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« Angie Hobbs on Plato on Erotic Love | Main | Myles Burnyeat on Aristotle on Happiness »

November 11, 2007


Max Sitting

In this interview, Alain de Botton says something like this: it was a very sad fact that Kant was such a bad writer, but we respect him because his ideas were very good.

It got me wondering just how putting some “good” into the writing of the Critique of Pure Reason might enhance its philosophic potency. Would it be easier to understand? Clearer? More distinct? More accessible? How would de Botton edit the work to its betterment?

Another question: Would putting some “good” into Kant’s writing style make him a better philosopher?

Just one more question: In the example of Kant, how does de Botton account for such “good” philosophy being elucidated with such “bad” writing?

I’ve got the Kantian answer!! The necessary condition for the possibility of good philosophy is bad writing. And the necessary condition for the possibility of the kind of good philosophical writing Alain de Botton advocates is, well, bad philosophy.

virtual philosopher

Thanks for your comments, but...

Are you saying Kant's rather tedious style makes for better philosophy? Surely not.

There are different ways of being a good philosopher. You surely diminish your chances if you write in Kant's ponderous style. It is quite easy to see how he could have been clearer.

I hope philosophers don't start defending the need to write in an obscure way just because one or two philosophers managed to overcome their deficiencies in writing and communicate despite their obscure tendencies. Bryan Magee wrote a good article for Prospect Magazine about style in Philosophy some time ago where he made this sort of point very well.

Max Sitting

Just a couple of thoughts.

Ernst Cassier remarks in Kant’s Life and Teachings, that whenever Goethe read a page from Kant, he had the impression of stepping into a bright room.

You don’t seem to have such a Goethean moment when you’re reading Kant. Noting that, I might be justified in observing that the obscurity or clarity of a piece of writing is not a quality inherent in the writing but is rather determined by the person who is reading.

Let’s say Goethe thought Kant was clear because he had the advantage of living in the same period and speaking the same language. Kant’s clarity is then a question of familiarity. The more familiar you are with his writing, well, the clearer he becomes.

I’ve never been to London and I’m sure my first attempts at getting around the city would be difficult. But in due time, as I familiarize myself with the city and learn about it, I will get around rather nicely. We are prompt to treat the familiar as clear and distinct.

I also note that the need for clarity is a pedagogic obsession. Since philosophy is dependant on the academy for its professional survival, philosophy is dominated by an academic methodology. And what do academics do? They teach. In order to teach, they need to communicate-- understandably and clearly communicate--the ideas they teach. There is an academic industry dedicated to elucidating, articulating and clarifying works of philosophy. Clarity is a demand placed on philosophy by the academy.


In this interview Nigel asks de Botton what would be a good book/essay for beginners and he mentioned the essays by Martegne(?). Can anyone fill me in abou this authour and his book?

Nigel Warburton

The author Alain recommends is Montaigne...

Best wishes,



If de Botton edited the critique to increase clarity there would be a bushel of philosophers saying he had got it wrong. So the student in trying to understand Kant would then be back to his original position -- i.e. he would have to read Kant. I think the student's chances of doing this has improved recently, with Pluhar's excellent translation and Cagill's excellent 'Kant dictionary' available.

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