‘Clearly’ covers murky thought

Why do we point out that statements we are making are obvious? If a statement is actually obvious, there should rarely reason to point the statement out, let alone that it is obvious. It’s obviousness should be obvious. It seems that a person often emphasizes that a statement is obvious when they would prefer not be required to defend it. Sometimes this is just because it is obvious once you know their field but a lot of effort to explain to someone who doesn’t, but often it’s just that the explanation is not obvious to them.

But saying ‘obviously’ is too obvious. A better word is ‘clearly’. ‘Clearly’ sounds transparent and innocent. In reality it is a more subtle version of ‘obviously’.

I have noticed this technique used well in published philosophy from time to time. If getting to your conclusion is going to require assuming your conclusion is true, ‘clearly’ suggests to the reader that they not think over that step too closely.

For instance Michael Huemer in Ethical Intuitionism, while arguing that moral subjectivism is wrong, for the purpose of demonstrating that ethical intuitionism is right:

Traditionally, cultural relativists have been charged with endorsing such statements as,

If society were to approve of eating children, then eating children would be good.

which is clearly false.

Notice that ‘false’ seemingly means that it is false according to his intuition; the thing which he is trying to argue for the reliability of. If he just said ‘which is false’, the reader may wonder where, in a book on establishing a basis for ethical truth, this source of falsity may have popped from. ‘Clearly’ says that they needn’t worry about it.

17 responses to “‘Clearly’ covers murky thought

  1. *Clearly*, you must be mistaken …

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  2. When I say obviously or clearly in a discussion or argument what I think I’m saying is “I realize this is a commonly understood statement, one that you are well aware of, but it’s part of my line of thought so I’m including it anyway.”
    I’ll have to pay more attention in the future to see if I have some underlying desire not to explain those parts of my argument.

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  3. Sometimes the intention is to point at an already supposedly accepted concept, not to strengthen its plausibility. There are plenty of steps in mathematical tests that consist of stating propositions without proofs or with “Immediate” or “Obvious” as proofs. And sometimes, it’s not obvious that something is (almost) obvious unless it’s stated so — it’s easier to see the obvious justification among possible obvious justifications than among all possible justifications, including complex ones.

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  4. (And in the latter case, “obvious” is an invitation to actually think a little thought and find a justification, instead of tentatively taking the statement as an assumption, to be possibly investigated later in greater detail.)

    More generally, any statement of fact has a cached thought aspect, and so if its validity is suspect, it has potential to stop curiosity. I don’t find “obviously” an outlier in this respect.

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  5. When you say something, by default there is a presumption that you are telling the listener something he does not already know. An innocuous use of “obviously” is to flag exceptions.

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  6. Used well, “clearly” means “this might take you a bit of thought to see, but should not take more than that, unless you’re out of your league”. Lazy authors abuse it to cover gaps in their own knowledge or reasoning. Lazy readers abuse it by not verifying the author is, in fact, correct.

    The best written papers in mathematics and physics use the term only in its correct sense, but would be several times longer (and much harder to read) if they didn’t use it. Of course, a lot of poorly written papers abuse the term…

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  7. I agree with the others: I use it either for facts that should be well known or inferences that should be easy to make, the ‘clearly’ or ‘obviously’ being a kind of apology to the reader to make it clear that you are not treating them like an idiot.

    On a related note Richard Feynman observed (I think in ‘Surely you must be joking…’) that his fellow maths students used to class any solved maths problem as ‘trivial’, whether it was or no. Maybe philosophers have a tendency to use ‘clearly’ and ‘obviously’ in the same way. I certainly don’t hold back from using it in counter-intuitive situations if the inference is reasonably direct. Used in this way it could become a kind-of challenge to the reader, which could easily slide into bluster and the abuses being described here.

    Note to self: avoid this even at the risk of being slightly condescending!

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  8. The maths professor is finally nearing the climax of the tortured proof the undergraduates have been struggling to keep up with. She comments out loud “And, obviously, it is the case that A will always be equal to B, for any possible A or B.”

    Sheepishly, one of the students puts his hand up. “Excuse me professor, but I don’t see why they have to be equal.”

    A look of consternation comes over the professor. She turns back to her proof, and stares at it for several minutes. Then she erases the contents of every blackboard in the lecture theatre – to the dismay of the students still trying to copy down all of their contents – and fills them anew with equation after equation, writing so much she is forced to switch to a new piece of chalk. Finally, as the time for the lecture draws to a close, she exclaims triumphantly – “Just as I thought. It IS obvious!”

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  9. Could it be that by saying “clearly” and “obviously” we are not indicating to the reader that he already knows what is clear or obvious, but are indicating to the reader/listener that the proposition in question is treated as self-evident by us?

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  10. “Notice that ‘false’ seemingly means that it is false according to his intuition; the thing which he is trying to argue for the reliability of.”

    I’ve never heard of Ethical Intuitionism before, but if he provided a justification for that statement being false based on something besides intuition, it would require subscribing to a different moral philosophy. For example, I would have said that conscious individuals have inherent value, and causing them suffering is wrong as a simple basis for morality, and then derived that eating children is wrong from that, but if he had said that, it would require him to support whatever moral philosophy that would be called.

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  11. Maybe it’s a way of paraphrasing what you assume is already being thought in people’s mostly unarticulated minds.

    Also it is used by propogandists to lead less acute audiences into dangerous assupmtions or assumptions they would normally not come to on their own. Think of how Michael Moore tries to dupe his audience into believing foregone conclusions.

    I think you could come up with a pretty darn good communications study on the use of these kinds of words.

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  12. I’ve seen many more bad uses than good uses of ‘clearly’ and ‘obviously’. Offhand, I can’t think of a single good use of either term.

    So I like this idea. It’s something we should add to E-prime: Do not use ‘obviously’ or ‘clearly’.

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  13. Yes, it’s a good way to earn marks in maths assignments when you can’t make the next link. Good teachers generally pick it out. So in general you’re right.

    However, I think that in maths it can be helpful in the following scenario. Say if you’re writing a proof and every sentence before has been involved some considerable thought to understand or accept. Then you right something much more trivial (like that an element in a union of sets must be in at least one of them). I think in this case, writing “Clearly,” helps the reader by flagging this as something that requires less machinery to accept.

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  14. CLEARLY, I meant “write”.

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  15. I’m delighted to see someone else pointing out the deception (even if unconscious) & confusion often hiding behind ‘clearly’ and ‘obvious’. Please see also http://conal.net/blog/posts/fostering-creativity-by-relinquishing-the-obvious/ .

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  16. Expendituretear

    Rare Limit,private light than process working works supply track material experience opinion key join sound star ordinary drop late permanent admit specific shape distance origin lady hit attack household customer content representative nothing throw certain criminal coffee cold regulation place conservative distance content king style store remember status new fruit earth sure opinion gentleman income plus cash cultural dead unemployment form bottle fire hard proposal panel family good look doctor select much sit deliver injury before understand their clearly considerable along shoot entire equal twice require interesting open appointment effort within error no

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