Philosophers as writers

In a conversation with Peri Roberts and Pete Sutch, we found that we all agreed that how well a philosopher wrote was surprisingly disconnected from how great a philosopher he was. Let's look at a few examples of philosophers of roughly equal stature, from the same centuries (three out of the four pairs wrote in the same language, in fact), one of whom was a great stylist, and one of whom was not:

Plato: He would be known as a great writer alone: the ship of state, the ring of invisibility, the shadows on the cave wall, Atlantis, his mythical vision of the afterlife, etc.
Aristotle: Aristotle would not.

Berkeley: Remarkably clear exposition.
Kant: This.

Nietzche: Superman. Need we say more?
Hegel: "Science exhibits itself as a circle returning upon itself, the end being wound back into the beginning, the simple ground, by the mediation; this circle is moreover a circle of circles, for each individual member as ensouled by the method is reflected into itself, so that in returning into the beginning it is at the same time the beginning of a new member."

Collingwood: I don't recall ever having to read a sentence twice.
Whitehead: Even Collingwood, who very much admired Whitehead, found his prose so difficult that he was never sure if he had fully understood what Whitehead was saying.

2 comments:

  1. Another pairing along the same lines:
    William James, an first-rate prose stylist
    versus John Dewey, whose prose is just god-awful. Dewey was, in my estimation, an incomparably greater thinker, despite his dull and plodding prose.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Another pairing along the same lines:
    William James, an first-rate prose stylist
    versus John Dewey, whose prose is just god-awful. Dewey was, in my estimation, an incomparably greater thinker, despite his dull and plodding prose.

    ReplyDelete