David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: language (page 1 of 2)

Why Social Construction Is True

The term “social construction” and its cousin “cultural construction” get casually tossed around a lot these days. Sometimes it’s used negatively, as a pejorative way of referring to those damn relativistic lefties. Sometimes it’s used approvingly, as a potted rejection of someone else’s position by saying, “Oh, that’s just your truth.” Either way, there’s almost always a sloppiness that tends to equate belief in social construction with relativism–especially the dreaded moral relativism. And that’s simply not the case. What follows are cribnotes on why truth is indeed socially constructed, but why relativism does not follow from it.

The real meaning of social construction is linguistic. What it means, in a nutshell, is that we could all agree tomorrow to call the sky red instead of blue, and that would not cause any problem for us. Now, this wouldn’t change in isolation. Lots of other adjustments would have to be made in order to start calling blue things red and red things blue (or some third color, in which case lather rinse repeat). So while this would be a logistical nightmare, it is still potentially possible. Adjust language in the right way by shifting enough terms, and we can go on as we did before without anyone being the wiser. By consensus, we have now changed the truth from “The sky is blue” to “The sky is red.” That is social construction.

But, you may say, the real truth hasn’t changed at all! What real truth? “The sky is still blue!” you say. No, it’s not. The sky was blue yesterday, and today it isn’t. Truths can only be expressed in mutually intelligible terms, and if you want to be left behind still calling the sky blue, you can, but now it’s you who is wrong. Social construction is not about reality, it’s about words. We don’t choose our reality, but we do choose our words–collectively.

The tricky part comes when people don’t agree on the truth. If some people say the sky is blue and some people say the sky is red, now you have to do the work of figuring out why they disagree. Maybe they just have different words for the same color. Maybe one group of people has different cones in their eyes that actually make the sky look like a different color. All of these things can be experimentally tested, because truths have to fit together with one another. If both groups agree that the wavelength of blue/red light is 475nm, then clearly it’s the same color, and there’s just terminological confusion (unless they don’t agree on numbers either, but you get the idea). If one group says the sky is blue and 475nm, and the other group says the sky is red and 730nm, then science has got some work to do in order to decide which of them is totally wrong. Naturally, the two groups have to agree to the rules of science and agree to abide by the results and agree on what abiding by the results means…but at the end of the day, cultural construction is not some free-for-all. It’s just the contract we make in order to be able to agree on anything.

On the other hand, it also means that there’s very little meaning in being right by yourself. If you think the sky’s wavelength is about 475nm (which it is), and everyone else thinks it’s 730nm (which it isn’t), you have two options. You can try to convince people that you’re right, marshaling the evidence and arguments to do so, or you can sit quietly and wait for vindication beyond the grave when someone else figures out how wrong everyone has been. But what if they never do? I’m afraid you’re stuck. You can’t be said to have been right because no one will be around to say it. Truth is linguistic, which means that unless there later comes to be a consensus that you were right, you weren’t. That’s not relativism, that’s just how the game is played.

Contrariwise, even if the entire world believes that the sky’s wavelength is about 475nm, there’s nothing to say that at some point in the distant future we won’t be proven oh so wrong and people will look back on us and say, “What fools they were!” In exchange for the pain of truth requiring some kind of social consensus, you get the pleasure of being able to doubt anything anyone says due to the possibility, however distant, of it being overturned in the future. And so the lumbering human process of truthseeking rolls along.

I began with the most objective and “scientific” examples because things get far muddier when it comes to morality and valuation in general. If there is no scientific fact to discover, as people generally assume when it comes to ethics, does that mean that morality really is relativistic? You don’t really need to answer that question, because it comes out in the wash. Social practices will inevitably spit out moral systems, which will argue with one another and end up settling on some set of values. We don’t know for sure whether a particular moral system is correct–but how is this different from science? Because, you might say, the methodology is totally different! You don’t conduct experiments to test moral hypotheses! (Unless you’re one of those analytic philosophers, that is.) That’s true. But just because there’s a different adjudication process doesn’t mean that it’s somehow more relativistic. Rather, it means that morality is only as morally relativistic as we say it is. If everyone in the world were to agree that morality is absolute, then it might as well be, because who’s going to disagree?

Admittedly, that’s not a very satisfying answer when it comes to morality, but it gives some hint of how empty absolute relativism is. At the bottom, you have to agree on some purported absolutes just to get along in the world. Most of them won’t be moral laws, but there’s no intrinsic prohibition on them being absolutes–at least, not according to social construction. All social construction dictates, rather, is that the limits of what we term the “absolute” stop at what we collectively agree to be true, because how could we possibly get more absolute than that?

Is Social Science a Joke?

Richard Biernacki’s book, cursed with the unwieldy title Reinventing Evidence in Social Inquiry: Decoding Facts and Variables, is frequently incisive, sometimes inspirational, and sometimes frustrating. Biernacki vigorously attacks the use of quantitative methods in social science, particularly as applied to texts. He finds their usage to be slapdash, prejudiced, and dependent on lumping disparate phenomena under a single label, often in whatever way happens to serve the researcher’s pre-ordained goal.

I have to cheer when he cites Erving Goffman and Clifford Geertz as spiritual guardians:

“Whatever it is that generates sureness,” Goffman intimated darkly, “is precisely what will be employed by those who want to mislead us.” Goffman left it to us to discern how the riddle of cognitive framing applies to sociological practice and to one’s framing of one’s own results. Geertz expressed a similar kind of caution more cheerfully: “Keeping the reasoning wary, thus useful, thus true, is, as we say, the name of the game.” The only intellectual building material is self-vigilance, not the reified ingredients “theory” or “method.”

Damn straight.

Biernacki’s points are very well-taken, and his individual critiques are devastating. He has little trouble justifying his main charge:

If you reconstruct how sociologists mix quantitative and text-interpretive methods, combining what is intrinsically uncombinable, you discover leg-pulling of several kinds: from the quantitative perspective, massaging of the raw data to identify more clearly the meanings one “knows” are important or, again, standardized causal interpretations of unique semiotic processes; to zigzagging between quantitative and interpretive logic to generate whatever meanings the investigator supposes should be there.

Each study was narrated as a tale of discovery, yet each primary finding was guaranteed a priori.

Where I have a problem is his suggested retreat to a “humanist” mode of inquiry, which, while extremely attractive to people like myself, does not necessarily solve the underlying problem. I will explain this later.

The Indictment

Biernacki has a huge range of reading behind him and he quotes a number of people of whom I’m very fond: Robert Musil (who gets the last word in the book), Erving Goffman, Flaubert (Dictionary of Received Ideas), Michael Frede, Ronald Giere, Barrington Moore, William Empson, Jeanne Fahnestock, Wilfrid Sellars, Kenneth Burke, Samuel Beckett, Mary Douglas, Novalis, Cosma Shalizi, Eleanor Rosch, Valerio Valeri, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Andrea Wilson Nightingale, Erwin Panofsky, and Erich Auerbach. (Bibliography available online here.) Now that I’ve written it out, let me go further: that’s an amazing list.

I’m not particularly keen on most of his targets either, so we overlap sufficiently that I’m baffled at his elevation of Giorgio Agamben, whose attack on quantitative sampling is needlessly overwrought and jargony. Biernacki’s prose, unfortunately, tends toward the same. His thinking is in fact quite clear and rigorous, but the overlay of sociological jargon gets quite dense at times and needlessly prolongs things. (I’ll offer paraphrases of less transparent passages below.)

This applies to the general terms as well. Biernacki defines the social science term “coding” as such:

Coding, a word that may introduce an aura of scientism, is just the sorting of texts, or of subunits such as paragraphs, according to a classificatory framework.

What the social sciences deem “coding”–the application of a common typological label to variable individual cases–would better be simply called “labeling” or perhaps “classification.” I prefer “labeling” because it is the simplest and the most informal. As Biernacki demonstrates, the research being carried out is anything but formal, and so building a fence around a particular textual method is misleading. While it may make it easier to delegitimize that particular method, it also limits the scope of his critique. It also makes it seem as though this process is distinct from the labeling we do every day of objects and actions, when I think any difference is one of degree and not of kind.

