The imprudent tweet has endangered the career of many a professional—psychology professor and Congressman, to name two. Last week the University of New Mexico formally censured psychology professor Geoffrey Miller, who had tweeted in June, “Dear obese PhD applicants: if you don’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.” The tweet sparked outrage online that spilled onto the pages of the Atlantic.
(You already know about the ex-Congressman.)
Using Twitter, it seems, involves the following trade-off: in exchange for accessing a low-level stream of nonsense and chatter, you take on the risk of damaging your reputation permanently with the One Bad Tweet.
That’s why professor Brian Leiter advises graduate students, who already face perilous career prospects, to steer clear of public social media of any kind.
“The evidence is that first impressions are ‘sticky,’ and there is way too much risk that a bad first impression will be created by unfortunate or out-of-context remarks on social media, rather than a student’s work,” wrote Leiter on his popular philosophy blog, Leiter Reports, in response to a concerned graduate student’s request for advice.
A hiring committee member might overlook your brilliant, considered work on metaethics if he only recalls a gaffe like “Deontologists are full of crap screw you guys #TeamUtilitarian,” “So hungover during metaphysics lecture #YOLO” or “I think that Mitt Romney is a decent guy.”
Predictably, Leiter’s advice set philosophers atwitter on…Twitter. And, predictably, several of the tweets in response were under-thought and drew Leiter’s (likely permanent) ire, promptly proving his point.
But philosophy professor Rani Lill Anjum, who maintains a list of philosophers on Twitter, sings the praises of Twitter. Initially a Twitter skeptic, she now encourages more academics to join her: for advice and encouragement, and even for help working through philosophical conundrums.
Twitter thinking is the opposite of philosophical thinking. John Campbell defines philosophy as “thinking in slow motion. It breaks down, describes and assesses moves we ordinarily make at great speed.” Twitter, by contrast, is half-thinking at blinding speed. So why tweet?
The difference between Leiter and Anjum seems to come down to two issues: how well Twitter users are able to exercise restraint, and how well they can sift through the blather to find useful information. Anjum finds Twitter an “utterly friendly and supportive” place for philosophical discussion. But Leiter’s not buying it: ”Twitter is (by and large) a lot of childish noise, and I think only in the mind of twitter users is it shaping the world,” he writes.
That’s fair enough, but perhaps Professor Leiter underestimates the ability of academics like Anjum to create a Twitter world largely sheltered from the noise and blather. For Anjum, Twitter is a place where a bunch of philosophers share ideas and encourage each other, with negligible occasion to embarrass themselves. It’s a small but inspiring feat, and it’s worth pondering how other communities might replicate it online.
President Obama’s decision to close embassies and consulates across the Middle East and North Africa has added yet another twist in this summer’s NSA revelations saga. Lawmakers who have been briefed on the terror threat are calling it credible, specific, and alarming, according to the Washington Post.
But civil libertarians are alarmed that these threats will create a climate of fear in which the debate about the NSA’s vast data collection will be scuttled.
Glenn Greenwald, the reporter-activist who has served as a megaphone for revelations about and criticisms of U.S. government surveillance activities, went so far as to suggest that the embassy closings could be an effort to distract from the heightened scrutiny. He told Democracy Now,
Here we are in the midst of one the most intense debates, and sustained debates, that we’ve had in a very long time in this country over the dangers of excess surveillance, and suddenly an administration that has spent two years claiming that it has decimated Al-Qaeda decides that there is this massive threat that involves the closing of embassies and consulates throughout the world.
Even if we trust that the embassy closures are well-justified, we should still protest loudly when the specter of terrorism is used to distract from a vital civil liberties debate. Conspiracy or no, the embassy closings provide an all-too-easy way for NSA defenders to cudgel surveillance skeptics. That’s the real scandal, and it’s one we’ve seen before.
“These [NSA] programs are controversial, we understand that,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “But they are also very important … If we did not have these programs, then we simply would not be able to listen in on the bad guys.”
