On Clarity

When I first heard Brian Eno’s album Another Green World I found the rhythms and musical textures so odd and disconcerting that I felt like jumping from my friend’s car. In time, however, this became one of my favorite albums, one I would listen to again and again, and I soon came to recognize why many consider Eno to be a musical genius. What happened here? Now you could say I became familiar with Eno’s music and that I began to see an inner logic, a musical sense, that first escaped my notice. But to get to this point required repeated listenings. What did I become familiar with? And what were the disconcerting layers that needed to be worked through to reveal the inner logic and sense? Hume’s answer to this question is that with repeated experience I became increasingly sensitive to differences and patterns that were initially experienced as a muddled, confused mess. With a developed and refined ‘delicacy’ of taste and imagination, Hume argues that one’s taste can be affected by subtle differences that are missed by others for whom what is present is ‘all mixed up with other such qualities, so that one can’t pick out all the particular flavours from the jumble in which they are presented.’ There are thus qualities in the work of art, according to Hume, that prompts pleasant feelings, feelings that may, on many occasions, only be accessible to one with finely tuned perceptual capacities – in short, to one that has the power to be affected by this music, a power others may lack.

Shifting gears here, I must admit that I had a reaction upon first attempting to read DG’s Anti-Oedipus that closely resembled my experience of first hearing Eno. Just take the first several lines of Anti-Oedipus:

It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. What a mistake to have ever said the id. Everywhere it is machines—real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections. An organ-machine is plugged into an energy-source-machine: the one produces a flow that the other interrupts. The breast is a machine that produces milk, and the mouth a machine coupled to it. The mouth of the anorexic wavers between several functions: its possessor is uncertain as to whether it is an eating-machine, an anal machine, a talking-machine, or a breathing-machine (asthma attacks). Hence we are all handymen: each with his little machines.

Now I can easily imagine one throwing up their hands in the face of a passage such as this and considering it not worth the effort to determine whether or not there is an inner logic, or whether a delicacy of philosophical taste, for example (and DG actually use the term higher “taste” in What is Philosophy?), might lead one to discern an inner sense that leaves others, without such powers of discernment, left confronting, as Hume put it, a ‘muddled, confused mess.’ Most, perhaps, will not find this convincing. For many this may have things backward. We should begin, as Descartes might say, with our Archimedean point, our first principles that are clearly and distinctly perceived, and then build from there a system that becomes increasingly complex. For Deleuze it is the inverse that is the case. What are primary are not the clear and distinct ideas from which we might then found our philosophic and scientific systems, but rather the confused ideas. Drawing from Leibniz, Deleuze argues in Difference and Repetition that the ‘clear would be in itself confused and the distinct in itself obscure’, thus contrasting a Lebnizian confused and obscure to the Cartesian clear and distinct. Deleuze has in mind here Leibniz’s famous passage on the murmuring of the sea. As Deleuze puts it:

Either we say that the apperception of the whole noise is clear but confused (not distinct) because the component little perceptions are themselves not clear but obscure; or we say that the little perceptions are themselves distinct and obscure (not clear): distinct because they grasp differential relations and singularities; obscure because they are not yet ‘distinguished’, not yet differenciated. These singularities then condense to determine a threshold of consciousness in relation to our bodies, a threshold of differenciation on the basis of which the little perceptions are actualized, but actualized in an apperception which in turn is only clear and confused; clear because it is distinguished or differenciated, and confused because it is clear.

In other words, an idea as the integration and fusion – con-fusion – of singularities, or the component little perceptions, is clear only on the condition of this confusion; and similarly an idea is distinct only on the condition that the component little perceptions are obscured and filtered from the scene (I discuss this at greater length in an earlier post). We do not begin with the clear and distinct but with the problematic, or with a Humean hyper-real, and the clear and distinct, as Deleuze makes clear in his lectures on Leibniz, is in itself nothing other than an expression of what our body can do. Since all individual monads, according to Leibniz, express the totality of the world, the question becomes one of how to differentiate one individual from another. Leibniz’s answer is that each individual is differentiated by their particular point of view. As Deleuze summarizes Leibniz’s position,

All individuals express the totality of the world obscurely and confusedly. So what distinguishes a point of view from another point of view? …there is a small portion of the world that I express clearly and distinctly, and each subject, each individual has his/her own portion, but in what sense? In this very precise sense that this portion of the world that I express clearly and distinctly, all other subjects express it as well, but confusedly and obscurely.

