Thursday, April 26, 2007

Clarity, continental philosophy, and bullshit

I posted this under the Nigel Warburton interview below, but thought it also worth posting properly...

There's a sort of Hegelian story about reason, the Enlightenment, the French revolution and the Terror, and later, with Lyotard etc., the Holocaust, to which many in the continental tradition sign up.

On this story, reason, as understood by Enlightenment thinkers - and also by today's analytic tradition - is in reality something rather crude and, to some extent, oppressive (even just another form of power). Indeed, it is reason (thus understood) and the Enlightenment that are ultimately responsible for the horrors of both the guillotine and Auschwitz.

I guess that's what anonymous is alluding to when he connects philosophical clarity to "the Terror"?

There's a certain sort of "continental" bullshit artist that, having become familiar with this narrative, then plays the following game:

1. Alludes knowingly to the narrative, so that those also familiar with it can feel clever and "in the know", while those unfamiliar with it feel excluded and ignorant (a bit like when a clique are all intimately familiar with a particular film, and keep riffing on it and referencing to it, while those not familiar with the film are excluded)

2. Never clearly explains the narrative, because then someone might spot that it is, in fact, 95% bullshit.

3. Peppers their discussion with lots of historical references - the more obscure the better - so as to impress the layperson with their sophistication and learning.

4."Critiques" analytic philosophers from the perspective of this narrative, suggesting they are unsophisticated, coercive, insensitive to the historical nuances, etc. etc., but without ever bothering actually to provide any justification for any of these charges at all.

5. When challenged or questioned, talks jargon, or switches to some other feature of the narrative, so that their opponent quickly becomes confused and loses track of the conversation, while those familiar with the narrative can again share a feeling of cleverness and being "in the know".

I used to give these people the benefit of the doubt - after all, I thought, perhaps they really are on to something. I tried to figure out what this something might be.

But having become rather more familiar with this narrative myself recently, and the five techniques outlined above, it has become increasingly clear to me what a bunch of wa**ers these people really are.

Not all "continental" philosophers, by any means. But there are certainly a few...

Of course, analytic philosophy has its own brand of wa**er.

19 comments:

Tea said...

I've just had a very long discussion about the merits of postmodernism with a guy (who wanted to stay anonymous for whatever reason) on one of Slovenian blogs yesterday.

You mention under 4. that the bullshit artist "Critiques analytic philosophers from the perspective of this narrative, suggesting they are unsophisticated, coercive, insensitive to the historical nuances, etc. etc., but without ever bothering actually to provide any justification for any of these charges at all."

Well, this guys does try to provide justification (for making all the above mentioned claims). "Language is violence", he asserts. So I ask him what he means by that. "During the WW2, Slovenes were oppressed by Germans and threatened with violence if they refused to only speak German."

"So what?", I responded. "This only proves that language can be used as a tool of violence, not that language IS violence. Plus, if I can come up with a single example where language is not violence (or even used as such), then your hypothesis fails."

To which he responds: "You've been brainwashed into analytical, scientific way of thinking. You don't get metaphors. It's ridiculous how you seem to believe that a single counterexample can disprove a theory/definition."

To which I respond "..."

How on earth does one respond to this? Any ideas? Maybe I should just let it go, but it's really frustrating, especially knowing that I'll have to deal with this BS for the rest of my life, since at least half of the philosophers in Slovenia are Heideggerians/ Lacanians/ continentalists. Not to even mention people in other areas of humanities, who are almost without exception postmodernists.

Steelman said...

Tea said:
"To which he responds: 'You've been brainwashed into analytical, scientific way of thinking. You don't get metaphors. It's ridiculous how you seem to believe that a single counterexample can disprove a theory/definition.' "

So the Slovenians were threatened with "language" if they didn't speak the right language? Wait, "language is violence" is a metaphor, which you don't get because he's using it as a definition, which is actually a theory. Oh, my...

You might start by directing this person to a dictionary, just so you can both agree on the meanings of the terms being used. Then you could ask them to state what's wrong with analytical and scientific ways of thinking, other than they tend to produce clarity and results, and could he do it in less than 500 words, please. Further, you could inquire as to just how many counterexamples are actually necessary to disprove a theory (I'm assuming there are different rules for non-analytic, non-scientific thinkers).

Tea said...

I've tried everything I could think of. It just doesn't work. It. Just. Does. Not.

We logic-bullies are simply incapable of understanding the subtleties of language and human condition in general. We think everything has one, clear cut answer. But the postmodern discourse has clearly proven that society as a phenomenon cannot be explained through mere scientific thinking, and objectivity has clearly been shattered ramble ramble ramble blah blah blah ad nauseam."

