Notes and Comment Blog


Revisiting Bad Writing

Dec 3rd, 2004 12:06 am | By

I’ve been meaning to comment on Mark Bauerlein’s splendid article on ‘bad writing’ and ‘theory.’ I only have a few minutes right now, so I’ll just quote a little by way of marking my place and then return to the subject tomorrow.

The cheap partisan spirit reinforces the point made by Dutton, David G. Myers, Katha Pollitt, and others that the jargon and bloat of theory prose excludes every readership but other theorists—a damning claim given that the theorists purport to labor for social justice. The theorists counter that the writing they do isn’t bad; rather, it’s challenging, and that challengingness is precisely what makes it valuable to society at large.

Yup, that’s how the theorists counter all right. But (one wants to ask, sternly) have they never encountered any writing that is challenging without being jargony and bloated? Do they honestly think that jargon and bloat are an essential part of challengingness? Come on, now – I said honestly. Really? Really? You’re not pretending? You’re not just pretending to think the two are inseparable because you really really want to go on using the jargon because it makes you feel so clever and impressive and scholarly and, well, theoretical? Hmm?

Given their vulnerability to the bad writing charge, the theorists would profit from a dose of humility or, even better, humor. One reason for the popularity of the Bad Writing Contest was its antic nature. The very idea of a scholarly journal singling out one sentence for a mock award brought snickers from every adult who’d ever endured a semester with an ideologically-rigid, self-involved literature professor. Dutton solicited nominations on the Internet, consulted experts, and broadcast the final tally as if it were a Hollywood press release. This was in keeping with academic celebrity culture, recast in a dunciad mode, and observers got the joke immediately.

Snicker! ‘Academic celebrity culture’? Why, what can he mean? Nobody would be so silly as to think that academics – especially ‘theorists’ of all people! – could possibly be ‘celebrities’ – surely? Yes? You astonish me. Whatever next. Superstar checkout clerks? Celebrity chicken pluckers? World-famous dog sitters?

Non-academic intellectuals aren’t as easily cowed as are professors, and they will hold up every such accusation as evidence of the elitist, smug world of the ivory tower.

Maybe that’s why I get so irritated when people call me elitist. Because to me ‘elitist’ means people like the ‘theory’ crowd, who really are smug. I’m not like that! Honest, Auntie Em; I’m not. Or if I am, I’d better sign myself into a work camp for some drastic re-education through labour, right smart quick. Picking cotton with my teeth, perhaps, would be about right.

To be continued.



Idea Density

Dec 2nd, 2004 8:29 pm | By

Update: A report on the nun study. It’s interesting.

Women who scored poorly on measures of cognitive ability as young adults were found to be at higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease and poor cognitive function in late life, according to a new report by researchers at the University of Kentucky. The ground-breaking study of nearly 100 nuns found that the complexity of the sisters’ writings as young women had a great deal to do with how they fared cognitively later in life. Of the nuns who died, 90 percent of those with Alzheimer’s disease confirmed at autopsy had low linguistic ability in early life, compared with only 13 percent in those without evidence of the disease.

And another.

Sister Nicolette’s autobiography, written when she was 20, was full of what Dr. Snowdon calls “idea density,” many thoughts woven into a small number of words, a trait correlating closely with nuns who later escaped Alzheimer’s. One sentence in Sister Nicolette’s essay, for example, reads, “After I finished the eighth grade in 1921 I desired to become an aspirant at Mankato but I myself did not have the courage to ask the permission of my parents so Sister Agreda did it in my stead and they readily gave their consent.” Compare that to the essay of another Mankato nun, who is in her late 90’s and has performed steadily worse on the memory tests. The nun, who sat quietly by a window the other day, wrote in her essay, “After I left school, I worked in the post-office.”

So all those people who try to claim that it’s actually better to be ignorant and incurious and that that’s why Bush is a better guy than Kerry, are not only being silly and anti-intellectual, they’re encouraging everyone to increase their risk of Alzheimer’s. So yaboosucks!

I know, I know. Don’t bother to say it. It’s chicken and egg, it’s causation and correlation. It’s not clear whether the cognitive ability and idea density are causative or just correlative, so it’s not clear whether anything we do deliberately will make any difference. I know. But still. It might. Why take that chance, hmmm?



Words, Words, Words

Dec 1st, 2004 10:35 pm | By

I knew there was a reason. I knew it, I knew it. Right – the next time someone tells me I’m an elitist and pompous and pretentious and a show-off and generally horrible and intolerable, merely because I accidentally use a word that one might not find in a five-year-old’s vocabulary – the very next time, I say, I will have an answer ready. It’s because I don’t yet have Alzheimer’s. Surely that’s a good enough reason! Surely even the most dedicated warrior for populism will recognize that not (yet) having Alzheimer’s is quite a sensible reason to use words one was foolish and malevolent enough to pick up by accident at some point. Surely. I didn’t mean to do it, I didn’t mean to pick up pretentious words, but now that I’ve done it, well – it’s nice to know that the Alzheimer’s scenario is postponed for awhile.