He was just one of several Congressional supporters of the NSA making the rounds on the Sunday morning talk shows to defend the NSA.
Granted, not all lawmakers painted in as broad strokes (“these programs”) as Chambliss did. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) admitted that one of the more controversial NSA programs, the collection of cell phone metadata, was not necessarily involved in detecting the Al Qaeda plot. “You have to be careful how much you represent that any particular program has contributed to our security,” he told CNN.
Even if the NSA’s vast surveillance powers helped us “listen in on the bad guys” to prevent an attack, this fact should not weaken any truly principled concern about government snooping. The question has never have been, “are the NSA programs intrusive and useless?” but rather, “even if they are useful, how much privacy are we willing to sacrifice for the security they bring?”
Rep. Justin Amash, to his credit, pivoted directly from the embassy threats back to Constitutional liberties:
“It’s precisely because we live in this dangerous world that we need protections like the Fourth Amendment,” he told Fox News. “The framers of the Constitution put it in place precisely because they were worried that you could have national security justifications for violating people’s rights.”
“Chatter” is the word of the week—it refers to intercepted Al Qaeda messages. But it also describes our degraded conversation about civil liberties, in which the first hint of danger can shut down any scrutiny of the national security state.
A Republican Congressman told Fox News yesterday that Edward Snowden is a whistleblower, and not a traitor—another clear example of the shifting conversation on civil liberties on the Right.
Fox host Chris Wallace, clearly skeptical, asked Justin Amash of Michigan directly: “You still consider him a whistleblower?”
“Yes,” replied Amash.
Amash stressed that Congress could not provide effective oversight without Snowden’s revelations: “Members of Congress were not really aware … about what these programs were being used for, the extent to which they were being used.”
Late last month, Amash proposed an amendment to strip funding for an NSA program that collects the telephone records of people in the United States. While the amendment failed–narrowly–the vigorous debate it prompted exposed deep divisions in both parties in the NSA debate: it’s not Republican versus Democrat but civil-libertarians versus security hawks. As Jim Antle explained in TAC,
While the Tea Party was split down the middle, with many conservatives bucking the party leadership, civil libertarians on the left also revolted…Republican leaders can’t control the libertarians in their midst and are starting to conclude it’s better not to try. Civil libertarians in the Democratic Party are no longer allowing Barack Obama’s presence in the White House to keep them silent.
According to a Quinnipiac poll released last Thursday, a majority of U.S. voters agree with Amash’s recent comments: 55% percent of respondents say Snowden is “more a whistleblower” than traitor, 34% “more a traitor.”
Particularly interesting is the shift in Amash’s own party that these polls have highlighted. As the Wall Street Journal noted, the Republican demographic has been one of the most drastically changing in recent years. In 2010, 72% of Republicans said counterterrorism did not go far enough, which had fallen to 46% by this summer. And according to last week’s poll, Republicans almost mirror national sentiment: 51% of Republicans label Snowden a whistleblower.
Crucially, the poll was conducted before Snowden accepted asylum in Russia. Whether that will change the public’s mood remains to be seen, but Amash remained circumspect on that question: “He may be doing things overseas that we would find problematic, that we would find dangerous. We will find those facts out over time,” he conceded. “But as far as Congress is concerned, he’s a whistleblower. He told us what we needed to know.”
Nor have the recent al-Qaeda threats and embassy closings changed Amash’s mind; if anything, he says, these dangers should reinforce our wariness of expansive government powers:
“It’s precisely because we live in this dangerous world that we need protections like the Fourth Amendment,” he said. “The framers of the Constitution put it in place precisely because they were worried that you could have national security justifications for violating people’s rights.”
There’s a brawl going down on the internet over the validity of evolutionary psychology. On defense for evolutionary psychology: biologist Jerry Coyne and Steven Pinker, possibly the most eminent evolutionary psychologist. On the warpath: PZ Myers, a developmental biologist, who argues that “most of the claims of evolutionary psychology are fallacious.”
