How much should you explain in an article?

Suppose you spent a long time (weeks, months, perhaps even years) understanding a complicated topic. You then write an article or a book about it. Where should you start from? Should you explain all or just assume to have readers who more or less share your expertise?

The question is certainly relevant for all philosophers, but perhaps even more for people working on niches, such as the history of Mīmāṃsā deontic thought or the early developments of the Maṇipravāḷa soteriology in South India and so on. Sure, it would be nice to speak with people who shared out interest and to whom we did not need to explain all, but these people are very few.

Who is your ideal reader? Are they the colleagues next door, who know all about philosophy, but nothing about Sanskrit? Are they Sanskritists who do not know about your field? Do you envision your first-year students reading you?

I, for one, feel a moral obligation to at least try to be understandable by fellow Sanskritists (who would need to check some philosophical terms) and philosophers (who will find in the footnotes some technical explanations about the one or the other Sanskrit term). I may fail and I often end up addressing the more limited community of philosophers who know some Sanskrit or Sanskritists who are also interested in philosophy. However, I try not to restrict it further. Now, you may object that I cannot re-establish the history of Mīmāṃsā again in each article. Right, but I can use a small space for some basic elements and then point to further accessible sources.

Still, I think that we have a moral obligation to at least try to be accessible. Why?

  1. First of all, I am paid by taxpayers. I want to be able to give back to as many of them as possible what I learnt thanks to their taxes.
  2. Second, I think it is somehow intellectually dishonest to struggle for weeks on the translation of a technical term and then just put the final solution in an article without further comments, as if one had known it since the beginning. I want my readers to be able to benefit of my efforts by knowing, e.g., what helped me in understanding X, so that they can use the same method or the same resource when confronted with something resembling X.
  3. Last, it is more often than not the case that by explaining to lay readers, I myself become aware of small points I would have otherwise overseen.

Thus, explaining is often a win-win business!

What is your rule of thumb?

(cross-posted on my personal blog)

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

12 thoughts on “How much should you explain in an article?

  1. I agree with all your points here, Elisa. The people to whom we do not need to explain ourselves are indeed few and far between; conversations with them are extremely rewarding, but it’s best for them to be just that, conversations (whether by email, videoconference, conference meeting, etc.) Even as a scholar of Sanskrit Buddhist philosophy, my knowledge of, say, Vaiśeṣika is pretty minimal – and that minimal knowledge is still more than probably everyone on the planet except maybe a thousand or so. In publications I think some degree of explanation is essential. That is true even for those of us who aren’t paid by taxpayers: our work will enrich the human community significantly more if we broaden our audience at least a little.

  2. I’ve been plagued by this issue for years now….I’ve always believed that to explain one concept thoroughly, one must explain almost every concept conceivable. Literary pratītyasamutpāda is an endlessly vast and complex elephant and sometimes (all the time!) a thousand hands (and a thousand eyes)are insufficient, no matter how learned “the men of Indostan” are..:))

    On an allied note, though, I’ve always wondered why a reader (say, a dentist) who’s not already emotionally invested in and associated with an abstruse, obscure technical topic (e.g. what Mammaṭa wishes to illustrate by citing the maxim jñānasya viṣayo hyanyaḥ phalamanyadudāhṛtam while refuting Mukula’s notion of viśiṣṭalakṣaṇā) would access and struggle with a lengthy article (like the one I’m currently attempting to scribble for the last year) which attempts discusses to discuss it threadbare….

  3. Elisa, I would make the text accessible by the layperson also by giving definitions and explanations, probably as a separate section in the case of a book or when first introducing the concept. For histories, I would point to some existing work that could be understood even by non-philosophers and non-Sanskritists. Also, I always refer to the commentaries or glosses or other readings that helped me to arrive at an understanding of a term or concept as these sources would help the reader get different perspectives on the subject. So yes, my rule of thumb is to make the language jargon-free and explain both the text and context of all concepts. So, while I expect specialists to read my work, I also expect it to be understood by laypersons. And you are so right about explaining helping oneself to learn more about the subject.

  4. Largely agree with everyone’s comments. I find a certain pleasure in reading or listening to something that skillfully explains briefly or summarizes things that I already know. I don’t find it tedious. My default is to try to do that, make such introductory or summary portions helpful for those who don’t know, while still being pleasant for those who do. And at any rate, we live in a world of extreme academic specializing; we can’t even assume that people interested in classical Indian thought are entirely informed about what we are doing.

    • Yes, Matthew, and also there is the other problem of how a particular concept has been understood by a scholar because it is seen increasingly that each scholar has one’s own emphasis or perspective on a particular concept and so, it becomes quite important to clarify one’s position in the beginning. And there are also the numerous cross-references in a topic, not all of which would be familiar to fellow scholars.

  5. Dear Amod, Satyanarayana, Matthew and Swami Narasimhananda,
    many thanks for your comments.
    It seems that scholars based in North America and India agree on this point, then. I wonder what our colleagues in, e.g., Japan and Europe (apart from myself) say?

  6. Pingback: How much should you explain in an article? | elisa freschi

  7. Lovely post, Elisa. I can only add my agreement to what has been said already. I think accessibility is a duty; though we may also write for different audiences at different times. When I write for an academic journal I will leave fewer terms discussed than when I write for a blog (and even this blog, in my mind, has a different audience than my patheos blog).

    I recall Paul Williams at Bristol explaining that he had written his big Mahayana Buddhism book with fellow academics in mind, and thus end-noted carefully and really took pains to argue key points; meanwhile his Buddhism in India book was for a more general audience and thus he could spend more efforts on making it readable, conversational.

    Donald Lopez Jr approaches this question also in a recent interview here:

    https://www.buddhistdoor.net/features/buddhist-studies-past-present-and-future-an-interview-with-dr-donald-lopez-part-two

  8. Elisa,
    I’ve been thinking on exactly the same problem.
    For some time, I’ve been trying to help a group of people, including linguists and cryptographers working on a difficult manuscript.
    I find that the majority have no background even in basic art history, and have no idea what is involved in forensic iconographic analysis.
    Providing a bibliography, or historical and other information makes the post tedious. Omitting it gives an impression that my opinion is arbitrary, subjective, or guesswork on par with any other ‘guess’.

    I don’t expect your readers will have a solution – but how to communicate specialist information can surely bring difficulties. It makes me admire those who have the gift.

    • I assume you already know this. If it is an online post it helps to hyperlink every technical term to a page with its explanation. That way, your post is easy to read by specialists, and people needing more information can always see the hyperlinked pages.

  9. “I can use a small space for some basic elements and then point to further accessible sources.”

    I think this is implicit in other replies, but just to be explicit: not only the “how much” (in terms of sheer number of words) but the “what selection” is an important question. While there may be some features (historical facts, major concepts, etc.) that must be shared among a variety of introductions in order to genuinely introduce that topic, there is audience-relativity, that others note, in what others one chooses for explication. There is no single answer, but depends on the audience for, and the arguments within, your work.

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