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Chapter for comments, please....

For comments. The opening sections repackage material I have used before but then there's quite a bit of new stuff.


Some marketing, religious, and lifestyle “gurus” have genuine and valuable insights to offer. But not all. Some are charlatans or fools offering little more than pseudo-profundity. Pseudo-profundity is the art of sounding profound while talking tosh. Unlike the art of actually being profound, the art of sounding profound is not particularly difficult to master.

As we’ll see, there are certain basic recipes that can produce fairly convincing results – good enough to convince many others, and perhaps even yourself, that you have achieved some sort of profound insight into the human condition. If you want to achieve the status of a guru it helps to have some natural charisma and presentational skills. Sincerity, empathy, or at least the ability to fake them, can also useful. Props often help – try wearing a loincloth, a fez, or, in a business setting, a particularly brash waistcoat, bow tie or pair of braces. But even without the aid of such natural talents or paraphenalia, anyone can produce for deep- and meaningful-sounding pronouncements if they are prepared to follow a few simple rules.

State the obvious

To begin with, try pointing out the blindingly obvious. Only do it e-x-t-r-e-m-e-l-y s-l-o-w-l-y, and with an air of superior wisdom. This technique works best if your pronouncements focus on one of life’s big themes, love, money and death. Here are a few examples:

We were all children once
Death comes to us all
Money can’t buy love

State the obvious in a sufficiently earnest way, following up with a pregnant pause, and you may find others begin to nod in agreement, perhaps muttering “How true that is”.

Contradict yourself

A second, more sophisticated technique is to pick words with opposite or incompatible meanings and cryptically combine them in what appears to be a straightforward contradiction. Here are a few example:

Sanity is just another kind of madness
Life is a often a form of death
The ordinary is extraordinary

Such sentences can easily appear profound, and are interpretable in all sorts of ways. They certainly get people thinking. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the three slogans of the Party are all examples of this kind of pseudo-profundity:

War is peace
Freedom is slavery
Ignorance is strength

As an aspiring guru, you can produce your own contradictory claims. The great beauty of these kinds of comment is that they make your audience do the work for you. Their meaning is not for you to say – it’s for others to figure out. Just adopt a sage-like expression, sit back, and let your followers figure it out.

The use of contradiction to generate the appearance of profundity is common in religious circles. While a blatant contradiction within religious doctrine might strike the unbelievers as evidence that it’s rubbish, the faithful will often see such a contradiction as a mark of real depth and profundity. If you are planning to start your own religious cult, a good recipe to follow is to say contradictory things about your God or Gods. Constantly, assert, but then deny. Say that God is. And yet, he is not. God is everything, and nothing. He is one, and yet he is many. He is good. But then he isn’t.

None of this is to say that seemingly contradictory remarks cannot ever convey something genuinely profound. They can certainly be thought provoking. But, given the formulaic way in which they can be generated, it’s wise not to be too easily impressed.

Wrap a platitude in an analogy

A particularly effective way of generating pseudo-profundity is take some dreary platitude - such as that life is often surprising, that we often feel there’s something “missing” from our lives, that we should appreciate things while we can, and make the most of the opportunities we get - and then wrap this platitude in an analogy. “Life is like a….” is an obvious example. Here are a few examples:

My momma always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get. (Forest Gump)

Life is like a taxi. The meter just keeps a-ticking whether you are getting somewhere or just standing still. (Lou Erickson)
Life is a grindstone. Whether it grinds us down or polishes us up depends on us. (Thomas L. Holdcroft)
Life is like a coin. You can spend it any way you wish, but you only spend it once. (Lillian Dickson)

The result can often be terribly deep-sounding.

Religious sermons and homilies often follow this formula, of course. Alan Bennett produced a hilarious spoof in his sketch “The Sermon” (which Bennett delivered while wearing a dog collar):

Life, you know, is rather like opening a tin of sardines. We are all of us looking for the key. And I wonder how many of you here tonight have wasted years of your lives looking behind the kitchen dressers of this life for that key. I know I have. Others think they’ve found the key, don’t they? They roll back the lid of the sardine tin of life. They reveal the sardines, the riches of life, therein, and they get them out, and they enjoy them. But, you know, there’s always a little bit in the corner you can’t get out. I wonder is there a little bit in the corner of your life? I know there is in mine!

The author Douglas Adams, no doubt irritated by “Life is like a ….” pseudo-profundity, also produced his own surreal version:

Life... is like a grapefruit. It's orange and squishy, and has a few pips in it, and some folks have half a one for breakfast.

