Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Against Postmodernist Obfuscation

"I have long held that any philosopher who takes the trouble to master the art of writing clearly and is at pains to exercise it, can explain most of the things that matter in philosophy to any reader of intelligence and goodwill, provided that the philosopher understands what he is writing about"—C.E.M. Joad, The Recovery of Belief (1952).

23 comments:

Kevin Winters said...

Nice opinion...

Tim said...

Kevin,

Should we take it that you disagree?

Kevin Winters said...

Tim,

I am skeptical about the easiness that the quote seems to imply. If you are working within common assumptions held by the interlocutors, as is the case in traditional metaphysical and epistemological assumptions that have been institutionalized in modern science and technology, then it will be easier. If you are working with a philosophy that challenges those assumptions, it is not quite as easy as you have fewer 'common' assumptions to draw on; the foundations, to use a common term, are too different and confusion is much more likely. It took a lot of personal effort for me to get where I am and I still find myself slipping occasionally into old ways of thinking.

I am quite convinced that even the best Heideggerian scholar, who can effectively teach students and write clearly, cannot get many of the hardcore so-called analytic philosophers to understand Heidegger (or Derrida, as the more common example); the theoretical assumptions that seem so 'common sense' will interfere to a large extent. Understand, I'm not saying convince them, but helping them understand so they can speak intelligently about Heidegger rather than the common misconceptions that reduce Heidegger to a bad analytic philosopher.

BJ the Tornado said...

I'm surprising myself here in that I agree (in a way) with Kevin (no offense intended by my surprise, Kevin, I just normally don't find myself on your side of debates here).

I have found that communicating relatively basic concepts and theories in philosophy can be rather difficult to the uninformed/uneducated (re: philosophy).

Part of this, perhaps, is taken care of by Joad's note that he's making a claim about "any reader of intelligence and goodwill." I suppose given those things, his claim may stand... but, sadly, if Joad is right I guess this just shows that a embarrasingly large majority of folks today are either not intelligent (which I doubt) or else (more likely) lack the goodwill needed to give the required effort in attempting to understand philosophy. I am perpetually shocked at how many people I run across that could just care less about really attempting to understand any thing about philosophy (or much else of any substance or value, for that matter). But I suppose this is actually a different gripe about our dumbed-down and decreped state of society as opposed to an actual objection to Joad's claim about communicating philosophy.

But come on Drs. McGrew and Groothuis, do you mean to tell me that it is easy to explain philosophy to some of your jaded undergrads (or sem grads) who lack the required "goodwill" (to understate the case) required to understand philosophy at any substantial level?

Perhaps not... perhaps you'll agree that the task is difficult. But I suppose then I'd just ask Dr. G what the relevence of Joad's quote is. The problem is that we lack "readers" of intelligence and goodwill -- not that philosophers are failing to be capable of communicating philosophy.

NB: I'm NOT saying that MANY philosophers, particularly those like Derrida, poststructuralists of all types, et. al., as well as many in the current analytic tradtition, don't often hide behind obfuscation and complex, technical sounding jargon to mask a weakness or defeciency in their position. Yes -- many philosophers do precisely that (sadly). But there is something to be said for the other side of the coin: that much of philosophy IS rather complex and without the required readers (as stipulated by Joad) communicating the discipline's ins-and-outs can be quite the challenge.

Tim said...

Kevin & BJ,

I think the key to the passage is to read Joad's reference to a "reader of intelligence and goodwill" to be a reference not just to high IQ and amiability but to readers with a certain sort of basic education that includes the inculcation of habits of mind that include the willingness to follow a complex line of argument. Many mathematical proofs (say, in elementary number theory or in graph theory) require not so much specialized technical training as what used to be called mathematical maturity, a willingness and readiness to plow through an argument that runs to several pages even in compressed form. Any Edwardian schoolboy who had worked his way through the 13 books of Euclid's Elements in his sixth forms would, I think, have been a candidate for Joad's approbation.

And no, I don't get many students like that these days; just a few. This tells you something about the American public education system.

Kevin,

I have grave doubts about Heidegger's profundity, and I'm strongly inclined to regret that you've sunk such an appreciable part of your life into trying to understand someone who does not, in my opinion, have much useful to say. Such effort is worthy of a better object. But I have no doubts at all about Derrida's profundity -- or his integrity. I see nothing in Derrida but willful obfuscation and manipulative incoherence. Six inches of muddy water looks as deep as the ocean.

Jonathan Erdman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kevin Winters said...

We can also include, more modernly, Frege's Grundgesetze der Arithmetik that wasn't taken seriously until Russell and Whitehead appropriated and vastly improved its notation in their Principia Mathematica. Intelligence and goodwill, though necessary, aren't sufficient. What is needed is an openness to what is said, which is deeper than "intelligence," though it does require "goodwill."