Though Myers’ main line of attack centers on data and methods, the long and contentious political debate over Darwinian social science gets dragged into the fray.
While that argument has raged for decades, this century’s round opened with Steven Pinker’s classic The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, famously knocked down a naive “blank slate” theory of human nature: namely, that human behavior and preferences are entirely shaped by culture and thus endlessly malleable. Though it’s less widely held by actual scientists, Pinker demonstrated how influential Blank Slate thinking has been in the humanities departments, popular culture, and political philosophy.
Locke’s tabula rasa undermined the dogma and authority of aristocratic social systems, since it meant that no man inherently possessed any more wisdom or virtue than others–only what experience imparted. And indeed, the modern versions of the Blank Slate were bolstered by an appropriate wariness of ugly Darwin-justified racism and sexism.
But the Blank Slate is also a great foundation on which to build catastrophic social engineering schemes (Mao Zedong said “It is on a blank page that the most beautiful poems are written”), as well as a wall behind which to hide PC shibboleths. Some racial strands of political thought have latched onto evolutionary theory, but certain strands of conservatism have welcomed the insights of evolutionary psychology because they reinforce the conservative intuition that human beings are not as malleable as the many on the Left want them to be.
More recently, Peter Lawler’s New Atlantis essay, “Moderately Socially Conservative Darwinians,” argues that evolutionary psychology “reinforces the conservative lesson that we are not merely autonomous individuals but also social and relational beings.”
And so, unsurprisingly, politics gets dragged into the latest spat as well. Coyne accuses skeptics of evolutionary psychology of being motivated by ideology and politics:
Like the opponents of sociobiology thirty years ago, these skeptics object to the discipline because they see it as both motivated by and justifying conservative political views like the marginalization of women [!!]
Myers (who is an anti-theist and certainly no conservative!) brushes this aside:
I detest evolutionary psychology, not because I dislike the answers it gives, but on purely methodological and empirical grounds: it is a grandiose exercise in leaping to conclusions on inadequate evidence, it is built on premises that simply don’t work, and it’s a field that seems to do a very poor job of training and policing its practitioners, so that it primarily serves as a dump for bad research that then supplies tabloids with a feast of garbage science that discredits the rest of us.
Even as Myers, Pinker and Coyne march into battle over methodology and assumptions about neuroplasticity and epigenetics, the specter of old political battles will hang over them. Scientific disputes inevitably bleed into political disputes, and vice versa, often with scant regard to logic. That doesn’t mean that we should shout down any scientists who attempt to overturn our political assumptions, assumptions to which nature is wholly indifferent.
So it’s perhaps useful here that Coyne, Pinker, and Myers are all secularists and atheists, showing that the disputes over evolutionary psychology are not a mere proxy war for other politics, but a genuine controversy over how the scientific community can account for our human nature.
You’ve probably seen a clip of it already: Fox News aired a cringe-worthy interview of the author of the latest Jesus tell-all book on Friday, much to the delight of many on the internet. In the now-viral interview, Fox News anchor and religion correspondent Lauren Green shows zero interest in the arguments or content of scholar Reza Aslan’s new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
Instead, she leads off the interview with “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” Aslan’s eyebrows threaten to rise right off of his face, but he comports himself honorably in a painful ten-minute conversation that never moves past this misguided line of questioning: “It still begs the question though, why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?”
But even if Green’s line of questioning weren’t laced with xenophobia, ignorant about the purpose of scholarship, or breathtakingly incurious, it would still be problematic. There is a deeper philosophical problem behind focusing on the fact that Aslan is a Muslim.
Let’s suppose for the sake of argument the following: Reza Aslan brings personal biases and prejudices from his Muslim faith to his study of the historical Jesus; the liberal media is breathlessly excited by Aslan’s book, even though it merely rehashes debates that have been going on in historical Jesus studies for decades, because that media tends to be hostile to traditional Christian faith.