To make the broadness of the critique clear, my article The Stupidity of Computers describes very similar methods, except applied to people and objects as well as texts. I used “ontology” instead of “classificatory framework” and “labeling” instead of “coding,” but they’re fundamentally analogous. Or as I put it:

Who decided on these categories? Humans. And who assigned individual blogs to each category? Again humans. So the humans decided on the categories and assigned the data to the individual categories—then told the computers to confirm their judgments. Naturally the computers obliged.

The Stupidity of Computers

If anything, things seem worse in academic sociology, which is the field Biernacki treats. I am not familiar with the subfields Biernacki investigates and after his dip into those waters, I don’t have much desire to become familiar with them. Here is Biernacki’s brief:

Ironically, researchers who visualize a pattern in the “facts” often assert it symbolizes an incorrigible theory for which no data were required anyway.

They would turn meaningful texts into unit facts for the sake of converting these units back into meanings. What are the epistemological functions of the curious process of decontextualizing for the sake of recontextualizing? Cumulating the coding outputs purchases generality only if we know the codes rest on justifiable equivalencies of meaning, which is to return us to the original verbal settings that may vary incommensurably.

Paraphrase: sociologists are engaging in circular reading of texts. The squeeze a corpus into their frameworks and then reapply the frameworks onto specific examples to produce pre-ordained results.

My thesis is that coding procedures in contemporary sociology, the beachhead for coding texts that is spreading into history and literature, follow the rites by which religious believers relabel portions of the universe in a sacred arena for deep play. As in fundamentalist religious regimes, rejecting the enchantment of coding “facts” is nothing less than blasphemy.

Paraphrase: precisely because of their lack of any more fundamental support, the frameworks are sufficiently shaky that they are protected by hierarchical social structures that emerge around vulnerable belief systems, shutting down critics and elevating allies/toadies/grad students. For less opaque examples, see the conservative movement’s classification of “liberal” bias, or much of the talk that constitutes privilege-checking. Both utilize postulated frameworks supported by mantric rhetoric and repetition to obscure the lack of conceptual support. (And yes, I know the former is far more harmful, but today’s Right doesn’t have a monopoly on all forms of stupidity, since a large number of people have not realized that this chart is a joke.)

The ultimate point of this book is to stand social “science” on its head as less rigorous than humanist approaches. The social “scientists” of culture, those claiming a kind of epistemological advantage via their coding apparatuses, are instead intuitive cultists without openly sharable procedure. Opposite much orthodoxy, humanist craft workers who footnote and who convey symptomatically the wondrous in their readings are truer to the ideals of so-called hard science conventionally understood. As I endeavor to show, the nonsystematizing humanists still appreciate the obstacles to induction, the gift of an acute trial, the insurance of shared documentation, and the transformative power of anomalies. My brief is not the cliché that humanist interpretation aims at insight different in kind. More subversively, I insist such interpretation better fulfills the consecrated standards to which social “scientists” ostensibly subscribe.

Paraphrase: the use of quantitative metrics in social science is usually decorative frosting utilized in order to make preconceived notions seem more objective. In actuality they’re rigged games. A thoughtful, passionate, genuinely humanist approach is more scientific than vacuous tables.

It is more transparent, therefore more faithful to inquiry, to assume radical difference in a population than to rush toward aggregating modern “facts” out of corpuses whose members are artificially assumed to have homologous structures.

He’s talking about texts here, but this would apply to any grouping of anything. How to put this into practice is a much thornier question.

The Evidence

Biernacki then presents three case studies of prominent papers in recent sociology. He has done the legwork of looking through the original sources to see how “objective” the classification process was. The results are disastrous. All three are not just littered with slanted interpretations, selective omissions, and poor fits, but outright errors and holes in logic. The demolition is extremely thorough, and the time required to do the research might have boosted Biernacki’s ire further. Here are representative examples from the three cases.

Bearman and Stovel, Becoming a Nazi: A Model for Narrative Networks (2000)

All the network data were extracted from a single Nazi story, but it was not an actual autobiography from Abel’s collection. Help from Peter Bearman together with detective hunting established that the researchers coded instead from “The Story of a Middle-Class Youth,” a condensation published in an appendix to Abel’s book in 1938. Although the intact story was at hand for Bearman and Stovel, and although they had secured English translations of complete stories from the Abel collection, they coded instead from an adaptation that indicated with ellipses where connecting segments had been deleted.

Bearman and Stovel adopt the same vocabulary to describe their own scientific outlook as they apply to a Nazi. They feature “abstraction” for converging on the essential: “Comparison within and across narratives necessitates abstraction . . . This is accomplished by grouping elements into equivalency classes” [83; see also 20]. When the researchers present the Nazi cognitive style, “abstraction” is again the key feature, but now using it to “order experience” is a character defect [85]. It is not we as network reductionists who have a rigid response in analyzing qualitatively incomparable situations, it is the Nazis with a “master identity” who do. [NB: They also complain about another researcher’s “abstraction”: “Real lives are lost in the process, and real process is lost in the movement away from narrative by this abstraction.”]

Wendy Griswold, The Fabrication of Meaning: Literary Interpretation in the Unites States, Great Britain, and the West Indies (1987)


This presentation, which appeared in 1987 in sociology’s most exacting journal, was greeted far and wide as offering confirmable and generalizable results. It remains probably the most broadly circulated classic whose findings rest on systematic coding of text contents.

Griswold combined the reviews from each of her three regions—the United States, Great Britain, and the West Indies—to see if she could explain why some of George Lamming’s novels resonated more powerfully than others in her sample of reviews of his six novels in all. She guessed that “ambiguity” would not only engross readers in disambiguating the novels, but doing so would stimulate appreciative reviews. This just-so account presumes we can know what ambiguity is according to its function rather than by its verbal expression in a review. How exactly does creative engagement by the critics appear when articulated on the page of a book review? What is ambiguity on site? The blurring of appealing scientific hypothesis-testing with exegesis of highly compacted reviews produced a baffling gap: Griswold did not offer an example from her evidence to concretize this entity called “ambiguity,” yet social scientists propagated news about the abstraction in every direction.

When I took reviews in hand, it astonished me to find that at the individual level ambiguity is “specifically mentioned” (to my mind) primarily when the reviewer expresses frustration and disappointment. This dislike of ambiguity more often pushed a review over to a mixed or negative appraisal of a novel, reverse from Griswold’s report of correlations at the aggregate level…. Consider how baffling it is to identify “ambiguity” and “positive appraisal” on the ground.

If a resonant review, like a seminal novel, is multidimensional, and if the reviewer therefore does not try to locate the book on a metric of approval, the overall categories “positive,” and “mixed/negative” are not there in the text ready for translation. The summary is only a fabrication of the social “scientist.”

More subtly, by introducing the binary of colonialism as present or absent, the ritual cordons off the reality that it was daunting for British critics to avoid incorporating the relations of a concept as permeating as colonialism. Griswold never illustrates what counts as mention of colonialism or of any other theme.

John Evans, Playing God?: Human Genetic Engineering and the Rationalization of Public Bioethical Debate (2002)

To launch the sampling and coding ritual, we have to take up a schizophrenic consciousness between the quantitative-scientific and the humanistic-interpretive perspectives. We cannot acknowledge in one frame what we do in the other. Evans wrote that “the two foremost proponents of the form of argumentation in the bioethics profession as I have defined it,” Beauchamp and Childress, are not among authors charted as statistically influential. Indubitable knowledge from the humanist frame does not impinge on the “scientific” procedure for equating influence with citations.

Evans in the 2002 book Playing God produced importantly different diagrams out of the same data inputs as in the 1998 dissertation “Playing God.” How did this change transpire? For the 1992–1995 interval of debate, Evans raised the threshold for inclusion as an influential author in the cluster diagram from nine citations in the dissertation to ten in the book. This chart trimming changed the storyline significantly. For instance, the sociologist Troy Duster, whose work seems to run contrary to Evans’s thesis for the final period, 1992–1995, is among several other authors who dropped out of the diagram.

For a self-fulfilling prophecy Playing God filters out the epistles most pertinently aimed at the public. “If an item did not contain four or more citations, it was not included in the sample, because the primary technology of a citation study is measures of association between citations. I examined 765 randomly selected items from the universe. Of these, 345 fit the parameters for inclusion” [G 208].

