Moderation in philosophy

There is a perpetual danger with philosophical writing that one will try to say too much. Concrete, empirical conclusions must usually be based on concrete, empirical premises and it is a foolish philosopher who forgets this. On the other hand it is certainly possible to say too little. I do not refer here to a ‘noble’ Wittgensteinian silence nor to a blissful state of ataraxia or of enlightenment, instead I am referring to something far more mundane and – as with a surprising number of mundane things – also something dangerous. The tendency to say too little to which I am here alluding is analytic philosophy’s maddening ability to produce book-length statements of what can only be described as the bleeding obvious.

Moore’s Defence of Common Sense springs to mind instantly here. As part of his strategy to disarm the threat of scepticism, Moore produces a startlingly long and convoluted list of things which he (thinks he) knows. These include things about the Earth having been around for a certain time and people existing and so on. As philosophy the list is mostly irrelevant and as rhetoric it is akin to suicide by sleeping pills.

Likewise Maria Alvarez’s book Kinds of Reasons is possibly correct in everything it says yet I have come away from it no wiser but noticeably older. The insights upon which she seems to want to sell her book seem fairly obvious and do not necessitate a 200-page exposition. In fact I agreed with all of them instantly and yet strangely when I read the body of the book I found myself disagreeing with some of the manoeuvres she used to reach them and some of the other things she asserted in the process.

While we’re at it – and until my pen reverts to writing with ink instead of bile – if I read one more essay about the meaning of life which tries to effect a ‘clever’ inversion by instead posing the question ‘what makes life meaningful?’ then I will make it my project to make the insipid life of the author a lot less ‘meaningful’ and perhaps a lot shorter. An essay which, for example, argued for a plural nature of the Good, or defended an existentialist position of radical freedom, or even one which asserted pure nihilism would be an example of philosophy. An essay which simply lists ‘things which the author thinks make life meaningful’ (such as family, friends, enjoyable work, moderation and, implicitly, mediocrity) is not philosophy. It is either the contents of a £1 greeting card or an episode of Sesame Street. One of the beautiful but terrifying things about philosophy is that once an argument has been made or an idea formulated the author loses control of it but retains the right to say ‘I did this first’. None of these cute little essays is a particular improvement on Plato’s dialogues on similar subjects and at least when he dealt with them he was able to present arguments in their favour rather than bare assertions. He provided insights into the value of friendship because he was interested in friendship, not because he wanted to avoid answering a very different question. If our strawman with his ‘meaningful life’ wanted to fit into the orthodoxy, he would be much better dismissing the question ‘what is the meaning of life?’ as some sort of misuse of language, which is now the accepted way to avoid having to answer difficult questions and thus to avoid having to actually do any philosophy at all.

Admittedly the balance is hard to achieve and I welcome any accusations of hypocrisy which follow this. One must never go too far with philosophical conclusions, but neither should one fall to the temptation of disguising the disappointingly sterile character of one’s conclusions by overwhelming the reader with unhelpful filler material. Never say too much and never pretend you have said more than you have, simply to disguise the fact you have said nothing at all. Maybe complete silence really is the correct course.