In fact, there may very well be reason to believe those things. But to think that they have anything to do with the merits of Aslan’s arguments about Jesus is to engage in a logical fallacy that C.S. Lewis called Bulverism. He explains:
You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly… Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.
Bulverism a great way to score points while getting no closer to the truth, and it comprises perhaps 95% of writing about religion on the internet.
If you’re actually interested in Zealot, you shouldn’t care about Aslan, or Fox, but about the man from Galilee: what was he like? what did he teach? was he the Christ? If you’re looking for answers to that question, Aslan’s Muslim faith, Fox’s hostility, and any number of dreary facts about America’s cultural grievances are strictly irrelevant.
Textual criticism and and historical methodology can be boring and hard. Questioning motives and feigning outrage is always fun and easy, and serves as a particularly shallow way for people to engage in intellectual triage. That’s why interesting subjects only suffer when they get dragged into the culture wars.
Jacksonville, Florida, brings in coal from Colombia rather than West Virginia. Livestock farmers in Texas buy grain from Argentina instead of from America. Puerto Rico’s port at San Juan is losing shipping volume, even as the Port of Kingston in Jamaica is gaining it.
Why? Because an antiquated maritime law, the Jones Act, requires that all transport of cargo between two United States ports be carried by ships that are U.S.-owned, U.S.-built, U.S.-manned, and flagged in the United States.
That is, a ship from South Korea cannot go to Hawaii and then to San Fransisco. Foreign ships could not help with the BP oil spill cleanup without waivers.
William Keli’i Akina, the president of the Hawaiin think tank the Grassroots Institute, likens the law to a hostile blockade against Hawaii and Puerto Rico. But the vested interests that defend it—U.S. vessel owners, shipyards, unions, overland transporters—are so powerful that the last five presidents have all vocally supported it. Don’t expect repeal any time soon.
But some vivid illustrations of the law’s deep illogic in recent years have gained national attention. The act’s original purpose—in 1920, under the specter of German U-boats—was to ensure a “dependable” merchant fleet for the next “national emergency.” Nowadays, the Jones Act is the first thing to go in an emergency.
After Hurricane Katrina, President Bush waived the act for nineteen days.
During the BP oil spill, the Department of Energy offered a blanket waiver to buyers from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve—they could haul away the crude in any foreign-flagged tankers. When the White House got word of this, Obama’s advisors were “reportedly furious” (the administration switched to a case-by-case waiver program).
Everything about that episode supports the Washington Post’s summary of the law: “The Jones Act may or may not have achieved its original purpose, but shipping businesses and labor unions love the way it shields them from foreign competition.”
And that’s why repeal of the act is all but politically impossible. It’s a textbook example of rent-seeking: the benefits accrue to entrenched vested interests, while the harms are dispersed broadly and imperceptibly.
But Akina is optimistic that incremental reform of the Jones Act can gain momentum as a political cause. Puerto Rican politicians are increasingly vocal about the harms of the act to their island; Hawaiians question its role in sustaining a shipping duopoly on the island; Alaska has successfully carved out useful exclusions for certain industries.
In addition, the death of Senator Inouye of Hawaii, a consistent and powerful Jones Act supporter, “loosened the grip” of the law in Congress, says Akina. “I think it’s a great opportunity to seek reform.”
And last, and probably least, there’s a steady media drumbeat of Jones Act-bashing.
Consider this the most recent beat. Akina stresses that Jones Act reform could be a broad-based non-partisan cause, due to the act’s sheer clumsiness.
A fascinating New York Times article about doubt in Mormonism suggests that crises of faith are widespread not just among the marginally committed, but also the true believers and leadership. It points to a survey of more than 3,300 Mormon “disbelievers” released last year that found that over 40% of respondents had served in leadership positions.
