David Hume in Defense of Judith Butler’s Writing Style

David Hume—a man who, when he wanted, had little difficulty making himself understood—also had no problem with the notion that public writing should sometimes be difficult, even a tad inaccessible.

From his essay “On Commerce“:

THE greater part of mankind may be divided into two classes; that of shallow thinkers, who fall short of the truth; and that of abstruse thinkers, who go beyond it. The latter class are by far the most rare: and I may add, by far the most useful and valuable. They suggest hints, at least, and start difficulties, which they want, perhaps, skill to pursue; but which may produce fine discoveries, when handled by men who have a more just way of thinking. At worst, what they say is uncommon; and if it should cost some pains to comprehend it, one has, however, the pleasure of hearing something that is new. An author is little to be valued, who tells us nothing but what we can learn from every coffee-house conversation.

All people of shallow thought are apt to decry even those of solid understanding, as abstruse thinkers, and metaphysicians, and refiners; and never will allow any thing to be just which is beyond their own weak conceptions. There are some cases, I own, where an extraordinary refinement affords a strong presumption of falsehood, and where no reasoning is to be trusted but what is natural and easy. When a man deliberates concerning his conduct in any particular affair, and forms schemes in politics, trade, œconomy, or any business in life, he never ought to draw his arguments too fine, or connect too long a chain of consequences together. Something is sure to happen, that will disconcert his reasoning, and produce an event different from what he expected. But when we reason upon general subjects, one may justly affirm, that our speculations can scarcely ever be too fine, provided they be just; and that the difference between a common man and a man of genius is chiefly seen in the shallowness or depth of the principles upon which they proceed. General reasonings seem intricate, merely because they are general; nor is it easy for the bulk of mankind to distinguish, in a great number of particulars, that common circumstance in which they all agree, or to extract it, pure and unmixed, from the other superfluous circumstances. Every judgment or conclusion, with them, is particular. They cannot enlarge their view to those universal propositions, which comprehend under them an infinite number of individuals, and include a whole science in a single theorem. Their eye is confounded with such an extensive prospect; and the conclusions, derived from it, even though clearly expressed, seem intricate and obscure. But however intricate they may seem, it is certain, that general principles, if just and sound, must always prevail in the general course of things, though they may fail in particular cases; and it is the chief business of philosophers to regard the general course of things. I may add, that it is also the chief business of politicians; especially in the domestic government of the state, where the public good, which is, or ought to be their object, depends on the concurrence of a multitude of causes; not, as in foreign politics, on accidents and chances, and the caprices of a few persons. This therefore makes the difference between particular deliberations and general reasonings, and renders subtilty and refinement much more suitable to the latter than to the former.

From David Hume to Judith Butler.

10 Comments

  1. Daniel45 January 27, 2017 at 12:00 pm | #

    Steven Pinker, a psycholinguist who teaches at Harvard, is nest-foulingly vitriolic about the obfuscations of academic prose, and classifies passages by critics such as Judith Butler as verbal “sludge”.

    He wrote:

    >”Enough already. Our indifference to how we share the fruits of our intellectual labors is a betrayal of our calling to enhance the spread of knowledge. In writing badly, we are wasting each other’s time, sowing confusion and error, and turning our profession into a laughingstock.”

    ————-

    Sorry, Corey, but I to agree with Mr. Pinker on this issue.

    • Mike Fortun (@profmikefortun) January 28, 2017 at 8:47 am | #

      It’s funny (not really) how Steven Pinker gets inserted so predictably into these matters of “style,” and especially that of Judith Butler. I’ll just link to two things here to suggest that, whenever it comes to anything having to do with philosophy, history, or “the humanities” writ large, Pinker is not only “narrow-minded and unself-reflexive in his anachronistic, ahistorical claims” —

      http://fucktheory.tumblr.com/post/57633497486/in-which-steven-pinker-is-a-total-ignoramus-who

      — but the writing style on which he seems to pride himself, because it meshes so well with his own philosophy, is probably best characterized as the worst kind of scientism — that is, the worst kind of obscurantism that clothes its own ideological fetishes and errors in the fabric of plain language and simple truth. As a historian of science, it pleases me to no end when Pinker’s linguistic brutalism is recognized not only by humanists but by some of the best scientists as well:

      http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/08/08/repudiating-scientism-rather-than-surrendering-to-it/

      • Daniel45 January 28, 2017 at 3:53 pm | #

        Mike,

        Thanks for sharing that critique of SP. Later in the week I will read it again more carefully.

        But I have to say that Richard Dawkins, probably the world’s best known scientist, is the person who irritates me the most. Here he is on suffering in the world:

        >“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

        Powerful words, worthy of Ecclesiastes, Schopenhauer, Cioran and all of the other great sages of darkness. And, of course, to those who aren’t blinkered, all perfectly true. The only quibble, and a notable one, is the limiting of the description to the natural world. Anyone who doesn’t have their head in the sand and even glances only occasionally at a newspaper or news channel sees that the above applies equally, if not more so, to the human world. Given such a horrible picture it would appear obvious and eminently rational that one would react with horror, distress and disgust at such a tapestry of misery and suffering. After all, who would embrace such an existence or world if they were offered it beforehand, or even affirm its worth finding themselves thrown into it? Given that Professor Dawkins prides himself on his rationality and his tireless combat against what he perceives to be mindless superstitions, we would be justified in expecting a reaction of horror and outrage. But no; instead we get this:

        >“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton.”

