A Dialectic

One good Radio 4 idea-discusser reviews another. (I like Laurie Taylor. For one thing, he reviewed the Dictionary of FN in the Times Higher. He didn’t think much of it, but he did think some of the jokes were funny – that’s good enough.)

I’m also put off by the assumption that anyone who doesn’t wholeheartedly join Bragg in his latest popularising endeavour is something of a spoilsport or a dangerous elitist…No one can doubt Bragg’s populist spirit. One of the chief pleasures of In Our Time on Radio 4 is the sound of him trying to persuade the assembled academics to speak more plainly about their specialist subject. Whether the topic of the day is quantum mechanics, Goethe, or the rise and fall of Charlemagne, there’s nearly always a magic moment when Melvyn grumbles that a distinguished professorial guest is departing from the order of play or becoming too interested in matters that are not central to the main story. Such episodes perfectly capture the dialectic between Melvyn’s healthy and commendable populist belief that every topic can be successfully brought to heel and his guests’ equally well-grounded insistence that matters are, on the whole, looking at it from both sides, taking everything into account, rather more complicated than their host would wish them to allow.

Yeh. That’s an interesting and tricky dialectic. I spend much of my life encountering it these days. Jeremy and I were always wrangling over it while writing Why Truth Matters, and I always have to keep it in mind while working on The Philosophers’ Mag. The basic issue JS and I kept disagreeing over is whether it makes people feel stupid and frustrated to read something they don’t entirely understand, or whether it makes them feel insulted and frustrated to have something they do understand explained to them. That’s why it’s a dialectic. I tend to think that a certain amount of difficulty or unfamiliarity does not necessarily make people feel stupid and frustrated but rather challenged and stimulated; I think he tends to think I go too far in that direction, and also that the risk isn’t worth it. I suppose the problem is that what a certain amount of difficulty or unfamiliarity does is make some people feel challenged and stimulated while it makes other people feel stupid and frustrated. But the trouble is that there has to be a cutoff point somewhere – it’s not possible or practical to explain absolutely everything, or else no one would be able to write anything at all, since every word would need explaining, as would the words that did the explaining, so that progress would be impossible. But how does one figure out where the cutoff point is? It’s pure guesswork, pure intuition; seat of the pants stuff. Nobody knows. We just do our best, that’s all. And argue over words like ‘quotidian’.

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