Possibly more interesting than the survey itself, however, is the man who conducted it: John Dehlin, a graduate student at Utah State University, the founder of the “Mormon Stories” podcast, and himself a traveler in the gray area between faith and doubt in Mormonism.
When Mr. Dehlin went through an acute crisis of faith ten years ago, he felt there were few people he could turn to to help him, due to the stigma of doubt and disbelief.
Now, his mission is to create more acceptance inside Mormonism for people struggling with the historical and doctrinal problems of Mormonism–anguished souls like the respondents to his survey who write pleas like, “Please make sure the Church encourages its believers to avoid ostracizing a fellow member for such member’s disbelief” and “I try to participate so that our family can be together at church, but it is so hard when there is such a negative attitude towards people who have lost belief.”
(Mr. Dehlen’s survey defines “disbelievers”— perhaps problematically—as people who once believed but now deny that the Church is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth,” a key statement of Mormon belief.)
Post-crisis, Mr. Dehlin himself seems to deny that teaching. “I do believe in God,” he writes, “(though I don’t quite know what that means)”
And I believe that while God’s inspiration can often be found within the LDS church, I also see God’s inspiration in most churches, in nature, and wherever love and goodness abound (including amongst scientists, atheists, etc.).
I have no idea how much of “the gospel” is true/literal, and how much of it is symbolic/metaphorical.
However, like 20% of the disbelievers who filled out his survey, Mr. Dehlen also attends church weekly, where his bishop and stake president are aware of his activities and encourage him to remain active.
His current position is a strange mix, then, of skepticism and a desire to help people deal with contradictions in Mormonism. As he enumerates those contradictions in a video on his website, he pauses to assure his viewers, “There are believers who know all this, and who have found ways to have this not disrupt their testimony.”
His approach manages to draw anger from both sides: by believers who see him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and by ex-believers who see him as an accomodationist and coward.
“It seems the purpose of the board is to lovingly coax people out of the church, all while making them feel really great about it,” writes one commenter. “It’s a very misleading site…”
On the other hand, some who have left Mormonism see no good reason for him to still be sticking around.
Dehlin, for his part, wants the Mormon church to thrive—and to him, that means mostly sticking with the same orthodox beliefs he rejects. “I don’t want the church to fill up with members like me,” he says. “I don’t think that’s good for the church.”
“I’ve read enough about Judaism to know that a church can’t thrive with predominately liberal members. Historically speaking, my understanding is a church needs a strong core of orthodox and orthoprax members to stay healthy and vibrant.”
This strange admixture of beliefs—a disavowal of the orthodox teachings of his church paired with fierce loyalty to the institution; a desire to help doubters stay in the church as liberals paired with hope that plenty of orthodox remain left over—is baffling, perhaps incomprehensible for outsiders to Mormonism.
And unfortunately, I could not speak to Mr. Dehlin for as long we would have liked. He had to leave for church.
The chattering class is not happy with the Boy Scouts.
This Monday, thousands of Boy Scouts gathered in West Virginia for the National Jamboree, 10 days of camping and outdoor activities like rappelling, canoeing, and biking.
That’s about as good-ol-fashioned Scouting as it gets, in contrast with a year so far filled with public debate and strife. This June, the Scouts voted to allow openly gay Scouts youths while continuing to exclude openly gay leaders—thereby inviting scorn from all sides.
Yet even the Jamboree has become yet another occasion for Scout-shaming, as the word has gone out that the Scouts are persecuting their heftier members. In accordance with a policy announced two years ago, Scouts with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher have been excluded from the Jamboree, and Scouts with a BMI of 32 to 39 had to submit additional health information before being cleared to participate.
David Plotz, online editor of Slate, pegs the BSA as all-purpose discriminators (“Since they allow gay scouts, they had to find someone else to exclude”), while Lesley Kinzel, in the longest and most outraged critique of the policy, huffs:
It seems that the organization is trying to model itself on the boys’ most feared middle-school bullies, gamely prowling the halls between classes and ensuring that no boys exhibit the slightest inkling of weak, unathletic, or “girly” behavior.
