Philosophical Prose

While reading through a book by Martha Nussbaum, recommended to me by a friend, I thought of something. Sometimes it feels to me as though philosophy comes in two basic forms.

One form is what I’ll call Philosophical Exposition. This, I believe, is what most people have in mind when they think of philosophy. In this form, philosophical arguments come in the form of a strong argument for something. The writer makes a claim, lays out an argument, supports the argument with some combination of reasoning and evidence, and underscores a particular conclusion. Obviously, this form of exposition isn’t particularly unique to philosophy; most formal writing looks like this, and even a great deal of conversation unfolds in this way.

The other form of philosophy is what I’ll call Philosophical Prose, and from what I can tell, it is largely unique to philosophy. In Philosophical Prose, the writer decides that, rather than outline a full argument for something, he or she would rather sketch out a rough idea that merely sounds good, without having to go through the rigor of formally arguing for it. The goal of this kind of philosophy is not to set out a forthright conclusion, but rather to provide a nice-sounding piece of writing that draws the reader in. Repeated exposure to philosophy of this kind, when the ideas all point in the same direction, will have the effect of slowly wearing down a critic’s resistance to an idea, until there is such a large body of text promoting a given philosophical idea that no real argument for it seems necessary anymore.

Providing examples of Philosophical Exposition seems like a superfluous exercise. We all know what formal exposition looks like, and we can all cite examples. Anyway, by now it should be rather obvious that the point of the current post is to examine and criticize Philosophical Prose. So, let’s take a look at some examples of that.

The ugliest example I can think of is any statement that comes in the form “Any X properly Y ought to be Z.” One might argue, for instance, that “any theory of equality properly defined ought to include a concept of social justice.” When writers make statements like these, they are simply being lazy, skipping the hard work of, in this case, defining a theory of equality that actually does what the writer wants it to do. Instead of doing that work, the writer simply makes a normative declaration, viz. that equality “ought to” include social justice, and leaves the actual argumentation to others. This is a tempting approach to philosophy since the power of such a statement is that it simply refusing to acknowledge any dissent, whether it exists or not. If we were to take such statements seriously – and we ought not – we’d realize that they are really just No True Scotsman fallacies in so many words.

Another one of Philosophical Prose’s dirty tricks involves skipping the hard work entirely. The writer might say, “Making a thorough justification for neoliberalism is a necessary task, but it is beyond the scope of the present work. For now, I will simply argue that neoliberalism, once accepted, should be applied universally across all political systems.” In other words, the writer wants to go to the fun part of having a good theory, which is telling everyone that they ought to agree with how wonderful that theory is, but the writer doesn’t want to have to be bothered to undertake the actual task of effectively arguing for that theory.

As is implied by the first sentence of this blog post, my impression of Marth Nussbaum’s work thus far – not having read very much of it, but having gotten a decent taste of it – is that it is more Philosophical Prose than Philosophical Exposition. This fact certainly weakens the persuasiveness of her arguments, at least among those readers who are looking for reasons to believe a particular thing.

But, on the other hand, I don’t believe Nussbaum’s target audience consists of people like that. Instead, I think Nussbaum writes for people who already agree with her, and who want to experience a sense of rapture from reading emotional, normative statements like “Any X properly Y ought to be Z,” followed by many paragraphs of the normative value of Z among a particularly needy group of would-be beneficiaries. Such Philosophical Prose is sure to strengthen conviction among the already-converted, and so in that sense it serves a worthy purpose.

However, we must keep in mind that the worthy purpose served by Philosophical Prose is something other than arguing for truth; it’s something more like preaching a religion.