Monday, August 21, 2006

Meta and Meta*

A fun game to play while reading is verbal tics, in which one attempts to identify and list the idiosyncrasies of the author's style. Is he in love with the first person? Unable to resist the parenthetic remark? Wedded to the footnote? Or obsessed with rhetorical questions?

Sometimes, the task is embarrassingly easy, and one has to wonder whether the repetition is deliberate. A recent example of this is can be found in Rebecca Goldstein's memorable book on Kurt Gödel, Incompleteness. In a scathing review in the LRB, Solomon Feferman points to Goldstein's misuse of "metamathematics" to mean philosophy of mathematics (not the mathematics of formal systems), as part of a more general linguistic quirk. Among the best examples of its expression are these:
metaquestion, metaconviction, metaimplications, metaresult, metalight, metaview,
and, best of all,
metaovertones.
Such extremes of self-parody cannot be accidental. Nor can Goldstein's cute description of the incompleteness theorems as "prolix" – speaking to questions about logic, arithmetic, philosophy, and the mind – and later as "loquacious", "verbose", and even "gabby".

I hesitate to say what is going on in Goldstein's book, but presumably part of it is a relentless informality – which blurs into carelessness, and thus infuriates Feferman – intended to bring out, by contrast, the distinctive reticence of Gödel himself. The over-excited use of "meta" is precisely "gabby", and (perhaps?) deliberately so. None of this would excuse the errors of fact that Feferman describes. But it makes one sympathetic to the otherwise distracting tics of Goldstein's prose.

6 Comments:

Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

* with apologies to "Q".

1:32 PM  
Blogger GF-A said...

Have you played this verbal tic game with yourself? And if so, with what results?

12:14 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Alas, verbal tics is a very difficult game to play with one's own prose. In my philosophical writing, I used to suffer badly from the absence of examples, or excessive love of abstraction, which is something I've been working against. But otherwise, it's not for me to say!

12:33 PM  
Blogger "Q" the Enchanter said...

"Or obsessed with rhetorical questions?"

Delightful!

Anyway, one tic common to many philosophers is the overuse of italics for emphasis? So annoying.

10:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was reading Wilfrid Sellars a few years ago and it struck me he was rather fond of raising an alternative viewpoint and then saying it was "mistaken" or "confused" and then going on to describe his own, correct view. After a while you start to wonder if you've seen any genuine arguments for casting aside all these "mistaken" or "confused" views, other than that they are different.

Sellars wasn't actually bad or stupid, but he did have a definite tendency to write like that. (JN)

4:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On philosophers' intellectual tics, see the infamous "proofs that p".

4:52 AM  

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