James K.A. Smith has an interesting post up in which he makes the distinction between being an “author” and being a “writer”:
Being an author and being a writer are not synonymous. Most philosophers and theologians are authors: they publish articles and books bent on communicating content and making arguments. Their goal is conceptual clarity and careful demonstration. But all of that can happen with very little attention to form. Indeed, one can write entire books and yet not take language all that seriously.But it’s just that attention to form that characterizes the writer. To make the move from being an author to being a writer you have to learn to love sentences.
On the drive up to Chicago yesterday, I listened to a handful of the New Testament podcasts Todd pointed to a week or so ago—which, incidentally, are really, really good. It’s immediately clear how good of a teacher Goodacre must be, and they would be worth listening to as a pedagogical model even if they weren’t helpful in substance. But then, of course, they are helpful in substance, if relatively basic.
Anyway, listening to a few of Goodacre’s mini-lectures on the Gospels reminded me of how outstanding the gospel writers are as theological stylists, undoubtedly better than many of the figures I put on my list. The genre itself is genius, and in each case it’s executed with really surprising creativity. The quiet riffs on older scriptural themes and figures, the way explicit points are also made to function as structural patterns of the whole narrative, the sheer number of ideas that arise solely from the story’s form, never once hammered didactically through a particular character…
I do think that any narrative-form genre has a massive stylistic advantage over expository genres. When narrative writers have some theological or philosophical point to make, they’re really forced to express it through the form of the piece rather than saying it directly (or else end up with a pretty terrible story). Most philosophers and theologians, accustomed to saying everything directly, don’t feel any need to say anything at the more elusive and difficult level of form.
For some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, I find metaphors involving weight extremely moving and compelling. It’s a fairly common trope, at least since Augustine—who talked occasionally about how the pondus voluntatis et amoris, the weight of desire and love, was the real ordering principle in the cosmos. I ran into it again recently in Dante (who probably gets it directly from Augustine). Beatrice has to explain to him, when they first pass into Paradise, how his body is able to speed upwards towards and beyond the moon: because the weight of love allows one to fly, as surely as a waterfall pours faithfully to the earth.
And now this wonderful passage, from Kierkegaard’s discourse on the birds of the air:
And yet, yet human language has not ever, and thought has not ever, invented a more beautiful symbol of independence than the poor bird of the air. And yet, yet no speech can be more curious than to say that it must be very hard and heavy to be—light as the bird! To be dependent on one’s treasure—that is dependence and hard and heavy slavery; to be dependent on God, completely dependent—that is independence…. Dependence on God is the only independence, because God has no gravity; only the things of this earth, especially earthly treasure, have that—therefore the person who is completely dependent on him is light. (Upbuilding Discourses, 182)
If we take the mark of a great philosophical or theological stylist to be the capacity to say as much in the form of communication as in its substance, or to fully integrate form and substance in philosophical presentation, who are history’s greatest philosophical stylists? The top ten, if I were to pick a list off the top of my head, would be (in chronological order):
Though I can see right away that this list is weighted towards ‘dialectical’ thinkers of one stripe or another, possibly because that’s an easier philosophical difference than some to convey formally. Or possibly because I just prefer them. Eckhart, though certainly a master stylist, might be a slightly arbitrary pick from among the late medieval mystics. Is he really a step above Marguerite Porete, Teresa of Avila, or John of the Cross?
It’s hard to come up with any truly great recent stylists. Derrida is good, but wouldn’t rank, I don’t think, with the figures above. I’ve wondered about Hélène Cixous, just because of the unbelievable range of genres with which she is apparently competent, but I’ve not actually read her work.
I’m distinguishing in my head between philosophical stylists as defined above and rhetorically effective philosophers, or philosophers who are especially enjoyable to read. Feel free to contest my definition.
One of my courses this fall is on what’s called Kierkegaard’s ‘second authorship,’ which begins, more or less, with A Literary Review—a very long review, about a hundred pages, of a contemporary novel. It’s a really enjoyable read, and actually very suggestive as a genre: he manages to portray the details and spirit of the novel really well, at the same time as he spins out some interesting philosophical threads he sees reflected in the action. For those interested writing ‘constructive commentaries,’ who, like me, prefer to think within the thinking of another, the form of this book is a really interesting example.
Anyway, here’s one amusing snippet. The novel being reviewed tells two stories of two families belonging to two ages, and part of K’s procedure is to specify the general spirit of each age—’The Age of Revolution’ and ‘The Present Age.’
As against the age of revolution, which acted, the present age is the age of advertisement, the age of miscellaneous announcements: nothing happens, but what does happen is instant notification. An uprising in the present age is the most unthinkable of all; such a show of energy would strike the calculating sensibleness of the age as ludicrous. A political virtuoso, on the other hand, might be able to perform a feat of artistry that was amazing in quite another way. He could word an invitation, proposing a general meeting for the purpose of deciding on a revolution, so carefully that even the censor would have to pass it. And then on the evening in question he could give the gathering an impression so deceptive that it seemed as thought they had achieved the uprising; whereupon they would disperse quite peacefully, having spent a very pleasant evening. (62)
Or another, more relevant selection:
A profound religious renunciation of the world, and of what is of the world, adhered to in daily self-denial, would be unthinkable to the youth of our time; yet every second theology graduate would be virtuoso enough to do something far more marvellous: he would be able to propose a social foundation with no less a goal than to save all who are lost. The age of great and good actions is past; the present age is the age of anticipation. (ibid.)