By Jon Cogburn
Well, by any reasonable criterion of ontological commitment, Obscurantism, According to Analytic Philosophers must clearly be a thing, as there's a sub-section of a wikipedia article on it. Many of the usual suspects comprise the sub-sub-sections (Hegel, Marx, Wittgenstein, Derrida, and Lacan). And, earlier in the article the wikipedia authors do a pretty serviceable and balanced job of defining the superordinate concept:
The second sense of obscurantism denotes making knowledge abstruse, that is, difficult to grasp. In the 19th and 20th centuries obscurantism became a polemical term for accusing an author of deliberately writing obscurely, in order to hide his or her intellectual vacuousness. Philosophers who are neither empiricists nor positivists often are considered obscurantists when describing the abstract concepts of their disciplines. For philosophic reasons, such authors might modify or reject verifiability, falsifiability, and logical non-contradiction. From that perspective, obscure (clouded, vague, abstruse) writing does not necessarily indicate that the writer has a poor grasp of the subject, because unintelligible writing sometimes is purposeful and philosophically considered.
I don't think this quite gets it though. The issue is whether there is a subject to grasp at all, not how well it is grasped. Also, we are interested in whether people are justifiably considered obscurantists, and this definition is little help to those of us who are neither empiricists nor positivists. Quine might have been the last positivist, but he wasn't alone in trying to get Cambridge University to revoke Derrida's honorary degree (original letter here). It would be pretty misleading to characterize all of the other signatories (Barry Smith, Hans Albert, David Armstrong, Ruth Barcan Marcus, Keith Campbell, Richard Glauser, Rudolf Haller, Massimo Mugnai, Kevin Mulligan Lorenzo Peña, Wolfgang Röd, Karl Schuhmann, Daniel Schulthess, Peter Simons, René Thom,Dallas Willard, Jan Wolenski) as positivists/empiricists.
If the signatories were better in their history of philosophy, they could have at least plagiarized Schopenhauer, who was much more skilled at this kind of thing, e.g.:
Hegel, installed from above, by the powers that be, as the certified Great Philosopher, was a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan, who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense. This nonsense has been noisily proclaimed as immortal wisdom by mercenary followers and readily accepted as such by all fools, who thus joined into as perfect a chorus of admiration as had ever been heard before. The extensive field of spiritual influence with which Hegel was furnished by those in power has enabled him to achieve the intellectual corruption of a whole generation.
Nonetheless, there is a hint of a test for philosophical bullshit, needless obscurity, in the anti-Derrida letter, which I will present and critique below. I want to consider three of these, from least plausible to most plausible (the anti-Derrida cabal's is the second).
The Chomsky Test -
I don't know what Chomsky was paid for debating Foucault in 1971. Perhaps if he'd been given hash, like his interlocutor, he'd be a little more mellow when going on about the soixante huitards. Anyhow, here is an infamous bit of Chomsky on Derrida:
As for the "deconstruction" that is carried out (also mentioned in the debate), I can't comment, because most of it seems to me gibberish. But if this is just another sign of my incapacity to recognize profundities, the course to follow is clear: just restate the results to me in plain words that I can understand, and show why they are different from, or better than, what others had been doing long before and and have continued to do since without three-syllable words, incoherent sentences, inflated rhetoric that (to me, at least) is largely meaningless, etc.
To his credit, Chomsky realizes that this may be something about him and not about the Parisians. But his statement of this admission is chock full of the G.E. Moore type put-down (T.S. Eliot showed that Bradley actually invented this) where one's humble admission of not being able to get it is actually an accusation that there's nothing there to get.
It's entirely possible that I'm simply missing something, or that I just lack the intellectual capacity to understand the profundities that have been unearthed in the past 20 years or so by Paris intellectuals and their followers. I'm perfectly open-minded about it, and have been for years, when similar charges have been made -- but without any answer to my questions. Again, they are simple and should be easy to answer, if there is an answer: if I'm missing something, then show me what it is, in terms I can understand. Of course, if it's all beyond my comprehension, which is possible, then I'm just a lost cause, and will be compelled to keep to things I do seem to be able to understand, and keep to association with the kinds of people who also seem to be interested in them and seem to understand them (which I'm perfectly happy to do, having no interest, now or ever, in the sectors of the intellectual culture that engage in these things, but apparently little else).
Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I'm missing, we're left with the second option: I'm just incapable of understanding. I'm certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I'm afraid I'll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. There are lots of things I don't understand -- say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat's last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I'm interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. -- even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest -- write things that I also don't understand, but (1) and (2) don't hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of "theory" that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) ... I won't spell it out.
