Monday, October 12, 2015
The Virtue of Confusion
This is a comment on philosophy and confusion and it will be very short. The standard view is that we need to always work through confusion to achieve clarity. The standard view is that clarity is the goal for the rational person. I don't know. Actually, I disagree on some level. What I will say now is totally unorthodox and should get my philosophy membership card torn-up. My idea is, let's try to think of philosophy and knowledge differently. Let's think of it as an unending process. We can think of confusion as the beginning point of philosophy, or the end point, or the middle point. Usually we think of it as a beginning point. Philosophy begins with wonder, a kind of confusion. Philosophers are well known for finding things confusing that no one else does. Training in philosophy is learning how to question what seems to be clear and obvious. Is that a real object in front of me? No one would question this but a philosopher. Descartes begins with confusion but ends with clarity. This is supposed to be what philosophers do. Analytic philosophy, for example, always prides itself in having the goal of clarity. But, I want to suggest, any clarity one gets should be another point of confusion. Shouldn't philosophy be seen more as a process, i.e. from confusion to clarity to confusion to clarity, and on and on. There is a yin and yang of philosophy: confusion and clarity. There is an Apollonian and Dionysian of philosophy: confusion and clarity. There are a lot of people out there arguing that confusion is not always a bad thing. May I suggest one more step, i.e. that confusion is as necessary, as useful, as valuable, as clarity. (One could take the arguments from the "not always a bad thing" people and use some of them in support of the position I am advocating.) Another related point: what makes great philosophers great for me is not only their moments of great clarity but equally their moments of great confusion. One of the reasons why encyclopedia articles in philosophy are inevitably deeply boring (including my own entries I imagine) is that everything is done to make it seem that everything is clear: the confusion of the philosopher in question is seemingly erased. Reading the great texts of philosophy is quite a different experience than reading the explanation. Don't get me wrong: I have a deep interest in clarity. I am just beginning to realize that I have an equally deep interest in confusion, and not just because I want to uncover it or clean it up. Part of my interest in clarity is that what is clear from one angle or at one time can, under philosophical investigation, become quite confusing.