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The Politics of Clarity


Jonathan Ree’s editorial in Radical Philosophy 20
raised important questions about the role of
Radical Philosophy in relation both to the political
left and to the acade mic establishment – questions
about the dangers of academicism, about the kinds
of political and cultural action appropriate to
Radical Philosophy, and so on. As can be seen
from Colin Gordon’s reply in Radical Philosophy
21, there have for some time been disagreements
and conflicts within the editorial group, resulting
in a confused and unclear policy. One can get a
sense of this uncertainty by looking back at past
issues of the magazine – by setting the grass -roots
activism of Radical Philosophy 15 ‘s supplement
‘Philosophy from Below’ beside the intimidating
structuralism of Radical Philosophy 17 (‘philosophy
from above’ ?). At the meeting of the editorial
collective to prepare the present issue, we had a
very useful discussion of some of these problems.

We seemed to reach some agreement about the role
of Radical Philosophy, and we want to set it out
here and invite the reactions of readers.

Over the past ten years there has been, in this
country, an impressive growth of theoretical work
on the left. In institutional terms, we have seen the
emergence of left-wing publishing houses such as
NLB, Pluto, Allison and Busby, a good deal of
Marxist theory from established publishers, and
the production of theoretical magazines and journals
(Radical Philosophy among them). Many of those
who have been engaged in the production of such
material work in academic institutions, and as a
result the areas of study offered by many academic
departments (including some philosophy departments)
are more varied than they were ten years ago.

These are undeniable achievements. But they carry
with them the obvious dangers. Socialist academics,
having found a niche for themselves, may then
become just another academic elite, producing a
self-contained body of theory which is remote from
experience, impenetrable to all but the initiated
few, and which can safely be ignored or accepted by
the guardians of bourgeois culture. Indeed, we do
not have to predict this. We know already that too
much socialist theory has been as academic and
dogmatic as ever academic philosophy has been,
and has quite clearly me rited the label of ‘left
scholasticis m’.

Radical Philosophy began with the intention of
opposing academicism. In re -affirming this policy
now, we have to recognise that it means reSisting
the academicism of the left as well as of the right.

Central to our policy is an active commitment to
debate and discussion. We shall continue to encourage controversy. And this means that we refuse to
adopt or impose any set theoretical line. On the
contrary, we shall aim to publish criticisms of any
theoretical poSition which seems on its way”to
becoming an entrenched dogma. We shall, as far as
we can, attempt to counter the drift into left

There is a risk, of course, that in attaching such
a label we in turn shall be charged with dogmatism.

Indeed, in a sense that is inevitable, for it is the
characteristic of opposing doctrines, as much of the
left as of the right, that they will disagree over what
constitutes dogmatism. We recognise that fact, and
in so doing recognise that in opposing academicism
with a policy of open debate, we do not put ourselves
above controversy, nor do we transcend the problems reflected in the biases of contemporary left
thought. Vie know that the growth of academicism
on the left has to do with a pejection of traditional
approaches to issues of philosophy and politics, and
comes as a reaction to the alleged empiricism,
eclectiCism, disdain for theory or superficiality of
those approaches. It must be acknowledged that
there are fundamental differences of opinion at stake about the nature and purpose of philosophy,
fundamental, and maybe irreconcilable, differences
about what kind of theoretical work is important and
about the way it relates to political progress. It
would be mere caricature to suggest that all such
differences can be charted simply in terms of their
relative abstruseness of expression, or that they
reduce to a question of linguistic style.

But we do take it that opposing schools of thought
on the left are ultimately tied by a sh~red commit-·
ment, and that there is a place for a discourse that
examines what have now become quite radical
divergences of theoretical approach and style on
the left from the standpoint of that common goal.

It will be a discourse that has more to do with
exploring the dimensions and implications of
differences than with resolving them: and it will
certainly not succumb at all readily to the idea that
some happy compromise can be attained simply by
compounding the best of various traditions and
schools of thought. Radical Philosophy does not see
itself in some privileged poSition, whereby in
remaining uncommitted to any particular theoretical
line, it automatically avoids the evils and excesses
of opposing alignments and, with a clearsightedness
that all others are supposed to lack, charts its unswerving course between the Scyllaoftheoreticism
and the Charybdis of an undirected empiricism to
a solution wherein all contradictions of episte mology
and politics have miraculously disappeared. Given
the basic disagreements between what might broadly
speaking be termed an Althusserian approach, on
the one hand, and that of the British tradition of
socialist theory, on the other, about what cons tit utes ‘knowledge’, about the criteria for ‘truth’,
about the nature of history and the role and understanding of the ‘subject’, the Golden Mean solution
is clearly no solution at all.

