Monday, September 26, 2005

In Praise of Post-Its

They have made an incalculable difference to intellectual life, pushing at the boundaries of human ignorance. How was research possible without them – or systematic thought? One is led to speculate: did Aristotle's edition of Plato flash with pale yellow? did Leonardo make a blueprint for the post-it note, beside the helicopter and a sketch of the Mona Lisa? Wittgenstein once wrote (to Gilbert Pattison) that he would like to "card-index" his mind. Thanks to Romy and Michelle, this is finally possible.

Monday, September 19, 2005

"A difficulty is a light"

Recent debates about "bad writing" have been occupied almost exclusively with "theory". Judith Butler was the target of the most fearsome assault: according to Nussbaum, she "collaborates with evil". Having embraced obscurity – after a fashion – I have been thinking about bad or difficult writing in philosophy.

To begin with, these are not the same, since difficult writing can be very good, and also very clear. A crude operational definition: with difficult writing the risk is incomprehension or lack of understanding; with bad writing, it is mis-comprehension, thinking one understands when one does not.

This distinction is stressed, though not defined, by many contributors to Just Being Difficult?, a humourless and somewhat smug defence of "theoretical" writing edited by Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb. Much of the book is hardly worth discussing, since it operates at a level of generality that is bound to miss the point. As I understand it, the accusation of "bad writing" can only be piecemeal or inductive: this or that writer is needlessly obscure, and his bad arguments are disguised by impossible prose. The charge is properly made in focused essays like Nussbaum's, and properly defused in the same way – as, for instance, in Culler's effective paper on Stanley Cavell. There is little to be gained from operatic gestures towards the political subversion of grammar and the (alleged) paradox of using language to describe itself – or from yet another invocation of "Politics and the English Language".

The more interesting questions are sociological. For instance, "theorists" and philosophers alike are plausibly said to write in inaccessible ways, even when they write well. (There are exceptions to this, but it is more or less the rule.) It is also true that they are not very widely read. But which is cause and which effect, if either? Does philosophy have a narrow audience, mainly of professionals, because it is esoteric? Or did it become more esoteric with the contraction of its audience, which allowed for the indulgence of technicality, and ensured a readership of (only) experts? I have no idea – nor am I sure that the audience for philosophy has very much declined in this century, or how to measure such a thing. I doubt that McTaggart was on the bookshelf of every educated Brit.

The debate about bad writing has a longer history still. In one of the better essays in Just Being Difficult? it is traced to David Hume, whose Treatise of Human Nature "fell dead-born from the press". A review from 1740:
I should have taken no notice of what he has wrote, if I had not thought this book, in several parts, so very abstruse and perplex'd, that, I am convinced, no Man can comprehend what he means; and as one of the greatest Wits of the Age has justly observed, this may impose upon weak Readers, and make them imagine, there is a Great Deal of deep Learning in it, because they do not understand it.
Poor Hume. I am afraid that his unfortunate fate endures. In teaching the history of ethics to undergraduates, I assign Book Three of the Treatise instead of the more friendly exposition of the second Enquiry. Still, I was never prepared for its reception: by some inversion of the order of nature, my students prefer the prose of Kant's Groundwork to that of Hume. They read Kant in contemporary translation, of course. (This fact is the impetus for Jonathan Bennett's re-compositions of early modern philosophy.) But however hard it is to convey the pleasure of Hume's style, one has to try. By the operational definition, the Treatise of Human Nature is badly written: elusive, ambiguous, obtuse. How does one learn to experience its difficulty as a sun?

Monday, September 12, 2005

Philosophy and the Two Cultures

In a recent edition of the LRB, Rorty reviewed Scott Soames' two-volume history of analytic philosophy. The books are absolutely packed with arguments; Soames is a kind of anti-Gellner: meticulous, discriminating, unhistorical.

The review is positive, I think, and it is initially hard to fathom the antagonism in Soames' response. He objects to Rorty's desire for "grand synthesis", praising the specialization of contemporary analytic philosophy. What is puzzling is that philosophy remains relatively un-specialized: it is still possible for the very great to have an educated view about the whole range of philosophical questions. There was only one David Lewis, it is true, but there are others who are like him in this respect. And even those of us well-advised to aim at smaller goals should be able to say how their minutiae relate to the big questions. Philosophical specialists typically can describe these relations, even if their publications do not always spell them out.

In the background, I suspect, is a picture of Rorty as anti-philosophical, and as willfully obscure, specialization being understood as the price of clarity. Neither charge has much to do with the content of the review. Both are pursued at greater length – though Rorty is not named – in a paper that resonates with Soames' remarks: Timothy Williamson's "Must Do Better". It, too, is an argument in favour of small questions, of philosophical specialization, and especially of patient, rigorous intellectual care: we must spell out the criteria by which to judge reflection, the "forms of philosophical discipline".

