Must Philosophy Be Written Down?

I’m doing a lot of philosophy of language stuff lately, and I’m realizing that there are deep differences between writing and speaking. Speaking we learn intuitively as part of how our brain works, but writing is NOT like that. It’s nearly impossible not to speak any language, but its very possible (and tragically common all over the world) to be illiterate.

There is a philosophical difference, or rather a methodological difference between speaking a good idea and writing one down. I think philosophy is about writing because to write a clear thought, you have to actual pay attention to TONS of assumptions and valences and possible misunderstanding and cut them off ahead of time with word choice, organization, and footnotes. When you are in a conversation with someone, the whole world become accessible in certain easy ways. You can say “that” or “this problem” and people will know what you mean. You can use nicknames, inside jokes, and temporal and spatial nearness of objects. You can read facial cues and on and on. With writing, none of that contact is available.

I became interested in this point because some people can be caught up in conversation and make very insightful and creative points, but be unable to generalize or “purify” those thoughts to account for the ways that words, in the somewhat “naked” context of a page, change how they are perceived. To see this, pretend I said to you “you aren’t going to die.” Now think of two situations in which I say that sentence. One is when you’re whining like a baby while putting a bandaid on a cut. The other time I say it, I’m a scientist lecturing to you about my immortality drug. The same set of words can have vastly different meanings depending on the context.

Or try “I’m in a pickle.” Read in the abstract, the sentence feels metaphorical, but what if I’m at a children’s park and I’m inside a large mock sculpture of a pickle.

So, must good philosophy strive to be “eternal”– to be able to convey the same thought and argument to ANYONE who picks up the writing IN ANY SCENARIO. Conversations are special because they are limited, abbreviated, and parasitic on the specific context of the exchange, but philosophical writing, I think, aims to be universal. So maybe thinking deeply partially involves thinking eternally.


2 Responses to “Must Philosophy Be Written Down?”

  1. July 13, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    I totally agree with your distinction. Just this week I was thinking about the distinction between my personality, behavior, and communication in face to face situations and via texting (and, indeed, any textual context).

    When texting or writing on paper or on the computer, I have almost no conscience. I am totally goal oriented to the detriment of others. It’s so bad…that I told my roommates never to text me in regards to official apartment/lease matters because I can be such a dick.

    But face to face…I’m a funny and easy going guy. It’s a weird phenomenon. Perhaps it has to do with people’s personalities and habits developing separately when spending time with people and when spending time reading. Or something.

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