This is a response to Ogged's post in response to my Bad Writing post. So I'm just going to launch right into it. But let me first say: Ogged is a jolly fellow and I like him a lot. Just thought I should get that out there in front.
Two issues raised are quite distinct. Issue one: can a case be made out for the goodness of necessarily 'difficult' or 'unclear' writing? Such writing is not automatically to be consigned to the outer darkness of sheer 'badness'? I think the answer is yes; but I find an adequate argument so obvious that I guess I still mostly don't see what the fuss is about. I don't think we need to go exhuming Heidegger to settle this, for example. You don't need to be a Heideggerian to see that sometimes difficulty is unavoidable and unclarity a sort of necessity.
Brian Weatherson says he doesn't see why difficulty and unclarity should ever be necessary, but I think that, concerning a lot of cases, he would just say 'oh, right, right, didn't see what you had in mind.' Cases like Kant saying, at the beginning of whichever big book it was: 'I'm sorry I'm not a better writer.' Or words to that effect. We still read him, even if we believe that the writing is unavoidably bad, given his native lack of talent for clearing it up. (See my Philosophical Abecedarium.) Another sort of case: often somebody starts a debate, and if you look back at whatever piece or idea gets the ball rolling - that piece itself really is not clear, in light of developments. Only later contributors really appreciate the shape of what was to come. We accept that this is going to happen. There is a sense in which the people who come up with new stuff are almost never going to be in a position to really see what it is they are doing. Quite pardonable when, say, Frege turns out not to be the best guide to the long-term significance of some aspect of Fregeanism. Ergo, necessarily difficult and unclear, but it's OK. (Nobody is clearer than Frege, so if he falls down, it must be OK.) I'm sure Weatherson will just say: 'is that all they were talking about? Who would deny it?' Exactly. McCumber does a bit of pretending someone might deny it, seems to me.
It gets a bit tougher when we turn to Nietzsche - or Plato - and ask: is all this irony, indirection, poetry, stagy presentation, vatic brevity, so forth, possibly up to and including self-contradiction, quite in order? Well, maybe here it does get dicey. Maybe Weatherson will get off the bus here and say he thinks it may be pleasant, or fun, or attractive, if you like that sort of thing; but it isn't strictly necessary. I sort of go back and forth on this one. But I guess I think six days out of seven that the results of stripping off this stuff would be philosophically - not just poetically - less worthy. My own favorite philosophers are, after all: Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Plato. Probably in that order. I obviously have a thing for making things difficult.
These are, to be specific, cases in which people set out to be difficult and unclear, for some rather difficult to specify and no doubt individually varied reasons. (I like Russell's response to some rather compressed things Wittgenstein had to say in this line. "Well, then you'd better get yourselve a slave to state the arguments." Good come-back, Bertie. But I'm still more inclined to indenture myself to Ludwig.)
Perhaps the first thing to be said is that, in a sense, this is just Plato's old argument with the poets all over again. One way or another, the argument for difficult philosophy will be the argument for irreducibly poetic philosophy. Plato himself is careful to write out the anti-Platonic heresy in advance by being poetic himself. (Never forgets to hedge his bets, that man.) It is tempting to suggest that philosophers who say you should not write intentionally difficult, unclear stuff are taking Plato's hard-line. Ergo, they are enemies of poetry. Nasty philistines, they must be. But this is not really right. If you say to an Anglo-American philosopher, 'I think that Shakespeare is a lot more deep and meaningful than any philosophy I've read - Kant or Plato', I think it is a rare philosopher who will fire back: 'that's because you're not as smart and good as I am.' Most philosophers will regard this as an eminently sensible attitude, and many will strongly share it, but they just personally don't know of any good, honest ways to meld or hybridize philosophy and poetry. I feel this myself. I personally like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard - and Wittgenstein and Plato - because I feel that they managed, in extraordinary ways, to combine literary art with philosophical argument effectively. Mostly the literary arts these four deploy are close to the skills that I suppose novelists (and dramatists) mostly display. These four philosophers are shrewd psychologists, and they understand how being a shrewd observer of various human - especially philosophical - personality types can feed back into philosophical argument in potent ways. I think the 'poetic' philosophers who appeal to me least - maybe Hegel and Heidegger - do so because I feel that they are trying to hybridize standard arguments with some other literary model in unsuccessful fashion. Two things are mixing, and the results are less than the sum of the parts. (I realize that I just opened a giant can of worms by calling Hegel and Heidegger 'poetic' without explanation. Well, sorry. This is just a blog post, man.)
