Monday, 25 April 2016

On ‘No Explanation’

A new poem by Chengde Chen which also marks the occasion of the first ‘birthday’ of the blog

Note from the Editors
Today marks the first birthday of the re-launched Philosophical Investigations (affectionately known as Pi)
In this first year of blogging, Pi has established itself alongside the top-rated philosophy blogs worldwide, which represents a modest popularity – and attracted strong ideas and good writing. Pi has been fairly unique in its emphasis, too – in two respects. Firstly, it has widened the compass of philosophy, including reflection on issues made through philosophical poems and images. Secondly, it has sought philosophy, rather than philosophers.
In its first year, Pi has featured essays by thinkers from a wide variety of backgrounds, among them a judge, a monk, a CEO, an architect, a police chief, and many more. This has resulted in a rich mix of ideas: for instance, that inequality has to do with replication, that the 'will to power' is found in the ordinary moments of life, that political science may be controlled by experiences not our own, that the purpose of reason is to flag contradictions, and that strength is found in shared weakness.
As a radical project – that aspires to be not merely philosophical, not merely political, nor even just 'educational' -  but to be entertaining – it is hoped that Pi will continue to growand provide an alternative, more democratic kind of blogging. 

‘No Explanation’

Not understanding a text, you ask the author to explain.
He refers to some other words, and you thank him.
But, if these words can deliver the meaning better,
shouldn’t they have been used in the first place?

If the author says, “Sorry, I don’t explain.
This, and only this, means what I mean,”
you may find it intolerably arrogant, but
why should what a clear expression is be polluted?

There are writings that are so proper and accurate
that only they themselves can represent themselves.
There are also needs for such precision, e.g.
putting a law in other words may deform justice.

Words can be precise because thoughts can.
Thoughts can be purified and purified like water.
When writing reaches the state of “no explanation”,
it is water that can’t be washed by water.

Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today: philosophical poems. Readers can find out more about Chengde and his poems here 


  1. Thank you Chengde for this poem, you touch an argument that deserves attention. Why should something that was created outside of a certain logic be translated back into the logic of a language destroying the essence of what was initially created? The unexplainable is something too irrational to handle for it moves far away from any idea of property? and thus... we try to explain... into the same....

    For the dear editors, "that strength can be found in shared weakness" and will help us to be creative bearing that modesty in mind. Thank you Martin, Perig and Thomas.

  2. Thank you Tessa for your artistic touches, too. And congratulations to Pi from me.

    The poem could be misunderstood as being authoritarian. Which is not I think intended. It does highlight a tendency to reduce everything to the same language, in the process undermining its essence. And this it does quite powerfully. An appropriate anniversary poem.

  3. Thanks very much to all our bloggers, led by Chengde, Tess - and of course Youngjin - for offering these different ways of looking at the world. Our year of 'blogging' has been quite hard work at times, and I think we should cut ourselves a small, *virtual* piece of cake now!

  4. I dropped Brian Leiter a line, that we were celebrating our first birthday. He sent us a classic reply. Pi? He’d "never heard of this". Brian writes the Leiter Reports. In case you never heard of that, it's a popular philosophy blog in the USA.

  5. Sorry, I’ve just been able to see this as I’m in Shanghai, where PI can’t always be seen. Thank you all for tolerating my philosophy-poems which look like neither philosophy nor poetry. It’s a good sign of longevity for a philosophical blog to have reached its first anniversary.

    1. A year is a long time in internet blogs?

  6. A thoughtful, intriguing poem, Chengde; much to unpack. A few related (and obvious) thoughts follow …

    Context matters, as does audience. So, if a biologist writes in anticipation that readers will only be fellow biologists, it’s okay (even preferred) to use jargon-freighted language that’s expected to be undecipherable by non-biologists. The same for other cohorts of professionals, similarly communicating among their kind. The ‘law of parsimony,’ urging simplification of methods and assumptions, is still apt, however. The writer uses ‘code,’ whose meaning both she and readers share and can decode on the fly. Their message may not attain the “state of ‘no explanation’” your poem refers to, but it should achieve a level of exceptional reasonableness. It’s an unspoken pact.

