Why Are Post-Modern Thinkers Obscure?

Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things — Isaac Newton

One book that I have read, by Baudrillard, fits this category. The entire book, and his entire line of thought (which include multiple books) can be summarized in a few sentences. Essentially, we create representations of reality (writing, signs, images), and eventually these representations change who we are, which also change our representations of reality (writing, signs, images). So, Baudrillard concludes, nothing is real, everything is hyper-real.

But here’s how he expresses this idea.

“Everything is metamorphosed into its opposite to permutate itself in its expurgated form.”

Now, there is some insight in the book, if you try hard enough — it does explain some aspects of reality. But most of his work can be summarized in under two pages.

The linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky has said that postmodernism is meaningless because it adds nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge.

One reader on Reddit explained to me why French post-modernists give away such an impression.

There are several challenges here. I think it’s important to note that a lot of postmodern thinkers were not writing to a general audience, although there are notable exceptions (Mark Fisher comes to mind; rest in power). By and large most postmodern thinkers were/are academics and wrote/write to an academic audience. Words like epistemology or ontology are not common in everyday speech, but are pretty easily understood by people who have dedicated their lives to studying philosophy. Also, many works have been translated from another language (French a lot of the time in the post-modern tradition), and any time you’re dealing with translation there will inevitably be difficulties in conveying meaning accurately while also preserving some of the author’s stylistic choices unique to the language

Despite the reasonable response, it is still not satisfying, why do these post-modern writers write in such a complicated way?

A way out of the enigma is to simply ask them.

That’s what the American philosopher John Searle did, when he asked Foucault. In this recording, he states.

“Don’t be ambiguous don’t be too wordy (be brief), be orderly, and avoid obscurity, are the four maxims of manner. And I think those are frequently violated. In fact, there are certain schools of philosophy, not ones that I’m sympathetic with where they’re more or less systematically violated (them).”

He then recounts his conversation with Foucault.

“Why the hell do you write so badly?” And he said, “Look, if I wrote as clearly as you do, people in Paris wouldn’t take me seriously, they’d think it’s child-like, it’s naïve.”

Searle didn’t think Foucault was a bad philosopher. On the contrary, he thought the latter had many interesting things to say. And when Foucault lectured in Berkeley, he spoke clearly. But then when pressed with the question again, Foucault explained that in France, it was customary to obscure around 10 percent of what you wrote, so that others would think you were profound (the real figure may be around 20 percent).

In fact, in his later years, Foucault enjoyed working in the US because he was freed from having to comply with such a strange and counterproductive custom.

Originally published at http://unearnedwisdom.com.

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I write about ideas that matter to me. In other words, revolutionary.

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Sud Alogu

Sud Alogu

I write about ideas that matter to me. In other words, revolutionary.

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