Jul 26 2005

Simplifying difficult texts

Some time ago, Aaron Shaffer in his blog expressed his disappointment with the texts he was reading in his philosophy class, particularly the fact that the writers seemed to not take the trouble to be concise, with individual sentences running as long as paragraphs. He felt that this poor writing diminished them in his eyes, since the ability to express one’s ideas briefly and concisely demonstrates intellect.

I have been thinking about his comment for some time. I too, on occasion, try to read some philosophy and tend to find it heavy going. The somewhat dense and obscure style of some branches of the arts and humanities (especially the post-modernist philosophers and the area known as cultural studies) led to a notable hoax being pulled by physicist Alan Sokal, who deliberately wrote a paper whose conscious meaninglessness was disguised using dense language and the jargon common to the field of cultural studies. His article Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity was published in the journal Social Text on the same day he wrote a newspaper article exposing his hoax. (I will write about the Sokal hoax in a later posting. As is usually the case, the issue was more complicated than it might first appear, and raises serious ethical issues.)

Of course, physicists are not in a good position to throw stones at philosophers because it has long been the case that physics papers have stopped being intelligible to anyone other than those in the same sub-sub-field. But the reason for this is that scientists long ago made the transition from writing for the general public in the form of books, to writing for fellow scientists, using the form of the short paper. Once the link to the public was broken, there was no necessity to try to make oneself intelligible since other scientists know your jargon. Some argue that scientists have carried this too far, which is why the public generally has such a poor idea of what scientists actually do.

But philosophers are still, by and large, writing for a general audience, so why is their writing so hard to understand? Part of the answer is that philosophers are dealing with a difficult subject, very abstract, and this requires very skilful writing to make clear to the non-specialist. Bertrand Russell was pretty good at this but he was an exception.

Some people have tried to tackle this problem by rewriting philosophical works to make them easier to understand. Some time ago, I received an email from a professor of philosophy about his project to simplify the works of philosophers by rewriting them, to remove redundancies, simplify language, etc. But this raises the issue: Can you rewrite someone else’s work without introducing distortions?

If we look at the path that ideas take, we can start with an idea in an author’s brain. The author’s meaning is translated into words, then the words are read by the reader and their meaning recreated in the reader’s brain. Ideally we would like the process:

author’s meaning —> written words —> reader’s meaning

to occur with no loss of precision. I think that this ideal cannot be attained because it is intrinsically impossible for words to exactly capture ideas. At best they come close and make a good approximation. The reason that an author may think he/she has expressed an idea exactly is because of the implicit meanings we individually assign to words, in addition to the explicit and agreed upon meanings that we all share.

The reader also uses implicit meanings of words in reconstructing the ideas but there is no guarantee that the reader’s implicit meanings are the same as that of the writer’s. Hence we end up with distortions. The author, if conscientious, tries to find the words and phrases that minimizes the amount of implicit meaning and best captures the idea, but this cannot be done with 100% accuracy. The more you try to replace implicit meanings with words, the wordier the writing gets.

So when someone tries to “clarify” the ideas of another author, that introduces a third filter of implicit meanings, and possibly greater distortions. This does not mean that it is not a worthwhile exercise. A good translator might be able to infer the original meaning of the author better than the novice reader can, and render those ideas in a form that makes it easier for the novice reader to understand. But there will always be some element of ambiguity that is intrinsic to the original work. And there is always the danger that the “simplified” work introduces new ideas that the original author did not intend.

In some areas, revisionist writings completely replace the original. For example, in teaching science, we almost never use the original papers of (say) Newton and Einstein. We use textbooks instead that explain the ideas originated by them. The difference for this may be that in modern science, the community works with consensus meanings. The original idea is usually elaborated on and expanded by many others before it becomes the paradigm which the community accepts. This paradigm then represents a kind of consensus scientific view of the field and people can set about trying to present the ideas in a simplified form, suitable for novices, which is how textbooks originate. We just give a nod to the originator of the idea but the idea has ceased to be his or hers alone. When we talk of “Newton’s theory” or “Einstein’s theory”, what we are referring to is not usually exactly what those people may have intended.

But in other areas (such as philosophy) there is no consensus paradigm to the field so there is no consensus belief structure. Hence we keep going back to the original sources, trying to tease out what the author intended. So while in physics, we never refer to someone using quantum mechanics as an “Einsteinian” or “Bohrian” (two people who had competing interpretations of quantum mechanics) but simply refer to the current consensus view, in other fields such as philosophy it is quite common to refer to someone as a “Kantian” or a “Lockian”, and this implies adherence to that person’s original views.

I’ll write more about this tomorrow.

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