Scientists have discovered the very first signs of Iris Murdoch’s final illness within the text of her last novel. Her vocabulary showed signs of damage at least a year before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, they say…Murdoch’s husband, John Bayley, remarked: “There was something different about Iris’s last novel. It was moving but strange in many ways.” Now his suspicion that the degenerative disease had damaged her literary skills long before it became obvious has been backed by a statistical analysis. This reveals that while the structure and grammar of Murdoch’s writing remained consistent, her vocabulary dwindled and her language simplified.

There you are, you see. Her vocabulary dwindled. And joking aside, it’s actually quite interesting. Her vocabulary got richer as she got older, and then as she got older than that, it went in the other direction.

“The smallest number of word types occurred in Jackson’s Dilemma and the largest in The Sea, The Sea, and new word types were introduced at a strikingly higher rate in both earlier books compared with Jackson’s Dilemma,” he said. “Moreover, the vocabulary of Jackson’s Dilemma was the most commonplace and that of The Sea, The Sea the most unusual. “This suggests an enrichment in vocabulary between the early and middle stages of Murdoch’s writing career, followed by an impoverishment before the composition of her final work,” said Dr Garrard…”Her manuscripts thus offer a unique opportunity to explore the effects of the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease on spontaneous writing, and raises the possibility of enhancing cognitive tests to diagnose the disease.”

It’s not only interesting, it’s also useful. So you see, having a very slightly (accidentally, humbly) enlarged vocabulary is not something to shout at people for, it’s something to say ‘well done, you’ll help medical research if you become ga-ga as you almost certainly soon will’ for.

Joking aside again, it really is interesting. That nun study fascinates me. Mental activity does ward off Alzheimer’s – it is somewhat protective against it. Learning is protective against it, apparently. Which is quite good. Gives people an incentive to do something that they might then find of value for additional reasons. Somebody ought to suggest to George Bush that he might try it.



Famous for Being Famous for Being Famous

Dec 1st, 2004 1:18 am | By

And now back to the cult. Because the cult is interesting, cultishness is interesting, and above all, this kind of hyperbolic giddy gushing cultishness in people who (to all appearances) pride themselves above all on critical thinking, on looking closely at rhetoric, on peering behind the screen, on criticising ‘philosophical presumptions,’ on knowing ‘how to read’ – is so interesting as to be almost hypnotic.

So, here we are at the London Review of Books and here is Judith Butler Superstar again, writing about Derrida again.

First there are two paragraphs of resounding banalities. Then we start the third:

It is surely uncontroversial to say that Jacques Derrida was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century; his international reputation far exceeds that of any other French intellectual of his generation. More than that, his work fundamentally changed the way in which we think about language, philosophy, aesthetics, painting, literature, communication, ethics and politics.

Noooo, it’s not uncontroversial at all. As ‘surely’ Butler must know. Unless she just really never does read anything or talk to anyone at all outside the world of ‘theory’? But even then you would think whispers would have got through. So why does she say that? To try to convince, presumably. It is surely uncontroversial to say that up is down. Right. And then no sooner are we past the uncontroversial bit and the ‘one of the greatest’ bit, than we get to the real clincher – the obsession of the theory crowd – his reputation. Okay, so this is what I don’t get. Reputation. Fame, renown, notoriety, superstardom, being heard of. Wouldn’t you think that this whole business of ‘fame,’ of who decides it, where it comes from, how it is conferred, what we’re doing when we talk about it, why we think it matters, how we measure it, how we use it to impress or convince or flatter or self-flatter; what a contemporary obsession it is, how new the resources are for creating it, how that influences the way we think about various things; wouldn’t you think that sort of thing would be exactly the kind of thing that self-described ‘theorists’ would be keen to interrogate and examine and re-think? To be, in short, a little distanced and detached and critical and skeptical of? Wouldn’t you? Above all, wouldn’t you think they would be interested in how very socially constructed it is? How the opposite of self-evident or ‘natural’ it is? And above all above all, wouldn’t you think it would occur to her that that international reputation is in fact the creation of people like her endlessly talking about Derrida’s international reputation? They create his fame in the very act of talking about it so obsessively. He’s ‘famous’ in the sense that he gets mentioned a lot, by the people who mention him a lot, because he’s so famous. It could hardly be any more tightly circular and self-enforcing.

So there you have it – one of the great ironies of our time. People who think they’re experts on challenging ‘philosophical presumptions’ who yet go in for such gormless fame-worship and deification. Very odd indeed.



Redefining Atheism

Dec 1st, 2004 1:17 am | By

Okay, by way of a vacation from Butler and Derrida and the frenzy of renown – I’ll mutter a word or two about John Gray’s peculiar idea of what atheism is. I thought of doing it yesterday, but the review is so very full of strange assertions and idiosnycratic definitions that I felt slightly overwhelmed, so I put it off. It would take pages and pages to do it justice; I’ll just mention one or two points.

Generations of secular thinkers believed that as science advanced, religion would fade away. In fact, the opposite has happened. Religious faith is thriving, and the secular faiths of the Enlightenment everywhere are in retreat.

Everywhere? Everywhere? No they’re not. (And besides, what’s that ‘secular faiths‘ nonsense? Never mind; we’ll get to that. But it’s interesting that he just shoves that in there as if it were beyond dispute.)

Socrates couldn’t have been an atheist for he lacked the very idea of God. He belonged in a polytheistic culture, and the concept of a single, all-powerful deity later propagated by Christianity was unknown to him.

