Is It Deep or Have You Been Duped?

In line with the principle of charity in cooperative communication, people will try to reconstruct the meaning of unknown terms on the presumption that what the speaker utters is true and relevant — particularly when they defer to the speaker as an authority. If what the speaker asserts seem bizarre or false on its face, it is prudent to suspect that the problem lies with your interpretation…. As with all mental heuristics, this charitable attitude towards speakers, particularly ones regarded as experts, is liable to exploitation. Not everything that is obscure or apparently bizarre will eventually resolve into something true and relevant….

It is important to emphasize the intimidating effect of unintelligible prose. In the midst of people who all profess to understand what is being said, it takes courage to stand up and admit that you don’t.

Maarten Boudry (Ghent University) discusses the psychology of interpretation that, he argues, allows obscurantism to flourish in some parts of the academy, at Scientia Salon.

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Andrew Sepielli
9 years ago

Following Galen Strawson, a partial anatomy of 15 seconds of thought:

Thought #1: “This looks really important. We need to be more aware of the conditions under which interpretive heuristics can misfire!”
Thought #2: “Yes! This guy’s dissertation is entitled ‘Here Be Dragons’. You just *know* he’s cool and irreverent, and therefore likely to have groundbreaking ideas!”
Thought #3: “Oh. Oh, wait…”

(This is of course not to imply that Boudry’s ideas are not groundbreaking.)

9 years ago

You might also be interested in Dan Sperber’s analysis of this phenomenon–which he calls ‘the guru effect’

9 years ago

Let’s ignore for now that the history of philosophy in all traditions is filled with complicated and obscure prose (seriously, does anyone think of Kant’s first critique?), also let’s ignore there is no proof that nothing is being said in these sorts of arguments, and furthermore, let’s ignore that the premise of articles like the one linked depends upon believing that large numbers of the author’s peers are either lying or been conned (and this objection mimics the absurdity of conservative denials of global warming). Let’s ignore all of that for now.

Ideas like the Master and the Guru have specific histories. In my introduction to philosophy class, for example, my students read some texts outside of the traditional Western Canon, including Oruka on African sagacity, and Indian philosopher’s Shankara’s The Crest-Jewel of Discrimination. In both cases, we get strong arguments for sages, gurus, and masters. Now, I am not saying I agree with the necessity of sages, gurus, and masters, but I certainly don’t want to begin with the premise that these traditions are not legitimate from the very beginning. It just seems to me that if you take these linked articles seriously, only a very, very small (and mostly Eurocentric) vision of philosophy is seen as legitimate.

9 years ago

Even accepting the pejorative view of the “guru effect”, it’s worth considering that while obscurantism is a useful tool for gurus, it’s not the only form of the GE. In other words, we’re not guaranteed immunity from GE by avoiding obscurantism, nor does all obscurantism serve primarily to produce GE, so excessive avoidance of seeming obscurity may not be justified (especially when it’s always the case that the language of an unfamiliar field appears to be obscurantist).

I’m reminded of how many fundamentalist religious groups in the US have made a cottage industry out of identifying and decrying “cults,” with the effect of reinforcing their own members that they are not themselves cultish or irrational in their beliefs. Aren’t there plenty of “gurus” both inside and outside of philosophy in the pejorative sense who aren’t obscure?

That said, is it even worth attacking Lacan on this point anymore? Who cares about Lacan except a small, marginalized band of true believers? Digging up Sokal again? It’s a 20 year dead horse he’s flogging. What’s really new, interesting, or relevant about this perfectly sensible article?