How Complex is too Complex? On the Accessibility of Analytic Philosophical Writing

by Joseph Shieber

Recently I came across Jonathan Rose’s thesis that it was no accident that the literary tastes of the working classes in Britain lagged behind those of the educated classes. According to Rose, the educated classes adopted ever-more-complex literary forms (read: literary modernism) to distinguish themselves from the “great unwashed”. (H/t Matthew Wills at the JSTOR Daily blog.)

Reading this account of the ascendance of literary modernism as a reaction on the part of the educated classes to rising literacy rates among the lower and working classes made me think of the role of complexity and difficulty in writing. Is it merely gate-keeping and/or signaling (to give a shout-out to my previous post)?

One of the criticisms of analytic philosophy that I often encounter is that it’s too complex or difficult. And there’s no question: it often IS extremely complex and challenging writing.

For example, here’s Geoff Pullam, a well-known linguist … not a philosopher, on this topic. In an essay entitled “Writing on Philosophy: It’s Not Rocket Science. It’s More Complicated Than That” for the unfortunately now-defunct Lingua Franca blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Pullam addresses the complexity of analytic philosophical writing:

I don’t know any academic field whose writing regularly indulges in sentence structure as complex as what you find in analytic philosophy.

Let me exhibit for you a wonderful sentence from Page 182 of a recent philosophy book by Ruth Garrett Millikan, Beyond Concepts: Unicepts, Language, and Natural Information (Oxford University Press, 2017). I thought I might have it embroidered on a wall hanging. I omit only the initial connective adjunct “Second” (since the link to the previous paragraph is not relevant here) and a reference date (1957) at the end.

“In arguing for his analysis of non-natural meaning, Grice made the mistake of arguing from the sensible premise that a hearer who believed that a speaker did not intend by his words to produce in the hearer a certain belief or intention would not acquire that belief or intention to the invalid conclusion that a hearer who merely failed to believe that a speaker intended by his words to produce a certain belief or intention in the hearer also would not acquire that belief or intention.”

That is an 86-word sentence, so by the usual standards of readability it’s off the charts, even for high-school students. Yet it is perfectly formed; don’t imagine that I’m criticizing it. It’s just extraordinarily complex and demanding.

When Pullam notes that Millikan’s sentence is off-the-charts in terms of readability, he’s not exaggerating. Its Gunning Fog Scale Level score is 40.78, and its Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is 36.92.

By comparison, consider this passage from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time:

As long ago as 340 B.C. the Greek philosopher Aristotle, in his book On the Heavens, was able to put forward two good arguments for believing that the earth was a round sphere rather than a flat plate. First, he realized that eclipses of the moon were caused by the earth coming between the sun and the moon. The earth’s shadow on the moon was always round, which would be true only if the earth was spherical. If the earth had been a flat disk, the shadow would have elongated and elliptical, unless the eclipse always occurred at a time when the sun was directly under the center of the disk. Second, the Greeks knew from their travels that the North Star appeared lower in the sky when viewed in the south than it did in more northerly regions. (Since the North Star lies over the North Pole, it appears to be directly above an observer at the North Pole, but to someone looking from the equator, it appears to lie just at the horizon. From the difference in the apparent position of the North Star in Egypt and Greece, Aristotle even quoted an estimate that the distance around the earth was 400,000 stadia. It is not known exactly what length a stadium was, but it may have been about 200 yards, which would make Aristotle’s estimate about twice the currently accepted figure. The Greeks even had a third argument that the earth must be round, for why else does one first see the sails of a ship coming over the horizon, and only later see the hull?

This passage from Hawking has a Gunning Fog Scale Level of 14.03 and a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 10.21.

So Pullam is certainly correct that Millikan’s passage is extraordinarily complex. As Pullam also emphasizes, however, he’s not criticizing Millikan for writing in this way. Although he later in his post characterizes her book as “mind-crunchingly difficult”, he also characterizes it as “brilliant”.

What I take from this is that, although Millikan’s passage IS complex and difficult, its complexity and difficulty are appropriate. To use the formulation with which I started, while the writing is complex, it’s not TOO complex. In fact, if you’re trying to discuss complex and difficult material, it is sometimes necessary to formulate your discussion in a way that is itself complex and difficult.

Writing too simply about a complex topic runs the risk of oversimplifying, of erasing complexity that is required in order to provide an accurate picture of the topic at hand.

Is this really what’s going on with Millikan — and, by extension, with the sort of analytic philosophical writing for which Pullam uses her as a stand-in? In order to answer that, we’d have to see whether the phenomena she’s discussing in that passage really ARE complex enough to warrant the level of mind-melting complexity of her writing. And to see that, let’s see what Millikan is trying to say in that 86-word sentence that Pullam quotes.

In his blog post, Pullam provides his own reformulation of Millikan’s point in this passage, but here’s mine.