What? Hey – I’m an atheist, and I tell you what, I not only don’t believe in one god, I also don’t believe in two gods, and three, and many, and many many. In fact, there are many one gods I don’t believe in. In fact again, there is an infinite number of gods I don’t believe in. Monotheistic, polytheistic, all-powerful deity, weak silly deity – I don’t care, I’m impartial, I don’t subscribe to any of them. I think that probably applies to most atheists. Probably pretty much all of them. In fact some wag (Bertrand Russell? Mencken? Twain? I don’t know – some joker) pointed out that Christians are atheists about all gods except their own, and that atheists just add one more to the list.

As we know it today, atheism is a by-product of Christianity. It is not a world-view in its own right but rather a negative version of Western monotheism, and can have little interest for anyone whose horizons extend beyond that tradition.

Nonsense. Who’s ‘we,’ for a start? The ‘we’ who know atheism today is any atheist in the world, not just the ones who live within shouting distance of John Gray. What is he talking about? Does he think there are no atheists in other parts of the world? Surely he can’t think anything so bizarre. At any rate, atheism ‘as we know it today’ is not a by-product of Christianity, it’s just the absence of theism. Now, maybe what he means to say is that ‘the way the word is often used in the West’ or something similar – in which case there would be something to it, although not much beyond the obvious. Sure, atheism in places where the majority religion is or was until quite recently Christian will naturally have taken root where it took root, and thus it will often refer to that religion rather than others. But not always, and certainly not necessarily. And then there’s that stuff about its not being a world-view in its own right. Who said it was? Who said it needs to be? The name itself explicitly abjures that idea – it’s not-theism. Obviously not-theism is not by itself a world-view; it’s a more or less polite refusal of one. When theism shuts up and leaves it alone, atheism is quite content to shrivel and become as vestigial as the appendix. Atheists don’t particularly expect atheism to have ‘interest’ for people with wider horizons; it’s not about being interesting; it’s just about not being a theist. People will insist on adding all sorts of connotations to the word, but that’s their addition, it’s not the word itself. It’s surprising to see John Gray doing that.

In his view of science, however, Dawkins is simple-minded in the extreme. Like Karl Popper, he sees scientific inquiry in highly Romantic terms as the disinterested pursuit of truth. In reality – as has been shown by work in the philosophy and sociology of science over the past 30 years – it is an immensely powerful social institution in which authority is as important as critical discussion, if not more so. As the ultimate arbiter of our beliefs about the world, contemporary science has more than a passing resemblance to the Church in its heyday. This may not bother Dawkins, but it plants a sizeable question mark over his view of scientific inquiry as the ultimate embodiment of rationality.

Oy veh. Yes, science is an immensely powerful social institution; Dawkins knows that perfectly well, and says as much. And yes, authority is important in science (though whether it’s ‘as important as critical discussion’ is undecidable, because the phrase is meaningless – how would Gray know? Has he counted?), as is also well-known, because scientific knowledge is so immense and ramifying, it’s not possible to test everything, so any given scientist will know some things via authority rather than investigation. But it’s not the same kind of authority as that of the Church. It’s not based on revelation, it doesn’t have holy books, no one is declared infallible, and everything is always subject to investigation, testing, peer review, checking and re-checking. So that ‘more than a passing resemblance to the Church in its heyday’ remark is just sheer – well, crap, frankly. And Gray thinks Dawkins’ view of science is simple-minded while his is – what – sophisticated, nuanced, clever? Oy.



How Dare They

Nov 30th, 2004 12:15 am | By

Let’s take a look at a letter from Judith Butler to the New York Times on that UC Irvine site to apotheosise Derrida. The letter is quite short, but full of matter. Dense with significance. Significance oozes out of every word.

Jonathan Kandell’s vitriolic and disparaging obituary of Jacques Derrida takes the occasion of this accomplished philosopher’s death to re-wage a culture war that has surely passed its time.

A culture war. That’s significant. That implies that the only reason to say anything critical about Derrida or his reputation and standing, is that one is a cultural warrior, i.e. a right-winger. That doesn’t happen to be true; it’s not even close to true; saying it is merely a rhetorical way of grabbing some kind of moral high ground and of pretending that any criticism of Derrida is necessarily political rather than intellectual. Off to a good start, right in the first sentence.

If Derrida’s contributions to philosophy, literary criticism, the theory of painting, communications, ethics, and politics made him into the most internationally renowned European intellectual during these times, it is because of the precision of his thought, the way his thinking always took a brilliant and unanticipated turn, and because of the constant effort to reflect on moral and political responsibility.

The ‘most internationally renowned European intellectual during these times’? One, no he wasn’t, and two, what does that even mean anyway? What the hell does ‘renowned’ mean? And why on earth are literary ‘theorists’ always so eager to boast about how famous they are? Why are they so obsessed with celebrity and putative ‘superstars’? Why do they try to impress and cow their critics with ridiculous announcements of their notoriety? Okay, and apart from that – precision of thought is not considered to be Derrida’s strong suit, and even if it were – would that have made him ‘renowned’? Does it make everyone who can do it renowned? Butler sounds as if she thinks Derrida was the only precise thinker around (or perhaps merely in Europe). She really ought to read a little more widely. And that goes triple for the last phrase. Why would a constant effort to reflect on moral and political responsibility make anyone renowned? Lots of people do that. They don’t get renowned as a result. Butler seems to be claiming that Derrida and his acolytes (like her, for instance) have some kind of monopoly on precision of thought and reflection on morals and politics. That’s just a little presumptuous, I think.

