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December 01, 2009


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I'm sympathetic to this, but only to a degree. That's because, while people should try to be clear in their writing, this isn't always possible, especially with difficult subjects, and there's a tendency for this sort of complaint to bleed over into anti-intellectualism quite quickly. (I don't think this is likely with Eric.) Consider these remarks from the editor's introduction to Thucydides' _History of the Peloponnesian War_, which I pick simply because I happen to be reading it now and I was struck by them:

"He wrote in a complicated style, overloaded and lacking in charm....In his struggle to convey the sense of an action or a statement precisely , Thucydides juggled tenses in a sophisticated way, piled up subordinate clauses and resorted to other devices that are often the despair of modern readers....Neither in style nor in treatment of his subject did he make the slightest concession to his audience."

And this from the translator's introduction:
"...though the meaning of Thucydides is usually (though not always) clear enough, it is expressed in a style which is extremely hard to turn into another language. To begin with one is sometimes repelled by what seems an overdoing of antitheses or an unnecessary roughness in the transitions of the syntax. Soon one comes to respect these qualities, for they are the marks of a really great mind expressing itself in a manner that has never been used before and grappling with ideas which are novel, unexpected, and illuminating."

Taking Althouse's line too seriously or soon will lead one to not grapple with serious works or to dismiss them on unjustified grounds. Not all difficult writing is merely a cover for poorly digested thoughts (though of course much is), and few of use are "great minds" who must craft new ways of expressing ourselves. But the categorical nature of her statement is clearly too strong and seems to indicate an unfortunate anti-intellectualism.

(The flip side of this, though, is Epictetus's wonderful reminder: "hen a man is proud because he can understand and explain the writings of Chrysippus, say to yourself, If Chrysippus had not written obscurely, this man would have had nothing to be proud of."

Eric Muller

Fair enough, Matt. But in the fields in which I read (law and history), I'm hard-pressed to think of many nooks or crannies where clear and simple expression isn't possible. Undoubtedly some highly theoretical work in these fields might defy simple and clear statement, but I suppose I'm tipping my hand about what I think of the value of such work.

Marc DeGirolami

I don't really agree with this sentiment at all. I think the reason is that behind it lies the idea that all that matters are the ideas themselves, and that style is irrelevant. My own view is that there are many different ways to express the same or a very similar idea, and that the unique style that accompanies the expression of an idea is as much a part of the product as the raw idea itself.

If this is merely a call for elegant writing, then I suppose I agree (who could be against that?). But if it is a rallying call for simplicity for its own sake, then I think it misguided. Simple and clear is not the only way to express ideas -- especially complex ideas -- in a way that can be academically edifying.


Althouse is not talking about simple writing in the sense that writing should be simple, terse, and lacking in feeling or character. Althouse, rather, is talking about writing that is simple in logic and reason.

Important in the quote is the end: "you have to undo the obfuscation that the writer seems to have generated to give the appearance of depth to ideas that could be stated simply and crisply."

Obfuscation is an attempt to avoid elegant, simple, and clear reasoning because the writer feels more complicated logic makes it sound more academic.

As for the value of theoretical work, it is as important as you let it be. (On the other hand, I was a history major and, after spending time studying law, I can't read most history academics -- poorly cited, bombastic, unnecessarily complicated mush.)

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