A Brief Discussion on the Stylistic Features of

Philosophical Discourse

© Jan.1997, Ronald Xuhu CHEN

Frequently, both the writers and the audience of philosophical discourse are trapped in reading the texts. On the side of the philosopher, the first concern is the codification of his thoughts: --- the vital importance of finding a best way to represent his views/outlook of the world and the man. The audience, confronted with the task of decoding, always grumbles about the intricate structures and abstract words. Actually, it is the stylistic feature that they are both concerned about/with, and it is also the key point in my discussion here.

The following quotation is from Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, by Immanuel Kant (translated by T. K. Abbott):

A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtues of the volition---that is, it is good in itself, and considered by itself is to be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought about by it in favour of any inclination, nay, even of the sum-total of all inclinations.


I.  Lexical features

i. Noun

Among the seventy-one words in this long sentence, there are totally ten nouns. The ratio of nouns to the sum-total is 1:8 or 1:5 if six pronouns are also counted in. Moreover, all the nouns are what we call abstract noun: will; aptness; attainment; end; virtue; volition; favour; inclination (used twice); sum-total. Will and end are nouns of Germanic origin and the others are Latinate.

 ii. Verb       

15.49% of the sentence are verbs: be(used six times); perform; effect; propose; consider; esteem; bring about. All the words are transitive verbs, and, except be (Germanic origin) and perform (Anglo-French), have Latin origins.

 iii. Adjective

The frequency of adjectives is not so high as that of verbs and nouns. Out of seventy-on words, there are only five adjectives, including good (used four times) and high which are both of Germanic origin.

iv. Adverb

In this sentence, there is only one adverb: simply, which is from Latin.

    v. General

       Studying the list above, we shall find that the nouns carry no meanings related to concrete objects. They are abstract, because philosophy is a wissenschaft about knowledge, which Kant regarded as assemblage of representations. When the world is reflected in the perceiver's mind, it no longer takes a concrete form, but becomes a set of symbols, which are called inner representatives. What a philosopher deals with is the reflection of beings, but not beings themselves. For instance, when he is puzzled by the state of beings, it is not an object called A or B that he concerns himself with. Instead, he has lost his way in the labyrinth of the reflection of the beings like A and B. It is in an abstract form his mind goes.

     The copula occurs as frequently as five times out of eleven verbs, and the other verbs which mostly denote cognition belong to the category of transitive verb. The use of copula indicates the essence of philosophy as mainly a study of being instead of doing, that is to say, what a man is instead of what a man does. The denotation of cognition conforms what I have aforementioned--- the presentation of the reflected world. A philosopher is, above all, a perceiver.  Nevertheless, the high frequency of transitive verbs cogently evidences the other side of the coin. He is not a passive perceiver, but one who, following certain principles, actively transforms the reflected world into a linear or discursive set of symbols and draws out the embedded rules. The subconscious use of transitive verbs indicates his positive impact upon the representation. The remarkably low frequency of adjectives and adverbs also serves to explain the fact that a philosopher is a perceiver of the outer world and a positive dominator of the inner world. It is possible for us to describe the concrete world with both adjectives and adverbs. Yet, both are impotent to describe the abstract mental sphere in our minds.

       Kant seems to take preference of rather formal Latinate terms: volition; attainment; virtue; inclination. Such a bent towards Latin is the result of the inertia of tradition: most of the earliest philosophical words are handed down in Latin version, and that justifies our often calling philosophers men of nostalgia and creativity, a typical binary opposition. However, things change as the author goes deeper. When Kant wants to clarify some meaning of MEANING, namely, the eternal meaning, he still employs words of Germanic origin: will; end; be; good. It is one's mother tongue that helps one to touch the essence of the reason, and such words are the primitive elements, the metalanguage.