“In my research,” Evans wrote, “the question was which top-cited authors were most similar to each other based on the texts that cited them” [G 209]. Similar how? Decades ago the analytic philosopher Nelson Goodman convincingly showed “similarity” lacks sense beyond particular and incommensurable practices of contrast and comparison. Whatever might we be talking about when we demonstrate what relative “influence” means by frequency citations and when we have no operative concept of influence outside this arbitrary measurement? As with ritual process, the models of citation counts merely bring to life a visual experience of a symbol’s use and substitute for the symbol’s conceptual definition.

Evans quotes Jonathan Glover as follows: “What he [Glover] envisions is a ‘genetic supermarket,’ which would meet ‘the individual specifications (within certain moral limits) of prospective parents’” [G 161]. Here again, findings appear to emerge by mischance. The words Evans attributed to Glover occur in a passage of Robert Nozick’s libertarian Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which Glover happened to quote before advancing toward a different position.

The kicker comes with a particularly noxious passage from Evans’ book, revealing the deep-seated self-justifying elitism at work in Evans’ a priori theorizing. Biernacki writes:

If my framing of Playing God as a ritual affirmation were plausible, we would predict that the policy recommendations with which the book concludes, while impracticably “utopian” [G 198], would impart an essential verity. That happens when Evans dismisses the need for real-world brakes on how elites would match particular means to an array of ends, once those ends were chosen by the public:

“If an ends commission decided that its ends to forward in genetic research were beneficence, nonmaleficence, and maintenance of the current specificity of genetic change as possible in the reproductive act, I have no doubt that bioethicists could determine which, if any, forms of HGE [human genetic engineering] advanced these ends. [G 203]”

As you might suspect given the abstractness of “ends in themselves,” it seems unlikely their implementation is a neutral technical job entrustable to specialist intellectuals. The experts in deciding how to pursue a mandated goal would, by concretizing it, subject it to reinterpretation. Would not the means that elites chose to institutionalize populist HGE policy have ramifying implications for practice, and thus values, in other spheres of life, short-circuiting public deliberation? Dealing with these practical issues in ritual is beside the point of affirming the transhistorical message that deliberation over ends should be protected from instrumental degradation.

The quote Biernacki cites here is incredibly damning, evoking images of a bioethical Comintern insisting that its ends are right and proper. Evans is the sort of powerless person you do not want in power.1

More generally, all three come off as tendentious, obfuscatory, and disingenuous, using numbers as a smokescreen for their unjustified suppositions. Biernacki is dead-on in stating that with more classical humanist criticism, you get to see upfront what sort of conceptual abstractions are taking place, subjective and case-based as they may be. Here, they hide behind the guise of objective abstractions plugged into a computational framework.  (Shades of Ann Coulter’s Lexis-Nexis searches.)

The Dangers

I don’t doubt that these three works are representative. And Biernacki’s most fascinating point is that this misuse of science plays directly into theories of cultural determinism that have become very common across the humanities and social sciences:

The same problem of mixing scientific controls with texts occurs in demonstrating the theory of cultural power. That proposed theory starts firmly within the interpretive perspective, because it makes categories of understanding the “variable” that interacts with the novel to produce an engrossing experience. As Kenneth Burke emphasized, in an ideology-saturated society, readers deal with a plethora of contradictory schemas from which they choose how to interpret a text. Alternatively, much important literature, such as Beckett’s plays in the 1950s, from inside its own lines blatantly models unprecedented schemas from which a reader may learn to decipher the work as a whole—“the absurd.” To probe the fabrication of meaning, the reading process might be analyzed more fruitfully as a rhetorical operation rather than as a social one. Kenneth Burke intimated that inquiry into the schemas for reading might include syllogistic progression (step-by-step appreciation of a kind of argument pressing forward via the narrative), qualitative progression (the appreciation of feelings post-hoc from narrative action), antecedent categorical forms (such as “the sonnet”), or technical schemas (such as chiasmus and reversal). In any event, by underspecifying the cultural workings of the literary experience, we arrive at “society” as the default explanation of differences in the received meanings of the novels. The more you attend to the critics’ professional know-how and to the generative schemas with which they read, the weaker the rationale for leaping to a generally shared “percipience” to explain coding outputs. Sociologists since the nineteenth century have invested so much energy in solidifying “society” as a “cause,” they can invoke it without asking whether more tangible but less spirit-like forces may be operating.

Paraphrase: by reducing texts to a handful of ostensibly constituent effects and declaring them to constitute the text, researchers rob the texts of any power they might really have, using them as interchangeable totems for empty confirmation of unsubstantiated theories of cultural domination. Everything feeds back into a giant phantom of “culture” (or “capitalism” or “modernity” or “secularism” or take-your-pick) that ensures the identical outcome. Hence Biernacki’s point:

Ironically, researchers who visualize a pattern in the “facts” often assert it symbolizes an incorrigible theory for which no data were required anyway.

This is not only true, but even if they do not assert such, this is what’s going on anyway. There has to be some underlying theory conditioning the coding/labeling in the first place.

This complements Hans Blumenberg’s observations about the nature of generalized maladies. While Blumenberg emphasized the vagueness and generality of such overarching theories of discontent, Biernacki completes the thought by demonstrating that when the incorrigible theory is reapplied to specific cases, the specific cases become interchangeable.

In considering the prevalent openness to theories of ‘capitalism,’ one cannot fail to notice not only that there always seems to be a need for a causal formula of maximum generality to account for people’s discontent with the state of the world but that there also seems to be a constant need on the part of the ‘bourgeois’ theorist to participate in the historical guilt of not having been one of the victims. Whether people’s readiness to entertain assertions of objective guilt derives from an existential guiltiness of Dasein vis-a-vis its possibilities, as Heidegger suggested in Being and Time, or from the “societal delusion system” of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, in any case it is the high degree of indefiniteness of the complexes that are described in these ways that equips them to accept a variety of specific forms. Discontent is given retrospective self-evidence. This is not what gives rise to or stabilizes a theorem like that of secularization, but it certainly does serve to explain its success.

Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age

Biernacki’s point is that these theories not only accept a wide variety of specific forms, but that they also homogenize these forms. Cultural theory commodifies its subject matter.

Yet at this point the particular issue of quantification has fallen by the wayside in favor of the problem of incorrigible theories. For quantification per se, Biernacki’s evidence is less than ideal, because all three case studies contain such elementary errors in reportage and logic that they would be poor even if the quantitative aspects of the papers were removed. That is, I have no doubt that were Griswold or Evans to write a qualitative assessment of the texts they treated, they would not produce very good work either.

Biernacki is right to say that the scientific frosting obscures the poor quality of their work and exacerbates reductionistic tendencies toward cultural determinism, but the question of “coding” gets into problems that come up even in the absence of quantitative metrics, because coding is labeling, and labeling is what we do all the time.

The Solutions?

Though Biernacki limits the scope of his critique to labeling applied to texts, the arguments go through for ontologies applied to any phenomena. I think Biernacki gets into a muddle in trying to specify texts as specifically exempt from classification, contrasting words like “novel” with words like “dog”:

The intensional definition of “dog” is historically closed, whereas newly discovered literary works and financial instruments stretch and revise the anterior category of “novel” or of “a hedge-fund practice.” A previously unconsidered novel that stretches the distinctions between biography and fiction, for example, can remake the denotation of the label “novel.”

Intensions are dangerous things, and I think you could find that even seemingly clear concepts like “dog” can prove slippery in themselves. You would find more agreement among people, certainly, but who’s to say it’s enough? Labels are inherently unstable things. I think the very point of Beirnacki’s book makes it impossible for him to draw such a clear-cut line. Biernacki sometimes seems to assume that a stable “code” label is being assigned to unstable and ambiguous “data,” but there’s no reason to suppose the label is in general that much more stable  than in the specific text.This is to enter philosophy of language issues that would derail this post entirely, so I will just leave matters at that unless someone wants to debate the point.

Consequently, the ultimate effect of Biernacki’s critique is to make the remaining space for quantitative science very small indeed. In this he is similar to Rudolf Carnap, whose requirements for science were so rigorous and unattainable that many philosophers of science (Popper among them) complained that he would put scientists out of a job. Certainly Griswold, Evans, and Bearman/Stovel come off much closer to Carnap’s idea of bad poetry (e.g., Heidegger) than science.