        And this:

        >“We as individuals are still hugely blessed. Privileged, and not just privileged to enjoy our planet. More, we are granted the opportunity to understand why our eyes are open, and why they see what they do, in the short time before they close for ever.”

        And then the poetry:

        >“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?”

        Hmmmm, hard to see how such celebrations of life follow from the first quotation. Let’s try a little experiment here: given that scientists such as Dawkins are always espousing the values of consistency, logic, the banishing of subjective emotions from the judgement process, the condemnation of religion as being no more than wish-fulfilment and so on, it shouldn’t be unreasonable to mix and match Dawkins’s statements and expect a coherent whole to emerge. Here we are:

        >”I tried to convey how lucky we are to be alive, given that the vast majority of people who could potentially be thrown up by the combinatorial lottery of DNA will in fact never be born. For those of us lucky enough to be here, we live in a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, where some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life: during the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. Isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? We as individuals are still hugely blessed. Privileged, and not just privileged to enjoy our planet. More, we are granted the opportunity to understand why our eyes are open, and why they see what they do, in the short time before they close for ever, namely that the universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference. Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of a universe where the total amount of suffering per year in that world is beyond all decent contemplation?”

        What do you make of his schizophrenic opinions?

        Let me be clear: I applaud Dawkins’ efforts to address the superstitious heritage most of the world still labors under, but I find his inquiry into the existential problem we face hopelessly one-dimensional and inadequate in the extreme…. We are NOT lucky for having been born. Existing is a regrettable fact. However, having been born, we have all acquired a vested interest in our continued existence; as such, we have to make the best of it, hence Anarchism, atheism, chocolate chip cookies, the breeze on a hot summer day, the joy of discovery, and so on. I am not downplaying these things: they are very important to us, and for good reasons. The fatal mistake (no pun intended) is to confuse the palliative measures with the regrettable fact that they attempt to palliate. It’s as much a stupid mistake as confusing an aspirin pill with the concept of a headache.

  2. Glenn January 27, 2017 at 2:23 pm | #

    Up to this point I’m in total agreement with you:

    “Steven Pinker, a psycholinguist who teaches at Harvard, is nest-foulingly vitriolic…”

    And from this point on I radically diverge from your position.

    • Daniel45 January 27, 2017 at 11:49 pm | #

      Glenn,

      Do you remember when Judith Butler won the first prize in the annual Bad Writing Contest sponsored by the journal Philosophy and Literature, for the following sentence?

      >”The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

      Now, Butler might have written:

      “Marxist accounts, focusing on capital as the central force structuring social relations, depicted the operations of that force as everywhere uniform. By contrast, Althusserian accounts, focusing on power, see the operations of that force as variegated and as shifting over time.”

      Instead, she prefers VERBOSITY that causes the reader to expend so much effort in deciphering her prose that little energy is left for assessing the truth of the claim!

  3. chunga's revenge (@tweetohs) January 27, 2017 at 8:51 pm | #

    All those in favor of clarity and grace. Please sit down. We are always in need of simplicity and clarity. The pundits and other ‘experts’ continue to self-censor precisely as they have for at least the last decade. On turgid academic prose, dissertation training in Cambridge never involved clarity. It was suggested, but not required. The emphasis was on pushing the envelope with the understanding the clever could be relied upon to discern the facts. Far more important, imho, is the need to move away from faction.

  4. Ramesh January 27, 2017 at 11:49 pm | #

    This post also reflects on Corey’s style of writing too, now that I reflect on it. “Tad inaccessible” to make the mind do little bit of work.

  5. Zach January 28, 2017 at 1:15 pm | #

    Leaving aside Steven Pinker, with whom I also often disagree, I fail to see this as a defense of Judith Butler’s writing style. Nothing in Hume’s day was as impenetrable as some of today’s worst academic writing (I don’t read much of it, and I don’t think Butler is by any means the worst, but I’ve read enough to know how absurdly bad it can be); here, the defense seems to be of abstruse content, not style.

    It’s maybe also worth noting that Hume’s passage here is a rather staunch defense of elitism – not surprising for Hume the Tory – but still distasteful. Particularly now that we live in an era of rampant ignorance that can and must be remedied by a wider dissemination of education, and all of which can usually be performed by plain English (or Spanish, or Somali, etc.).

  6. Carolyn Doric February 14, 2017 at 8:21 pm | #

    Heh. Inaccessible writing. I’ve read Middlemarch (twice) and managed to understand that convoluted language better the second time around. For those of us who would like to understand what the writer is saying (far from any ability to critique, you understand), clarity is desired for greater understanding. But no matter, if the writer has awakened that desire in the reader, s/he has succeeded.
    We are in a nation with “common wisdom” reduced to talking points.
    Perhaps alternative viewpoints should sometimes be accessible to people of good faith, or made so.

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