As an aspiring guru, can you can apply the same method of dressing up a platitude in an analogy. The recipe works best when applied to one of life’s big themes, so try picking one from: “Love is like a …” “Money is like a….” “Death is like a ….”, “Sex is like a …” “Success is a like a ….”, “God is like a ….”, “Religion is like a …”

Use jargon

A few big, not fully understood words can easily enhance the illusion of profundity. All that’s required is a little imagination.

Here is one common trick. Make up some words that appear to have meanings similar to the meanings of certain familiar terms, but that differ in some subtle and never-fully-explained way. For example, don’t talk about people being happy or sad, but about people having “positive or negative attitudinal orientations”. That sounds far more impressive and scientific-sounding, doesn’t it?

Now try translating some dull platitudes into your newly invented language. For, example, the truism that happy people tend to make other people feel happy can be re-expressed as “positive attitudinal orientations have high transferability”.

Also, whether you are a business guru, life-style consultant, or mystic, it always helps to talk of “forces”, “energies” and “balances”. Follow the example of the practitioners of feng shui, which holds that the wrong arrangement of furniture can block a “vital force” which will make your home vulnerable to crime or divorce. The appeal to such mysterious forces makes it sound as if you have discovered some deep mechanism or power that could potentially be harnessed and used by others. That makes it easier to persuade people that if they don’t buy into your advice, they’ll really miss out.

Finally, if some smart-Alec is brave enough to put up their hand and ask exactly what a “positive attitudinal orientation” is, define it using other bits of your newly-invented jargon. That will leave your questioner no wiser. If all your jargon is defined using other bits of jargon, no one will ever be able to figure out precisely what you mean (though some will think they know). And the fact that buried within your pseudo-profundities are several platitudes will give your audience the impression that you must really be on to something. So they’ll be keen to hear more.

Scientific jargon can be particularly useful. Many peddlers of pseudo-profundity have learned the insight expressed by the grea 19th Century scientist James Clerk Maxwell, that

Such... is the respect paid to science that the most absurd opinions may become current, provided they are expressed in language, the sound of which recalls some well-known scientific phrase.

Referring to some branch of science can lend your ramblings further fake authority and gravitatas. References to quantum mechanics are particularly popular among peddlers of pseudo-scientific claptrap. Quantum mechanics has the advantage that it is widely known to be mysterious and weird, plus hardly anyone understands it, so if you start spouting references to it in support of your own teaching, people will assume you must be very clever, and almost certainly won’t realize that you are, in fact, just bullshitting.

Dealing with pseudo-profundity

Hopefully, this brief sketch of some of the main techniques for generating pseudo-profundity will help you spot it more effectively. If you are on the receiving end of pseudo-profundity, how do you respond? How can we best reveal pseudo-profundity for what it is?

T he greatest enemy of pseudo-profundity is clarity. One of the most effective methods of disarming it is to translate what is said into clear, plain English. Say, “Right, so you are saying…” and proceed jot down in clear, unambiguous prose on back of an envelope precisely what they do mean. Such a translation will typically reveal that what was said one of three things: (i) an obvious falsehood, (ii) nonsense, or (iii) a rather dull platitude or truism.

However, combating pseudo-profundity is rarely quite as easy as that. Those who spout it are often aware that clarity is likely to unmask them, and so will probably resist your attempts to rephrase what they mean in clear and unambiguous terms. They will probably accuse you of a crude misunderstanding (see Moving The Goalposts). Of course, they still won’t explain clearly what they do mean. They’ll just keep giving you the run around by changing the subject, erecting smokescreens, accusing you of further misunderstandings, and so on. For this reason, the unmasking of pseudo-profundity typically requires both time and patience.

Mockery can also be effective, as Allan Bennett’s “The Sermon”, nicely illustrates. The Hans Christian Anderson story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” ends with much hilarity when the small boy points out that the Emperor is actually wearing no clothes at all. The public’s laughter at the Emperor parading up and down naked finally breaks the spell that the weavers had, in effect, cast over them all. Laughter can similarly help break the spell that pseudo-profundity casts over us. A little mockery may help us recognize that we have been taken in by someone spouting little more than obvious truths, falsehoods or nonsense dressed up as profundity. For this reason, those who spout pseudo-profundity will often strongly discourage mockery – taking enormous, exaggerated offence at it.

Unfortunately, some cult-leaders, business gurus, mystics, life-style consultants, therapists - and even some philosophers – rely very heavily on the kind of techniques described in this chapter to generate the illusion that they possess deep and penetrating insights. The use of pseudo-profundity often contributes heavily to the perpetuation of intellectual black holes, ...