If I don't understand what this guy's trying to tell me, I should go read Foucault. If I don't understand Foucault, that's another proof of how brainwashed I am (or simply that I'm stupid).

I don't know, I guess there's really no way to convert the true believer - true faith can explain away any counterexamples, objections, and inconsistencies. When he attacks me, he does that by pointing at inconsistencies or holes in my beliefs. When I do the same with his beliefs, I'm accused of being narrow-minded for thinking that inconsistencies disprove anything.

Maybe I've lost all hope that anything can be done. Maybe I just wanted a little reassurance in the circle of fellow brainwashed logic-victims ;)

The Barefoot Bum said...

Tea: "Stop using language as violence against me! You're marginalizing the analytical tradition and othering its practitioners."

Your friend is dancing the Postmodern Twist, so beloved by such as Camille Paglia.

Step 1: Invert the narrative and deny the implicit privilege of the original frame (legitimate enough)

Step 2: Since the original frame is not The Truth™, it must be false.

Step 3: Since the original frame is false, the inverted frame is true.

Voila! Black is white, day is night, the oppressor is the oppressed. You can say anything you please this way: Just find someone who disagrees with you and your point is proved!

Some PoMo types really do think that there's no such thing as truth, that language really is nothing but a power struggle. Trivial considerations such as "truth" or "accuracy" really don't matter; what matters is only advancing their agenda. One can't quite accuse them of dishonesty; they're pretty upfront about this stance, although implicitly they have to accept some notion of truth to claim intelligibility.


As a side note, I'm amused that our esteemed host has no problem with "bullshit" but feels obliged to obscure "wa**er".

Tea said...

BB: "Stop using language as violence against me! You're marginalizing the analytical tradition and othering its practitioners."

I like that :)


This is what I'm talking about, though: http://www.newstatesman.com/200704300031

Poor, poor future-me :(

(Thanks for the link, OB.)

Stephen Law said...

Tea - thanks for the link. I almost always like Jonathan Hari's stuff.

Advice? Golly, I don't know. There are two strategies, I think, if you want to change their minds. One is to just argue against them. I think that, on it's own, that won't work. Just like dealing with creationists, they'll soon have you tied up in knots and buried under bullshit.

I think this sort of argument needs to be paired with explanations of how the kind of thinking and moves they are engaging in are dodgy.

Analogies are good, because often they can see that a strategy is dishonest or manipulative in another sphere, and that tends to bring home to them with more force that they are doing the same kind of thing.

That was my approach to the Bishop of Edinburgh's speech (see following post). I used a UFO analogy.

I'll be doing this with creationism shortly, on this blog, when I get some time.

Ophelia said...

'As a side note, I'm amused that our esteemed host has no problem with "bullshit" but feels obliged to obscure "wa**er".'

Well Harry Frankfurt hasn't written Wankers yet.

Seneca the Younger said...

Okay, I don't get it. Why is Camille Paglia, the complete picture of an anti-PoMo, all of a sudden showing up as an example PoMo?

Pepper said...

I have a suggestion. You politely ask: "What would you accept as demonstrating you are wrong?"

If nothing is forthcoming, then you can say that the discussion is one-sided since your pomo interlocutor seeks to persuade you but is not prepared to be persuaded, not prepared to recognise anything that could prove him/her in error. In which case you are dealing with a "certain truth" which is a menace in anyone's books.

shaunw@elencomp.co.uk said...

All very amusing except that here we
are arguing about the best way to
conduct philosophy. The achievements
of both the analytic and post modernist philosophers are too
trivial to mention. Clarity that
achieves nothing (e.g. G.E. Moore's
conclusion that good is a non natural
property of objects is as useless as
any Continental bullshit.

The post modernists have the idea that conventional rational philosophy has failed to provide a solid foundation for knowledge, ethics etc. and in this belief they are right. There is no agreement amongst analytic philosophers, no agreed solution to any philosophical problem.

The only valid conclusion in the end is that both analytic philosophy and post modernist philosophy are bullshit. It is philosophy itself that is the problem.

David said...

Tea, it seems to me that the guy you are talking about is making a powerful point about his own philosophy. "language is violence" he asserts; using language - thereby emphasising that he sees his role as imposing violence through his language. The violence he imposes is that his assertion (or theory, or metaphor, or what ever he feels it is today) is fact because he stated it, but logic and analysis is brainwashing because he says it is.

This form of argument is indeed violence as he asserts. The only way to oppose such violence is to find ways to stop the loud and powerful from imposing their mindspace on others. The means of this resistance is the scientific/logical process.

The above makes about as much sense as the drivel this guy is spouting but my point is that it is just as easy to say me=good guy, you=bad guy from either side of the fence. Truth Matters (to quote Ophelia Benson (sp?) )

Daphne Patai said...

