Friday, February 17, 2006

On Philosophical Style

Night before last I stayed up too late reading a charmingly old-fashioned book by the late American philosopher Brand Blanshard. On Philosophical Style, first published in 1954, is a sliver of a volume, at 69 pages hardly more than an extended essay. Its thesis is that even philosophers can write well, despite the fact that philosophy often works at a very high level of abstraction, and abstraction is generally the enemy of compelling prose. Most manuals and guides purporting to teach the art of writing – and I don’t exempt the Gospel According to Strunk & White – are unintentionally comic, like one robot teaching another robot to dance. Good prose as various as that produced by Herman Melville and Hubert Butler cannot be reduced to do’s and don’ts, like the list of instructions that comes with a bookcase from Ikea. Blanshard knows this and is slyly funny, in the straight-face American manner of Henry David Thoreau or Buster Keaton. His own prose is loose-limbed and a little baggy, more conversational than analytical, and might have been written, despite a single dismissive mention of Heidegger, in the 19th century. He admires, as I do, the writing styles of William Hazlitt, John Ruskin and Henry James, and it shows.

Judging from a potted biography I found online, Blanshard was an appealing character -- a philosophical and social outsider from the start, a realized example of that American ideal, the self-made man not born to privilege or wealth. He was born in a small town in Ohio in 1892, the son of a Congregationalist minister. His parents were Canadians, and both were dead by the time Blanshard was 12. He was raised by his grandmother, a rather forbidding figure, in Ohio and Michigan, studied Greek and philosophy at the University of Michigan, went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, met T.S. Eliot, served in the British army during World War I, traveled throughout Asia and studied under John Dewey – a rather extraordinary life for a poor kid from Ohio. He taught philosophy at Yale for many years and his summa appears to be a trilogy consisting of Reason and Analysis, Reason and Goodness and Reason and Belief. I want to read more of Blanshard, whom one writer calls “the sanest voice in all of philosophy, and possibly the ablest exponent of reason and reasonableness the world ever had.” He died in 1987.

The pleasure in reading On Philosophical Style derives from Blanshard’s assumption that any subject, even philosophy, can be written about clearly and interestingly. Taking swipes at the clotted verbiage of Kant and Hegel, he identifies theirs as “the method of the Teutonic sentence, the method of making each sentence into a miniature paragraph.”

Here’s how Blanshard satirizes the way various writers and philosophers would describe the death of Major John Andre, Benedict Arnold’s partner in espionage: “Swift, Macaulay, and Shaw would say that Andre was hanged. Bradley would say that he was killed. Bosanquet would say that he died. Kant would say that his mortal existence achieved its termination. Hegel would say that a finite determination of infinity had been further determined by its own negation.”

Blanshard writes admiringly, with reservations, of a philosopher-writer I value highly – George Santayana: “To read him is to be conducted in urbane and almost courtly fashion about the spacious house he occupies, moving noiselessly always on a richly figured carpet of prose.” In other words, Santayana is a joy to read, a lesson I learned almost eight years ago, when my wife and I were married in Nova Scotia and we spent several days honeymooning in Halifax. All that week I was reading and luxuriating in The Realms of Being, a book that now reminds me how manifold happiness and pleasure can be. But Blanshard adds, regarding Santayana: “The style is not, as philosophic style should be, so transparent a medium that one looks straight through it at the object, forgetting that it is there; it is too much like a window of stained glass which, because of its very richness, diverts attention to itself.”

I recommend On Philosophical Style as brief visit to a livelier, more civilized way of life. Blanshard is a good-humored, well-mannered, well-read, clubbable companion. Here’s my favorite line in the book: “Persistently obscure writers will usually be found to be defective human beings.” In our enlightened Age of Sensitivity, that’s heresy, of course, but good readers intuitively recognize its truth.


Dave Lull said...

In a letter written in 1980 Professor Blanshard wrote:

"Most writing nowadays is exceedingly shuffling, muddled, and ponderous. If one wants to avoid such writing, the best aid is H.W. Fowler's _Modern English Usage_. It not only tells you what to do and not to do, but is so admirably written itself that just to read it gives you a literary tune-up."

Two of his books that those less interested in what might be called technical philosophical writing might enjoy and find edifying are The Uses of a Liberal Education And Other Talks to Students and Four Reasonable Men: Marcus Aurelius, John Stuart Mill, Ernest Renan, Henry Sidgwick.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Personally, I was disappointed by the lack of detail in the book (what was I expecting? I don't know)--though I did enjoy his note on Hegel's definition of 'heat'.