a quick question here about non-fiction writing styles:

It is said that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant intentionally wrote in a difficult and opaque style so as to force his readers to pay attention to his every word and sentence, and not passively skim through the text, thinking they had already understood everything.

However, this line of reasoning goes against our modern conception of writing. Today, we often advocate for the clearest and simplest of prose which supposedly facilitates reader comprehension.

Does writing in a simple easy-to-understand manner cause readers to become passive? Or should one strive to expound and explain difficult ideas in the simplest manner possible without simplifying them?—i.e. explain them in an unconvoluted manner without sacrificing content.


  • Two things, first this clause 'explain difficult ideas in the simplest manner possible without simplifying them' doesn't quite make sense. Being more specific and precise will help you get better answers to your question
    – EDL
    Sep 26, 2021 at 14:47
  • 1
    the second thing, the site focuses on sharing knowledge and experience. Questions that devolve to matters of opinion tend to get closed without answers. You are asking for an opinion. Try improving your question so that answers to it will help you form your own opinion on the matter.
    – EDL
    Sep 26, 2021 at 14:49
  • 1
    @EDL There is a difference between 'simple' and 'simplified'. 'explain difficult ideas in the simplest manner possible without simplifying them' just means to explain in an unconvoluted manner without sacrificing content.
    – John Smith
    Sep 26, 2021 at 15:58
  • you don’t need to try to defend yourself to me. My goal is to help you get answers your question that are useful for you. The wording could be improved.
    – EDL
    Sep 26, 2021 at 22:05
  • I'm not sure how this is answerable. Through experimental research? Lots of people will simply not bother to read Kant because it's so hard (and anyway I'm not sure that was his primary reason for the style he chose).
    – Stuart F
    Sep 27, 2021 at 12:53

2 Answers 2


Active reading means the reader is engaged with the unfolding of ideas in the work: i.e., the reader is thinking about, anticipating, and wrestling with the concepts as they are developed. Part of this is out of the author's control, because readers must have the skills and inclinations to read actively, and those take time and effort to develop. But an author who wants to encourage active reading needs to balance simple language against complex ideas. Complex ideas are what draw the reader into engagement; simple language makes the journey easier.

Really, the worst thing a writer can do is write something trivial and banal using flowery language or dense jargon. Those books I throw away.

There are a number of tricks one can use to achieve this goal. I'm partial to the mid-20th century trend in philosophy of using a semi-narrative, almost journalistic style. Foucault's "Discipline and Punish", Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus", and Sartre's "Nausea" are decent examples. But the upshot is to take even non-fiction writing as an art, where one must be intellectually challenging but not torturous, sophisticated but not obscure, coy but not aloof or uncommunicative. It helps to think about Vygotsky's "zone of proximal development": a writer has to find just the right intellectual gap between himself and the reader so that the reader is comfortably drawn forward. Too large an intellectual gap in the writing and the reader gets lost; too small an intellectual gap and the reader gets bored.


I think this is a great question, and I know that Nessim Nicholas Taleb has said that he deliberately does not make his books or talks easy to understand. But as Mr. Wrigley says above, if your intellectual gap with the reader is too great, the reader will just give up.

There are also readers who glory in the "difficulty" of a text, and the example that comes to mind is Ulysses (I just took an Extension course in that last year, so it's fresh in my mind). I'm not one of those readers, and I do not think that Ulysses has much shelf life as a Great Book left. The fact that it's difficult does not make it great.

I'm also a fan of the "semi-narrative, almost journalistic style." Humans love a story, and if you can't come up with one to illustrate your abstract theory, then maybe there's something wrong with your theory.


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.