Skip to content


There's a good piece by Jim Davies called 'Academic Obfuscations: The Psychological Attraction of Postmodern Nonsense' which you can read at the Skeptic Society's Lectures site.

Davies discusses why people read obscure passages in academic articles that make little if any sense. In essence, his answer is that because readers have to work hard to extract meaning from the obscurity they value the meaning they think they have found all the more.

So what is the pull of obscure writing, of which some postmodern writing happens to be an example? I argue that some prefer it because each reader has to do so much work to get any meaning out of it, and when we have to work hard for something, we really value it. We can mistake obscurity for profundity.

I'm sure this is correct. And the unfortunate corollary is that writing that is clear and easy to understand is less likely to gain acceptance for ideas that the reader doesn't agree with already.

Still, I remain an advocate of clear writing. In this I agree with the late F.L. Lucas, whose book Style has been my guide for how to write for many years. Lucas valued clarity above everything else and was scornful of writers who sought to dazzle their readers with pseudo-profundity. Here are a few quotes from his book.

I draw the conclusion that it is wiser to use one's mind as telescope, or microscope, or magic crystal, than as a looking-glass; and I would suggest that it is foolish to take singing-lessons from peacocks.

Many writers, especially of an academic or aesthetic kind (and never more than today), seem to me to stultify themselves because they are neither clever enough to be brilliant, nor honest enough to be simple.

A clear word is like a finger-post pointing straight at its object; but our abstract terms are too often like signposts with many arms, some broken, some twisted, some half-effaced, pointing into a fog.

Those who chase originality... are more likely to find they have caught instead her ugly sister eccentricity...


No Trackbacks


Display comments as Linear | Threaded

No comments

Add Comment

Enclosing asterisks marks text as bold (*word*), underscore are made via _word_.
E-Mail addresses will not be displayed and will only be used for E-Mail notifications.
Form options