Make it Explicit


The greatest accomplishment to which a philosopher can aspire is to make explicit.  To make an argument explicit, to clarify the boundaries of a position, to lay out clearly the stakes of a determination should be the loftiest aim of a philosopher worthy of the name. 

This does not mean that I will agree with the position that the philosopher makes explicit, once it has been explicated.  I may disagree, but I will still value the philosopher for having made their position, with which I disagree, explicit - that, and only that, is their value as a philosopher.  (Of course, the person may be important and good in other ways, besides their philosophical work.)

In fact, the explication of an argument with which I disagree is more valuable to me than hearing something with which I agree.  I am tempted to say that until I can clearly see how I disagree with it, it is not fully explicated.  That's a joke, but like the best jokes, it contains a lot of truth.

I repeat that this is an aim.  I do not mean to say that this goal is ever fully realized.  It is likely that there will always be work to do, lines to draw, differences to sharpen, conflicts to illuminate.   Nonetheless, this is the goal toward which we should aspire.  Sometimes making explicit means making an ambiguity explicit.

And I repeat that this is the greatest, highest possible accomplishment for a philosopher.  Not everyone has the desire to be a philosopher, and not every philosopher will gain even a small amount of ground towards this goal.  Many philosophers don't.  This accomplishment is difficult - extraordinarily difficult, and there is no guarantee that it is possible.  It may be that a philosopher can never make an argument fully clear for other people, and it is indeed difficult enough - a problem to last a hundred lifetimes - for a philosopher just to try to make an argument explicit for herself.  

It is no great accomplishment to show that a text can be interpreted as deconstructing itself.  That should be our expectation, for, more than 99 out of 100 times, it is true.  The discovery that an utterance is polysemous should be met with the same enthusiasm that we reserve for the declaration that fire feels hot or that water feels wet.

What is truly extraordinary, bordering on the miraculous, is monosemy.  And even monosemy falls short of the goal.  In fact, monosemy usually only shows that language is not fully developed enough.  Lucidity is closer.  But explicitness is even different from, and higher than, lucidity, because to be explicit not only means being open and clear (words that might apply to the night, when all sheep are black) but also means being detailed, sharp, distinct, manifold.  

Sometimes that which is explicit is ugly.  We are used to television programs warning us that they contain explicit material, by which they mean "sexy."  But explicit material is rarely sexy.  Often it is boring.  It is almost always arduous, and it may be exhausting.  It is full of surprises, and there are almost always loose ends.  Here is one of them.

[See also: (all of these are related)

My essay on Liquefactionism - the struggle to make explicit is, for me, heroic opposition to Liquefactionism.

The Meaning of Life

This essay, "A Sequel to Hegel" (probably the best thing I've written) - particularly the stuff in there about analytic philosophy.]


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