Too much for me today. But I have just finished a draft of a long manuscript in which I worry about rather related things at some length. Charges of bad writing, for example. The MS is a 3 chapter extension of my philosophical dialogue, "The Advantages and Disadvantages of Theory for Life". I've blogged it before, but won't link because the online version is now quite out of date. The new version is about 150 pages, and I'm not going to post it just right now (because I've submitted it for publication, sort of, and I don't know what will become of it. I also hope it will be a big part of a book some day. I do think I owe editors and book publishers a little bit of pre-publication discretion, though I'm not sure about that. If it goes through yet more major iterations, I'll post the penultimate version, whatever it proves to be.) But interested persons - I don't need to know you, you just need to be interested enough to bother to ask - can email me and get a link to the thing to download it. Circulating stuff like that is definitely OK. I do welcome intelligent commentary/criticism.
Right. That's my plug, then. Now, on to the second issue raised by Ogged's post. He concludes:
Given that Heidegger is so little studied, most graduate students in philosophy don’t even have the opportunity to encounter him and decide for themselves whether the neglect of his work is justified (and those that do encounter his work often receive cursory and unsympathetic instruction). Given the lack of meaningful engagement, the reasons for neglect aren’t re-affirmed by each generation, they’re simply passed down; you don’t have to believe in logical positivism to inherit its legacy.
I am sure Ogged has in mind Carnap's notorious anti-Heidegger slap: 'nothing nothing's itself' is nonsense that needs diagnosis as pathology. It isn't philosophy. (Was it Carnap? I think it was.) Ogged's thesis seems to be that Heidegger got written off back when Carnap ruled the roost, and no one has gone back to check whether a mistake was made. A part of Ogged's thesis may be that philosophers, like myself, who do not consider ourselves logical positivists, are actually fellow-travellers of an unconscious sort. We have picked up habits of mind that are a tad narrow, due to our heritage. And, since we don't read Heidegger and other such philosophers to broaden our horizons, we don't even notice they are narrow.
Maybe that's not what Ogged is saying. I'm not completely sure how far he wants to push the point. His post title is 'John Holbo is Positive(ist)', which could just be a joke, or could actually hint at an alleged grain of truth.
Let me just say what I think is the case, regardless of what Ogged is saying.
Logical positivism is an intellectual movement that was tremendously dominant for a relatively brief period of time and then, to a degree that is rather astonishing, melted away. By which I mean: it did not even leave all that much behind. It's like the Spartans. Hugely powerful, conquered the center of philosophy - Athens - but now we don't have any lasting monuments.
Well, maybe that's a bad analogy. Logical positivism is like behaviorism in psychology. Let's try this instead. If you go up to an average professional academic psychologist today and say, 'scratch you, and there's a behaviorist underneath' you DON'T hear back 'actually, I would not exhibit any behaviorist-type behaviors if subjected to that particular stimulus, so, no.' You would just get a rather puzzled look. Psychology has left behaviorism behind so decisively that it's really only studied as a curiosity. I'm sure every intro lecture has a segment on behaviorism, but only because it's so illustratively extreme: 'you can learn a lot about the subject of psychology by thinking about how and why behaviorism was attractive, but terribly wrong.' Psychology is not afflicted with a legacy of behaviorism that just won't go away. Of course, psychologists - being scientists, or at least wanting to be - want verifiable results. They will ask whether you can provide empirical data showing things you allege about the human mind are true. But if you said, 'Aha! You're slipping back into it! Behaviorism!', you would just be mistaken. Really what we have is a case of a determination to be empiricists. This determination was hideously distorted into behaviorism. And now (it is to be hoped) the discipline has returned to more sane expressions of this empiricist spirit. (If I'm wrong, and psychologists are all still closet behaviorists, I'm sure someone will write and tell me.)
