This post is a comment I made in response to an essay by Grant Maxwell. As I indicate in the comment, I am currently in the midst of reading his book, The Dynamics of Transformation: Tracing an Emerging World View. Maxwell is a philosopher and this book is a very important one. It is spooky how he is covering a good deal of the same territory as my thinking, including many of the same thinkers, including Jung. Maxwell is a professional philosopher, while I am an amateur. This is clearly seen in our writing, but I am pleased to find someone writing so well about the very ideas I too think are so important for humanity. I will certainly be exploring Maxwell’s ideas and his book further – very important writing and thinking.
In the essay, Grant Maxwell wrestles with the problem that some people find his writing is not more accessible than they would like it to be. What is the responsibility of the writer to his various audiences? My response follows here and could just as well apply to Jung’s writing which also can be very demanding of the reader. Fortunately Jung has had many interpreters over the years and that continues, but it is always important to return to the source. I love to read many people on Jung, but I read Jung himself to gain my own understanding. And Jung, like Maxwell, and other great thinkers are worth reading and rereading.
Here is my response to Maxwell:
This cuts to the heart of philosophy if one is pursuing the subject to change thinking and our culture. And for me, why else engage in philosophy? I abhor puzzles for the sake of completing them. I’d rather read a challenging book, engage in an interesting conversation, listen to music, watch a movie or stare into space contemplating life – philosophy again. For me life has purpose and so does philosophy.
Philosophy is both process and product. The nearest comparison is found in law – another profession completely dependant upon language and meaning. Lawyers are also criticized for their arcane language, yet millions of dollars and enormous amounts of time can be spent to comprehend and then make judgements on language and meaning. It’s not simply a self-serving construct. Although lawyers have a lot more to answer for than philosophers.
I’m not unsympathetic to the arguments of Phil Tanney. Jesus Christ was a very influential philosopher, of sorts. But the world becomes more complex. Newtonian physics is well understood by many, and was a reasonable description of the world, for its time. Quantum physics is perhaps well understood by very few, and one can argue, by even fewer who may claim an understanding. I think it’s clear that the metaphysical implications of quantum mechanics have yet to be explored.
Are we to dismiss quantum mechanics because it has not been as clearly described and understood as Newtonian physics? The practical success of quantum mechanics would argue otherwise.
“You can’t blame most physicists for following this ‘shut up and calculate’ ethos because it has led to tremendous developments in nuclear physics, atomic physics, solid¬ state physics and particle physics.”
• Jean Bricmont, quoted in Zeeya Merali, “What is Really Real?”, Nature (2015)
This approach by physics, as a discipline, is a reasonable one, because there exists the field of philosophy, where there is a duty not to shut up, but to explore the deepest implications of existence with language as our ultimate tool of understanding. I can’t speak to the language of mathematics. For most people, higher mathematics is much less amenable to understanding than complex language.
That complexity can be both a bug and a feature. Plain speaking is important for instructions on assembling a barbecue, but in exploring the deepest questions of life, maybe not. It can be a disservice to make the complex too simple. Writing is an enormous challenge. It’s job is to communicate, but also to stimulate and inspire.
Can you really approach and explore the biggest ideas in a novel way and not be demanding of the reader? Sometimes more obscure words, or complex syntax is chosen over what one might chose for easier communication, but that easier communication may not lead to better understanding of complex ideas. Is the reader best served by facilitating an easier understanding, that may be wrong or incomplete, when thoughtful rereading is to be encouraged and ultimately necessary to give the ideas the justice and understanding they deserve?
Should we build a freeway through a national park, or a winding road that forces us to slow down, drive more carefully and consciously, and really absorb the scenery? The winding road is not specifically designed to slow you down, but simply follows the natural contours of the land. Building a multi-lane highway would do violence to the land, as well as to the experience. We’d travel much faster and more easily, but at what cost? We’d lose the value of the journey.
I am currently reading Maxwell’s The Dynamics of Transformation: Tracing an Emerging World View, and I never get the idea that he is trying to make his prose more obscure or technical. In fact the meta message could be that he trusts the reader to be persistent and intelligent enough to follow his thinking. Perhaps reading and rereading an important book, rather than plowing through ten others in the same amount of time, is more valuable. I think so.
I wouldn’t say that reading Maxwell is “easy”. I have a reasonable vocabulary, but given the material, I do not gloss over words when I have only an inexact idea of their meaning. Reading conventional material, one can infer meaning much more easily and a lot of books are like a bad joke – “that’s it? – that was the funny bit?”. Maxwell’s writing challenges me, but not excessively, and meeting the challenge is part of the reward.
There is great value in exploring important and really radical ideas. Should philosophy not be radical in some fundamental sense, using technical language that moves the reader beyond their status quo vocabulary and worldview? Using conventional language can make it too easy to dismiss big ideas by expressing them in ways that are less likely to force us to confront those big ideas in new ways. Or we can quickly come to the conclusion that our superficial understanding, is adequate, when the real problem is what we consider to be an adequate understanding of more demanding ideas. In a way, the message can be lost in the medium, or in the traditional patterns of narrative in the medium. Many simple words can have monstrously complex and personally embedded meanings that are impossible to see, when one remains in that limited world of those simple worlds – eg. “God”. The use of technical philosophic language can bring greater clarity if one is willing to put in the required effort.
Writing for clarity is difficult, because it’s not simply ease of comprehension – obviously. You have to do justice to the ideas and their complexity. It reminds me of Woody Allen’s joke – “I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace. It’s about Russia.”
If you ever try to write seriously, about a complex topic, it quickly becomes apparent how demanding it is. There are no shortcuts. This is more obvious when you’re writing to bring new ideas to the understanding of your readers. Even as an amateur philosopher (aren’t we all?), I try to keep in mind the guidance of Karl Popper – “Always remember that it is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.” When you’re a philosopher, your product is your writing, so I appreciate the effort to make it as clear and as beautiful as possible – and that often precludes simplicity or easy understanding. I’m willing to work at it from my end as well, which is a requirement of the audience for any art form.