Here’s a question that has long been on a great many people’s minds but that philosophers seldom discuss, at least on the record: why is there so much jargon in philosophy? Many people’s first impression of philosophy is that the prose is so heavily laden with this stuff that it’s impenetrable, especially as we get into the modern period. Ancient Greek and Roman thinkers used their share of technical language too, as did medieval philosophers, but by the time we get to the twentieth century the situation becomes rather alarming. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was still possible for an educated person to read Locke, Hume, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and many other philosophers of that time. It wasn’t easy, but it was possible—often anyway—and something called an “educated reading public” existed and often took an interest in what the philosophers of the time were writing. What happened to that? Certainly in the early modern period there were writers like Kant, Schelling, Hegel, and others whose work still makes for difficult reading, and one reason is the jargon. There was a lot of it in writers like this, but by the time we get to the twentieth century the situation is different. Anglo-American analytic philosophy almost prided itself on its increasingly technical language while always insisting this was in the service of what they called “clarity.” These writers often faulted their continental European counterparts for obscurity, and many still do. It wasn’t hard to describe Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and other European thinkers as obscure given the difficulty of reading authors like this, and as we get closer to the present the impenetrability and technicality of a great deal of philosophical writing hasn’t exactly decreased. Why do so many continue to write this way?
Every philosophical writer faces some basic decisions not only about what issues they’re going to write about and what arguments they’re going to advance but how they’re going to write, what style to adopt, who their audience is, and so on, and deciding how much technical jargon to use is one of these. A certain amount of formality is usually good form in this discipline, but unnecessary technicality is not, and although I may be a small minority in saying this, I would suggest that jargon be limited to what is truly necessary to formulate an idea with clarity and precision. If philosophers today were consistently to make this one change, the general public might start paying attention again. In the meantime, they won’t, and they can’t be faulted for this either. Why should they listen to us if we’re not speaking to them?
In my student days I used to think that if I had to struggle to understand a philosopher’s writing, it was because half of it was simply going over my head. A lot of people think that, but at some point—probably around the time I started writing my own books—I realized the shortcoming wasn’t all mine but at least partly the author’s. I recently had the experience of reading several books in a row by a philosopher who is living and well known, and it struck me again just how hard I was having to work just to follow what he was saying. I’d read a paragraph and ask myself, how would I write that paragraph if this were my book? Then I’d write it in my head. Usually the ideas could be expressed very straightforwardly with little and often no jargon whatsoever. So why is it there?
I don’t think it’s revealing any trade secret to say the reason many philosophers use far more jargon than is necessary is to impress. There’s no denying it: using this stuff, and using it a lot, has impressed readers for a very long time. An author looks very smart indeed when they do this, and who doesn’t want to look smart? But it’s a mistake. I tell my own students, when you write philosophy don’t try to “look smart”; try to be clear and rational. That’s enough. Don’t dumb it down, but don’t imagine that taking some idea and dressing it up in impenetrable prose either makes that idea compelling or makes you look smart. If your ideas are shallow or miss the point, expressing them in obscure or unnecessarily technical language won’t persuade anyone. Using jargon beyond what is truly necessary is usually a way of hiding. It’s rooted largely in fear and confusion, not genius.
There is exactly one reason why a philosopher or anyone else should sometimes use jargon, and it is to articulate your ideas with precision. Ordinary words are usually sufficient for this purpose, and when they’re not then some technical term must be resorted to, but how often is that? Far less often than you would think, at least if you read a great deal of twentieth- and twenty-first century philosophy. It’s customary to accuse continental philosophers especially of saturating their ideas in this stuff, and to some degree I share this view, although I doubt very much that analytic philosophy fares any better on this score, in spite of its celebrated insistence on what it calls clarity. If your clarity is comprehensible to only a handful of specialists in your field, it isn’t clear.
Part of the problem as I see it is that gradually over the course of the modern era philosophers began to speak no longer to an educated reading public—essentially anyone who has been to a university or who enjoys reading—but only to themselves, and often enough about themselves. At some point it became respectable, even expected, for philosophers to do this. Who else, one might think, would be interested in this stuff? The answer is a lot of people are, or might be. There’s something universal and timeless about philosophy’s appeal, or some of it anyway. From the beginning, it has dealt with questions that might interest any thinking human being, and many of those questions need to be posed anew by every generation. Even when one philosophical question is answered in some conclusive way—which doesn’t happen very often—this always generates new questions in an inquiry that never ends but at most changes direction. The general public needs philosophy and they need to hear from the philosophers of their time, or some of them. The ones who are solely concerned with the more technical issues in the more abstruse fields are unlikely to reach a non-specialist audience, and when you’re writing within a more technical field you do need to speak the language of the field. Phenomenologists, for example, need to speak the language of phenomenology, but even here, phenomenological writers vary widely from a Heidegger at one extreme to a Merleau-Ponty. Both of these writers were masters in their own ways, but Merleau-Ponty was a beautiful stylist who employed only the necessary minimum of jargon. He was writing for an audience of philosophers too, but in a way that a larger reading public could comprehend if they were willing to do a bit of work. He didn’t dumb it down. If he had then this might have been even worse than opting for excessive jargon, but my point is that he did neither, and there are many other philosophers today who are making the same choice: to try to strike some kind of balance between precision and rigor on one side and accessibility on the other.