I'm new to this blog but couldn't resist: My graduate students (in literature courses) often make statements such as that "language oppresses" (or the feminist version: "women have no language"). I readily agree, but point out that pointing that out and trying to do something about it also take language. Yes, language may be a tool of oppression, exclusion, or a form of violence, just as it is of liberation and non-violence. It's a tool, yes.

What puzzles me is the peculiar pleasure apparently normal (woops! - another example of language as violent/oppressive) people get from making such categorical assertions that they could not really believe -- as demonstrated by almost every word they utter. Just as with other PoMo claims -- apart from the posturing, etc., which I do understand -- I continue to be puzzled that so many people are so frequently saying/claiming things their everyday actions show to be false, or insincere, or unfounded (or all three and many more). Could it all be as simple as "language is fun" -- demonstrated at every turn?

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with what Steven said.

I used to help my girlfriend write Artist Statements since my English is a bit better than hers. One time, I had to write a 5 page artist statement in a hurry. I can't think of what to write so she said: "write anything, as long as it is 5 pages"

So I did, I wrote a paper called "The Divine Silence of Ludwig Wittgenstein"

I have absolutely NO idea what I wrote.... All I know is that I somehow connected the last proposition in the Tractatus with about 100 random quotes on the subject of silence.

I mentioned tale of Buddha silently holding a flower and the social stigma against talkative woman, I then drew some connection between sexuality and the US army's don't ask don't tell policy against gays, I then googled up some quotes from Derrida that supposedly said that there is this super great difference between silent writings and vocal speeches. (If you see absolutely no connection between these subjects, it's be cause there isn't any)

I go on and quoted a bunch of stuff, and when that didn't fill 5 pages, i started inventing "theories" of my own...

I thoroughly expected the paper to be an absolute failure since not even I, the author, really knows what the hell it is about.

To my surprise, however, the paper came back with half a page of comments PRAISING its "insightful comments in the subject of silence , femininity, and sexuality"

It's also noteworthy that the instructor who graded and commented on the paper has a PhD.

It really shows just how much bullshit there is in the art department.

Lisa Thatcher said...

I don't see a lot of difference between the w***s you show disdain for and your own comments. These comments MUST be willfully misunderstanding what continentalists are trying to say, or the level of ignorance is astonishing. Is the problem that people are trying to look smart or that you feel dumb when they try to engage in subjects that may be a little beyond their expertise? Students (especially undergrads) are by nature desperate to show themselves to be 'brilliant' and they may think PoMo is a fast track to that image, but 'realists' are just as foolish.
I am struggling to see a difference.

Wojciech Żełaniec said...

Steve, continental philosophy is not postmodernism, to start with. You are (seem?) overimpressed with postmodernists. On the risk of 'peppering my comment' with historical names and facts, recall that philosophy in general was invented on the Continent, not on England's green pastures.. (and in times in which there was no England yet, to begin with...).

You're are not so wrong about the 'artists', but won't you disagree that all philosophy is a bit artsy? Including Analytic? It has become so, Scholasticism or Continental Rationalism was not so at all, but then, neither is to your liking, as far as I can tell from your postings here.... .

Now a great deal depends on where you are born and raised. To you English analytical philosophy is certainly paradigmatically clear (and true, too?) whereas I, as a benighted Continental, perceive it as dizzingly abstruse, at times... . And where it IS clear, in my eyes, it tends to paper over important problems and treat them in a cavaliere fashion... .

'But one gets use to all things', as Sappho once said (or something like that...)

Schizostroller said...

I realise this is two years late, I came to this post in a search for a blog covering psychosis from the point of view of continental philosophy (it ranks quite highly in this search parameter).

I have to admit I've never quite understood the adversity analytic and continental philosopher's have for each other, I study both.

However from a neutral point of view can you explain to me where in the points of view 1 to 5, said points 1 to 5 cannot be applied to your attack on continental philosophy.

It just seems an ad hominem, or 'ad discoursinem'

Sidewinder said...

So, post-modernist philosophy is bullshit?

Philip Bell said...

It's not a question of "postmodernism" or its critics. It's an issue of whether philosophy is 'about' any things, any issues, other than the performative uses of language.

I have a book that tries to argue about these matters (ant their educational implications) in relation to Psychology and Philosophy: See "Confronting theory:The Psychology of Cultural Studies" Intellect Press/Chicago UP, 2010.

Dimi said...

What do you think about Zizek, Stephen? Does his work fall into the hypocritical part of continental stuff? It'd be very interesting to have your views, provided that many others have strongly criticized Zizek, some even suggesting he is not a philosopher.