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Nishkrit's blog

Why is philsophy so incomprehensible?

/ 5 min read

I too, like Milo, wish that Hegel wasn’t so incomprehensible.

Like, seriously, what. is. this:

Death - if we wish so to name that unreality - is the most terrible thing there is and to uphold the work of death is the task which demands the greatest strength. Impotent beauty hates this awareness, because understanding makes this demand of beauty, a requirement which beauty cannot fulfil. Now, the life of Spirit is not that life which is frightened of death, and spares itself destruction, but that life which assumes death and lives with it. Spirit attains its truth only by finding itself in absolute dismemberment. It is not that (prodigious) power by being the Positive that turns away from the Negative, as when we say of something: this is nothing or (this is) false and, having (thus) disposed of it, pass from there to something else; no, Spirit is that power only to the degree in which it contemplates the Negative face to face (and) dwells with it. This prolonged sojourn is the magical force which transposes the negative into given-Being.

Hegel is bit of an extreme example, but I still think this broadly applies to a lot of philosophy.

Wrestling with truths, not models

I once heard someone say,

Science is about finding data-driven models. Philosophy works on truths.

Words, langauge, and the

  • Ultimately philosophy is trying to present a lot of really simple ideas that we have a strong feeling of — from you know being alive and shit, but if you explain it too plainly, it sounds like you’re saying nothing at all

But there’s still a sin from the philosopher’s perspective here. It is possible to try run with this idea that incomprehensible should be good philosophy. but Goodhart’s law applies here

Further still, there’s the philosophers who’ve gone so far off the deep end with their own thoughts, that they have no other option but to actually make a convoluted mess

Sometimes it might be ontological debt. When you start building a framework that relies on somethings being true, then you have to do backflips to explain what is happening within it

Survivorship bias

  • The “best” philosophy must be incomprehensible because you can’t reach your brain through your ears, and the incomprehensible philosophy makes sure of that

  • It’s not that philosophy that’s easy to digest doesn’t exist. It’s that it doesn’t have a shelf life.

There’s a good kind of incomprehensible though. Science wrestles with data-driven models of reality. Philosophy wrestles with truths. When you are trying to explain what is ultimately real by using a framework of conventional reality (lanuage), you end up testing the limits of it. Sometimes it is literally easier to gesture through, or use examples, to illustrate what you’re saying instead of trying to explain it with language. The kind of things you grapple with become subtle enough that the resolution of words does not cut through. This drives a lot of brilliant people crazy (Wittgenstein, Russell, more?)

Comprehension is the price you pay for understanding

It is possible that the energy you think you’re using toward comprehending the ideas is actually directed towards understanding them more deeply. Since most philosophy is saying things that can have a huge potential impact on your thinking, the price you pay to understand what is being said might be a the only way to truly comprehend the idea. This is the whole you can’t reach the brain through your ears idea. It would be strange design if our brains were so easily convinced by enlightening ideas. If enlightenment was free, then it would be our default state.

Are there compression limits to ideas?

Hypothetically, let’s say there was a philosopher who came along and wrote/said a really difficult to understand idea in a simple way. Would it still have the same transformative power as the original statement? Dignāga has a rather esoteric text on the theory of perception. Which has passages that sound like:

When a cognition possessing [the form of] an object (savisayam jnanam) is itself the object to be cognized, then, in accordance with the nature of the self-cognition, one conceives that [secondary] object (artha) as something either desirable or undesirable

If someone came along and just said:

When you think about something, you either like it or you don’t

Even though that mostly preserves the meaning of what is being said originally, some weird essence is lost. Maybe this is the allure to philosophy. The most meaningful questions set themselves up like a puzzle that invites exercising your inference ability. Sometimes these puzzles come in the form of cryptic language. Sometimes they are logic puzzles. The act of working through these puzzles is necessary for insight; this is the only way to actually learn what it is being said.

Don’t answer the question, solve the problem

In the meantime, I think there’s a simple solution to this: read every paragraph with an example in mind. The Feynman technique goes a long way especially when studying philosophy. It is also super easy to apply because your examples can be really simple like “imagine you see a cup on a table”, instead of complicated physics examples like “imagine there’s a point like particle whizzing around a nucleus that you cannot tell the position of until you look at it”