Just like the Boy Scouts assume gay folks cannot possibly serve as good leaders and role models for kids, they also assume that all fat people—or rather, people with a BMI over a certain level—can’t walk a couple miles up a hill.
First, a quibble: anyone one who’s participated in Scouts knows that it consists largely of fat kids walking up hills.
Furthermore, a brief consideration of the policy shows that neither its effects nor its intent should be construed as fat-shaming. As J. Bryan Lowder, himself an Eagle Scout, points out, while BMI is a flawed measure of fitness, any teenager (as opposed to NFL lineman) with a BMI over 40 will almost certainly be unable to participate in or enjoy the Jamboree. And for the Scouts in the gray area,
I agree…that the higher scrutiny on BMI is out of whack, but having been to scout camp many times, I also doubt that the screening will be as harsh in practice as it sounds on paper. Scout leaders and site staff want, above all, for as many scouts as possible to have fun and be active, and so if there is a way for an obese scout to participate in a given activity, they are going to try to find it….
Nor is the emphasis on physical fitness in place to “shame” anyone:
Scout camps are usually remote and difficult to access, meaning that if a health crisis or injury does occur, it can be exceedingly difficult to get the victim to a hospital. Having seen a fellow scout airlifted by helicopter out of a gorge after falling during a climb, I can attest that this is a real concern that has nothing to do with shaming anyone.
The BSA’s national commissioner, not exactly a willowy figure, even publicly challenged himself to get in shape for the jamboree! Even if clumsily framed and articulated, the policy clearly comes from a spirit of concern and motivation, and not out of meanness—no matter what people would like to believe about the Scouts.
For over a decade, NATO troops have been bewildered and outraged at the practice of pederasty in Afghanistan. This is one of the reasons that, several years ago, the American military recruited anthropologists to help the military navigate Afghan culture.
Like many anthropologists, Richard Shweder of the University of Chicago was deeply skeptical of the program, fearing that his academic colleagues would put a friendly face on violent occupation. But then he heard an NPR story about anthropologists working with the military, and wrote this for the New York Times:
Nevertheless the military [anthropologist] voices on the show had their winning moments, sounding like old-fashioned relativists, whose basic mission in life was to counter ethnocentrism and disarm those possessed by a strident sense of group superiority. Ms. [Montgomery] McFate stressed her success at getting American soldiers to stop making moral judgments about a local Afghan cultural practice in which older men go off with younger boys on “love Thursdays” and do some “hanky-panky.” “Stop imposing your values on others,” was the message for the American soldiers. She was way beyond “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and I found it heartwarming. [emphasis added]
Granted, Professor Shweder and his fellow anthropologists are right and good to challenge “a strident sense of group superiority.” But countering “moral judgments” is anything but a “winning moment” when it involves older men having “hanky-panky” with young boys—what we in the West call child rape.
While the main victims of this practice are the children, encountering this cultural practice takes a considerable toll on US service members, despite the efforts of cultural sensitivity trainers.
Take Major Bill Steuber, who returned earlier this year from Sangin district, Helmand province, where he worked closely with Afghan local forces. While he made significant progress on challenges like fuel logistics and rule of law, he says, he could not crack down on the pervasive problem of his Afghan counterparts in the national police keeping “chai boys.” (In a VICE documentary filmed during his deployment, Steuber pleads in vain with an Afghan police chief to arrest commanders who are keeping boys on police bases.)
“I have a lot of guilt with that,” Steuber says. Even though he “did everything, wrote every letter, screamed up and down the chain of command,” he made little headway: “It’s not that people didn’t care. It’s just a problem that was so prevalent and culturally ingrained that it was literally just like pushing a boulder up a mountain with that issue.”
And at the end of the day, he believes, the military won’t jeopardize the entire mission by harping on the child abuse issue and potentially alienating its Afghan partners.