I could provide similar examples from other disciplines. If you go up to an English graduate student and say, 'It's all about Northrop Frye, isn't it? You pretend to be interested in other things now, but you've not quite moved on, have you? You can't.' This would be a very grave misreading of the situation. Obviously, the thing to say about Frye is: it's amazing; as late as 1960 you simply couldn't ignore the man in good conscience. And now you are eccentric if you've read him. He's passed without trace.
Logical Positivism is almost in this category: gone away and not even ghosts left haunting us. And by 'no ghosts' I mean: it's not the case that the dream has died but everyone is still vaguely beguiled by it, and thereby incapacitated from moving on with scarcely a backwards glance. Ogged and his commenters note how few courses there are on Heidegger at top departments. It would shock me if there were a single course being taught on logical positivism at ANY top 50 department. (I could be wrong, but it would be a fluke. I don't mean a survey course with a paper by Carnap, or a history of 20th Century philosophy. I mean: a course devoted to serious study of logical positivism.) There is a sense in which logical positivism is perhaps a bit neglected. Carnap wrote some interesting stuff, after all. And it isn't exactly an accident that Wittgenstein's Tractatus was the logical positivist Bible. And the Tractatus is pretty great. Wrong, but great.
Yes, I know. Wittgenstein isn't exactly a positivist. I wrote my dissertation in part about how the Tractatus is really a purified version of Schopenhauer's World as Will and Representation. Believe me, I know. See previous post about post-its. But one thing you see when you finally go all the way down the tractarian-Schopenhauerian rabbit hole, in this writer's humble but highly-informed opinion, is that - in a weird sort of way - the positivists were not dummies when it came to a lot of this stuff. They just ignored it's spirit. And I would be lying if I told you Ludwig did not go out of his way to mislead them with difficult, unclear writing.
I have a distinct soft-spot for the positivists, all in all. But I regard the school as completely extinct and presently uninfluential.
Yes, Quine responded to positivism. And we are still responding to Quine. But Quine is sort of a behaviorist, too. The bits of Quine that still interest people today are the bits that can be unhinged from unhinged thoughts about behaviorism and positivism being true.
And don't confuse the fact that I just said the positivists are not dummies, exactly, with some admission that they are still exerting influence. I don't think they are.
Like psychologists returning to saner forms of empiricism, philosophers after logical positivism returned to saner forms of rationalism and conceptual analysis and logicism and empiricism. (It's not as though these philosophical streams don't go back to Plato, you know. They didn't burst out of Vienna in the 1920's.) So it may seem plausible to say: Heidegger isn't much studied because the positivists libeled him, and it stuck. But I think that's just wrong. The reason Heidegger isn't studied today is the same reason Kant and Hume would probably have found the man a bit baffling. Heidegger is, as it were, post-Enlightenment and post-counter-Enlightenment. And now I just dug myself a deeper hole full of open cans of worms, because I have to explain that claim I just made. Well, I'm not going to. It would take too long and I probably couldn't do it. And I may have just made the problem for Heidegger-haters worse, because it may seem I'm implying that the problem with contemporary philosophy is not that they trust Carnap implicitly about Heidegger. The trouble is that they are clueless about a whole pile of important intellectual and cultural upheavals after Kant. Well, some Anglo-American philosophers are unaccountably hostile to Nietzsche, I must confess. This has always seemed very unfortunate to me. But I just don't get the whole Heidegger thing myself. I wrote my dissertation under two men who both study Heidegger - Hubert Dreyfus and Hans Sluga. It's not like I haven't gotten dribs and drabs of the stuff along the way. I've read it. I just find it a very exhausting way of finding your way back to some things that Nietzsche said more clearly - by which I mean: with dancing feet. And the rest just doesn't impress me. I don't see what the big deal is. Probably I'm missing stuff. But I'm damn sure I'm not missing it because of something I have in common with the logical positivists. It's because of something I have in common with with Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Kant. I'm sort of a rationalist.