NAL said…
... and proceed jot down in clear, unambiguous prose ... SB:

... and proceed to jot down in clear, unambiguous prose ...
Flea said…
Just a tangent idea: I have always thought that the best way to spot one of these deepities (as Daniel Dennet calls them) is that they are completely sterile. After listening to one of them nothing useful follows. Someone tells you that "Life is like a box of chocolates" and you immediately think: "so what?". They do not help you nor anybody in any meaningful way.
Martin said…
These are deep and meaningful insights you have offered. But what would I know? Countering pseudo-profundity is like slicing an onion: you will get you dinner, but only after you have cried. But then, perhaps I am just intellectually challenged. May the fight against intellectual black holes continue at warp speed.
Richard Baron said…
I agree that pseudo-profundity is both widespread, and easy to expose. But why, then, do people get away with it? Why do the believers not side with the unbelievers, once the unbelievers explain why they are laughing at the guru? I speculate that one reason may be a belief that there must be something profound to be said about the human condition, or the meaning of life. That is, there may be a belief that the big questions have answers which meet the conditions that the questions seek to impose. "What is the meaning of life?" is to be answered by "Life's meaning is ...", not by "That is a silly question, now let's look for sensible questions in the same general area". If people believe that the big questions do have answers on the terms of the questions, then nice-sounding answers have a head start: "There must be some answer, and this is the best one I have heard, so why shouldn't this be the right answer?". If this is what goes on in the heads of believers, it is related to the belief that every disease must have an easy cure, a belief that makes it easy to sell quack medicines and diets.
Ken said…
Lifemanship by Stephen Potter may contain useful research material.
Pvblivs said…
     I would refrain from using mockery. This is not to say that mockery cannot be effective. After all, cult followers mock outsiders so that they cannot get reason in. But any truth achieved through mockery is coincidental at best.
     I am inclined to take one step further. Mockery is another example of the pseudo-profundity you described.

Mock your critics

It's easy, formulaic, and likely to impress your audience. When someone starts starts critically examining the position you espouse say that he "believes in alien abductions" or "is a flat-earther." The more inflammatory and baseless the claim the better. You critic is likely to exhibit an emotional reaction to being ridiculed on the basis of a lie. At this point, the audience will see him only as a hothead and will not listen to anything he has to say. Even in the unlikely event that the critic "keeps his cool," the audience may take your charge at face value and still disregard anything your critic says.
The Pick Man said…
. . . jot down in clear, unambiguous prose on back of an envelope precisely what they do mean. SB:

. . . jot down in clear, unambiguous prose on back of an envelope precisely what they mean.
Anonymous said…
Actually, what was missing here were a few examples of statements you feel ARE profound. It's one thing to show examples of pseudo-profundity, quiet another to produce the real goods -- and open yourself up to challenges that what you have produced is not, in fact, profound either.

Then there can ensue a big bloody brawl about defining profundity (that was absent, too.. how can you argue for something you haven't defined?), somebody will take the position that all definitions are, by definition, subjective, relative, and incomplete, and by then it will have dissolved into name-calling and aspersions cast on people's circumstance of birth.

Or is that just the Monty Python version? :)

Anyway, you owe us some examples of what you DO think are profound statements.

Monica Englander, LCSW
(from the States)
Paul Power said…

I am sorry, this is not going to help but reading this chapter led me to the following chain of thought. The "profundity" that is pseudo is an attempt to appear to possess old-fashioned "wisdom". I visualized an elderly grey-beared man, living in the distant past among old books, dispensing good advice. I can see that to be wise in the modern world requires avoiding a long list of errors but I wonder what it is required to be wise in a positive sense? (Avoiding errors is "negative", in the sense of not being wrong rather than being able to pick from valid alternative options, if you see what I mean).

I'd love to see a good modern book describing how to be wise.
Mr Spinoza said…
This all sounds like programming to me. The problem with communication is that we distort and delete and generalizie what others are telling us, and we do this subconsciously. They are the gate keeper at the doors of our perceptions.
It takes a real conscious effort to listen carefully to what we are being told.
We all create our own mental maps of the world, but to quote Korzybski the map is not the territory.
People respond to their map of reality and not reality itself.
English language is extremely rich and people tend to favour one representational system linked to whatever sense we favour.
This reflects the inner life and is a accurate translation of the way we think.
The submodalities are our building blocks of the senses, once you identify which representational system is being used it is easier to get to the heart of what someone is saying. So it becomes easier to spot pseudo gurus compared to the real Mcoy.
Lonestarslp said…
One of my favorite new quotes is from Alan Greenspan, from a speech to Congress in 1987, "If I seem unduly clear to you, you must have misunderstood what I said."