Why would the NY Times want to join ranks with American reactionary anti-intellectualism precisely at a time when critical thinking is most urgently required?

And there it is again. Same thing. Criticism of or disagreement with Derrida equals anti-intellectualism, despite the many many intellectuals who in fact disagree with and criticise his work. And Derrida equals critical thinking, so criticism and disagreement with him is some sort of harm to critical thinking. It’s the airless, parochial, blind arrogance of that kind of thing that amazes. The way literary ‘theorists’ seriously think they and their heroes were the first to raise questions that people have been raising ever since Socrates. The way they try to monopolize and the way they try to claim credit for everything. And the outrageous way they try to rule criticism and disagreement out of court. The way they try to declare it not just wrong or inaccurate but illegitimate, blasphemous, lèse majesté. But hey, Butler is a ‘superstar,’ so I really have no business criticising her.



Mark Your Calendar

Nov 29th, 2004 7:10 pm | By

Bookshop barnie. Eh? I don’t know; that’s what it’s called. Don’t ask me. But anyway – chance of a lifetime.

The next debate, on January 20th 2005, will be held at the London Review of Books bookshop in Bury Place, WC1.Here Jeremy Stangrom, co-founder of The Philosophers’ Magazine, will speak to the themes of his new book, written with Ophelia Benson: The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense: A Guide for Edgy People October, 2004. This should ease us into the New Year, with questions whether this sort of book challenges, undermines or reinforces dumbing down. Barnies attract around fifty seated guests for a close up and personal discussion on the themes thrown up by a particular book. You don’t have to have read the book, but you must have a questioning mind… NB: The Bookshop Barnies are invite only. For further information contact: the Future Cities Project.

They don’t say whether there will be food. That’s silly. If they said ‘Tea and chocolate biscuits with nuts in will be served’ I’d be clicking on links like mad to get my invite, but without the chocolate biscuits, I don’t know, I’d be thinking carefully. But maybe that’s just me.



There is a Reason

Nov 29th, 2004 2:49 am | By

I should have dug this up sooner.

Here is a petition/memorial for Derrida at the University of California at Irvine. A great many signatures from literature professors…and very few philosophers. That’s fine; no harm in being a literature type, or having a memorial thingy; only he does get called a ‘world-renowned philosopher’ and the like, quite a lot. But mostly only by people in other departments. One can’t help suspecting that all those non-signatory philosophers know something that the literature people don’t quite grasp…

Brian Leiter for example. Here and here and here and here. And Leiter, entirely unlike me, has actually read the guy. So he confirms my suspicions. Yes, there is a reason why it’s literature people and not philosophers who think Derrida was a brilliant and important philosopher. Because they don’t know no better, that’s why.

Alas, he is being referred to as a philosopher.

I am, needless to say, with the vast majority of philosophers in thinking Derrida’s work of a philosophical nature was badly confused and pernicious in its influence, and in the substantial minority within that group who formed that opinion after actually reading his work. His preposterously stupid writings on Nietzsche were, of course, a particular source of annoyance. And even his more apparently scholarly work on, e.g., Husserl turns out to be rather poor, as J. Claude Evans showed more than a dozen years ago. Like the Straussians, Derrida and his followers tend to be willfully bad readers of texts. Fortunately, their influence has already faded from the scene in both North America and Europe.



My Suspicions are Awakened

Nov 28th, 2004 9:29 pm | By

Do us a favour, if you feel like it and have a minute. I’ve heard from two readers who have written good reviews of the Dictionary at Amazon. Neither one has shown up; one was several days ago, the other was a week and a half ago. So the one-star just sits there uncontradicted all this time. Hmm…that seems odd. So if anyone else has written a favourable review that hasn’t shown up, perhaps you could let me know. I’m just curious…



Centre for What?

Nov 28th, 2004 9:21 pm | By

Frances Stonor Saunders makes a pointed comment in the Observer.

Last week came an announcement from the University of London’s Birkbeck College that it intends to establish a centre for public intellectuals…But what exactly is a public intellectual? Unfortunately, Birkbeck doesn’t tell us. There’s some woolly stuff about the centre putting itself at the ‘forefront of current intellectual debate’, about making ‘public intervention on issues of current importance’. The centre’s inaugural project will be a series of lectures honouring the life and work of Jacques Derrida. A centre for public intellectuals needs a public to address. By focusing on Derrida, whose work took impenetrability to dizzying heights, Birkbeck is clearly signalling that by ‘public’ it means elitism on a platform. It’s hard to see how this arrangement can bring clarity to ‘issues of current importance’.

