So You Want to Edit Philosophy

There are some academic and humanities editors who refuse to edit philosophy texts because they are frustrating to the untrained reader. I can definitely understand where they are coming from, even though I have a Master’s in the field. Philosophical texts can be dense, unintelligible, and difficult to translate. It’s no wonder that philosophy is often touted as the “physics of the humanities” because of its rigorous, abstract approach to thought. However, editing philosophy is not a lost cause for editors unfamiliar with the discipline. Here are a few simple tips that I have gained from my inside knowledge as a philosophy student that will hopefully help you, should you decide to give it a try:

Words with Established Meanings are used Conceptually, or have Loaded Definitions

I think this is the most confusing aspect for new editors of philosophy, although there are other disciplines that frequently do this. What happens is something like this: you’re reading along when suddenly you stumble across a phrase like “subject” that’s been repeated multiple times in the paragraph. Now let’s say you’re doing a medium to heavy edit where the author is relying on you to make the writing much clearer. So you change the word “subject” to “person” or “individual” to clean up the sentence and avoid needless repetition. (Some of you might query the author this if this happens, but for the sake of argument, let’s say you change it.) This is where many editors run into problems: in this example, the word “subject” is not being used in the usual sense, but as a placeholder for a particular philosophical concept. In this case, “subject” refers to the specific use of the phrase by Kant and its implications. Thus, changing the word alters the meaning of the sentence (or passage) entirely!

In this case, keeping a philosophical dictionary handy while you’re editing might be especially useful. Oxford, Cambridge, and Routledge have philosophical dictionaries and encyclopedias available. See if your local library carries them in their reference section. Likewise, if you can’t make it to the library, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a free service online edited by multiple authors. If you’re working on a text that frequently cites the terminology of a well known philosopher (Plato, Nietzsche, or Hegel for example), there are also specialized dictionaries. My personal favorites are published by Bloomsbury. Take some time and study the language until you have a sense of what concepts the author is engaging with, or keep a list of repeating words throughout the text in your style sheet that you can refer back to later.

The Writing Differs Based on the Philosophical Tradition

When working with contemporary writers of philosophy, it’s important to understand that their writing is often influenced by the particular school of thought, which, in turn, tends to inform which philosophical problems or thinkers the author will engage with. The two major camps within philosophy today are Analytic and Continental.

Analytic philosophy stems from British empiricism and logical positivism and is often associated with cognitive science, logic, and mathematics. Some big names which are associated with this school of thought are Quine, Davidson, Searle, and Putnam. Analytic philosophers often approach philosophical problems (cognition or free will, for example) without engaging the writing of previous thinkers. Analytic philosophy tends to read more like technical writing, there’s a lot more charts and graphs involved, and the structure of the text itself tends to be methodical versus literary. I also think that it’s generally the more readable of the two.

Continental philosophy, on the other hand, tends to be the more challenging in terms of editing. Continental philosophy is named after the European continent, where many of its principal thinkers are from, such as Derrida, Heidegger, Foucault, and Levinas. Philosophers in this tradition are predominantly French and German, which also influences their writing style. Unlike their analytic cousins, continental philosophers write in a more literary style that’s conceptually heavy. Additionally, this group tries to push the limits of language, which can render the text unintelligible at times. Don’t be discouraged, however: what continental texts lack in clarity, they make up for with their deep engagement with thought. I’ve always found reading continental philosophy to be incredibly rewarding, once I get past its idiosyncrasies.

Chances are, you’ll be editing for one of these two subdivisions, and it’s especially important to keep in mind the audiences for both, even if its a general treatise on Plato. Knowing the difference will help you enormously when fact checking or researching individual terms.

The Structure of Argument is Often Different than Other Writing in the Humanities

In high school, students are taught to write the five-paragraph essay. At university, the essay is replaced by the research paper, which becomes the dissertation, and is eventually turned into the journal article or book chapter. The structure of our writing changes depending on what level of education we’ve arrived at. Meaning, a dissertation chapter is not going to look the same as a high school book report. But what if I told you that the very structure of the philosophical essay creates even more variation among these categories?

Part of this has to do with the fact that philosophy as a discipline predates the written word, and began with a method known as “dialectics” or “dialectical thinking”. This is not synonymous with the term “debate”, although like formal debate, there are often multiple points of view offered, with the intention of arriving at a particular truth. There are many kinds of dialectics, including the Socratic method, Hindu, Buddhist, Medieval, Hegelian, Marxist, Talmudic, and neo-Orthodox. Dialectics can be religious or secular, but the structure is roughly the same: there is a proposed thesis, countered by an antithesis, and finally, some kind of synthesis or resolution of the two.

What this means for the editor is that dialectical writing often incorporates points of view that might not even be the author’s! Philosophers will often spend time articulating the position of another philosopher only to critique it later. Often, this is done without first identifying whose position is which. This is a source of frustration not only for editors, but for other academic philosophers. To the point where there is an entire branch of philosophy entirely dedicated to ascertaining the precise meaning of philosophical texts: hermeneutics. However, as editors with living authors, we have an advantage. If we get stuck, we can query the author instead of engaging in intellectual guesswork. Which brings me to my final suggestion: if you are editing for structure, as well as content, work from the inside out instead of the outside in. Track individual ideas, versus attributing the entire argument to the author’s position. Flag transitions in thought and query the author if there is any significant change in tone. This will prevent confusion or any information which appears contradictory throughout the piece. If the situation allows, a brief summary of the main points in the introduction might be useful. However, this is not always possible in longer pieces like book chapters, for example.

By incorporating these tips, you should have an easier time navigating philosophical writing. Please feel free to leave a comment below or on my Facebook page. Happy editing!