Contrariwise, I don’t see why the inclusion of quantitative measures in and of itself is a bad thing as long as the labeling is done in a sufficiently responsible way. Are interpretive reading and quantitative analysis “intrinsically uncombinable,” as Biernacki says? I admit that “sufficiently responsible” is a very high bar to clear. But while I agree that so-called “raw data,” is a misnomer, there is a difference between medium-rare and well-done.  I would like to see Biernacki apply his methods to far more intelligent usages of corpus linguistics, such as those performed by Martin Mueller, Eleanor Dickey, Ian Lancashire, or Brian Vickers. All work at a far lower lexical level than Biernacki’s subjects, and all are better scholars. (And none is a sociologist. Biernacki does take a few swipes at Franco Moretti for following Griswold’s bad tendencies, but mostly leaves literature alone.)

But I want to push in the opposite direction as well against Biernacki’s elevation of what he loosely terms humanist interpretation (much as I love it). It is interesting that Biernacki makes a claim of rigor for his humanistic methodology. This is very tricky. When I read Auerbach and Spitzer and Fahnestock, I certainly get the impression of intense intellectual rigor, but rigor applied both to the careful reading of texts and to the holistic grasp of the whole. That is, because of the great difficulties in labeling, rigor must be accomplished by having both

  1. a heuristic, intuitive feel for the whole of one’s field and beyond, stemming from vast reading and reflection, and
  2. a complementary sense of where one’s knowledge is incomplete, where variations might occur, and what should be left open and tentative.

The blunt use of statistics can cover up the need for either of these time-consuming and tenure-threatening processes. Punch a corpus into a computer and analyze it and your work “seems” complete without your brain needing to process all the ambiguities and elisions. Clearly that is unacceptable. But ruling out quantitative measures is not necessarily more rigorous. Biernacki thinks very highly of Weber, and I do as well, to a point. But Weber’s theory of secularization and disenchantment has ultimately been overadopted by less imaginative minds than his. I think and hope that Weber intended his theses to be provisional, to be reassessed and revised (just as scientific theories should be) with the passage of time and research, not mindlessly parroted by crypto-conservative postmodernists looking to smuggle religion back into intellectual discourse under the guise of “reenchantment.”

To put it another way: is the generalized, reductive application of Freud’s theories any better than the generalized, reductive application of the DSM-IV?

This is not a complaint against Weber as much as it is frustration with general intellectual incompetence. What I mean to stress here is that I’m not so sure that this intellectual incompetence is so different in kind from the sort of intellectual incompetence Biernacki exposes in his subjects. Both stem from sloppiness, laziness, and a sheer lack of creativity. So while Biernacki rightly praises Panofsky:

The historian Robert Marichal followed Panofsky’s thesis to explain why the style of breaks in Gothic letters on parchment appeared simultaneously with the same breaks in stone, intersecting ribs in Gothic vaults. Both shifts expressed an analysis of whole lines to cut them down and regroup them into clearer, hierarchically ordered parts of parts. Compare this depth of analysis to a quantitative argument about net trends in abstract codes. Such blurred social “science” is less stringent about the patterning required for confirmation and too indefinite to isolate productive anomalies. Again the humanist focus on precise designs draws it closer to the rigor of the “hard” sciences.

I still think he overstates his case somewhat, because the “codes” at work here are just as subject to dispute. They are, however, more explicit, and this is a good thing, as Biernacki says. The issue, however, is that such great humanist works as he identifies are by their very nature exceptions, works of prodigious and unique minds that cannot be replicated en masse. The weaker philological work of years past is, alas, very nearly as formulaic as some of the scholarship Biernacki condemns (though far less sloppy).

As a prescription for better work, the humanist traditions provide little help in the mass production of research other than to set the bar so high for work that most people should immediately drop out of the field. (Not that this would be a bad thing, necessarily.) But it makes his prescriptions very difficult to imagine practically, unless academia is to return to being a elite, cordoned-off field as it was prior to the postwar higher education boom. (Though that may well happen.)

I am being speculative here, and none of this dampens the force of Biernacki’s critique. It just steers his critique more in the direction of “Don’t use numbers to cover up your incompetence” rather than “Don’t ever use quantitative measures on texts.”2

Science, ideally speaking, provides a workable means for adjudication of disputes, and even occasionally consensus, that is less dependent on the most powerful person around dictating what’s right. To a point, Biernacki employed science, in tandem with humanistic close reading, in his book to undermine the very bad “science” of the works he examined. That, I think, is the best model going forward that we have.


  1. Perhaps not so powerless. Only after writing this entry did I discover that John Evans was involved in a UCSD scandal to attempt to prevent Biernacki from investigating Evans’ work. In 2009, UCSD’s Social Sciences Dean Jeffrey Elman threatened to censure and dismiss Biernacki on the grounds that Biernacki’s research “may damage the reputation of a colleague and therefore may be considered harassment.” Full story here. IHE article here. It is appalling that Jeffrey Elman has retained his position as Dean after sending such a letter. Needless to say, my support for Biernacki’s pursuit of this research is total.
  2. The sociological establishment is having an easier time attacking the second thesis, however, judging by Andrew Perrin’s nasty review. Perrin adopts a ridiculous “They aren’t trying to be scientific” defense, which leaves you wondering what all those charts are doing in the papers, as well as wondering what the point of such sociology is. Perrin also didn’t disclose that he is friends with John Evans until pressed in the comments.

The Authority of Obscurity: Fludd, Hamann, Heidegger, Kripke

The democratization and accessibility of knowledge has always been opposed by those who wish to keep power for themselves. These opponents may wish to be seen as wise authorities, or they may be fearful of the changes that will occur if people get too curious and too smart. Their weapon in disguising or confusing real knowledge is obscurity.

Obscurity can take several forms. Just a couple:

  1. Proclamations of secret inner knowledge and access to fundamental essences known only to a few.
  2. Accusations to others of ignoring the real truth at the heart of things.
  3. Deliberate obfuscation, hiding and/or complicating what is said in order to intimidate.
  4. Appeals to instinct and conventional wisdom to justify shaky reasoning.

All of these have been mixed in with quasi-religious rhetoric in order to reify the power-base of those who wish to be exempt from the strictures of rational inquiry and science.

(For those tempted to see this as religion-bashing, this actually has very little to do with religion per se. It is about rhetoric and power and authority.)

Not that science is exempt. Such techniques are sometimes used within science (string theorists have been guilty of this recently), but they have been used outside of it with far more vigor. The sheer consistency of this is shown by three examples each a century apart: Robert Fludd, J.G. Hamann, and Martin Heidegger. There is a fourth case too, a more recent one, who doesn’t quite fit the mold but merits inclusion: Saul Kripke.

It may seem unsporting or even perverse to point out this tendency when its advocates are so clearly on the losing side–at least among the cognoscenti. But unlike Scientology or Objectivism, the quasi-mystical obscure position needs criticism because so much real intelligence has fallen under its sway, possibly because its current underdog status masks the underlying hegemonic attitude of its proponents.

Also significant is that the underlying position hasn’t really changed that much: in each, a certain high-minded rhetoric is deployed with the signifiers of authority to do an end-run around the hard toil of more rigorous thinkers.

Four examples, then, from four eras: the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernism, and today.


1. Robert Fludd (1574-1637)

Robert Fludd was an occultist and an exponent of the Hermetic traditions in the High Renaissance, just as Bacon, Galileo and Kepler were dismissing all sorts of superstition and trying to get a semi-coherent and semi-unified science off the ground. Unlike the far more brilliant Giordano Bruno, Fludd was simply not terribly bright, and in combination with colossal arrogance, he comes off as quite unpleasant.

Fludd’s half-baked thinking, which led him to propose perpetual motion machines are best seen in his famous engraving The Divine Monochord, used on the cover of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, among other places.

Robert Fludd, The Divine Monochord

The engraving overlays the notes of the scale with Ptolemy’s circular orbits of the spheres. Even if you give him the geocentric universe, to which Fludd held half a century after the death of Copernicus, Fludd messed up the notes: the F should be an F sharp. Fludd was not one to worry about such things, and while the results may have artistic value, Fludd’s attempts to link them to physical phenomena are laughable. But this he did.