According to Millikan, the philosopher H. P. Grice’s argument in favor of his analysis of non-natural meaning rests on a mistake. Grice begins with a very sensible premise: a hearer who actively believes that a speaker uttered his words without the intention of fostering a certain belief or intention in the hearer wouldn’t form that belief or intention. However, Grice draws an invalid conclusion from this sensible premise. Suppose that a hearer forms NO belief about a speaker’s intentions to foster a certain belief or intention through his utterance. According to Grice, the hearer would then not acquire that belief or intention. This is simply a mistake on Grice’s part.

Okay, that’s basically what Millikan is trying to say. My reformulation clocks in at something like 106 words and six sentences. However, the reformulation is still very complex — although more comparable to the passage from Hawking. (Its Gunning Fog Scale Level is 13.12 and its Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is 9.7.)

To illustrate the point even more clearly, here’s an example of what Millikan is getting at. Suppose I say, sarcastically, “Yeah, Gottfried is just brilliant”. If you hear the obvious sarcasm in my voice, you would actively believe that, by uttering those words, I WASN’T trying to get you to believe that Gottfried really is brilliant — if anything, I was trying to do exactly the opposite. So you certainly wouldn’t form the belief that Gottfried is brilliant on the basis of my uttering those words.

But now suppose you’re walking by and you overhear me talking on the phone in the other room, and I say, “Portland is expecting a lot of rain this weekend”. You don’t know anything about my beliefs or intentions in uttering that sentence. You don’t know who I’m talking to or the context of our conversation. However, it wouldn’t be surprising if you formed the belief that Portland is expecting a lot of rain this weekend, on the basis of overhearing me. This despite the fact that you might well not have formed ANY beliefs at all about my intentions in uttering that sentence — you just went ahead and formed a belief about the expected rainfall in Portland!

That’s just Millikan’s point. What’s TRUE is what is illustrated by the Gottfried example: if you have specific beliefs about how a speaker’s intentions are misaligned with their words, you won’t believe (or intend) what their words would seem to be intended to lead you to believe (or intend).

However, this truth is not the same as the FALSE idea that you have to form explicit beliefs about whether a speaker’s intentions are misaligned with their words before you can believe (or intend) what the speaker’s words would seem to be intended to lead you to believe (or intend). That’s what the rain-in-Portland case illustrates.

The point, then, is a complex one. It’s that when you grasp the meaning of an utterance you don’t have to form explicit beliefs about the intentions of the person making the utterance. And in order to appreciate that point, you have to wrestle with ideas like a hearer’s forming beliefs about a speaker’s intentions about the hearer’s beliefs. When you factor in your own beliefs, those are meta-meta-meta-mental states that we’re talking about!

Given the complexity of the point, it doesn’t strike me that Millikan’s sentence is TOO complex. To return to the idea that I mentioned previously, the level of complexity of Millikan’s language seems to fit the level of complexity of the ideas she’s discussing.

Perhaps, though, the complaint that analytic philosophical writing is too complex isn’t that the level of the complexity of the writing isn’t appropriate to the level of complexity of the subject matter, but rather that the level of complexity of the subject matter isn’t appropriate to its importance.

Here’s what I mean. Suppose there is some subject matter that you take to be utterly frivolous. I can’t give a concrete example without running the risk of upsetting someone for whom that subject matter is their passion, but that’s a risk I’ll just have to take. So let’s choose … British Victorian-era hair styles.

If somebody writes about the intricate differences in weave patterns and length variations in British Victorian-era hair styles, they might well have to describe those intricacies in very complex detail. Further, it might be that such complex writing is completely appropriate to the subtle variations exhibited by the hair styles. Nevertheless, you might criticize their writing for being too complex — not because the subject matter doesn’t exhibit the level of complexity reflected in the writing, but because the subject matter doesn’t DESERVE being considered at that level of complexity.

I have a suspicion that this is what a number of people who complain about the unreasonable complexity of analytic philosophical writing are getting at. The writing is too complex not because the subject matter doesn’t allow for such complex analysis, but because the subject matter itself doesn’t WARRANT such in-depth consideration. To spend so much time analyzing it is simply frivolous!

I don’t believe that complaint needs an answer other than to say that whether a particular subject matter warrants in-depth consideration will vary according a person’s interests. To return to the Stephen Hawking passage above, Hawking, Aristotle, and more recently Kyrie Irving are all interested in proofs that the earth is spherical. A certain type of baseball fan is interested in the distinctions between fWAR, rWAR, and WARP. And yes, the aficionado of British Victorian-era hair styles may be interested, say, in the greater cultural significance of chignons.

Given those interests — interests some will see as idiosyncratic — I don’t think it’s that odd that I, like some others, am concerned with using complex analytical tools to explore the fundamental nature of phenomena like meaning, knowledge, and causation, among other subjects. And given those concerns, it seems completely appropriate — in whatever sense — to subject those topics to complex analyses.