On Abstruse Philosophical Writing

Certain philosophers write in a way that is very hard to understand. For instance, consider the following excerpt of the prose of Martin Heidegger (Being and Time. The Possible Being-a-Whole of Da-sein and Being-Toward-Death. 46. The seeming impossibility of ontologically grasping and determining Da-sein as a whole.):

“The inadequacy of the hermeneutical situation from which the foregoing analysis originated must be overcome. With regard fo the fore-having, which must necessarily be obtained, of the whole of Da-sein, we must ask whether this being, as something existing, can become accessible at all in its being. There seem to be important reasons that speak against the possibility of our required task, reasons that lie in the constitution of Da-sein iteself.

Care, which forms the totality of the structural whole of Da-sein, obviously contradicts a possible being whole of this being according to its ontological sense. The primary factor of care, ‘being ahead of itself,’ however, means that Da-seing always exists for the sake of itself. ‘As long as it is,’ up until its end, it is related to its potentiality-of-being. Even when it, still existing, has nothing further ‘ahead of it,’ and has ‘settled its accounts,’ its being is still influenced by ‘being ahead of itself.’ Hopelessness, for example, does not tear Da-sein away from its possibilities, but is only an independent mode of being toward these possibilities. Even when one is without illusions and ‘is ready for anything,’ the ‘ahead of itself’ is still there. This structural factor of care tells us unambiguously that is always still outstanding in Da-sein which has not yet become ‘real’ as a potentiality-of-its-being. A constant unfinished quality thus lies in the essence of the constitution of Da-sein. This lack of totality means that there is still something outstanding in one’s potentiality-for-being.”

Why is this written in such a difficult style? Heidegger once said, “making itself intelligible is suicide for philosophy.” It is clear, then, that the fact that this is so difficult to understand is an intentional choice on Heidegger’s part, and not an accident. Why did Heidegger do this? Let us consider first the charitable interpretations:

1. Whatever Heidegger is saying here, it can’t be said any more simply.

2. What Heidegger is saying could be said more simply, but one would lose a certain depth of meaning in doing so.

Now let us consider the less charitable interpretations:

3. In making his writing hard to understand, Heidegger makes it harder for people to disagree with him. Probably most disagreements could be dismissed as misunderstandings.

4. In making his writing hard to understand, Heidegger creates a sense of mystery which makes people want more strongly to understand him.

5. In making his writing hard to understand, Heidegger gives the impression of being intelligent or profound.

6. Once somebody has put in the effort necessary to understand Heidegger, they are more likely to agree with him. Disagreeing with him would mean that they were wasting their time in trying to understand him.

And now the least charitable interpretation:

7. Heidegger’s writing is actually nonsense, and he has cleverly bamboozled everybody who reads him into thinking that he’s saying something profound, when actually he’s saying nothing.

I personally don’t put any weight in (7), but I’ve heard it expressed.

I can certainly see a lot of benefits to making one’s writing hard to understand. I don’t think I will ever do this myself, because it seems kind of disingenuous.

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