For Fludd, the mere stipulation of symbolism is enough to make something true:

Further, all kinds of natural things, and those which are supernatural, are bound together by particular formal numbers. The mystery of these occult numbers is best known to those who are most versed in this science, who attribute the Monad or unity to God the artificer, the Dyad or duality to Aqueous Matter, and then the Triad to the Form or light and soul of the universe, which they call virgin.

That is, numbers have special powers given to them by their “formal” nature, that is, their nature beyond mathematics. The analogies for numbers proposed by occultists lend the numbers real power, in Fludd’s view.  Well, as Hans Blumenberg said, analogies are not transformations.

Fludd was an Oxford graduate and finally entered the College of Physicians after six failed attempts. Connections to the royal physician may have helped. Fludd became famous for his debates with Kepler, who was easily the most mystical of the scientists and astronomers.

Though Kepler had made his name by predicting a notoriously cold winter in 1595, Kepler distrusted astrology and generally held the more superstitious arts like alchemy and divination in total contempt. Nonetheless, he sought a cosmological union of mathematics, physics, and music that would explain the complete and utter perfection of God’s world. In the process, he correctly theorized that the orbits of the planets were ellipses rather than circles, a discovery of gobstopping genius contrary to pretty much what everyone everywhere had ever thought, and even more amazing given the lack of any theory of gravity to explain why the orbits were ellipses. He also discovered two other laws of planetary motion of similar import.

Fludd, in words that sound eerily contemporary (and not for the better), attacked Kepler as vulgar and scientistic, in a prolix pamphlet that needs to be heavily summarized:

In the arrogant pose of the esoteric and mystagogue Fludd lectured to Kepler, reproaching him for crass ignorance and ambition. Kepler’s science, in Fludd’s opinion, refers only to the outside of things. A distinction must be made between vulgar and formal mathematics. Only the chosen sages, skilled in formal mathematics, perceive nature truly; to the representatives of vulgar mathematics, among whom he also counts Kepler, and whom he calls bastards and stunted people, it remains invisible and hidden. These measure only the shadows instead or the reality or things. Fludd compares Kepler’s astronomy to a “mystical astronomy.” While Kepler stopped short with the outer movements of nature, he himself contemplates the inner and fundamental acts, which flow forth from nature. So it goes on, on fifty-four thickly printed folio sheets.

These samples from Fludd’s pamphlet are characteristic of the intellectual temper of that epoch. One who looks about in that departed era of writing and printing is astonished at the flood of astrological, alchemical, magical, cabbalistic, theosophic, mock mystic, and pseudoprophetic writings which held the intellects in a spell. The vaguer their content and the richer the promises they ventured in predictions, in communication of secret knowledge and abilities, the more readers they found. What was always being proclaimed under the name of Hermes Trismegistos passed for revelation, whereas imitation of the ideas of Paracelsus passed as the highest wisdom.

When Fludd, in the delusion of possessing deeper perception, held forth that he himself had the head in his hands, Kepler only the tail, then the latter replied humorously: “I hold the tail but with the hand; you clasp the head, if only it does not happen just in a dream.” The widdy disseminated writings, aiming to found and extend the order of the Rosicrucians, were naturally also known to Kepler. Yet he wanted to have nothing to do with a secret organization which feared the light. He urged the Brothers of the new order not to turn only to the ”children of the truth,” but also to go and to talk in the meetings of people, on the mountains and in public places, so that people would get to know their true doctrine.

In the face of all such pseudoscientific efforts, Kepler most strikingly characterized his manner of thought and the goal, which he also pursued in the Harmonia, when he says about his connection with Fludd: “One sees that Fludd takes his chief pleasure in incomprehensible picture puzzles of the reality, whereas I go forth from there, precisely to move into the bright light of knowledge the facts of nature which are veiled in darkness. The former is the subject of the chemist, followers of Hermes and Paracelsus, the latter, on the contrary, the task of the mathematician.” Fludd answered Kepler’s apology once more. The latter, however, did not want, as he says, to press this issue any longer and was silent. “I have moved mountains; it is astonishing how much smoke they expel.”

Max Caspar, Kepler: A Biography

Kepler only sees the outside of things, while Fludd penetrates to their innards. We’ll hear that line again.

Kepler eloquently described how Fludd “inner workings” terminally confused the causal workings of things with symbology:

I too play with symbols and have planned a little work, Geometric Cabala, which is about the Ideas of natural things in geometry; but I play in such a way that I do not forget that I am playing. For nothing is proved by symbols; things already known are merely fitted [to them]; unless by sure reasons it can be demonstrated that they are not merely symbolic but are descriptions of the ways in which the two things are connected and of the causes of these connections.

Brian Vickers draws the contrast quite vividly, emphasizing the replacement of Fludd’s visual constructions with Mersenne and Kepler’s primarily mathematical ones:

Mersenne rejects much of the conceptual structure of occult science, the whole analogical-correlative method, its symbolism, its confusion of mental and physical worlds….Kepler, by contrast, believed that the principles defining the structure of reality are picturable only in a certain sense. What is entirely lacking from the Fludd mentality is any interest in measurement or in testing an analogy against data derived from experience, and in this respect Kepler’s assumptions and methods are wholly different. The crucial issue is the relationship between pictures, words, and things. Fludd starts with ideas and pictures, finds words to describe them, and then links this composite to reality. Kepler, who deals with reality in terms of geometry, rejects Fludd’s analogies as visual or rhetorical, never capable of demonstration and often arbitrary.

Brian Vickers, Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance

The particular method I’ve highlighted in bold is one that will recur as well.

Fludd was not well-liked. Even the alchemist Johannes Baptista van Helmont disparaged him as  ‘a poor physician and a still poorer alchemist, talkative, loud, thinly learned, inconsistent . . . a fluctuating Fludd.’ And when you’ve lost the alchemists….

Frances Yates, generally rather sympathetic to the Hermetic tradition and its influence on the development of science, says this about him and Kepler:

Nevertheless, Kepler had an absolutely clear perception of the basic difference between genuine mathematics, based on quantitative measurement, and the “Pythagorean” or “Hermetic” mystical approach to number. He saw with the utmost distinctness that the root of the difference between himself and Fludd lay in their differing attitude to number, his own being mathematical and quantative whilst that of Fludd was Pythagorean and Hermetic. Kepler’s masterly analyses of this difference in his replies to Fludd brought this matter out into the clear light of day for the first time and performed a great service in finally releasing genuine mathematics from the agelong accretions of numerology.

Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition

Accretions can still accumulate, however.


2. J. G. Hamann (1730-1788)

J. G. Hamann was a lesser-known philosopher of the Enlightenment who had connections with Herder and Kant. Isaiah Berlin calls Hamann the first anti-rationalist opponent of the Enlightenment, though most of his substantive criticisms had been made already by people within the Enlightenment, so his influence is debatable. Hamann heavily protested against the anti-religious, scientific trends of his age, without articulating a particularly clear alternative beyond God.

What is not debatable is Hamann’s pioneering efforts into obscure, allusive writing. Unlike Kant, who writes densely but does not seem to be covering his tracks, Hamann takes pains to avoid saying much of anything directly. Sarcasm and ridicule are more his style than sincerity or cogency.

He engages in mystical investigations reminiscent of Fludd, such as his New Apology of the letter h. It is uncannily proto-Derridean in its punning half-fatuousness, as Hamann attacks a proposed spelling reform to standardize German by removing some silent letters. The proposal is not just wrongheaded, Hamann says, but blasphemous:

The canon of writing no letter which is not pronounced is the most impossible and exaggerated postulate in the exercise. Why is the author himself unfaithful to his own propositions, not only in regard to all the other letters, but even to h? Why does he not write in instead of ihn, and inn instead of in, or ir instead of ihr, and tun instead of thun, in order to comply at least with the appearance of an analogy? What reason can indeed be envisaged for his biased exception of all the remaining letters and his unjustified severity toward a breath, which is not even an articulated sound?