II. Sentence structure

I divide the long sentence into six parts to facilitate our looking into its structure.

i.   A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects.

ii.  A good will is good not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end.

iii. A good will is good simply by virtue of the volition.

iv.  It is good in itself.

v.   It is considered by itself

vi.  It is to be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought by it in favour of any inclinations, nay, even of the sum-total of all inclinations.

     i, ii, iii iv and v share the same structure, vi is more complicated.

    The main structure is as followings:

From above, we may infer that:

a. It is a complicated sentence

b. Copula is of high frequency

c. Passive voice is used instead of active voice

d. It is expository

e. It hits on both sides of the problem


Kant's syntax is more involved. This may be caused, to some extent, by the general abstractness of the language. The lengthiness of a sentence counts not a little in bringing out ideas with firm logical structure. If divided into several sentences, as just I have done, the logical structure is surely to break loose. It is all these clauses, like independent clause, parenthetic clause, comparative clause, relative clause that make clear the relationship between constituents.

A long sentence with many clauses usually implies a linear logical structure, which the majority of philosophers are fond of using. Short sentences are more effective at expressing discursive meanings, but the high frequency of stops leads to pauses in the reading process, and, therefore, reduces the linear structure to split fragments. If one reads i to vi, he may understand the meaning well, but it is hard for him to know its structure. As I have mentioned above, copula reveals philosophy as a study of being and I shall discuss no more on this point.

It is also a fact that the passive voice prevails over the active voice in the text, and this is actually a tendency in virtually all formal articles. The advantage is it sets stresses on the object, instead of the subject. Active voice inevitably involves the narrator in his words and shows his sentiments and reactions toward the world. Whereas passive voice detaches the writer form the topic by just explaining some states and taking on a cool and expository tone which the audience would find much more convincing.

The sentence also hits on both sides of the problem. The main structure reveals that i and ii are in contrast to iii, iv, v, and vi.  "Not because of what it performs or effects" and "not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end" are prepositional phrases of negation in which Kant leaves no room for misunderstanding, namely, he tells the audience what cannot be. Then he introduces what must be: "Simply by virtue of the volition." We often assume the adequacy of saying what it is. Yet, philosophers always hold on what it is not, so that their writings are marked with precision.


III. Conclusions

      Our analysis above leads us to the conclusion on the codifying system of philosophical works.

      i. Tradition

      From the birth of philosophy to Renaissance, all philosophical writings are in classical languages and numerable terms have been settled down. Hence the later philosophers have to conform to those widely accepted terms in their works. This helps to explain why words of Latin origin flood writings in the field.

       ii. Wissenschaft (Science) of the reflected world and man

Such a wissenschaft requires people to use abstract word, as I have already explained. I shall not again go into details here.

iii. Exclusion

    Every game has its rules and those who do not observe the rules will be excluded. Philosophy is a foundational discipline, and has strict rules of its own. In this case, intricate structures and abstract terms are adopted so that only those who are familiar with the rule can have their seats in the realm. It is in certain senses a complex of narcissus.

    iv. Precision

It is claimed by Plato that a book is an orphan without parents, and you can do as you wish towards it. He has justified a reader's freedom of imposing his unique understanding on the book. However, a philosopher scarcely stands readers’ other understandings besides his own, since he bears the ambition of composing, according to J. Borges, a book of universe. He calls other understandings misunderstandings and makes every effort to achieve precision and avoid misunderstandings. This is the reason why he takes the trouble of explaining what it is and what it is not, and painstakingly concentrates on the logical structure of sentences and subsentences, lest his readers would be misled by the structural ambiguity and logical vagueness. Leeway of misunderstanding still exists, however, somewhere beyond philosophers’ capability. Because during the process of codifying and decodifying, more or less misprision is inevitable. And in fact, a philosopher's thoughts can never be codified exactly into language, without some degree of deviation. In accordance with J. Derrida, the differance of language makes it impossible to catch the eternal denotation. Anyway, philosophers have done their best, just as what Beckett asks in Waiting for Godot. We are not saints, but we have kept the appointment. How many men can do as much?