Elitism on a platform – I like that. Phenomena like the cultish atmosphere around Derrida, the equation of Derrida-skepticism with ‘an attack on complex thought,’ the idea that the first thing a group of public intellectuals ought to do is get together to heap even more flattery on the already well-flattered Derrida – those are the kind of thing that I think deserve the label ‘elitist.’ It’s the impenetrability thing. It is so difficult not to think that the impenetrability is the point, is exactly why the fans are so ardent, so cultish, so keen to equate ‘complex thought’ with what Derrida did and what he did with complex thought. It is so difficult not to think that the impenetrability is loved, admired, sought-after, imitated. Partly (I surmise) because literature has long been thought of as a soft option at best, as a girly subject, as lacking in rigour and hard work. It’s not rocket science, it’s not brain surgery, it’s not chemical engineering or physics or even history or philosophy – it’s just old reading novels and poetry, and who can’t do that? But now, yo, there’s ‘theory,’ which is very very very difficult and demanding and arduous, takes years, has a whole elaborate technical vocabulary, not just any fool can do it, only specialists, yup uh huh. None of your chatter about Shelley here. God no – who the hell wants to read Shelley?! Nasty arty-farty bastard. No. The whole point is to read stuff that only people with several degrees in ‘theory’ can read without wanting to drop the book into a shredder. In other words, Keep Out. It’s like a No Trespassing sign stuck on the entire subject; and that’s the real elitism. Not liking Byron more than Keats, or Keats more than Byron, or either of them more than a Pepsi song. No, it’s arranging things so that outsiders will be repelled and turn away and go back to their proley little lives. It’s being pretty much the opposite of public intellectuals.



Belief

Nov 27th, 2004 8:42 pm | By

There’s a larger subject lurking behind (and propping up, motivating, triggering, etc) a lot of the issues we’ve been discussing lately. Belief. Belief in the sense of belief full stop, belief tout court, belief undefended and unexplained. Belief just because; belief because I said so; belief as intuition or instinct or inner voice or gnosis; belief that doesn’t have to give an account of itself; belief that is self-justified, which in other kinds of discourse is called a vicious circle or begging the question. The kind of thing Mill quotes Bentham teasing:

One man says, he has a thing made on purpose to tell him what is right and what is wrong; and that it is called a moral sense: and then he goes to work at his ease, and says, such a thing is right, and such a thing is wrong-why? “because my moral sense tells me it is”.

Because his moral sense tells him it is, and he believes it. If he believes it, there is no more to be said – according to a line of argument that seems to be increasingly prevalent. Public discourse seems to have far too many believers in proportion to people who ask for reasons before believing. A certain philosophy professor states it this way:

This attitude toward belief — that one should believe a proposition only if one has articulable reasons for it — represents liberalism in the epistemic realm. The contrast is epistemic conservatism, which holds that belief — in God, in the importance of marriage, in the value of tradition — needs no defense. To a conservative, beliefs are presumed innocent until proven guilty. To a liberal, they are presumed guilty until proven innocent. The liberal epistemic standard begs the question against political conservatism, just as a conservative epistemic standard would beg the question against political liberalism. Conservatives must not fall for the liberal trick of making nonbelief the default position.

Of course, that’s a rather tendentious way of describing the ‘liberal’ (I would call it rationalist, and I’m pretty sure conservative rationalists do exist) view. The point is not that beliefs are ‘guilty’ (or indeed innocent) but that one wants a reason or reasons to believe them rather than just accepting them blindly. It is possible to believe things that are not in fact true; that’s one reason people (even conservatives, actually, much of the time, perhaps even most of it) want reasons for beliefs. And then the examples given in the interjection are curiously mixed – are not really the same kind of thing, so that belief in one works quite differently from belief in another. Belief in God is belief in a supernatural entity that exists in the external world independent of humans; belief in ‘the importance of marriage’ or ‘the value of tradition’ is belief in human ideas or institutions, which is quite a different kind of thing. ‘Belief’ doesn’t even really mean the same thing about both. In the first case it means belief in the existence of something in the world; in the second it means something more like allegiance or commitment or approval – something more like a yes vote. And then the final touch: calling the rationalist approach to belief a ‘trick’ – now that’s very odd. Especially for a philosophy teacher. I would have thought it was pretty much a minimal definition of philosophy, that it examines the grounds of beliefs. That activity is not usually described by philosophers themselves as a ‘liberal trick’ – is it? Unless I’m terribly out of touch.

I was pondering all this anyway, and then I pondered all the more after reading that strange article about the relative absence of ‘faith-based’ law professors in law schools. And then my pondering was ratcheted even higher when I saw this post by PZ Myers at Pharyngula. I want to comment on it a little, but this post is long enough. Anyway you know what I’ll say (I’m predictable, I know). I do not like all this pressure on rationalists and scientists to be apologetic and sycophantic and appeasing, to back off and refrain from challenging or contradicting erroneous beliefs. I think the pressure needs to go in the other direction. Just for one thing the humble approach doesn’t work. The more rationalists give ground to believers, the more ground believers demand. There is just no satisfying them short of giving in on every single issue and argument – so we might as well dig in here as over there.



It’s Up to Five

Nov 27th, 2004 6:06 pm | By

Update on update. Just by way of reporting, because I think it’s interesting, as a display of apparently unembarrassed irrationality and Bad Argument. I mean, this is a guy who teaches philosophy, at a university; a guy who, one of our readers reports, has written a book about bad arguments. And yet here he is. He doesn’t have time to answer everyone who disagrees with him, he wrote yesterday, and yet so far he has posted no fewer than five complaints about ‘the lack of decency, civility, and common sense’ and the illogic of people at Crooked Timber who take exception to his doggy analogy. And yet the posts at CT are in fact substantive; B-J could easily have addressed that substance; he never has; he just keeps announcing that he is an outsider and that explains all. That’s such an obvious diversionary tactic that one would think he would refrain from using it merely on prudential grounds. But no.