To raise a pertinent point: if Heidegger is right, it could very well be that "the inculcation of habits of mind" are exactly what is interfering in conversations between so-called 'analytic' and so-called 'continental' thinkers (I am very skeptical that there is a very strong distinction). One of the primary "habits" of so-called analytic thinkers is the idea that all good arguments should be reducible to some formal construct, with its premises clearly articulated. But if Heidegger is right, then there is something prior to such theoretical constructs which cannot be reduced to them; in fact, there is a non-theoretical ground on which the theoretical constructs are made possible--being-in-the-world, attunement, or Ereignis, moving from early to later Heidegger.

So, let me ask you this: are you open to the possibility of non-theoretical understanding? If not then you cannot give Heidegger a fair reading, nor could I instruct you even in the clearest exposition of Heidegger's thought.

Kevin Winters said...

Tim,

As I'm strongly inclined to regret that you have failed to do such research. I won't, though. Even though I think Heidegger is correct on a great many things (certainly not all), I don't think he is for everyone, just like I don't think that philosophy or any other theoretical discipline is for everyone. Some peoples' 'intelligence' are in different activities and I'm certainly not going to tout philosophy as the Good that everyone should be reaching for.

But Jonathan is right: Heidegger has been a great influence on many modern thinkers, which should itself make understanding his thought an important endeavor. But the fact that Heidegger and many of those who have followed in his footsteps do not fall into the common Evangelical (mis)understanding of so-called 'postmodernism' should also make you question your hesitancy. He is not a nihilist or a relativist (his later thought could easily be seen as an extended argument against both), he has a rather strong notion of truth that makes correspondence itself possible and meaningful, his later thought includes a strong ethical element (best exemplified in the thought of Levinas, for whom ethics is first philosophy), his understanding of language has revolutionized modern studies in hermeneutics (particularly through Gadamer, but also through Ricoeur; I should add that none of these three say that 'all interpretations are possible,' nor would such a claim be consistent with their views), and I could go on and on. If any of the above is not sufficient to make the study of Heidegger important to the modern philosopher, then I don't know what is.

Lastly, for Derrida, his manner of arguing is indeed unfortunate. Heidegger himself does a better job in his later thought to say much the same thing. But as I've been trying to argue, both require realism of some sort in order to make sense of their thought.

Kevin Winters said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tim said...

I had just written up a rather lengthy response to Jonathan Erdman’s remarks when his comment disappeared from the thread. Rather than waste them, I’ll paste them in here with this warning that they may require some interpretive ingenuity now that they cannot be compared to his original post. Briefly, Jonathan quoted Jesus’ words from John 8:43:

Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say

and then suggested that Kevin “wins on this one” because I have failed to appreciate the extent to which understanding requires shared assumptions. He then went on to ask whether I thought the study of difficult philosophers, such as Kant, was worthwhile, and if so why I didn’t extend that to Heidegger, who has after all had a profound impact on 20th century thought.

*****

Jonathan,

I suppose I should take a sort of perverse delight out of the fact that I cannot quite make out what you are trying to say here. That impasse itself it may be a microcosm of our larger differences, and each of us is likely to interpret it accordingly -- !

Certainly I never meant to claim that understanding has nothing to do with shared assumptions, and I have never said that communicating difficult ideas is easy. My guess, however, is that you and I have very different views about the extent of the methodological assumptions that rational and reflective persons share.

It seems to me that you are confusing (or even conflating) methodological assumptions with contentful ones, which is of course one of Van Til's besetting sins. The John 8 passage does not really speak to the original quotation from Joad or what I take to be Doug's point in putting it up. It is difficult to parlay Jesus' point regarding the unbelief of the Jews into a defense of postmodern jargon. After all, what has Jesus just said?

I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. (John 8:42)

This is not obscure philosophical jargon: it is as straightforward as an utterance can get. The difficulty is not in the understanding but in the believing. By the end of the discussion the Jews have picked up stones to stone him.

Your references to Thiselton, Vanhoozer, and Gadamer take me back to my college days when I read Truth and Method, The Two Horizons, and several other things in that genre. Been there, done that. It probably won't surprise you that I think the entire "hermeneutics" movement is muddled. As an antidote to Gadamer, I would suggest E. D. Hirsch's Validity in Interpretation. If only the people who were teaching Hermeneutics 101 knew what they were talking about ...

There is, I think, a role for a few scholars to work out the puzzle of the disproportionate impact of inferior thinkers like Hegel, Marx, and Heidegger on modern thought. Someone should do that, in the name of intellectual history.

