Here’s one of my favourite lines from the philosopher John Searle:
“Where questions of style and exposition are concerned I try to follow a simple maxim: if you can’t say it clearly you don’t understand it yourself.”
It comes from the introduction to his 1983 book Intentionality, and embodies something I’ve come to think of as a fundamental principle of critical thinking: that clarity and comprehension go hand in hand.
If I want to work out what something means, trying to set it out as clearly as possible in my own words is one of the best techniques I know—not least because it leaves me with nowhere to hide my own ignorance and uncertainty.
As Searle’s formulation suggests, being as clear as possible about what you know also means being clear about what you don’t know. It’s only when I try to explain something as clearly as possible that, sometimes, I realize I don’t fully understand it myself: that I need to dive back into reading, research and others’ ideas if I hope to grasp what’s actually going on.
When it comes to communication, Searle follows his initial observation with an intriguing qualification. Trying to write as clearly as possible comes with a risk, he argues—that your audience may assume you’re making a point so obvious it doesn’t require close attention:
“But anyone who attempts to write clearly runs the risk of being ‘understood’ too quickly…”
No matter how clearly something is expressed, it also needs to be read closely if it’s to succeed as an act of communication. Otherwise, it may only be “understood” in the most superficial sense. We can sum this up via two interrelated principles that, I hope, also serve as some foundational advice for anyone hoping to improve their thinking and self-expression:
• As writers and communicators, clarity entails both explaining our ideas in a concrete, careful manner and attempting to prevent potential misunderstandings, confusions and hasty misreadings by others.
• As readers and thinkers, clarity comes both from engaging with others’ ideas attentively and, ultimately, from reconstructing their thinking in our own words.
Where does this leave us? As you may have noticed, these two principles don’t make much of a distinction between reading and writing, or indeed between communication and interpretation; something that captures an interdependency at the heart of thought and language.
Clear writing and thinking are dependent upon good reading and re-thinking—and, in particular, upon becoming an attentive critic and re-reader of your own work. Similarly, engaging with others’ words and ideas is necessarily an active—even a creative—process that requires you to reformulate their positions.
Doing both of these things rigorously and honestly is a tremendous challenge. Yet they remain integral to constructive debate, not least because clarity invites by its very nature the kind of reasoned engagement so often absent in public exchanges of views.
This, to idealize, is the greatest prize at stake. While obscurity is too often a fortress—endlessly defensible amid citations, jargon and qualifications—clarity is a common ground, upon which those prepared carefully to explain themselves may also be persuaded by others. Or, if they can find some common cause, to create new understandings together.