If you think I’m making this up, read the posts and letters at Crooked Timber. Note the ganging up. Note the attempt to build solidarity within liberalism by attacking outsiders, such as me. Note the snide, condescending comments. Note the lack of decency, civility, and common sense. Note the illogic. These are people who are sworn by their universities to seek truth. They don’t give a damn about truth.

Note the attempt to get people to note things that aren’t in fact there, on the basis of nothing but a series of imperatives. He doesn’t quote, he doesn’t give examples, he just asserts. And he continues to do nothing whatever to address what is actually being discussed. Why doesn’t he just confound their knavish tricks by explaining why his analogy is perfectly appropriate? Since he’s presumably sworn by his university to seek truth and all. Several people have suggested that he’s just trolling, and it may be so, but it seems awfully self-shooting-in-foot if so. He’s not exactly covering himself with cognitive glory.



Physician Heal Thyself

Nov 26th, 2004 7:41 pm | By

Another Update. This time on the matter of voting dogs and marrying gays, of the ethics and etiquette of comparing gays to dogs, of Johnson’s joke and rhetorical animalia, of ad hominems and arguments, of substance and style, of professionalism and irony, of sarcasm and insults, of cabbages and kings.

Chris at Crooked Timber posted yesterday about Burgess-Jackson’s, shall we say, provocative simile, with an amusing addendum about canine psephology. Burgess-Jackson commented on Chris’ comment later the same day.

The folks at Crooked Timber are having fun at my expense…What’s interesting (and ironic) is that nobody at the site engaged my argument. In the insular world of liberalism, argumentation is unnecessary. One mocks conservatives; one doesn’t engage their arguments. Perhaps this explains liberalism’s failure in the public arena.

That’s a remarkably disingenuous comment, it seems to me. It’s true that the post in question didn’t engage his ‘argument’ but then Chris did say that Richard Chappell had already done a good job of exactly that, and did provide a link. That particular post (like mine) was about the analogy, not the entirety of B-J’s argument against gay marriage. I’ll speak for myself: I wanted to comment on the analogy, period. I didn’t want to address the whole gay marriage argument; it doesn’t interest me much; but the analogy did, and does. It interests me all the more now because of Burgess-Jackson’s apparent inability even to see what the discussion is about. I find that kind of odd. I also find it odd that B-J complains that people ‘mock conservatives’ when surely his own post mocked gays, and that’s why people object to it. And people at CT haven’t even compared him to any animal, not even a cuddly bunny or a darling little hamster! In fact they haven’t even done all that much mocking. What they have done is take exception to the dog comparison – so B-J equates that to mocking conservatives? How, why? Because it was the only thing he could think of?

Then John Holbo posted on the subject, and so did Burgess-Jackson. Holbo did it amusingly, B-J did it even more weirdly and evasively. Did it in a manner even more inadvertently self-accusing and self-condemning than the first one. Which is interesting – as an example of strange psychology, of bad moves, bad thoughts, clumsy rhetoric, some or all of those.

Several people have written in the past few hours to tell me that there’s a reply to my posts about homosexual “marriage” somewhere in cyberspace, the implication being that I’m obligated to respond to it. I don’t have time to respond to every critic, much less the uncharitable ones, much less the nasty ones. Does Peter Singer respond to even 1% of his critics? Did John Rawls? If they did, they’d never get any work done. David Hume didn’t respond to any critics. Was that a failing on his part? My rule is simple: Reply only to those who are personable (but certainly not to all of them, for time is limited). When I read something, including e-mail, I stop reading as soon as the author gets sarcastic or insulting. If you want me to read your prose, you must be kind and respectful. Is that too much to ask?

Humble, isn’t he. What about Kant, did he answer his mail? Spinoza? Aristotle? Don’t be shy.

The posts I saw on Crooked Timber yesterday are personal and vicious.

Um…Oh, never mind. It’s too obvious.



Or From the Other Direction

Nov 26th, 2004 6:00 pm | By

Update. Well that’s quite funny. Brian Leiter comments on that unnoticed assumption I pointed out in the article on religious law schools – but he views it from a different angle. He’s right of course. In fact I’m hatching a comment to talk about that very issue, and have been ever since I read the article. It really is bizarre how cheerfully people disavow reason and rationality these days. One feels like asking them, solicitously, ‘Do you really want to say that? Are you sure? Have you thought it through?’

Only those on the Left are reasonable…

…according to this article about the growing number of new, overtly religious law schools (such as Regent, Ava Maria, St. Thomas in Minnesota, and Liberty):

“The prevailing orthodoxy at the elite law schools is an extreme rationalism that draws a strong distinction between faith and reason,” said Bruce W. Green, Liberty’s dean.

The claim that professors at the leading law schools tilt to the left is supported by statistics….

Interesting juxtaposition of points, isn’t it?

Yes, it is.



Questioning

Nov 26th, 2004 3:35 am | By

Tricky evasive rhetoric chapter 7863. A complaint about the New York Times’ obituary of Derrida. The obit was rather unfriendly, I noticed it at the time, but this article – well let’s have a look.

Derrida had advanced deconstruction as a challenge to unquestioned assumptions of the Western philosophical tradition.