If the pronunciation of letters is to be elevated to a universal judgment throne over correct spelling such as the one so-called human reason arrogates to itself (under cover of liberty) over religion, then it is easy to foresee the destiny of our maternal language. What divisions! what Babylonian confusion! what mongering of letters! All the great diversity of dialects and speech and their shibboleths would pour into the books of each province, and what dam could withstand this orthographic deluge? The h, turned out from the raw midnight of Germany, would prolifherate [sic] itself in the writings of the greater and milder nations of the Holy Roman Empire with such opulence that would not be comparable to the wise generosity of a famous translator  of sacred parchment rolls in very isolated cases. – In short, the whole social bond of literature among the German nations would be destroyed in a few years, to the great disadvantage of the true, universal, practical religion, its dissemination, and the peace promised by it – –

J. G. Hamann, “New Apology for the Letter h” (1773, tr. Kenneth Haynes)

I suppose this is good fun, but I find it rather tiring and trivial for a supposed major work, though Haynes is to be commended for assembling a reasonably compact and accessible collection. His sneering at “so-called human reason” and the elevation of his stipulated “true, universal, practical religion” grate. I’m more inclined to agree with Michael Forster’s view of the impoverishment of Hamann’s philosophy:

Besides being unsystematic, Hamann’s writings are typically short; occasional in nature; adorned with mysterious visual symbols (e.g. the figure of Pan), and enigmatic titles, subtitles, and mottos; authored with an adoption of strange identities; extremely obscure in content; lacking in developed argument; full of quotations from ancient and modern works left in their various original languages, as well as citations and allusions, many of whose significance is left unclear; prone to the use of German archaisms, especially the vocabulary and constructions of Luther’s German Bible; bombastic and dramatic; crude, sometimes to the point of obscenity; humorous and satirical, often in cruel ways; and rich in metaphors. As Goethe already observed, the cumulative effect of such features (especially for a modern reader deprived of the help that was supplied by the contemporary context) is to preclude satisfactory understanding.

Hamann did not have to write in this way; his early Biblical Reflections, a long work, is written clearly and even elegantly, and his letters throughout his life often show similar virtues. Why, then, did he choose to write in this way? Part of the explanation lies in his principled contempt for reason, and therefore for the conventional ways of writing that rely upon it. Another part of the explanation lies in a deep disaffection with his age and its ‘‘public’’—rooted in his unpopular religious position, but also exacerbated by more mundane grievances, including, for example, his lowly employment and inadequate salary—which leaves him uninterested in being understood by most of his contemporaries, and indeed keen to mystify them. Yet another part of the explanation lies in a motive that is in tension with the preceding one: a wish to cultivate a strikingly distinctive authorial individuality. Yet another part of the explanation lies in a fear that his ideas were not original or cogent (in his letters he voices a fear that he got all his main ideas from the poet Edward Young, and laments the weakness of his own intellect, e.g. in comparison with Kant’s), and in a resulting desire to mask his intellectual nakedness. It is difficult to have much sympathy with these motives.

Michael Forster, After Herder: Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition

Contra Socrates, Hamann thinks self-knowledge is “a descent into hell,” merely painful preparation for the real truth of salvation. So Hamann is really opposing not just the intellectual trends of the time but the use of reason as a means to anything but faith. The obscuritanism and the attacks on reason go hand in hand with Hamann’s appeal to religion (Christianity, of course), and so it is not so surprising that today he is being used by postmodern theologians to help expand the gaps in which they wish God to exist. That is to say, postmodernism not in the service of skepticism or pluralism, but in service of ignorance and superstition.

John Betz enthusiastically endorses Hamann’s attack on Kant and the claim that Kant’s system is really just another religion like any other, Kant a “magician” and “alchemist” playing tricks on us:

Indeed, following Hamann, the very structure of Kant’s Critique could be said to mirror the mystagogy of the temple cult, proceeding by way of an ever more inward progression from the forms of intuition, which concern the “outer court” of sensibility, to the “sanctuary” of the transcendental categories of the understanding, to the sanctum sanctorum of the regulative ideas of reason itself.

In any case, as Hamann reads it, the Critique is a kind of “magical mystery” tour de force. Kant’s philosophy is “alchemical” because its transcendental method involves a similar process of purification; the only difference here is that the “dross,” which must be separated in order to attain the “philosopher’s stone” is phenomenal experience.

John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary

Teach the controversy! Kant’s philosophy, whatever its many problems, is not alchemical and not a temple cult. I repeat again: analogies are not transformations. Betz seems to think that Hamann has some sort of knock-down arguments, and that these knock-down arguments, having God in them, are somehow superior to all other criticisms against Kant and deserving of more attention.

Betz sides with Hamann in his attack on Herder’s pioneering naturalist account of the origin of language. I will not get into why Hamann’s criticisms of Herder are weak and specious (Forster’s book addresses this issue convincingly), since the rhetoric is my focus here. Note how Betz goes right along with Hamann’s invective precisely when it is most free of content:

In a masterful stroke of irony Hamann then adds that Herder’s “natural” theory must have been the product of divine inspiration, due to a divine “Genesis”; indeed, it must be even more supernatural and poetic than the oldest account of the creation of heaven and earth. For, surely, only inspiration would cause this learned author to set himself up “so confidently and so recklessly for such public, earth-shaking, hyperbolic-pleonastic, retaliatory criticism, and to misuse polemical weapons only to incur wounds and lumps at his own expense, accomplishing thereby precisely the opposite of what his readers are promised and flatteringly led to expect.”

What a lashing!

With consummate irony, Hamann then caps his parody with the following coup de grace: “With this divine organon of understanding the entire Koran of the seven [liberal] arts and the entire Talmud of the four faculties was invented, and upon this rock stands the fortress of the philosophical faith of our century, before which all the gates of oriental poetry must submit.” That is to say, how can this understanding of the origin of language, which rests upon a plain contradiction, possibly serve as a suitable foundation for philosophy, for the sciences, for philology?

What a damning appraisal!

John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary

I find it vaguely frightening that such rhetoric as Hamann’s should appear so convincing to a theologian that it could be cited with such cheerleading enthusiasm. Betz’s choice of the phrases “lashing” and “damning appraisal” are rather intriguing on their own, but that’s left as an exercise for the reader.

It should not, then, come as too much of a surprise that Betz then links Hamann to Heidegger and Derrida and enlists all three in his religious project, finding fault with the latter two in that they are not sufficiently religious (i.e., Christian), making Hamann the clear choice:

Thus it comes about that for Heidegger, the anti-Augustine, paradoxically “Nothing” really “Is”; and that this “Nothing” becomes the source of ethics, revelation, and poetic inspiration. Such is the odd, uncompelling, and, in view of the horrors of the twentieth century, ethically chilling result of Heidegger’s attempt to purify philosophy of theology, whereby he essentially repeats in the realm of ontology the same fundamental error Hamann identified at the heart of Kant’s epistemology, thereby bringing the history of philosophy (divorced from theology) to its explicitly nihilistic conclusion.

After the Enlightenment, the problem of reason, following Hamann and now Derrida, has come down to the problem of language. In short, it comes down to a choice between inspired and uninspired language: either language inspired by the Holy Spirit in response to the Logos, or language inspired by Nothing at all.

John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary

Here it is more difficult to argue with Betz, for he is opposing thinkers who have dispatched the only terms of argument that could help them against Hamann, and given the choice between Nothing and God, people will tend to plump for the latter. All of the relativism eventually gives way to the “true, universal, practical religion” of which Hamann, and presumably Betz, are certain.


3. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

Much of the discussion of Heidegger can be found in the entry on Herman Philipse’s Heidegger book, where Philipse diagnosed Heidegger’s rhetoric as authoritarian and theological. (More on Heidegger’s sloppy scholarship.) Heidegger’s irritating statement “Only a god can save us” is ultimately representative of the tactics of his later work. I quote the relevant bits from the previous entry:

Sometimes Heidegger claims that he has a specific epistemic gift for discerning what Being sends us, and he compares those who do not have this gift to people who are color-blind. Unfortunately, this analogy with color-blindness does not withstand critical scrutiny. Color-blindness can be explained by specific defects in our visual apparatus, whereas I suppose that the inability to grasp what Heidegger claims to be discerning cannot be so explained. Heidegger relies on a epistemic model derived from theology, and assumes that he is the recipient of some kind of revelation…

What Heidegger counts on, then, is that we will simply believe what he says. He uses a number of authoritarian rhetorical stratagems in order to obtain this perlocutionary effect, and he is remarkably successful in securing it.

