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Writing, the Use of Jargon, and Intended and Actual Audience

Most recently, I have been reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is equal parts provocative, opinionated, gripping, persuasive, and wondrously lucid. For my purposes here, the salient feature of Dawkins’ writing–and this is also indicative of The Blindwatchmaker–is its lucidity.

Clarity, Dawkins argues in the preface to the first edition of The Selfish Gene, is attainable in science without the extensive use of jargon. He wonders aloud why technical jargon is even tolerated in “learned journals.” He does not elaborate more on this idea, but it is clear from reading Dawkins’ works that he is correct in his belief that the use of jargon is not critical to science writings.

He admits that he had to work hard to make The Selfish Gene a work for both the scientist and the intelligent layman, but he adds, “Anyone can popularize science if he oversimplifies.” Out of context this sort of statement could be taken to mean that a work must be “dumbed-down,” and must sacrifice content for accessibility, but this is not what Dawkins intends. Rather, he thinks that taking the time and effort to make science more readable to those without a degree in the relevant field can have far-reaching benefits, such as getting people excited about science, getting scientists to think about the same problems in new ways, and improving the student’s ability to transition from pupil to teacher.

In this I agree with Dawkins. However, I also believe that this view to making scientific writing more accessible is also one that philosophers should and need consider. Philosophy, and philosophy journals, are riddled with jargon terms. Worse, most–or at the very least, many–of these terms are tailor-made for philosophical discussion and exploration. While this is fine for the philosophically informed, it makes it near impossible for one with little or no philosophical background to enter into philosophical discussion. This fact may suit some philosophers and philosophy students just fine. They may think something to the tune of, “philosophy is fine as it is, and anyone who wants to fully participate in it should have to go through the background literature and training in order to be involved.” This kind of attitude, or attitudes like it, I would offer, are not only pompous and unnecessarily exclusive, they are also elitist. Philosophy should not give airs of being a type of “gentlemen’s” club.

Other philosophers and students may instead believe something quite different, but with the same consequences: They may think that some philosophical terminology is necessary if we are to make any progress within the discipline. And they may be correct in this belief. If they are, then there will be terminology that is indispensable to the philosopher (as there will be to the scientist) if he is to get his point across. However, the point to note of Dawkins’ attempts in The Selfish Gene is that he wholly avoids any jargon that is notabsolutely necessary, and any terminology that is necessary, he defines clearly and explicitly.

This leaves as an open question of course how much technical language will be necessary in largely expert-oriented science or philosophy writings, but it does not follow from this open question that there is not quite a bit of room for improvement. Some might protest that at its highest level, philosophy does not only make use of indispensable terminology that serves to condense concepts that would otherwise clutter the work, but it also makes use of concepts that will be foreign to those not intimately familiar with the field. And to a certain extent this may be true. Perhaps it is sometimes necessary to have certain expectations from one’s readership, and to assume that they are already familiar with certain concepts for the sake of brevity. However, what I am not suggesting is that all philosophical discussion should take place at a very low reading level. Instead, I am suggesting that one should be charitable and not expect one’s readers to come armed with a litany of philosophical concepts, but instead simply expect that they are intelligent, thoughtful, and willing to be engaged by the material.

There are, I believe, a number of virtues to this strategy. Firstly, it allows the study of serious philosophy to become known in an expanded–if not public–sphere. This will serve to give those outside of philosophy a better understanding of it (something which I think is sorely missing from the field), and also to encourage and interest those who might be interested in philosophy, but who might otherwise never be exposed, to participate. This latter consequence, I believe, is quite important for the future of philosophy (as it is for the future of science) as information becomes more and more accessible to the average person. If philosophy maintains its aloof position, it may become a field (as it already is in certain respects) that is entirely self-contained and contributes little to other fields of study.

Secondly, not assuming that one’s readership is entirely made of up philosophers-by-trade will allow for more participation by philosophy students of all levels. Much of current philosophy is written in such a way as to assume that one’s readers have assimilated an enormous amount of the relevant background literature. Unfortunately, philosophy has such a rich history that in any given subfield (and even in subfields to subfields) there is such a massive amount of background reading to do that it could literally take a lifetime to read it all. This leaves students at a disadvantage when it comes to participating in current debates in any more than a few specialized subfields. One can see this trend as extending even to professional philosophers as well, in that often a specialist in one subfield will know next to nothing about another subfield (even though much of philosophy overlaps into many subfields). It can also be overwhelming to any student in that there is pressure to assimilate all of the relevant philosophical literature before one feels comfortable making any contributions to the field. This sort of pressure is an unnecessary side-effect of jargon-riddled philosophy. Making a concentrated effort to write philosophy with less jargon, more clarity, and a slightly different audience in mind will help to alleviate this sort of problem.

Thirdly, philosophers in general are not known for their writing abilities (this is also a problem in science as well). There are, of course, multiple reasons for this. The related reason here is that technical terms and neologisms substituted as short-hand for dense philosophical concepts make it easier for writers to become sloppy. Instead of working out how to best express an idea, such jargon allows this aspect of the literature to be glossed over as the writing becomes more and more technical. And as much as we might wish it otherwise, comprehension rests as much on sentence-structure, grammar, word-choice, and presentation as it does on clarity of content. Not only would this make it easier for non-philosophers and philosophy students to follow the philosophical literature, but it will also help to prevent–or at least minimize–textual misinterpretations and clear the way for philosophers to hone in on the ideas in each article or book, rather than having to wade through syntactic jargon. Here, I think it would be unfair to point fingers, but it is fair to mention noteworthy examples of philosophers who take a simplified approach when it comes to writing about extremely complex philosophical issues. One such example is the recent book by Russ Shafer-Landau, Moral Realism. As a book on metaethical issues, Shafer-Landau could easily fill his writing with technical terms and other frivolous complications. Instead, his writing style is simple, clear, concise, and includes helpful summaries and clarifications of key concepts and arguments. He also makes takes the extra effort to include a helpful conclusion section at the end of each chapter in order to make sure the reader doesn’t fall behind. Shafer-Landau does all this while simultaneously presenting a sophisticated theory, one on the cutting edge of metaethical debates.

In summary, philosophers could do better. The field has become one of specialization, which takes years of study to break into. This is a shame. Expanding the audience of philosophical writings will only serve to enrich, while at the same time exposing more people to the joys and importances of philosophy. For some, philosophy is viewed as a frivolous or simply an academic exercise, and for others philosophy is not even approachable. This can and should change. One of the ways to make this happen is for philosophers to make a concentrated effort to change they way the write, and who they are writing for. This will improve philosophy itself, the experience of students within the discipline, and the breadth and depth of philosophical knowledge of the average non-philosopher, all of which will make for an expanding circle of understanding and the increased application of philosophically relevant ideas to the world at large.


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