~one of this, however, means that there is no
role for a discourse that reflects upon such differences, investigates the reasons for them, explores
the nature and extent of the incompatibilities of
different epistemological approaches and tries to
elucidate the relationship between them and the


adoption of a particular political stance. Radical
Philosophy is ideally placed to enter into that kind
of discussion; unlike other com~able journals, it
does not speak from an already established place
on the spectrum of left thought, and is therefore in
a position to speak about that spectrum as a whole,
and about what is entailed by establishing oneself
at any particular point along it. At the same time
– and more polemically – it is not just that Radical
Philosophy happens to be well placed to give voice
to that kind of discussion, it is also the case that
we regard such a discussion as itself of positive
value and importance. For it will serve to redirect attention to the ultimate purpose of left
theory, and it will act as a reminder to those involvedin its production that there is more thought
and more world to be thought about than is
encompassed within the limits of their immediate
theoretical concerns. It will also, as suggested,
not be without its critical edge, for by its nature
it will be at odds with the current tendency of
particular theoretical elites to enclose themselves
hermetically within the ‘correctness’ of their own
line of approach. In particular, it will have little
respect for those who retreat behind the walls of
self-generating language and meta-Ianguage in order
to attain the invulnerability of being incomprehensible to all but themselves. It is that kind of
deliberate recourse to inaccessibility that we call
in question and would describe in terms of ‘left
scholasticism’. We suspect it of vacuity, and are
put off by its authoritarian overtones. We wish to
challenge the complacency with which those who
believe themselves to be involved in the construction of socialism, and who justify their theoretical
labours on the basis of their politics, can promote
a non-egalitarian relationship between themselves
and their readers.

We do not necessarily accuse those involved in
the production of ‘left scholasticism’ with lack of
political integrity. But we do de mand that they make
explicit how they see the connection between their
politics and their productions. For in the. absence
of such explanation we must suspect that the
impenetrable vocabulary, the reverential attitude
to texts (‘ … those richly suggestive fragments
which Marx has bequeathed to us … ‘), the
exaggerated humility (‘ … all that can be
attempted here are some notes towards a definition
of the problem … ‘) are the cover under which,
consciously or unconsciously, the retreat is made
from political radicalism to the security and
comforts of academic respectability.

So while we recognise that left academicism is
motivated initially by particular philosophical and
political convictions, we also insist that there is a
necessary connection between one’s politics and
their mode of theoretical expression. And we
further suggest that political integrity has a great
deal to do with the care that one takes to remain
within the forum of discussion – so that the grounds
for the production of any discourse are called in
question the moment it becomes inaccessible. It
is the contradictions between the professed aims of
those involved in left scholasticism and their actual
pursuits that is at issue here.

There is, however, another side to this question
of clarity versus abstruseness, and it is one whi’ch
relates to Radical Philosophy’s stand against the
academicism of the right. For a certain kind of
clarity and immediate accessibility can go hand in
hand with the evasion of political considerations

altogether. This is the case with much analytical
philosophy, which though obedient to the standard
canons of linguistic style and clarity, is lost in
triviality and irrelevance, and painfully unclear
about how it connects with any real experience.

We are all familiar with a certain kind of philosophical article, concerned only to make an
assortment of minor pOints and distinctions, or to
propose a thesis so miniscule that its readers,
though they may understand all the individual words
and sentences, are led to ask: ‘What on earth is it
getting at?’. Such writing is obscure because there
is nothing in it that matters, no definite thesis the
acceptance or rejection of which would make a
difference to how one understands or lives in the
world. It is true that such writing frequently refers
back to the central, traditional ‘problems’ of
philosophy – the ‘problem of the external world’,
the ‘problem of other minds’ – and that in the area
of these so -called ‘problems’ there are genuine
problems in need of investigation. But as they stand,
they are mere formulae, handed down automatically
from teacher to student as if the urgency of their
claims to attention were self-evident, and the
unquestioning parasitism of so much contemporary
analytic philosophy only serves to further obscure
what initial relevance they once had.

In pursuing the ai m of clarity, then, we have
something more in mind than adherence to the
conventions of clear-writing (avoidance oJ jargon,
or of wilful verbosity, the use of short sentences,
and so on). Though we assert the importance of
such conventions as a general guide -line, we do not
believe that clarity of expression can be reduced to
a set of linguistic rules. For it has at least as
much to do with what kind of questions and material
one selects as relevant, with the extent to which
one allows the reader to become awar~ of. the
reasons for that selection, and with a desire to
explicate complex and potentially confUSing areas

10.00 FOR 10·30am
further derails from
Mada n SaruPJ same address

rather than sweep them away in a torrent of
technical jargon. On the other hand, there can be
no general recipe for clarity and good style, if
only because the personal flair of the writer will
always, and rightly, be a contributory factor, and
because the nature of the material under consideration must to some extent determine the appropriateness of a particular form of expression.

