Say it Clear

There was a time when I found it very hard to express myself. I felt boxed in by so many implicit rules of social behavior which I did not even dare to investigate for fear of discovering unpleasant truths – truths about the rules that regulate gender inequality in academia and in society, that prescribe how to deal with divisions of class and of ethnicity. Divisions which are unspoken and silently present. It was music which helped me to venture into the no-mans-land beyond the rules. Especially one song expressed what bothered me: I wish I knew how it would feel to be free, as sung by Nina Simone. And in that song especially these verses spoke for me:

‘I wish I could say all the things that I should say
say ’em loud, say ’em clear’

Things that one should say, that is an interesting one. What one should say – not according to the invisible unspoken rules, but on the command of one’s heart and one’s conscience. Say them loud, say them clear.

Remembering this song and this period, an expression came to my mind, which I had for a long time as a motto, on my university page I think: ‘If you can’t say it clearly, you don’t understand it yourself’. This one is from philosopher John Searle, and I first learned it when as a student I was in the master’s course on his book Intentionality. At that time there was a lot to do about ‘continental’ and ‘anglosaxon’ philosophy. Nowadays philosophers speak more often about ‘analytic versus continental’ (which is of course a strange manner of merging a geographical and a methodological category). The ‘to do’ was a kind of philosophical streetfight: anglosaxons thought continentals did not say things clearly, were vague, and therefore dangerous (think Heidegger, nazism, etc.). The continentals were of the opinion that the anglosaxons were superficial, and practised philosophy like a game of chess, as sharp as one can be, but without content.

I hated the streetfight, it went almost so far as one teacher not wanting you in his class if you chose to belong to ‘the other side’. I said to people who wanted to put me in one of the camps: ‘I think the questions of the continentals should be addressed, and with a clarity as it is exercised by the angolsaxons.’ I liked the Searle citation so much because it did not measure clarity with an eye to the academic group (which was a distasteful bunch of fighting gangs), but regarding understanding – which is what philosophy is after when it does its job.

And remembering all of this, I started to wonder what it should be: ‘say it clear’ or ‘say it clearly’. I found different arguments which say they both will do grammatically, but in different contexts. With ‘ly’ in an explanatory or academic context, without in advertising or when commanding someone. I wonder however, whether the difference does not bring us back to the unspoken and implicit divisions in society, which make use of subtle diverging differences in laguage to mark their unseen boundaries. The advertising and commanding version without ‘ly’ marks the social area where one should not reflect too long or too much, but follow one’s instincts. The ‘ly’ version marks off the area where one is supposed to delay action as long as possible, looking for the finest mental disctinctions.

And this is what I found when I discovered my courage to express myself: that a philosopher should try to level out these boundaries. For the sake of understanding. Understanding – which I read with the German version of this word in mind, Verständigung, which means reaching an understanding. This is the aspect of Enlightenment which I inherited: all men do not automatically become brothers, as it is sung in the famous Beethoven symphony. There is work to be done to arrive at such a situation – and then I haven’t even mentioned the goal of them becoming humans, and thus brothers and sisters… Philosophers can contribute to this goal by researching what language does in society, by showing the hidden agendas at work in the use of it, by criticizing them and proposing alternative ways to address things. Loud and clear.

Pianist and singer Nina Simone (1933-2003) is well known for her experimental fusions of classical and popular piano playing, her profound songs, which played a role in the civil rights movement, and the heartbreaking sound of her singing voice. I cited from the song, written by Taylor and Lamb I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.

John Searle (born in 1932) is an American philosopher, who became well-known by his 1969 work on Speech Acts. He published in the fields of philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and social philosophy. The work which I mentioned above is Intentionality: An essay in the philosophy of mind, from 1983.


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