Clear communication of a concept is infinitely more important than being profound. My background is more scientific/mathematical than philosophical, and I have always detested the practice of professors who deliberately make courses more difficult than they need to be. Those of us who want to learn the concepts prefer to understand them them without extraneous jargon. A logical or mathematical concept, understood clearly--that is profound.

I'm using your information on pseudo-profundity to share with my Toastmasters club so we can avoid the laziness of this type of speech and force ourselves to describe our thoughts more clearly.
Pvblivs said…
Richard Baron:

     "Why do the believers not side with the unbelievers, once the unbelievers explain why they are laughing at the guru?"
     That would be because the explanation is a dressed-up version of "can't you see what he's saying is stupid?" And it is identical to the reason why the believers laugh at the critic. It reveals nothing profound about the human condition. It reveals only why appeal to ridicule is a fallacy. Its effectiveness is undiminished whether the target of ridicule is wise or foolish or whether he is right or wrong.
Martin said…
"It reveals only why appeal to ridicule is a fallacy."

Not so, but it is a more long-winded process then has be described so far.

When people laugh at your ideas, very few give way immediately, because people don't like to lose face. However, I think what happens is that you take that laughter away, and you think "If I say that idea, people will laugh at it". So at first you self-censor, and you avoid saying the silly thing. Then after a period of time you sort of get over it, and realise that what you had said really was silly. At this point the argument is won, but the person who originally laughed at the silly idea may never know.

My wife believes the most effective humour is inclusive and said in a gentle way.
Lonestarslp said…
Can there be a visual pseudo-profundity, for example, in the world of art? An ARTIST presents a canvas painted entirely red and calls it Untitled or Red No. 1. Only a previously established artist could get away with it.
jeremy said…
Loved the chapter - really funny!

I especially liked the bit about ridicule, which is a very effective counter to pseudo-profundity. The reason for this was best summed up by Thomas Jefferson when he explained, "Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them".

(He went on to say, "and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.")

[from letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp, 30 July, 1816]
Stephen Law said…
Thanks for the feedback. I think mockery is appropriate, though didn't explain why. so i will. Nice Jefferson quote, though not sure I agree with it. But might include it anyway....
Stephen Law said…
I will include a deepties section - thanks for reminding me.
Giford said…
Hi Stephen,

Two points: firstly, you might have slightly overdone the use of words like 'claptrap' and 'tosh', or perhaps that's just me.

Secondly, you could mention the Sokal Affair or SCIgen programme as examples of how easily some are fooled by (deliberate) pseudo-profundity. Both had nonsensical 'science' articles published in 'serious' academic journals.

Finally, I think that mockery works best not on a case-by-case basis, but as a background 'immunisation' to the whole idea of pseudo-complexity. So here's my own personal bit of pseudery courtesy of Douglas Adams (abridged):

Vogon: "Now Earthlings ...I present you with a simple choice! Either die in the vacuum of space, or ...tell me how good you thought my poem was!"

Arthur Dent: Actually I quite liked it. I thought that some of the metaphysical imagery was really particularly effective. and er ... interesting rhythmic devices too, which seemed to counterpoint the ... er ... er ...

Ford Prefect: counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor of the ... er ..

AD: ... humanity of the ..of the poet's compassionate soul...which contrives through the medium of the verse structure to sublimate this, transcend that, and come to terms with the fundamental dichotomies of the other...and one is left with a profound and vivid insight into ... into ... er ..

FP: Into whatever it was the poem was about!

Pvblivs said…

     "When people laugh at your ideas, very few give way immediately, because people don't like to lose face. However, I think what happens is that you take that laughter away, and you think 'If I say that idea, people will laugh at it.' So at first you self-censor, and you avoid saying the silly thing. Then after a period of time you sort of get over it, and realise that what you had said really was silly. At this point the argument is won, but the person who originally laughed at the silly idea may never know."
     And how do you think the result differs when a brilliant idea is subjected to the same ridicule? The self-censorship remains the same. And the defender of the idea questions his own mind and still "realizes" what he said was "silly." The Asch conformity experiment is quite enlightening. And it created conformity to wrong notions without any explicit ridicule. I have no doubt that, if blatent ridicule had been part of the study, higher rates of conformity would be observed. So, people may not like to lose face. But they don't like to be laughed at either. As I stated before, the ridicule is just as effective in suppressing a correct idea as it is in suppressing an incorrect one. And it is just as effective in suppressing wisdom as it is folly. The pseudo-profound use mockery and derision to silence their critics. And I think Mr. Law would be doing his readers a disservice not to note that -- even if he believes using the same tactics against the pseudo-profound is a good idea.
Pvblivs said…
     I have given the Jefferson quote some consideration. And it fails catastrophicly. There is no concept more unintelligible than quantum mechanics. No one has ever had a distinct idea of something being a wave and a particle at the same time. It, too, is a mere abracadabra. It has only one thing going for it. The math works. It makes predictions that can be tested in the world we live in. But if the adage "ideas must be distinct before we can act upon them" had been followed, we wouldn't know that. Perhaps quantum mechanics should have been shut down with laughter rather than supported by experiments. I mean, that's not my belief. But, absent the ability of hindsight, it does seem to be what is advocated here.
Larry Hamelin said…
You're going to talk yourself out of a job.
Larry Hamelin said…
Why? Take the bullshit out of philosophy, and there's nothing left.
Anonymous said…
This is a surprisingly difficult topic. If in a conversation a person says “Death comes to us all” it may or may not be used in an attempt to be profound. The context of the statement determines this. If it is used to establish some sort of authority it should be greeted with skepticism.