“History” in the habitual sense of the word designates both the sum of human actions, artifacts, and forms of life in the past, and the discipline that studies these actions and forms of life. Because Heidegger in section 7 of Sein und Zeit calls empirical phenomena “vulgar” phenomena, we might label empirical history “vulgar” history. To vulgar history, Heidegger opposes real or authentic history (eigentliche Geschichte), which is the sequence of fundamental stances underlying vulgar history. Real history is “necessarily hidden to the normal eye.” It is the history of the “revealedness of being” (Offenbarkeit des Seins). Heidegger’s later “historical mode of questioning” (geschichtliches Fragen) aims at making explicit fundamental stances of Dasein amidst the totality of beings. Since these stances allegedly can be studied independently of empirical history as an intellectual discipline, Heidegger’s doctrine of real history implies that the philosopher is the real historian, and that by reconstructing the sequence of metaphysical structures, he does a more fundamental job than the historian in the usual sense is able to do. Heidegger often intimates that his historical questioning is also more fundamental than historical research done by historians of philosophy, and that it may brush aside the methodological canon of historical philology and interpretation. As Joseph Margolis observes, Heidegger’s doctrine of real history “manages to ignore the concrete history of actual existence and actual inquiry.”

Heidegger belonged to the elect, to those favored by Being, who were destined to hear Being’s voice. In Beitrage zur Philosophie, the theme of the elect occurs again and again.

Herman Philipse, Heidegger’s Philosophy of Being

I trust that the linkages here are evident. Like Fludd and Hamann, Heidegger appeals to some sort of revelation to which he has privileged access, one that both trumps other accounts and is not accessible to them. The presupposition of having penetrated to the inner core of things is stated as a first principle, not a conclusion.

This passage from The Question Concerning Technology is representative:

In truth, however, precisely nowhere does man today any longer encounter himself, i.e., his essence. Man stands so decisively in subservience to the challenging-forth of enframing that he does not grasp enframing as a claim, that he fails to see himself as the one spoken to, and hence also fails in every way to hear in what respect he ek-sists, in terms of his essence, in a realm where he is addressed, so that he can never encounter only himself.

Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”

But Heidegger sees, Heidegger encounters. Heidegger knows the fundamental inners of things, like Fludd. His claims would be easily dismissed if technology and science didn’t present so many genuine questions that Heidegger is forcing out of people’s minds with his mystification. Such obfuscation neuters the rational force of any critique it is used to make and replaces it with pure authority. If you have the authority that Heidegger had, you can win the argument; if you don’t, you will lose.


4. Saul Kripke (1940- )

It may seem unfair and even perverse to include Kripke on this list, for unlike the others he has an indisputably great contribution to formal logic. Yet it is his metaphysics and his rhetoric with which I am concerned here, and I can’t deny the overlap. In fact, it’s significant that both an “analytic” and a “continental” philosopher can fall into this list.

Kripke does not use obscurity per se; what he does do is utilize a closed system that is then pushed onto reality. In this he resembles Fludd, who in Vickers’ words “starts with ideas and pictures, finds words to describe them, and then links this composite to reality.” The composite here is far more rigorous and “scientific” than anything Fludd ever managed, yet the outcome is not so different. Those who favor Kripke will certainly disagree, but the burden of proof remains with them. Central to Kripke’s approach is an appeal to ungrounded intuition that mimics the tactics of the above thinkers. Intuition becomes another obscuring tactic.

Kripke acolyte Scott Soames gives a non-technical summary of Kripke’s impact:

[Kripke’s theories] brought back the idea that things in the world have discoverable essences, which are properties not just physically required but metaphysically necessary for their existence. Some of these properties are discoverable by science. But these may not exhaust the essential properties of human beings. The impact of Kripke’s book was its message that, despite the progress philosophers have made in understanding meaning and language, philosophical knowledge is not limited to that, which means that philosophy must reconnect to the non-linguistic world.

Scott Soames in The Browser

Essential properties: the insides of things, just as Fludd claimed access to. The armchair discovery of essential properties beyond those discoverable by science is quite an achievement, one capable of generating a lot more business for philosophers itching to escape the punishing strictures of mid-century anti-essentialism. How did Kripke do it? Richard Rorty provides a good overview in the LRB, but I will briefly summarize the technical points:

Kripke postulated a formal modal logic for talking about possible worlds, creating a formalization of “necessary” and “contingent” propositions that has caught on like wildfire, wiping away the austerity of W.V.O. Quine and a number of other mid-century analytic philosophers in favor of bold new metaphysical conjectures. Some of these conjectures are indeed dangerously close to postulating the inner essence of things, as anyone who reads Kripke’s Naming and Necessity will realize. Key to this is Kripke’s idea of the “rigid designator,” a name that picks out the same thing in all possible worlds. Rigid designators include all proper names, various technical physical science terms. Somewhat famously, he says:

I thus agree with Quine, that “Hesperus is Phosphorus” is (or can be) an empirical discovery; with Marcus, that it is necessary.

So it is not possible that Hesperus could not have been Phosphorus, and this modal, metaphysical claim is based solely on the nature of the linguistic terms involved and the counterfactual possible world setup he has going. In response to those who complain about possible worlds, he says:

Those who have argued that to make sense of the notion of rigid designator, we must antecedently make sense of ‘criteria of transworld identity’ have precisely reversed the cart and the horse; it is because we can refer (rigidly) to Nixon, and stipulate that we are speaking of what might have happened to him (under certain circumstances), that ‘transworld identifications’ are unproblematic in such cases.

Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity

The shorter version of this, again, is: saying makes it so. The way in which we use language somehow makes it possible to generate claims about metaphysical necessity. Can we rigidly refer to Nixon? That seems to be the shaky ground on which cart and horse must ride.

For someone like myself who thinks that simply naming something isn’t even sufficient to be certain it exists, Kripke is far off the mark, but again, that is beside the point here. My consideration here is with the rhetorical tactics involved and how they echo past thinkers who presume a familiarity with the inner nature of reality and use a certain sort of authoritative language to proclaim it.

Other Kripkean feats include proving the necessity of “Water = H2O” and “Cicero = the organism descended from sperm s and egg e,” as well as the non-necessity of “Mental events are identical with brain events.” The passage related to this last one is worthy of quoting. Here, “C-fibers” are the part of the brain that happen to be associated with pain in humans.

What about the case of the stimulation of C-fibers? To create this phenomenon, it would seem that God need only create beings with C-fibers capable of the appropriate type of physical stimulation; whether the beings are conscious or not is irrelevant here. It would seem, though, that to make the C-fiber stimulation correspond to pain, or be felt as pain, God must do something in addition to the mere creation of the C-fiber stimulation; He must let the creatures feel the C-fiber stimulation as pain, and not as a tickle, or as warmth, or as nothing, as apparently would also have been within His powers . . . The same cannot be said for pain; if the phenomenon exists at all, no further work should be required to make it into pain.

From here it is a short hop to Kripke’s personal views:

Kripke is Jewish, and he takes this seriously. He is not a nominal Jew and he is careful keeping the Sabbath, for instance he doesn’t use public transportation on Saturdays. He thinks religion can help him in philosophy:

“I don’t have the prejudices many have today, I don’t believe in a naturalist world view. I don’t base my thinking on prejudices or a world view and do not believe in materialism.”

He claims that many people think that they have a scientific world view and believe in materialism, but that this is an ideology.

GoInside interview with Saul Kripke, 2001

Such remarks sound a bit condescending, and so I ask: does Kripke have his own prejudices? It seems that he does not. He is well above the rest of us, having evidently transcended the need for a worldview. And perhaps language as well:

“People used to talk about concepts more, and now they talk about words more,” he says, capsulizing the profession. “Sometimes I think it’s better to talk about concepts.”

Saul Kripke profile in the New York Times (1977)

Yet the reason for why analytic philosophers migrated to words was that no one could agree on what a concept was. Nor how to grasp one. The Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Concepts encompasses nearly every discipline of philosophy, while offering little that is uncontested save for the gnomic first sentence: “Concepts are the constituents of thoughts.” So the way I read Kripke’s statement is that people should talk about concepts his way.