Steuber emphasizes that cultural training is important, helpful, and necessary. “But I refused to accept,” he says, “on an intellectual level, what the anthropologists and cultural advisers were telling me.”
I wear the uniform of the Marine Corps. And by wearing that uniform, and wearing that flag, I am therefore a proxy of the American people. Regardless of the culture we are fighting in, and helping to support, we do not tolerate those things. We as a people stand for individual freedom and liberty, and the protection of those people who are not strong enough to protect themselves…
So I told my men: be true to yourself. Be true to what your community, your parents taught you. If you see something that you would not tolerate at home, do not tolerate it over here. I never ask them to compromise their values over what some anthropologist thinks is Afghan culture.
Practically speaking, though, cultural relativism will likely prevail. It would be preposterously optimistic to think that, while helping a corrupt government fend off a shadowy insurgency in one of the poorest countries in the world, the US military could do much to “impose their values” against culturally sanctioned child sexual exploitation.
But that form of cultural relativism is not “heartwarming.” It is a scandal and a shame.
An important concept in psychoanalytic theory is castration anxiety, the fear of emasculation. The French theorist Jacques Lacan, one of the titans of 20th-century philosophy, used the imaginary unit i to elucidate this idea:
The erectile organ can be equated with the √-1, the symbol of the signification produced above, of the jouissance [ecstasy] it restores–by the coefficient of its statement–to the function of a missing signifier: (-1).
In Europe, intellectuals such as Lacan, Foucault, and Sartre have traditionally enjoyed a much more prominent place in public life than intellectuals in America. They go on TV shows. Or the cameras come to them and they hold forth, shirtless, in bed. On the continent, especially France, philosophers can be celebrities. It’s also true that European philosophers (and those working in “continental” philosophy) are typically more abstruse and obscure than America and England’s analytic philosophers, who prize clarity of argument.
The Open Culture blog flags the Lacan passage above as part of a fantastic post, wherein they suggest that it’s no coincidence that continental philosophers are both celebrated and ferociously difficult to understand. Instead, the obscurity is part of the reputation. So argues the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum in a critique of Judith Butler, who writes in the French poststructuralist style:
Some precincts of the continental philosophical tradition, though surely not all of them, have an unfortunate tendency to regard the philosopher as a star who fascinates, and frequently by obscurity, rather than as an arguer among equals. When ideas are stated clearly, after all, they may be detached from their author: one can take them away and pursue them on one’s own. When they remain mysterious (indeed, when they are not quite asserted), one remains dependent on the originating authority. The thinker is heeded only for his or her turgid charisma.
Nussbaum and Open Culture are on to something important. Far too many bewildered undergraduates are made to suss out the arguments of thinkers who, in all likelihood, have not made a good faith effort to put forth a coherent argument. If you can’t understand Lacan above, the odds are it’s not your fault: it’s Lacan’s.
Although it may be delightful to see thinkers like Lacan and Slavoj Zizek savaged, it’s also important to note that there is a necessary and proper place for obscurity and difficulty. There’s no rule of reality that says everything should be explicable in simple, precise language. The world is complicated, so our theories will have to be complicated–quantum mechanics comes to mind. But what is important is the good-faith effort to make yourself understandable, to make claims that can be defended or refuted.
Daniel Dennett calls for an appropriate balance between continental showmanship and the austere analytic style in his latest book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking:
There is a time and a place in philosophy for rigorous arguments, with all the premises numbered and the inference rules named, but these do not often need to be paraded in public. We ask our graduate students to prove they can do it in their dissertations, and some never outgrow the habit, unfortunately. And to be fair, the opposite sin of high-flown Continental rhetoric, larded with literary ornament and intimations of profundity, does philosophy no favors either. If I had to choose, I’d take the hard-bitten analytic logic-chopper over the deep purple sage every time. At least you can usually figure out what the logic-chopper is talking about and what would count as being wrong.