Taking 300 pages to say what can be said in one page

Wise asked:

Why do philosophers take 300 pages to say what could be said in one page?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Let me answer in one line – because their text is ‘one long argument’.

But, like them, I will take a page to say what I have already said in a line, because I want to explain, illustrate, convince.

It’s not just philosophers. ‘One long argument’ was how the famous evolutionary biologist, Ernest Mayr, described Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’. This book (in my Folio edition, including index) is 298 pages long, uncannily illustrating your point. I could give the gist of the theory of evolution through natural selection, including a summary of evidence quoted by Darwin, in one page. But, in Darwin’s day the idea was new and controversial and upset many people. So Darwin was keen to explain it properly, to give detailed arguments with many examples, to anticipate objections and reply to them in advance, to consider and dismiss alternatives, to cite in detail all the supporting evidence. Result? A great work and one of the few science books of the past worth reading for its current scientific value, not just its historical value.

And so it is with philosophers. Especially if defending a controversial or counterintuitive idea. Thus Berkeley writes not one but two books defending his idea that matter doesn’t exist, only minds (including God’s) and ideas (ours and God’s), the external world being ideas in God’s mind (his prose is wonderfully spare and exact so that he gets the total text down to nearer 150 pages). More modern examples include David Lewis ‘On the Plurality of Worlds’, nearly 300 pages saying that possible worlds are real. Or Huw Price’s ‘Time’s Arrow and Archimedes Point’, 306 pages about the block-universe view of time and it’s implications. Each of these books is ‘one long argument’, and part of learning philosophy is to follow a few of these arguments by reading such books and making up your own mind.

By contrast, reports of original observations or experimental findings only have to say what was done and found. Others can replicate the findings and thereby be convinced. So, for example, Crick and Watson’s famous 1953 paper on the structure of DNA is only a few pages long. Philosophy is rarely like that. However, one of the most famous and influential papers in 20th century philosophy, Edmund Gettier’s 1963 paper ‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge? ‘, is only two pages long. Other, famous, relatively short papers are Goodman’s 6-page ‘The New Riddle of Induction’ (the one about grue), and Quine’s 24-page ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’.

Having regard to the differences between science and philosophy, I doubt if philosophers are more prolix than scientists (or any other group of writers).

Answer by Tony Fahey

This is a good question, and similar to one I asked myself when I first embarked on third level studies. I should say though that I do think that arguing that philosophers can take 300 pages to say what can be said in one page might be a bit of an exaggeration, but in saying that, I do get the sense of what you mean. However, unfortunately, in philosophy, it seems that there is no political Ronald Reagan ‘one page man’ equivalent

One explanation why philosophers may seem so long-winded is that academic writing in general (not just philosophical dissertations or theses) demands that one’s argument(s) can never be reduced to sweeping generalizations: one can never state that such and such is one’s view and leave it at that. That is, one’s stated position must be supported by cogent, well reasoned, and, where possible, well supported argument.

For example, whilst Kant’s statement ‘Though all our knowledge begins with experience, it by no means follows that all arises out of experience’ might be seen to state his position in regard to Hume’s empirical stance, it takes considerably more than one page to set out what is meant in this short statement. Moreover, the full meaning of his much quoted view that the two things that sustained him were ‘…the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me’ could not be explained within the two or three paragraphs of one page. I could go on to consider similar cases of many other famous thinkers – Wittgenstein (‘whereof one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence’), Vico (‘concepts arise from the ‘common-sense spontaneous judgements of the community’), Hegel’s ‘dialectic process’, Plato’s ‘theory of forms’, Husserl’s ‘transcendental ego’, and so on, and so on, but I think (or I hope) by now you may get my drift – I am also keen to show that, in this instance at least, what needs to be said can be said on one page or less.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

That is your opinion and you offer no evidence for it so it will just remain your opinion. It is likely that philosophy is just too difficult for you to understand. You think there are simple answers to philosophical problems because you fail to understand the problems.

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