Defiantly Obscure Texts

Look, if you’re going to talk about bullshit, you should at least be thorough about it, am I right?

In a paper published a few years ago, “Deeper Into Bullshit,” G. A. Cohen, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, protested that Frankfurt excludes an entire category of bullshit: the kind that appears in academic works. If the bullshit of ordinary life arises from indifference to truth, Cohen says, the bullshit of the academy arises from indifference to meaning. It may be perfectly sincere, but it is nevertheless nonsensical. Cohen, a specialist in Marxism, complains of having been grossly victimized by this kind of bullshit as a young man back in the nineteen-sixties, when he did a lot of reading in the French school of Marxism inspired by Louis Althusser. So traumatized was he by his struggle to make some sense of these defiantly obscure texts that he went on to found, at the end of the nineteen-seventies, a Marxist discussion group that took as its motto Marxismus sine stercore tauri—“Marxism without the shit of the bull.”

I do so sympathize. I’ve read a good many defiantly obscure texts myself, and it can indeed be traumatizing. It’s kind of like getting on the slow train from Bangor to Ketchikan via Amarillo and discovering that your assigned seat mate (No Exchanges, No Refunds, No Alterations, No Seat Re-assignments) is a talkative semi-deaf Baptist with 427 great-grandchildren and a wealth of anecdotes. That of course is why the Dictionary was written – to get revenge on all those talkative anecdotal Baptists. So I do sympathize with G. A. Cohen. There’s even a poltergeist who haunts the corridors of B&W topping up our supply of defiantly obscure texts by depositing turgidly opaque comments back here at odd intervals, apparently worried that we might run short. So I do sympathize.

Simon Blackburn’s Truth is one of the books reviewed in this article. It’s about relativism, among other things.

In its simplest form, relativism is easy to refute. Take the version of it that Richard Rorty, a philosopher who teaches at Stanford, once lightheartedly offered: “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with.” The problem is that contemporary Americans and Europeans won’t let you get away with that characterization of truth; so, by its own standard, it cannot be true. (The late Sidney Morgenbesser’s gripe about pragmatism—which, broadly speaking, equates truth with usefulness—was in the same spirit: “The trouble with pragmatism is that it’s completely useless.”)

Blackburn put the joke a little differently.

Rorty…has a robust debunking attitude to the norms of truth and reason. Indeed, he once wrote that ‘truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with’. That is a shocking thing to say, outlandish even by philosophers’ standards. In fact, it is shocking enough to be something Rorty’s contemporaries wouldn’t let him get away with (and unsurprisingly, they didn’t). So again, if it is true then it is false – by its own lights it is false.

That made me laugh when I read it this morning.

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