although there is some element of truth here, just as there is truth to the incomplete analyses in §II, we would expect greater consistency in the application of the concept. It is often invoked without any apparent reference (even implicitly) to epistemic standards and evidence.

I have suggested, along with Adorno, that such accounts miss a key first step. The crucial question concerns how we construe the “prevailing epistemic standards.” Can they vary by group, topic, and time? If the answer is yes, we are forced to consider clarity as something that references or depends on agreed norms and ideals within a group. We are left to wonder about how standards are set and enforced within the relevant group.

The ascription is a signal of what we in our group take for granted, whether or not we can justify taking it for granted. It sets boundaries on the discourse and defines the positions it would be acceptable to take. Hence, clarity is less a result of justification from a shared body of evidence and more a reference to a backdrop of unquestionable assumptions.

There is a powerful rhetorical consequence. The ascription of clarity marks those who would stop and question it as outsiders. People in lower positions of power will not dare to question what has been laid down as clear. It is always possible that the clarity of a putatively clear bit of philosophy can indeed be justified from shared evidence. In that case, the person who dared to speak up is revealed as someone who does not grasp the shared evidence or has not reasoned through the justification, unlike everyone who let the bit of philosophy go unchallenged. They appear unintelligent, uninformed and, in effect, deserving of their lower position of power. Insofar as power is desirable, there is an inclination to let claims to clarity go unchallenged, thereby signaling understanding through silent consent.

Because clarity is vague and the standards are undetermined, there are no solid grounds on which to contest someone’s ascription. The precedent is defined first by social and interpersonal cues and only second by facts about the cases. As a result, ascriptions of unclarity are rarely disputed. If someone calls a bit of philosophy unclear, it would be odd to respond with, “I disagree. I think it is clear.” Rather, the response will be an explanation of the bit of philosophy in question.

The opposite is more common, but only in certain situations. If one person calls a bit of philosophy clear, directly disputing the claim requires a dominant position. It would be improper otherwise. Yet even in a case of insubordination, the response is unlikely to be, “I disagree. I think it is unclear.”

We see, further, that invoking clarity can itself be a move of power. It communicates a command of the discourse and a license to set boundaries. Calling something clear means that beneath the ascription sits not only an implied justification but the assertion that the argument should be as ready to the other’s mind as it is to the speaker. In essence, clarity can serve as a challenge (surely in many cases a bluff). It displays where the speaker is in the discourse and exhorts others to reach the same level.

There is also undeniable power in calling someone’s bit if philosophy unclear. The person with more power (the tenured professor, untenured professor, adjunct, upper-year graduate student, lower-year graduate student, major, and on down) can call the challenge itself unclear. In that case, the group will typically defer to power in picking a winner—that is, if they have to make their view public. This is due precisely to:

1) how ascriptions of clarity set the boundaries of the discourse of the group,
2) how those with power have greater license to set those boundaries,
3) how ascriptions of clarity are not disputed.

Introducing new terms or not talking in the way the group talks is sure to garner charges of unclarity.

Clarity, we find, is primarily about conformity, a concept with deep political undertones. As Adorno says, “[T]he vague and brutal commandment of clarity […] for the most part amounts to the injunction that one speak the way others do and refrain from anything that would be different and could only be said differently.” Only after, and precisely through, the conformity can we go about describing the shared characteristics of the bits of philosophy we have labelled as clear or unclear.Orange

2 thoughts on “What Philosophers Mean by ‘Clear’”

  1. […] destructive institutions. This usually happens under the surface of ‘nuance’, ‘rigor’, or other nebulous scholarly virtues. We the audience get the sense that if such a careful and credentialed thinker thinks something is […]


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