Deleuze then adds that ‘even the pure vermin has its little world: it does not express much clearly and distinctly, but it has its little portion.’ As Jakob von Uexküll states this, each living individual has its environment, including the tick, whose clear and distinct portion consists of butyric acid, tactile stimulus and warmth stimulus. As Uexküll puts it, ‘From the enormous world surrounding the tick, three stimuli glow like signal lights in the darkness and serve as directional signs that lead the tick surely to its target.’ A clear and distinct perception is thus inseparable from the obscure and confused, or the problematic.

To clarify this point we can turn to Quine, a philospher well-known for the clarity of his writing. In Quine’s indeterminacy of translation argument he argues, in a tradition that dates to Hume’s recognition of underdetermination, that we never have enough evidence to justify one analytic hypothesis to the exclusion of others. In matching our hypotheses for translating sentences to observed behaviors, stimuli, etc., two incompatible translations may result from two distinct hypotheses that each perfectly account for the available evidence. Therefore, no matter how clear and distinct our translation may be, the meaning of a given utterance is confused and obscured by other equally viable translations, resulting in incompatible meanings.

This is not to say that clarity is impossible, a chimera philosophers would be best to move beyond. A common reaction to philosophers such as Deleuze, Derrida, and Heidegger (recall Carnap’s famous critique of Heidegger), is that they do indeed reject clarity. It’s as if their unclear prose and conceptual formations are supposed to mirror the complexities and ambiguities of what is being discussed and thought. But it would be a mistake to make this assumption. Quine is indeed a perfect example of clarity, and analytic philosophy certainly prides itself in its ability to maintain clarity as one of its fundamental stylistic standards, but clarity is no less important for “continental” philosophers. If there is a difference between analytic and continental philosophy on this score (and I’m not sure the difference is that great) then it is that for Deleuze, et. al. the working assumption is that clarity is not where we begin but what we achieve (this is even true in the case of Descartes), what we achieve in the face of the problematic and the confused and obscure from which we forge a thought that makes sense. A profound philosophical thought should be like listening to Another Green World for the first time.

For those who might be interested, here is the first track of Another Green World. It sounds so pedestrian to my ears now:


7 thoughts on “On Clarity

  1. another brilliant post, pun (sort of) intended.

    this post makes me think about the difference between “clarity” and “Truth” – and the different criteria (impossible or otherwise) that we hold ourselves and others to when communicating significant issues.

    some anthropologists use the term ‘wayfinding’ which i think fits nicely into the notions of darkness, action and clarity. we primates fumble through the darkness seeking clarity and indications (feedback) in order to orient ourselves and cope in the ‘clearing’ of the real world, which we ourselves are parts.

  2. I had a similar experience with Another Green World. the feeling is a good example of what people in education call disequilibrium which happens when you are confronted with something outside your experience. It is a valuable state for learning since people will, if they don’t jump out of the car, will strive for a state of equilibrium, which can only be achieved by learning.

  3. I agree with the general point of the post, namely, that the stylistic of Deleuze and others have been deeply influenced by their philosophical positions, specially when dealing with notions like “clarity” and “distinctness”. My only complaint is your reference to Quine. Quine argues from the indeterminacy of translation and the opacity of reference to the idea that meanings are spurious entities which should be eliminated from our vocabulary. Instead of buying into this thesis (which is problematic to a Deleuzean, anyway), I think we should treat as a reductio and simply reject Quine’s approach to language altogether.

    Catarina Dullith Novaes has argued persuasively in one her posts at NAPPS that mainstream analytic philosophy of language has put too much emphasis on the rigid and more mundane features of languages, treating their variation and plasiticity as at best an anomaly. I agree, and I think Quine is also guilty of this wrong approach to language. Part of the fault lies with this truth-functional account of semantics, which ties meaning to truth conditions. As I said, it seems to me that, in a more Deleuzian spirit, we should reject such an approach, tying meaning with conceptual structures that are prior to the determination of the relevant truth conditions in question. This is much more in line with your proposal in this post, as it focus the research about meaning in the problematic structures from which it emerges, thus giving more strength to your claim that we cannot achieve “clarity and distinctness” without also a good share of the “confused and obscure”.

