In his Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Immanuel Kant attempts to derive what he calls a metaphysic of morals—an experience-free and absolute grounding for the core principles of morality. On his way to that end, Kant expresses a nuanced view about the secondary aim of making one’s arguments and positions accessible for popular consumption.
“This condescension to popular concepts is to be sure very laudable when the elevation to principles of pure reason has already been achieved to full satisfaction, and that would mean first grounding the doctrine of morals on metaphysics, but procuring entry for it by means of popularity, once it stands firm. But it is quite absurd to want to humor popularity in the first investigation, upon which depends the correctness of principles. Not only can this procedure never lay claim to the extremely rare merit of a true philosophical popularity, since there is no art in being commonly understandable if one relinquishes all well-grounded insight; this produces only a disgusting mish-mash of patched together observations and half-reasoned principles, in which superficial minds revel, because there is always something serviceable for everyday chitchat, but which insightful people disregard, feeling confused and dissatisfied without being able to help themselves; yet philosophers, who can very well see through the illusion, find little hearing when for certain occasions they decry this supposed popularity, in order, through acquiring determinate insight, finally to gain the right to be popular.” (Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Chapter II)
Kant’s view here is nuanced. He seems not to commit to the general principle that more serious, and less popular, philosophy must always precede the attempt to make one’s findings accessible. Rather, he is concerned to defend only a special case of the principle, applying to the derivation of principles of pure reason. Nevertheless, the passage raises important questions about the putative requirement for accessibility, questions that have reflexes outside philosophy in, for example, the exact sciences. To what extent should one aim, from the outset, for accessibility in one’s work? Must one’s claims and arguments be widely accessible in order to carry conviction, or could competence to follow a piece of argumentation—however presented—be congenitally limited? Might the operative thinking of a specialist be by nature incommunicable to the non-specialist, at least in advance of the additional labour of translation into common idioms?