Yet in justifying the correctness of his versions of things, Kripke often appeals to intuition. The word “intuition” appears frequently in Kripke’s writings, often as something he wishes to “capture” formally. The Preface to Naming and Necessity appeals to intuition on nearly every page in justifying rigid designators. The papers in Philosophical Troubles use intuition, if anything, more frequently, particular when speaking about truth and knowledge. Some form of the word “intuition” is used 246 times in the book’s 380 pages. For comparison, Quine uses it 9 times, and not always favorably, in the 130 pages of From a Logical Point of View, while Davidson uses it 23 times in the 285 pages of Inquiries into Truth and Intepretation. Wittgenstein uses it only four times in all of Philosophical Investigations, while Sellars makes only a single derogatory use of it in the entirety of Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind.

Now perhaps Kripke’s experience is different, but I live in a world in which the vast majority of intuitions that I or anyone else has are wrong. Today’s intuitions are tomorrow’s mockeries. Either way, I don’t see how you combat Kripke if you have an opposing intuition. I doubt he expects one to do so. Appeals to intuition in philosophy are not so different from appeals to feeling, consensus, or religion: they rely on you accepting an unsubstantiated claim from a supposed expert or authority. It is hard to see intuition as much more than an authoritative cudgel designed to shut down questions and let things remain cloudy. At the end of the day, I think this is what Kripke’s metaphysics will remain: ungrounded appeals to intuition.

In some ways Kripke has embraced obscurity, publishing next to nothing in the years since Naming and Necessity and cultivating an oracular persona. He is very much a counter-Wittgenstein, another religious philosopher who published almost nothing, yet where Wittgenstein leaves us with questions, Kripke is always in a hurry to give answers. I do believe that Kripke’s metaphysical system has more value than Fludd’s pretty but false pictures of the world, but I do wonder how much more value.

I’ll let Quine have the last word on intuition’s use as a core tool of mystic authorities:

Twice I have been startled to find my use of ‘intuitive’ misconstrued as alluding to some special and mysterious avenue of knowledge. By an intuitive account I mean one in which terms are used in habitual ways, without reflecting on how they might be defined or what presuppositions they might conceal.

W.V.O. Quine, Word and Object

And this dual nature of ‘intuition’ is why intuitions are obscure, and why they form the fundament of Fludd, Hamann, Heidegger, and Kripke’s work.

Novalis: Monologue

The excellent piece on Novalis in this week’s TLS quoted a bit of his brilliant Monolog, and it’s short enough I figured I’d just post the whole thing here:

Speaking and writing is a crazy state of affairs really; true conversation is just a game with words. It is amazing, the absurd error people make of imagining they are speaking for the sake of things; no one knows the essential thing about language, that it is concerned only with itself. That is why it is such a marvellous and fruitful mystery – for if someone merely speaks for the sake of speaking, he utters the most splendid, original truths. But if he wants to talk about something definite, the whims of language make him say the most ridiculous false stuff. Hence the hatred that so many serious people have for language. They notice its waywardness, but they do not notice that the babbling they scorn is the infinitely serious side of language. If it were only possible to make people understand that it is the same with language as it is with mathematical formulae – they constitute a world in itself – their play is self-sufficient, they express nothing but their own marvellous nature, and this is the very reason why they are so expressive, why they are the mirror to the strange play of relationships among things. Only their freedom makes them members of nature, only in their free movements does the world-soul express itself and make of them a delicate measure and a ground-plan of things. And so it is with language – the man who has a fine feeling for its tempo, its fingering, its musical spirit, who can hear with his inward ear the fine effects of its inner nature and raises his voice or hand accordingly, he shall surely be a prophet; on the other hand the man who knows how to write truths like this, but lacks a feeling and an ear for language, will find language making a game of him, and will become a mockery to men, as Cassandra was to the Trojans. And though I believe that with these words I have delineated the nature and office of poetry as clearly as I can, all the same I know that no one can understand it, and what I have said is quite foolish because I wanted to say it, and that is no way for poetry to come about. But what if I were compelled to speak? What if this urge to speak were the mark of the inspiration of language, the working of language within me? And my will only wanted to do what I had to do? Could this in the end, without my knowing or believing, be poetry? Could it make a mystery comprehensible to language? If so, would I be a writer by vocation, for after all, a writer is only someone inspired by language?

Novalis, “Monologue” (1798), tr. Joyce Crick

This, together with Kleist’s “On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking”, make the deconstructionists seem rather late to their own game.

The artistic complement to Novalis here is Paul Klee, whose drawings inspired by The Novices of Sais capture some of what Novalis is saying. This one is called “Demony”:

Phenomenology of Punctuation

Raoul Hausmann, Phonetic Poem (1918)

Hello everyone and happy new years. While travelling in the last few weeks I had a conversation with the ever-acute Juliet Clark, who told me about the latest trends in editing. One piece of news is that semicolons between independent clauses are very out of fashion, even more than colons.

I was surprised, because I’ve always thought the colon was a more finicky piece of punctuation, but its more particular usage case probably has kept a place for it while the semicolon has come to seem more superfluous and easily replaced with a period. That I feel that my semicolons should not be replaced with periods (not usually, anyway) doesn’t have much bearing on the semicolon’s popularity.

I use semicolons frequently enough that they’ve taken on a particular feel for me that is at most vaguely approximated inside anyone else’s head. Even when I’m not using them, uniformity of sentence rhythm can bother me; I’ll change up sentence structure and adopt more ornate phrasing to get the feel of a semicolon’s half-pause without actually using the character itself. So for me the semicolon also has the regulative function of releasing the accumulated pressure of the monotony of seemingly repetitious sentence patterns.

(Starting sentences with conjunctions also shifts the pacing, though I never do so for the clause right after a semicolon; wouldn’t this clause seem strange starting with an “and,” stranger than if I’d used a period instead of a semicolon just now? Conjunctions need to be capitalized to look right to me when they start independent clauses.)

Reading too much of the flat, staccato American fiction of the 1980s and 1990s caused me to cling desperately to a more flowing and/or baroque style when I was growing up. It wasn’t just limited to Raymond Carver and his kin, though. I had similar negative reactions to Iris Murdoch’s prose, which seems to stick far too often to a thudding subject-verb-object windshield wiper rhythm that sets my teeth on edge. For contrast, German strictly mandate placement of parts of speech in such a way as to frequently yield free-form chaos on a word by word level, making such monotony rarer.

The vagaries of these perceptions of the flow and rhythm of punctuation are more particular than I could fully document. At least in the case of the Oxford comma, everyone knows that there’s no agreement as to how sentences with or without it should feel. But there seems to be the tacit agreement that usage of most punctuation has the same effect on speakers of the same language (well, within the same socio-economic class and dialect and geographical background and so on, but you see my point).

Which leads to the next, greater problem. Even the colon is out of fashion these days, frequently replaced by the em dash—at least when the colon’s not being given its strictest usage preceding a list or similar. And the allure of the em dash is a headache for me, because somewhere along the line I was taught that it was wrong to use an em dash just to provide a break in a sentence—like this, just now. I learned that the only proper use—and this is not a rule in Strunk and White, so it must have been a particularly insistent teacher somewhere along the line—was as a substitute for parentheses. Whichever Ancient Mariner taught me that rule was really irresponsible. Em dashes were suitable—no, required!—when using parentheses to offset an embedded clause would wrongly subordinate the clause. Parentheses were suitable for sotto voce asides or digressions, but not for crucial interjections. But I ceased to use the single, lonely em dash.

Unfortunately, the persistent sense that a single em dash was wrong-headed blinded me to the sense of it in prose over the years. Instead of having some sort of mental sense of a pause or a break, I’d just think “Whoop, casually incorrect usage” and proceed on. By never using it in my own writing, I didn’t gain any sense of how it shaped prose from the inside, and so it remained a mystery marker in others’ prose, never gaining a rightful sense of place in the lexicon of punctuation.

So now, much later on, I’m left having very little feel for how an unpaired em dash affects the flow of a sentence, or at least a feel that is vastly different from that of most people’s. When the punctuation is aberrant anyway—as in Tristram Shandy, say, or in Celine, which is probably where I first was preoccupied by the visual and phenomenological effects of punctuation on verbal pacing—it’s not such a problem, but in everyday writing, I’m left missing part of the sensus communis.

Of course this argument could be extended to all sorts of words and phrases as well….

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