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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)