But Kevin's fascination with Heidegger runs much deeper; he is convinced that there are profound insights there, and he seems to be suggesting that his own difficulties in communicating those insights to the rest of us -- not just to hoi polloi, but specifically to "hard core so-called analytic philosophers" -- are a function of our limited conceptual horizons and intellectual inertia.

The impression I get as I read Kevin wrestling with Heidegger's ouvre is rather as though I were watching a talented artist scrutinizing a Rorschach blot, trying desperately to wring some representational significance from all that spilled ink.

Lord knows I'm not making fun of Kevin here; I've spent time trying to do the same thing. The difference between us is simply that Kevin is still staring at the blot, convinced that the significance is in there, somewhere, whereas I'm now convinced that it isn't.

Tim said...

Kevin,

Quickly here -- you write:

One of the primary "habits" of so-called analytic thinkers is the idea that all good arguments should be reducible to some formal construct, with its premises clearly articulated.

I think this is a misdescription, and it's one that has come up several times now in our interactions. It is one thing to say that all good arguments have structure; it is quite another to say that they can all be crumpled into syllogisms or shoehorned into some other extant formal system. Think of it as similar to the difference in scope between these claims:

(1) For all x, if x is an argument and x is good, there exists some formal system F such that x is representable as cogent within F.

(2) There exists some formal system F such that, for all x, if x is an argument and x is good, x is representable as cogent within F.

Statement (2) entails, but isn't entailed by, (1). Roughly, (1) says that all good arguments can be formalized; (2) says that only arguments that can be formalized within existing systems are good.

Good analytic philosophers are, as a group and on the whole, much more comfortable than their Continental cousins with something like (1), though some would prefer a more minimal statement of it to clarify the point that "exists" shouldn't be taken to mean that the system has been worked out already.

I don't know of anyone worth taking seriously who endorses anything like (2).

Kevin Winters said...

Tim,

Thanks for the clarification, as I think I am now understanding your point. My next question: can all non-arguments be potentially formalized as expressed in (1)? Perhaps another way to say it: if something is meaningful does that entail possible formalization as expressed in (1)?

Tim said...

Kevin,

Can non-arguments be formalized as expressed in (1)? I should say not. What (1) is all about is the formalization of cogency; it's not a criterion of meaningfulness tout court. Asking whether "Please pass the salt" is cogent or fallacious makes about as much sense as asking whether C-sharp is blue or some other color.

That said, I would claim there is a broad category for the use of language to communicate ideas and information, and language that does this successfully, though not formalizable in the sense of (1), is subject to some constraints. Terms, for example, cannot be wholly amorphous. That isn't to say they all need sharp edges, which few terms outside of logic and mathematics do. (I think it was Leszek Kolakowski in Modernity on Endless Trial who gave the delightful spoof of analytic philosophy as the discipline in according to which, if no necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of the term "garden" could be specified, one was obliged to give up gardening(!)) Vagueness within some bounds is not a problem, and it's a caricature of analytic philosophy to portray its votaries as fanatically opposed to vagueness. What we analytic philosophers do object to, inter alia, is vagueness stretched to the point of complete unintelligibility.

One of the things that can cause confusion in a discussion of this point is that language can be used as a means of bringing about certain states in the recipient apart from its content. I may sing my daughter to sleep with a lullaby that she cannot understand; I may induce pleasureable bewilderment and reminiscences of childhood in my acquaintances by quoting "Jabberwocky"; I may induce feelings of awe and respect in my students by intoning phrases like "the transcendental unity of apperception." It is fascinating that language can be used this way, and it is important to note that such uses are compatible with there being genuine content to the words (say of the lullaby or of Kant). But the content is not what is creating the effect.

Kevin Winters said...

Tim,

If what you say is true, then there is not as much disagreement between yourself and Heidegger as you might think. Though I am still quite skeptical about the inherent claim in (1), namely that it is always possible to formalize an argument, though we may currently lack the calculus to do so.

One more question, related to this skepticism: what if reality or, if you prefer, being is inherently 'ambiguous' such that any formalized description of it is inherently faulty? One more way to put it: what if being inherently escapes or exceeds (to use a cognate of a term I've used recently: excess) all possible formalizations?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Tim,

I deleted my comment because I felt I may have been a bit snide, and I didn't want you to think of me as rude or disrespectful.

In any case, you gave a fair summary of my thoughts and a good response.

One thought on Jesus' comments in John 8...

I believe that a Johannine view of "understanding" is much more than intellectual. To say that the John 8 audiance didn't "understand" probably is not referring to their evaluation of the proposition that Jesus uttered "I came from God." This is not to say that the proposition is not important to John, it is simply to recognize that understanding, knowledge, etc. in the Fourth Gospel is often "confused" with belief and acceptance of Christ.

