An important concept in psychoanalytic theory is castration anxiety, the fear of emasculation. The French theorist Jacques Lacan, one of the titans of 20th-century philosophy, used the imaginary unit i to elucidate this idea:

The erectile organ can be equated with the √-1, the symbol of the signification produced above, of the jouissance [ecstasy] it restores–by the coefficient of its statement–to the function of a missing signifier: (-1).

In Europe, intellectuals such as Lacan, Foucault, and Sartre have traditionally enjoyed a much more prominent place in public life than intellectuals in America. They go on TV shows. Or the cameras come to them and they hold forth, shirtless, in bed. On the continent, especially France, philosophers can be celebrities. It’s also true that European philosophers (and those working in “continental” philosophy) are typically more abstruse and obscure than America and England’s analytic philosophers, who prize clarity of argument.

The Open Culture blog flags the Lacan passage above as part of a fantastic post, wherein they suggest that it’s no coincidence that continental philosophers are both celebrated and ferociously difficult to understand. Instead, the obscurity is part of the reputation. So argues the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum in a critique of Judith Butler, who writes in the French poststructuralist style:

Some precincts of the continental philosophical tradition, though surely not all of them, have an unfortunate tendency to regard the philosopher as a star who fascinates, and frequently by obscurity, rather than as an arguer among equals. When ideas are stated clearly, after all, they may be detached from their author: one can take them away and pursue them on one’s own. When they remain mysterious (indeed, when they are not quite asserted), one remains dependent on the originating authority. The thinker is heeded only for his or her turgid charisma.

Nussbaum and Open Culture are on to something important. Far too many bewildered undergraduates are made to suss out the arguments of thinkers who, in all likelihood, have not made a good faith effort to put forth a coherent argument. If you can’t understand Lacan above, the odds are it’s not your fault: it’s Lacan’s.

Although it may be delightful to see thinkers like Lacan and Slavoj Zizek savaged, it’s also important to note that there is a necessary and proper place for obscurity and difficulty. There’s no rule of reality that says everything should be explicable in simple, precise language. The world is complicated, so our theories will have to be complicated–quantum mechanics comes to mind. But what is important is the good-faith effort to make yourself understandable, to make claims that can be defended or refuted.

Daniel Dennett calls for an appropriate balance between continental showmanship and the austere analytic style in his latest book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking:

There is a time and a place in philosophy for rigorous arguments, with all the premises numbered and the inference rules named, but these do not often need to be paraded in public. We ask our graduate students to prove they can do it in their dissertations, and some never outgrow the habit, unfortunately. And to be fair, the opposite sin of high-flown Continental rhetoric, larded with literary ornament and intimations of profundity, does philosophy no favors either. If I had to choose, I’d take the hard-bitten analytic logic-chopper over the deep purple sage every time. At least you can usually figure out what the logic-chopper is talking about and what would count as being wrong.

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