And I'm not a pure rationalist. I have keen counter-Enlightenment sensitivities, if you know what I mean; I like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein. Liking these guys does not suffice to help me understand the point of Heidegger.
Not to make Heidegger the odd man out. I'm not saying he's out of the philosophical loop. I don't hate Heidegger. I just don't think he's that great. So definitely I'm saying that indifference to Heidegger, such as would lead one to forego teaching classes on him, is perfectly consistent with perfect freedom from ghosts of logical positivism. And hostility to Heidegger is not strong evidence of crypto-positivist fellow-travelling, or anything of the sort - not without other evidence, like people with bumper-sticks that say 'Schlick is Slick!' Things like that.
In short, I really, really think reading contemporary Anglo-American philosophy as haunted by logical positivism is a grave psychological misjudgement. (I don't even mind being called a positivist. It's like being accused of being a devout follower of Maimonides. It's exotic. It has a certain off-the-wall charm. I sort of like logical positivism. They were different, I give them that.)
I'll add an afterthought, regarding dsquared's comment - which Ogged quotes - that McCumber is not so far off the mark regarding what logical positivism is. I suppose I got a bit worked up. I do that. I surely do. But I consider logical positivism such a target-rich zone that it does seem to me reasonable to demand clean hits. McCumber is coming in on a wing and a prayer. (Do you remember that scene on the original "Heavy Metal" movie? with the coked-out aliens trying to land their tiny craft in a space station the size of a planet, with a docking bay the size of the visor of a motorcycle helmet, relative to the station as a whole? And they ALLLMMOOOST don't make it. They graze the wall of the bay, coming in. It seems reasonable to criticize a landing like that, even though the little ship does land in one piece.) But maybe Ogged and dquared and McCumber are right and there is some version of positivism that is closer to this point about the definition of 'clarity'. I'm not really seeing it, but I'm not a truly knowledgeable scholar of positivism, if it comes to that. I tend to think of the better sorts of logical positivism as being close to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, which contains a number of decisive arguments against trying to define 'clarity' as McCumber proposes positivsts will clamber to do. So I can't help but think the positivists would have seen the risks. So McCumber's account still doesn't sound like correct presentation to me. But I grant the point for the sake of argument. It doesn't matter, for purposes of my main point, whichis that no one is a logical positivist anymore. And no one is haunted by ghosts of logical positivism. I really think that's pretty much just true.
I am going to sign off this post by sending anyone who has survived it, with his/her desire to intact, to read this Bellona Times post, which is really great, and only the latest in a line of really great posts. Click on the 'popular series' link which takes you back to early exploits of Francis the Talking Mule. Just keep scrolling down. I happened on this whole string of posts the day after I finished my long manuscript (see above). And I was frankly amazed at how I am arguing in parallel at many points. These posts gave me some ideas for going back and making improvements. But I've promised myself I'll let it just sit and cool off, that long manuscript.
I think it is significant that 'logical positivist' gets used at one point in one of these posts, more or less as a synonym for 'too rationalist'. I have no real problem with this usage, given that the philosophical school has died. The term might as well find a new, loose use, based on its association with some folks who were, indeed, excessively rationalistic. But, of course, then just calling someone a 'positivist' begs the question by building in the assumption of excess. I do sort of suspect that McCumber and Ogged are sliding a little between 'logical positivism' as a name for a school of philosophy, and 'logical positivism', as a name for anyone who is too much like Spock or Data for his or her own long-term good. But maybe not. Just a thought.
Oh, and don't miss the UC Berkeley Art History Department fight song. That's my whole manuscript in eight short lines. Which saves time over reading 150 pages, if you think about it.
The Hotsy-Totsy Club, eh? Bay Area folk, then, if I make no mistake. My kind of people.