Unquestioned assumptions? Really? Derrida single-handedly woke philosophy from its dogmatic slumbers? The ‘Western philosophical tradition’ was full of assumptions that no one had ever questioned until Derrida came along? Maybe that’s not what he means to say – but if it’s not, he’s a very bad writer, because that’s certainly what the article seems to be saying. And Derrida’s fans so often do seem to say things like that – the ones in literature departments at any rate, which would explain it. It’s highly unfair, in a way, because Derrida tends to be blamed for the absurd things his fans say.

Kandell’s obit provoked an uproar among Derrida’s American admirers. Professors at the University of California, Irvine, where Derrida had lectured for years, were indignant about what they viewed as an irresponsible assault on complex thought at a time when the manichean worldview emanating from the White House encouraged “black and white thinking.”

Um – what? An assault on complex thought? So complex thought=Derrida and Derrida=complex thought? Nobody else is doing any complex thought, so therefore Derrida has to be treated with, ahem, unquestioning reverence, for the sake of complex thought? He’s the only philosopher or intellectual who does complex thought therefore he is beyond criticism? Well, the thinking behind that idea seems pretty simple at least.

I read a good memorial essay about Derrida the other day, so I know they do exist. They’re not all silly. But this one is.



God Told Me The Defendant Did It

Nov 25th, 2004 9:55 pm | By

There’s nothing like going directly from John Stuart Mill to the kind of drivel one finds in, say, law schools that intend “to bring a religious perspective to the law and to legal practice.” The move from clarity and precision to muddle and sloppiness can be quite a shock to the system. As William Whewell must have found when he read what Mill had to say about his work. Poor guy. But maybe he didn’t read it.

The article in question is itself muddled, as well as reporting on an inherently muddled subject. Here for example –

These new law schools say they are a sort of counterweight to the views that dominate legal academies in the United States. “The prevailing orthodoxy at the elite law schools is an extreme rationalism that draws a strong distinction between faith and reason,” said Bruce Green, Liberty’s dean.

The claim that professors at the leading law schools lean to the left is supported by statistics. According to a forthcoming study of 21 top law schools from 1991 to 2002 by John McGinnis, a law professor at Northwestern University, approximately 80 percent of the professors at those schools who made campaign contributions primarily supported Democrats, while 15 percent primarily supported Republicans.

That’s an exact quotation, with nothing left out. Note the entirely unstated unexplained assumption that ‘extreme’ rationalism (whatever that might be) and ‘leaning to the left’ or supporting Democrats are exactly the same thing. As if there were no rationalist Republicans or (alas) irrationalist Democrats, and as if rationalism itself were inherently 1) political and 2) neatly divided along a left-right axis. But that’s just ridiculous. Yet the article maintains the confusion throughout.

Or is it a confusion. Maybe it’s a tactic. Because of course then the next step is to complain that alternatives to rationality are not welcome in law schools, and to treat that as some kind of bias or mistake or silly oversight. But that’s imbecilic. One might as well complain that inaccurate mathematics are not welcome in engineering schools. Well who knows, maybe ‘faith-based’ maths will be the next tragic victim of leftist dominance of US universities, and the Colorado legislature will have to pass a law (not based on rationality, of course) to correct the imbalance.

Peter Schuck, a law professor at Yale, where 92 percent of faculty political contributions went to Democrats, said Green was right to question whether religious perspectives are welcomed at mainstream law schools. “There is a sort of soft tolerance of competing views,” said Schuck, who described himself as a political moderate, “but no real interest in exposing students to seriously developed contrary points of view that proceed from a strong faith-based perspective. Fundamentalism is derided.”

Well, I certainly hope so. I hope law schools teach law from the perspective of ‘a strong distinction between faith and reason’ as opposed to teaching lawyers to rely on their intuition and chats with Jesus when doing their work. If that’s ‘extreme rationalism,’ well, then I’m an extremist. Extremism in the cause of liberty from faith-based loonies is no vice. Not in my book.



Dogs

Nov 23rd, 2004 10:18 pm | By

By way of contrast, here is Richard Chappel at Philosophy Etcetera actually thinking about the subject instead of just issuing dictats. Makes a change. He takes empirical evidence into account, linking to the New Scientist, and he looks at some feeble arguments. It’s good stuff. He also takes on a rather unpleasant analogy of Keith Burgess-Jackson’s. I was especially interested in that because a couple of readers have recommended KB-J to me, thinking that he and B&W have a lot in common. But I don’t think so. I haven’t bothered reading him much, but that’s because what I did read struck me as pure boilerplate. Uninspired, familiar, and peevish. The post Richard discusses is (in my view) somewhat worse than that.

I have said in this blog many times that the very idea of homosexual marriage is incoherent, which is why I put the word “marriage” in quotation marks. I do the same for dog “voting.” If we took our dogs to the polls and got them to push levers with their paws, they would not be voting. They would be going through the motions of voting. It would be a charade. Voting is not made for dogs. They lack the capacity to participate in the institution. The same is true of homosexuals and marriage.

Oh very droll. But actually I don’t think it’s meant to be droll, or not entirely; I think it’s meant to be insulting, and with a creepy undertone of – you know, weird stuff, bestiality, dirt, stupidity, animalness. The kind of thing the Nazis (and other people) liked to say about Jews. And it’s also an echo of that patronizing-insulting joke of Johnson’s. You know the one.

Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.

Nasty stuff. If anybody ever recommends K B-J to me again I think I’ll have to have a temper tantrum.



Jeremy Bentham and Marvin Olasky

Nov 23rd, 2004 9:52 pm | By

Some more thought for the day. Because some days need more than one thought. And because Bentham is out of copyright, and because this is funny stuff. I haven’t been used to think of Bentham as a funny guy, but that just shows how much I know.

In looking over the catalogue of human actions (says a partizan of this principle) in order to determine which of them are to be marked with the seal of disapprobation, you need but to take counsel of your own feelings: whatever you find in yourself a propensity to condemn, is wrong for that very reason…In that same proportion also is it meet for punishment: if you hate much, punish much: if you hate little, punish little: punish as you hate. If you hate not at all, punish not at all: the fine feelings of the soul are not to be overborne and tyrannized by the harsh and rugged dictates of political utility.

Footnote: 1. One man says, he has a thing made on purpose to tell him what is right and what is wrong; and that it is called a moral sense: and then he goes to work at his ease, and says, such a thing is right, and such a thing is wrong—why? “because my moral sense tells me it is”.

2. Another man comes and alters the phrase: leaving out moral, and putting in common, in the room of it. He then tells you, that his common sense teaches him what is right and wrong, as surely as the other’s moral sense did: meaning by common sense, a sense of some kind or other, which he says, is possessed by all mankind: the sense of those, whose sense is not the same as the author’s, being struck out of the account as not worth taking…

4. Another man says, that there is an eternal and immutable Rule of Right: that that rule of right dictates so and so: and then he begins giving you his sentiments upon any thing that comes uppermost . and these sentiments (you are to take for granted) are so many branches of the eternal rule of right.

5. Another man, or perhaps the same man (it’s no matter) says, that there are certain practices conformable, and others repugnant, to the Fitness of Things; and then he tells you, at his leisure, what practices are conformable and what repugnant: just as he happens to like a practice or dislike it.

6. A great multitude of people are continually talking of the Law of Nature; and then they go on giving you their sentiments about what is right and what is wrong: and these sentiments, you are to understand, are so many chapters and sections of the Law of Nature.

I particularly like all that because it describes so well something I read a few minutes after I read it, in an interview-article on Peter Singer in a Christian magazine of a rather, shall we say, strict orientation. ‘Strict’ there is a euphemism for various tendentious words like mindless, unreflective, bible-thumping; that sort of thing.

Don’t expect Peter Singer to be quoted heavily on the issue that roiled the Nov. 2 election, same-sex marriage. That for him is intellectual child’s play, already logically decided, and it’s time to move on to polyamory. While politicians debate the definition of marriage between two people, Mr. Singer argues that any kind of “fully consensual” sexual behavior involving two people or 200 is ethically fine. For example, when I asked him last month about necrophilia (what if two people make an agreement that whoever lives longest can have sexual relations with the corpse of the person who dies first?), he said, “There’s no moral problem with that.”

If you read the article you’ll notice that the author doesn’t trouble to say why in fact consensual sex between however many people or with a corpse is not ethically fine. Doesn’t even trouble to note that there might be something to say. Just takes it for granted – thus filling out Bentham’s portrait nicely. Obviously he thinks it’s icky therefore it’s wrong and there’s no need to say anything more, just as there isn’t about same-sex marriage.

And then he wraps it up with a neat summation:

This is important not only for Princeton and similar institutions but for all of American society. In the absence of debate at our leading universities, each election is an attempt by people connected to biblical ethics to hold off an onslaught by those who have imbibed Singerism and try to win by ridicule what they cannot achieve by honest reporting of reality.

Biblical ethics. Right. Which biblical ethics? The stuff about dashing babies’ brains out against walls? Jesus’ repudiation of ‘family values’? No? Well why not? Well we know why not, it’s much the same as what Bentham is talking about. It’s all pretense, in short. He means ‘the biblical ethics that prop up the prejudices I already have, and not the others.’ Phooey, now I’m not amused any more, I’m irritated. That’s no fun.



J S Mill

Nov 23rd, 2004 7:46 pm | By

Thought for the day. From John Stuart Mill’s ‘Whewell on Moral Philosophy’:

The person who has to think more of what an opinion leads to, than of what is the evidence of it, cannot be a philosopher, or a teacher of philosophers. Of what value is the opinion on any subject, of a man of whom everyone knows that by his profession he must hold that opinion?…Whoever thinks that persons thus tied are fitting depositaries of the trust of educating a people, must think that the proper object of intellectual education is not to strengthen and cultivate the intellect, but to make sure of its adopting certain conclusions: that, in short, in the exercise of the thinking faculty, there is something, either religion, or conservatism, or peace, or whatever it be, more important than truth.



Dear Adelaide

Nov 23rd, 2004 1:53 am | By

Aw, that’s nice. A reader alerted me to this blog post which is a favourable review of the dictionary. And it’s by someone I don’t even know, too. Someone in Adelaide. He likes that article by Andrew Weeks on Gibson and God, as well. Good guy, this Adelaide fella. If I’m ever in Adelaide I’ll look him up, see if he’d like to show me around, buy me dinner, laugh at my jokes.