    • Hi Daniel. Thanks for this. I agree with you and with Catarina’s post. I was definitely not buying into Quine’s thesis that we should eliminate meanings, or semantic correlates, but was all too briefly I now realize tracking Quine’s encounter with and attempt to embrace empiricism, or what I’ve called Humean hyper-realism (or the problematic for Deleuze). It is precisely because Quine continues to hold to the rigidities of truth-functional semantics that he cannot embrace the problematic as condition for truth and meaning (a condition Deleuze sets forth, and which I elaborate on in my most recent book, as transcendental empiricism). It is therefore best for Quine to do away with the myth of the museum and embrace an empiricism and the underdetermination of meaning that goes with it (hence doing away with semantic correlates). Davidson is correct to challenge Quine’s reliance upon non-conceptual givens (the sensory promptings) – i.e., the third dogma of empiricism- but Davidson does so it seems to me at the expense of turning away entirely from the problematic aspect of empiricism. Even Davidson’s brilliant essay, “a nice derangement of epitaphs,” although sensitive to the anomalies and variations of our linguistic practices, and even denying that there is a monolithic entity language itself, will nonetheless base his account of how we come to understand one another on the basis (almost a transcendental condition if you will) that most of our beliefs are true and related to other beliefs that are true, even if we don’t, and perhaps especially and essentially for Davidson because we don’t, know which of the beliefs are or are not true. It is in the context of this web of largely true beliefs whereby one can make sense of anomalous statements. Thus Davidson, as with Quine, does not come to an understanding of meaning (or sense for Deleuze) as primarily confused and obscure, a sense that only with work, or through processes of sedimentation, becomes the standardized beliefs that are largely taken to be true. Davidson thus takes what Deleuze will call a ‘common sense’ approach to meaning, which is not the one he takes, nor is it the one I was putting forth in the post, as you correctly note. Thanks again.

  4. Most modern readers, I’d venture, will find much of the philosophy of past periods to be difficult. I remember being a teenager given both Russell’s “Logical Atomism” and Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” by a friend and finding them equally impenetrable.

    What one usually needs is good teachers to initiate you into a text or set of texts. There are always costs and benefits with philosophical texts, always the question: will the effort of reading pay off? A teacher – if she is good – helps to decrease the costs and increase the benefits of reading, and so makes the prospect of reading much more palatable than it would otherwise be. However, there are, as it were, a variety of overlapping ‘delicacies of philosophical taste,’ and you can develop some at the expense of others. And precisely *which* delicacies you develop can depend a great deal on your education: which skills, for example, are required for surviving your graduate program and getting a degree at the end of it.

    One problem is that once you have had an extensive philosophical education, you often expect to be a relatively autonomous reader of philosophical texts. That’s one of the major benefits of such an education – at least, when it goes well. However, the range of texts you can read with relative autonomy will depend in large part on what kinds of skills you have learned in your education. I think this is one of the major factors which keeps certain barriers up – e.g. between folks who are comfortable reading Frege and those who are comfortable reading Deleuze. If you can pick up an article by Davidson or Quine or Donnellan and feel perfectly at home, while being completely at sea with an essay by Deleuze, Zizek or Ranciere: well, the cost-benefit equation will often work its wonders and you will stick with the former rather than the latter.

    I like your talk of delicacies of philosophical taste. That there is such a thing is something anyone studying or teaching philosophy should keep in mind.

    When we study philosophy, for example, we should remember that the perceived clarity of a text is at least in part the fruit of our own ‘delicacies of philosophical taste.’ We ought not to forget that it is such delicacies which allow us to pick up on what is at stake in one text, and it can be a lack of such refinement which prevents us from knowing what is at stake in another.

    Even more importantly – given that, at the end of the day, what are (and what the world sees most of us to be) is *teachers* of philosophy – we should keep this in mind when teaching philosophy. I have some across many situations in which fellow philosophy teachers are shocked that what seems so clear in a lecture or text to them seems very opaque and abstract to our students. What can result sometimes is an underestimation of student abilities. What we need to remember is that, although presenting material to students at a much *slower* pace than we would to colleagues is of course important, pace is not the only issue. Students need to be helped to develop a sense for what to look out for when uptaking material – which ordinary words are being used in a quasi-technical way, which moments in the flow of text are assertions in sotto voce and which sound notes of objection to the main line of thought. They need to be taught what questions the people that the author is writing for will have on their minds, which positions they take seriously and which ones they don’t, and so on. Understanding isn’t just a matter of parsing the sentences on the page or of the lecture, but rather requires a whole host of skills which we teachers can sometimes forget we are deploying because they have become second-nature to us.

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