In one way, this self-described "sermon" is impossible to dispute. Of course, yes, let's work hard, really try to the find the truth and not be lazy. Why, then, do I find myself resisting its appeal? Not because I have much sympathy with the quietists, those "opponents of systematic philosophical theorizing". (This could be misleading: apart from Rorty, I'm not sure who these people are.) And only in part because of the tone – which is, as Williamson notes, "like the headmaster of a minor public school at speech day, telling everyone to pull their socks up after a particularly bad term". What I mainly resist is the demand for explicit methods in philosophy, at least as something universal.

This is a tricky point. In trying to make it, one can seem to advocate "work that is not properly disciplined by anything." That is not what I mean to do. And I think we should be self-conscious about the fraught epistemology of philosophical thought. But I am wary of the moments in "Must Do Better" that sound like expressions of faith in philosophy as science, and of the rousing final remarks:

This is not the end of philosophy. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

That philosophy will become science, that there are rules for the direction of the mind – this has been the illusion of every sage in every age. It has produced work of genius. (Williamson quotes Grice with approval: "By and large the greatest philosophers have been the greatest, and most self-conscious, methodologists; indeed, I am tempted to regard this fact as primarily accounting for their greatness as philosophers.") But any method tends to exclude. There is a tension between Williamson's standards and a kind of openness we definitely need.

I am tempted by a tenuous comparison. In The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Snow argued for the replacement of "traditional culture" by science, in the service of a practical goal: the alleviation of poverty. One wants to say in response to this: yes to the goal, and to the details; but no to the idea of science as culture, and no to the expulsion of the vague, blundering, creative, method-less humanities. Snow's main error of fact was to claim that "the writers" did not respond to the Industrial Revolution. He seems not to have noticed the political impact of Coleridge, Carlyle, Mill, Dickens, Ruskin. Or rather, he says that they "shuddered [and] produced fancies, which were not much in effect more than screams of horror." But whether they had policies to propose (as some did) or not, they were necessary.

You can see where the analogy is going (and why it is limited). My fear is that the tension between novelty or imagination and transparent methodology is one that we cannot eliminate. If philosophy were in its endgame, it might be right to insist that every move be played by set rules. But if the idea of an endgame makes sense, which I doubt, I am sure it is not here yet. We will need new ideas, unexpected ones, ones that seem obscure and difficult and hard to make precise. Philosophy, no more than culture, is ready to be scientific. So, while some should formulate explicit methods, and do the work that Williamson describes, I do not see that everyone must. The value of diversity is greater than the benefits to come from universal rigour. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Aristocracy of Taste

A disappointing film, The Aristocrats, and not only for the predictable reason that it was excessively praised in the New York Times: A. O. Scott called it "one of the most original and rigorous pieces of criticism in any medium I have encountered in quite some time."

Perhaps that was a joke? If so, it is not nearly as good as the joke that forms the basis for the film – which is itself not good enough to sustain us for 90 minutes. Criticism is very thin on the ground, but it is desperately needed: The Aristocrats in fact makes almost nothing of the analytical potential of its material.

By now, everyone knows the focus of this documentary, so it is not much of a spoiler to describe it here:
Set-up: A man goes to a talent agent to sell his act; the agent asks him to describe it.

Development (improvised): "It's a family act"; the description is scatalogical and utterly obscene – shitting, pissing, vomiting, incest.

Punch-line: "What do you call yourselves?" "The Aristocrats."
It is a very mediocre joke, and part of the consequent interest is that its success depends massively upon the telling. Jokes and risk: the public invitation of failure. That's a worthwhile theme. But the documentary cannot address it, because it is (understandably) unwilling to criticize any of its comedians. Some tell the joke well; some do it badly. This is the data that the film provides – but from which it is deprived of access by a conviction that its contributors are uniformly great.

Still, the evidence is available to us. What does it suggest? If the film were an argument, it would be a sustained defence of Hutcheson's theory in his Thoughts on Laughter of 1725:
That then which seems generally the cause of laughter, is 'the bringing together of images which have contrary additional ideas, as well as some resemblance to the principal idea: this contrast between ideas of grandeur, dignity, sanctity, perfection, and ideas of meanness, baseness, profanity, seems to be the very spirit of burlesque; and the greatest part of our raillery and jest are founded upon it'.
In the best performances of "The Aristocrats", there is a double incongruity, between the material and the punch-line, and (as George Carlin points out) between the content of the material and its delivery as entertainment or matter of fact. (Bergson's "mechanical encrusted on the living"?) This is "burlesque", not "gross-out" humour, or the comedy of sheer obscenity – which explains the failure of many comics in the film, who mistakenly try to shock.

There is a final incongruity: that of sophisticated observational comedians adopting (but revising) an old-fashioned vaudeville form. This is not material they would use on stage – with the exception of Gilbert Gottfried's remarkable (though not very funny) rendition, shortly after 9/11.

This discrepancy may prompt light-hearted speculation about "the death of the joke" – another issue virtually unexplored by The Aristocrats. The question is addressed more rigorously by Alexei Sayle, in a wise remark about acculturation, historicity and the perspectival character of humour:
Why did music hall die out? Because it was crap!