It is in pursuit of a clarity defined and qualified in
these kinds of terms that Radical Philosophy sees it
as important not only to challenge the academicism
of the left, but to continue its critique of main – .

stream analytical philosophy. Some might argue
that the latter is unnecessary. They would say that
the influence and authority of radical ideas is now
so great that a new and different policy is necessary.

and that it is no longer worth bothering with traditional British philosophy and its academic heirs
(Wittgenstein, Russell, Austin, etc). However, it
would be absurd to exaggerate the success of
Radical Philosophy and the influence of radical and
Marxist ideas. The view that left-wing thought now
dominates higher education would be no more
correct if assumed by us than if asserted by the
Gould report. It has had an influence, but it is
very far from being dominant. In general it
remains true that ‘the dominant ideas of an epoch
are those of the ruling class’. Therefore to

abandon our critical engagement with the dominant
academic tradition of philosophy would be a
serious mistake. We hope, in the future, to give
regular attention to the assessment of orthodox
philosophy, identifying what is valuable in it and
criticising its reactionary and ideological aspects.

In our wanting to maintain a debate at these
various different levels we shall no doubt be
charged with eclectism. So be it. The charge is
familiar. But we repudiate any description that
suggests that our policy is a purely negative
policy of ‘anything goes’. Our positive commitments are clear. Firstly, we are, unequivocally,
a magazine of the left. Second, we are committed
to the work of philosophy – and this needs stressing.

We have always opposed the isolation of philosophy
from other disCiplines, but we do recognise that
there is identifiably philosophical work to be done
on the left, and we want to promote it. And, both
because we are of the left and because we are
committed to philo’sophy, we cannot treat any
theoretical claim as beyond question, or accept any
thesis as a dogma. We shall encourage critical
thinking, clear communication, and open debate,
and we shall oppose all scholasticism, wherever
it is to be found.

It is all too easily forgotten that revolutionary
changes are a major concern of Some of the most
important contemporary philosophers and historians
of science. The copious literature surrounding the
work of Popper, Lakatos, Feyerabend and Kuhn
frequently fails to recognise that, as Kuhn puts it,
both he and his Popperian critics ‘share the conviction that the central episodes in scientific
advance – those which make the game worth playing
and the play worth studying – are revolutions’. (1)
To characterize one’s project in this way is, of
course, to assume that revolutions have occurred
in science. This assumption has not gone unchallenged. Among philosophers of science Toulmin,
for example, has consistently queried it. Historians
most notably Duhem, are also sceptical. Their
reluctance is informed by the continuities which
they have detected in the historical record. In
particular, the apparently unbroken line of descent
leading from at least fourteenth century impetus
theory through Galilean physics to the ‘classical’

principle of inertia has led them, and others, to
doubt that there was a revolution in science in the
seventeenth century, as is commonly believed.

Revolution and discontinuity, then, go hand in hand.

And insofar as one is concerned with the development of scientific thought, it is typically the nature
and extent of conceptual transformations which
serve as an index-of revolutionary change. This
*This article is an amalgam of material drawn from the Introduction to and
first chapter of, my Science, Revolution and Discontinuitv which is to ~
published by Harvester Press early in 1980.

John Krige

point is important. FOT as Laudan, for one, has
noted, presently dominant empiricist epistemologies tend to concentrate on the role which the solution of empirical problems has played in scientific
advance. This has often been done at the expense of
analysing the conceptual changes which are also an
essential part of the growth of knowledge. As a
matter of fact, the solution of certain particularly
intractable empirical problems may itself require
conceptual innovation of a fairly drastic kind.

The question of just how deep or far reaching
conceptual change in science has been, or need be,
is the question of whether there have been, or need
be, discontinuous transitions in the development of
scientific thought. Historically speaking, has the
advance of knowledge involved, perhaps even
demanded, the production of conceptual frameworks
which are so different from their predecessors that
there is no effective overlap between them? Or, in
language which is rather more familiar to contemporary philosophers of science, have there been
transitions between incommensurable systems of
thought which, for that reason, are to be regarded
as discontinuous transitions?

Foucault is one historian who believes that transformations of this type have indeed occurred. For
example, he invites us to conSider:

medicine at the end of the eighteenth century:

read twenty medical works, it doesn’t matter
1 T. S. Kuhn, ‘Reflections on my Critics’, in I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave
(eds.), Criticism and the Growth of Knowle<ke, Cambridge University
Press, 1970, p241


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