In the previous topic you used a hypothetical example to clarify your point. Examples of a given pseudo profundity pinned against the goals of the abuser might add clarity:
“D e a t h c o m e s t o u s a l l “ and here is the phone number for your donations.

Some historical examples could be very useful:
Jim Jones (of Jonestown)
“If we can’t live in peace then let’s die in peace.”(Applause)

First Woman: I feel like that as there's life, there's hope.

Jones: Well, someday everybody dies.

Crowd: That's right, that's right!

Jones: What those people gone and done, and what they get through will make our lives worse than hell... But to me, death is not a fearful thing. Its living that's cursed... Not worth living like this.

First Woman: But I'm afraid to die.
Jones: I don't think you are. I don't think you are.

First Woman: I think there were too few who left for 1,200 people to give them their lives for those people who left... I look at all the babies and I think they deserve to live.

Jones: But don't they deserve much more they deserve peace. The best testimony we can give is to leave this god dam world. (Applause)
First Man: It’s over, sister... We've made a beautiful day.(Applause)
Lonestarslp said…
Perhaps the best way to use mockery as a tool against the pseudo-profound is in the way of the young boy who noticed that the Emperor had no clothes. He simply stated a fact without being concerned if he was profound or not.

Demonstrating facts may not convince the converted (they still want to be wise enough to see the gorgeous fabric) but it does expose the pseudo-profound guru for what he is and cause him to be the source of his own mockery.

I have seen John Stewart do this on the Daily Show by showing film clips with very little comment needed.

When a guru attacks or twists the facts, a continued repetition of the facts ("I don't see any clothes") would make it more obvious that the pseudo-profundity is meaningless. I don't know if this is a philosophy term, but I always called it the "broken record" technique when debating with my children!
Pvblivs said…

     The emperor's new clothes, an interesting choice. But in the story, it had to be a young child who noticed the emperor was unclothed. Anyone else would be mocked. The con-men used a pre-emptive mockery to ensure that the people didn't dare say they saw no fabric. The young child was immune to the mockery because he had no station and so could not be "unfit for his station."
Simon said…
"References to quantum mechanics are particularly popular among peddlers of pseudo-scientific claptrap. Quantum mechanics has the advantage that it is widely known to be mysterious and weird, plus hardly anyone understands it, so if you start spouting references to it in support of your own teaching, people will assume you must be very clever, and almost certainly won’t realize that you are, in fact, just bullshitting."

Found this part particular interesting - have experienced this myself.

But are you not in danger of using the mysterious and weirdness of quantum mechanics to justify your own view that it is weird and mysterious and should not be used!?

You are beginning to sound like an expert on when this science 'no-one understands' can and cannot be used! Sounds a little like bullshitting to me!
Lonestarslp said…

I think someone who is confident enough in their "station" and has the respect of the "people" can withstand the mockery of the con-men. Especially when he/she can show evidence that the con-men have done this sort of thing before. In the story, the con-men had come from another town where they had pulled off another con.
Pvblivs said…

     "I think someone who is confident enough in their 'station' and has the respect of the 'people' can withstand the mockery of the con-men. Especially when he/she can show evidence that the con-men have done this sort of thing before. In the story, the con-men had come from another town where they had pulled off another con."
     In the story, no one could show such evidence, because they simply didn't know it. Now, if they did know of the outside event, that might indeed work. But in such a case, there is no need to appeal to ridicule. Ridicule is an effective tool where evidence is scarce. That's why cults use it.
Anonymous said…
Check out the Postmodernism Generator -

It's a hoot. :-)
Tony said…
Is this the same of what Dennett calls a "deepity"? I think so.

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