    Arguably coded language (insider jargon) ensures precision, accuracy, and thoroughness—devilishly hard to accomplish otherwise. Here I’d add a ‘law of sufficiency’—‘parsimony’ notwithstanding, content must still suffice. The specialists’ code, without labored explanation, allows for frugality of words. In peer-to-peer messaging, frugality of words, ‘jargon,’ and compactness of ideas are compatible. Perhaps not meeting your threshold of “writings that are so proper and accurate that only they themselves can represent themselves,” but close.

    Jargon in this context is thus a good thing, except if it aims to obfuscate, impress, or veil superficialities. A specialist may slip into jargon out of simple laziness, too. She chooses not to invest the heavy mental lifting to peel away extraneousness—denying her audience that aha! moment. She doesn’t couch ideas for best effect, with her audience in mind. She’s unlikely to embrace feedback—which addresses your trenchant question, “[I]f these words can deliver the meaning better, shouldn’t they have been used in the first place?”

    Where it’s harder is to frame complex, specialised ideas in lay language. Some specialists, from scientists to lawyers to IT gurus to philosophers, are more adept at this than others. It’s a rare skill—probably more a talent than a skill. But, depending on the field, watering down content for a broader audience risks sacrificing precision, accuracy, and thoroughness. Though lay readers may still derive sought understanding.

    This boiling down of jargon is made challenging by an elementary, but thorny, factor. That is, how to tell the difference between words that ‘denote’ something—that carry singular, literal meanings. And words that ‘connote’ something—that carry associations open to interpretation. In this context, the diverse perspectives of cultures play a major role. Often words both denote and connote. Suddenly, word choice merits extraordinary vigilance.

    But in either case—specialists writing for specialists, or specialists writing for laypeople—‘clear communication’ rests on ‘clear thinking.’ You’re right, muddled thinking leads to muddled messaging. But here’s the counterintuitive flip side: crystal-clear thinking might still lead to muddled messaging. A specialist may be brilliant in her field, but stumbles to convert ideas to paper coherently enough to catch fire with peers or the public.

    These issues revolve around the natural languages, warts and all. Mathematics, however, occupies its own category. For hypotheses and theories within the natural sciences, mathematics beats natural languages. Especially in using the three nuggets—precision, accuracy, and thoroughness—as the metrics of success. Sure, complex science can be whittled for a lay audience. But appealing to a general audience, though noble and necessary, comes at a price—the dilution of ideas. The ‘coded’ language of science and mathematics remains essential to accurately describing testable truths about reality. Yet, mathematics and natural languages share common ground: the virtue of expressing ideas according to the laws of both ‘parsimony’ and ‘sufficiency’—hence the ‘beauty’ and ‘unreasonable effectiveness’ of mathematics.

    Thank you, Chengde, for your poem. Interesting grist for the mill.

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful comment too, Keith. I'm sure Chengde will catch up with it when he emerges from behind the great Internet Wall of China. Myself, I was stuck by this claim:

      'Often words both denote and connote. Suddenly, word choice merits extraordinary vigilance.'

      Seems to me that the vagueness and ambiguity of words is on the contrary, something that frees us to be more spontaneous.

    2. Many thanks for this, Keith. All your points are well made, which make it a need for me to explain my piece a bit now! I think my point is not that no explanation is needed wherever, but that wherever shouldn’t need it should be made no need of it. For example, it’s a defect of my text that it didn’t make this point clear enough.

  7. Oh, another milestone passed us by. Our 100th post. How did we do that in a year? Which has only 52 weeks.

    Hmm, precision, accuracy, thoroughness? How about fittingness. Max Black wrote, 'Every utterance, no matter how laboured, trails clouds of implication.'

    As for mathematics, what could clearer than 1 + 1 = 2. And yet it is entirely subjective as to what = 1. 1 pane of glass? 1 litre of milk?

    And then mathematics doesn't always mesh with reality. Take Newtonian physics for example.