It is the same way with "truth" in the Gospel of John. John uses alehteia to describe both truth in a propositional response and what some might call the response to truth. Again, John "confuses" the two, but does so very deliberately.

What does this mean for reading the so-called "postmoderns"? Well, I think it means that understanding someone is deeper than the propositional content. It is a matter of engaging and appreciating the ideas, even if one ultimately concludes that they are wrong. I don't mean to divorce the propositional understanding from the "engagment" with the author of the text. On the contrary, I would seek to combine them as inseperable.

Tim said...

Kevin,

You ask:

[W]hat if reality or, if you prefer, being is inherently 'ambiguous' such that any formalized description of it is inherently faulty? One more way to put it: what if being inherently escapes or exceeds (to use a cognate of a term I've used recently: excess) all possible formalizations?

You're going to hate this one: I am not sure what you're talking about.

And I can see, right off, why that response might be frustrating. Not to put words in your mouth, but I can imagine someone's responding to me like this:

Well, this is hopeless! Language has a structure, and I'm asking you if in your view reality might exceed all structures, and you're telling me you won't understand what I'm saying unless I put it in a structure.

If you are inclined to feel this way, all I can say is (1) perhaps the expression of the exceeding of reality might be subjected to the structures of language even if what you're trying to describe is not itself subject to them, and (2) I'm not appealing to some criterion of verifiability or in some other artificial way trying to wall myself off.

If you can see your way clear to giving an example, I'll try to understand it.

Incidentally, in my comment about "significance" and Heidegger, I didn't mean to say (but could have been misunderstood as saying) that Heidegger's work is meaningless. My actual position is that only some of it is meaningless, but that what is meaningful isn't particularly profound. I know -- limp praise. Sorry.

Tim said...

Jonathan,

No problems -- I wasn't offended.

On John's use of aletheia, you might want to have a look at Roger Nicole's article "The Biblical Concept of Truth" in D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge, eds., Scripture and Truth (Zondervan, 1983). Nicole does a good job of disentangling various strands in the biblical usage, including factuality, faithfulness, and completeness.

Kevin Winters said...

Tim,

Well, I guess what we need to do is stop working with these generalities and move on to specific issues. I would encourage you to keep up on my blog and make comments where desired.

Tim said...

Kevin,

Good idea. Please give us a link again to your blog.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Nothing nothings--Heidegger.

Kevin Winters said...

Tim,

It can be found here.

Groothuis,

And you quoting Heidegger again...because?

Douglas Groothuis said...

It's so profound.

Tim said...

Doug,

If you think that's profound ... you ain't seen nothing yet!

(Sorry, couldn't resist)

Here's a comment I just posted over on Kevin's blog that may have some pertinence to this discussion as well.

*****

Kevin,

You write:

In relation to "essence," again, Heidegger is disputing "what many people mean" by that term. The mere fact that the majority of philosophers accept a different notion that has a history demonstrates little.

Why should this be profitable? It's a bit like disputing what people mean by "spoon." You can do that, by the Humpty Dumpty principle. You can mean what you choose. But then you must not be surprised when people find your obiter dicta puzzling. And you probably shouldn't be surprised when, after you tell them that you didn't really mean what everyone else means by those words, they respond, "Oh -- if that's all you're saying, why is it interesting?"

Etymology is a real grab bag and should not, in my opinion, be called upon to deliver up a metaphysics. Sometimes verbal similarities are accidental; sometimes they are a matter of the extension of metaphors in one particular direction. I do not think there is anything very valuable to be obtained from disassembling the word "understanding" and making heavy weather about "standing under." This is the sort of thing Sallis did constantly in his job talk at Vanderbilt. It's cute once or twice, but after that it comes across as a rhetorical trope that serves as a substitute for serious thinking.

I realize that you think otherwise. So: where's the argument?

On the example of the Rook: I don't think it's useful to speak of Rooks as having essences. It's certainly important to understand that Rooks move in certain ways and not in others, that one may castle under certain well-defined circumstances, etc. But what's the point of pressing the word "essence" into service here? (I speak as a fairly experienced tournament chess player, teacher, and author; you can look me up online in this regard if you like.)

It does not seem impossible to me that one might try to explore the essences of things by putting them in relations to other things. Their behavior in various contexts might well be a clue to their intrinsic nature. Millikan's oil-drop experiment comes to mind here. It just seems perverse to hijack a term with a stable existing meaning and to insist that what it really means, despite its established meaning in philosophical parlance, is something entirely different.