The Writing of Philosophy

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I’ve been thinking about the writing of philosophy, whose writing I enjoy the most, whose style I most wish to emulate, and I think that there isn’t just one philosopher who’s style I love. (all of the names that follow will be white and male, as I’ve been slowly going beyond what was available in my undergrad, but have not yet read enough of others to make a fair comparison)

Most philosophers are, I think it’s fair to say, piss-poor writers. Reading anything by Kant is a trial, and trying to read Hegel is a nightmare.

But Mill…. Mill flows. His prose is witty and inviting, and hides its depths below a veneer of accessibility. I do love Mill, and his passion.

But above all? I love Benedict de Spinoza. While his style is horrifically dry, the manner in which his Ethics is laid out is as clear as one could possibly hope to write (provided, alas, the reader can force themselves to pay attention).

A list of definitions, followed by a list of Axioms, followed by deductions *stating* which Axioms they flow from? Given patience, *anyone* can follow his claims. They don’t need to whittle them apart, and figure out if he’s repeating himself, but slightly differently (I’m looking at you, Locke….), or telling a story without a point (get your shit together, Plato), or worse… Didn’t write anything down at all, and left it to his followers to cobble something together as best they could recall (Socrates, and Confucius).

You might not agree with Spinoza’s definitions, or even understand them (his definition of “substance” is, to put it mildly, obscure), but you can point to the very thing that you disagree with/don’t understand clearly and without confusion. You can point at his work and say “yes, I followed you here, here, and here, but this statement here? I can’t see how you made that step”, and be relatively certain about what is the point of contention. Other philosophers you might just muddle along with, coping as best you can, until it’s all muddle and no coping.

Above even the contemporary authors, I hold Spinoza’s clarity as an aspiration. Can his clarity be married with wit and whimsy, drawing sincerely interested people in with charm and grace, and gently leading them through the steps of the author’s writing without losing them to boredom?

I hope so. I have something along those lines planned for my next essay.

[If you’re interested in checking out Spinoza’s Ethics, it’s available free online at the Gutenburg Project. HTML version. Various eReader options.]

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