Essay Aphorisms

An essay aphorism should do two things. First, it should express a complete thought or idea. Second, it should both create in the reader a desire to think more and provide more or less subtly imposed suggestions for the direction thought ought to take.

Done well, the essay aphorism bridges the strengths of analytic and continental philosophical styles. For the analytically minded, it clarifies and distinguishes like from dislike. The essay aphorism renders intuition concrete. The author turns a privately experienced thought into a concrete concept. Such concepts are, in turn, describable and amenable to further clarification and distinction. For continental-style thinkers, essay aphorisms prevent analytic thought from shutting down philosophical exploration. Refusing to hermetically seal a complete thought within a closed logic, opens pathways for unanticipated connections, lateral critique and – what is most important for philosophy generally but most difficult for analytic modes specifically – speculative and wide-ranging investigation of fundamentally ineffable subjective experience.

Expressing a complete thought means that, to an extent, an essay aphorism can stand alone. It answers a single question with sufficient clarity that a superficial and/or time-constrained reader will have their answer and feel satisfied. It does no disservice to truth and performs the important function of providing a place to stand when grappling with social and political phenomena.

For the careful reader and for the thinker who hungers for more, the essay aphorism should open more doors than it closes. Whatever concept an author settles within the aphorism they should also unsettle by extending it to as many connected and complicating ideas and phenomena as possible. The author has many tools at their disposal for extending an opening: foster self-reflection on the key point by connecting it to lived experiences in unexpected ways; reference conceptual tools and ideas in a way that doesn’t obfuscate the complete thought, but that nonetheless promise additional insight on that thought if understood more fully; even hinting at implications without fully elaborating on them is allowable as long as the hints are not so opaque or so esoteric as to either empty them of meaning or disrupt the completeness of the central idea.

The author’s responsibility doesn’t end with a complete thought and external connections. There should also be some nudging and directing. Any idea worth expressing through a well-constructed aphorism essay will have political and normative content and therefore ought to express the author’s political and normative commitments. At the very least, this rightly exposes an author’s commitments to evaluation and critique; at the very most it shifts normative and political terrain toward a better state of affairs.

A relatively conventional strategy for directing the reader is to connect aphorisms one to another simply by publishing them within an intentional set of orders and divisions. Nietzsche and Adorno relied on this method and experts on Nietzsche will tell you that understanding Nietzsche’s aphorisms requires reading them in the context of their neighbours. The directive function of this strategy remains viable, but a well-constructed aphorism should allow a sophisticated reader, and perhaps some combination of queer reading and queer publication – to take advantage of aphorisms’ modularity to force them out of the author’s directive ordering and into new relationships and constellations. The author directs; following is optional.


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