Is That Clear?

“We find those ideas clear that reflect the same degree of confusion as our own.” said Marcel Proust, and he was obviously right.

Because clear means what exactly? Clear glass so we can see the thing behind it?

But if everything were perfectly clear we couldn’t see anything at all! There’d be nothing behind the clarity to see clearly!

People like clear gem stones but this is childish. People mock mud but they eat the food that grows in it.

Sometimes instead of clear we say — clearly articulated. You can tell where the little pieces start and where they end and how they go together. It’s a clear argument we say and mean — I know what the premises are, and what is supposed to imply what. It is not tricking me with ambiguity — I know how to take this thing apart and put it back together. I have control over it, it has no control over me.

That murky thing draws me in and makes me want to clarify it. It’s muddy and it makes the muddy stuff from the bottom of my mind rise up and make my own mind unclear.

But imagine two ponds. One of them is so unusually clear that it lets us see a starfish at the bottom. We think the starfish is ten feet down. But it is really a thousand feet down. The clear pond was deceptive. The muddy pond was the one we could trust. We couldn’t see more than ten feet — we didn’t know what was at the bottom of it.

And that was right!


3 thoughts on “Is That Clear?

  1. I agree. It seems to me that there are subtle differences in how people’s minds work. A friend of mine in grad school said that Sartre’s writing seemed perfectly clear to her, but that she couldn’t understand a word of Bertrand Russell’s writing. That was the exact opposite of my reaction to them.

    It’s analogous to what I’ve always believed about marriage. You shouldn’t marry someone who’s completely sane: that would be boring, and there are hardly any of those people anyway. You want to marry someone whose insanity complements your own insanity.

      • I can’t give you a very good answer because it’s like trying to describe your own glasses while you’re looking through them.

        A lot of it is personality. I enjoy finding real simplicity hidden inside apparent complexity. Some people seem to enjoy making the simple seem complicated. In the Philosophical Lexicon, the entry “wilfrid” was in honor of Wilfrid Sellars, the notoriously obscure philosopher who ended up at the University of Pittsburgh (though he earlier did a stint at Yale). Sellars could make anything seem complicated.


        Some of it is how each of us approaches problems. Whether it’s nature, nurture, or some combination, I don’t know. I normally try to synthesize apparently disconnected facts into a coherent whole. Conversely, most people seem to be analysts who try to break down wholes into disconnected parts for individual examination. I’m not against seeing things individually, but I think we see individuals better when we see them in the context of the whole.

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