The whole point of going on and on this way is to double down on the G.E. Moore maneuver.
Baldly stated this is clearly a terrible test. The fact that Noam Chomsky's friends can't explain something to him to his satisfaction tells us nothing about the object of explanation. This is abundantly clear if you dig a little bit into other cases of Chomsky's Moorean passive aggression with respect to how his opponents within linguistics proper use a whole host of terms such as "generative," "recursion," and "categorial" (for how this unfolded in the 70s, prior to Chomsky's minimalist era "I language/E language" misconstrual of non-transformational approaches to syntax, check out Randy Allen Harris' The Linguistics Wars or John Goldsmith and Geoffrey Houck's Ideology in Linguistic Theory: Noam Chomsky and the Deep Structure Debates; for a criticism of pre-Minimalism era transformational syntax ironically very similar to Chomsky's own criticism of the French, see Geoffrey Pullum's influential "Formal Linguistics Meets the Boojum").
Of course, the solution is to de-indexicalize the test. Can the theory or manuscripts in question be explained to a listener willing to do the cognitive work necessary to understand what is at issue? With respect to the American reception of the soixante huitards this means learning quite a bit of Heidegger (the other two H's, Husserl and Hegel are probably to some extent necessary as well) in philosophy and New Criticism in literary theory.
Chomsky would claim that this is exactly what is not necessary when his friends explain quantum physics and whatnot to him. In those cases he has the gist of what's going on without having to do a lot of background learning. But this seems goofy to me. To the extent that Chomsky doesn't already have a lot of background I don't think he understands those fields any more than he would understand French Theory if he read some of the clearer expositions of it. And there are many fine ones that accessible to someone of Chomsky's intellectual background that he himself could read in a few weekends (you could do far worse than starting with Wheeler's Deconstruction as Analytic Philosophy and his recent book on Davidson, Braver's A Thing of This World, and Mark Okrent's Heidegger's Pragmatism).
In any case, the question should not be how difficult it is to get it, but whether there is anything at all there to get. The Chomsky test doesn't help us at all.
The Sea Monster Test -
The original letter against Derrida actually contains a sentence relevant to operationalizing obscurity:
M. Derrida's voluminous writings in our view stretch the normal forms of academic scholarship beyond recognition. Above all – as every reader can very easily establish for himself (and for this purpose any page will do) – his works employ a written style that defies comprehension.
Many have been willing to give M. Derrida the benefit of the doubt, insisting that language of such depth and difficulty of interpretation must hide deep and subtle thoughts indeed.
When the effort is made to penetrate it, however, it becomes clear, to us at least, that, where coherent assertions are being made at all, these are either false or trivial.
Again, were the authors of this letter better versed in the history of philosophy, they could have done well to plagiarize Nietzsche's "They muddy the waters, to make it seem deep."
Nietzsche's claim is that obscurity functions in philosophy to secure a characteristic form of equivocation. Great philosophy is deep and not implausible. Obscure philosophy seems deep and plausible, but any attempt to paraphrase it produces something that is either (Scylla) shallow and plausible (i.e. "the sign is arbitrary! we could have used the word "dog" to name cats") or (Charibdis) deep and clearly implausible (i.e. "the sign is arbitrary! the word "dog" only names other words").
I'm sympathetic to this kind of criticism, but with significant caveats. First, Graham Harman (argued in his Weird Realism) is absolutely right that the New Critics "paraphrastic fallacy" applies just as much to great works of philosophy as it does to art proper. Any paraphrase of an aesthetic object misses something. But this does not mean that one should avoid paraphrase (of artworks proper or philosophical works). Part of the function of great philosophical works is that they produce inconsistent yet equally valuable paraphrases in different historical and cultural contexts (consider the Kyoto School's appropriation of Being and Time). But this is consistent with the Sea Monster Test. An obscure philosophical text will then be one such that all of its interpretatively plausible paraphrases are either shallow and plausible or deep and implausible. A great philosophical text will be one that generates multiple deep and plausible paraphrases in different historical and cultural contexts.
The problem with this is that we don't have a good test for philosophical depth. There is an objective fact about whether one cannot see the bottom of a lake because the lake is deep or because the lake is shallow and the water is muddy. And the metaphor is a good one. But there has to be more to depth than whether Noam Chomsky or his friends can see the bottom.
The Conservative Extension Test -
I think that formal logic actually gives us a way to make some progress on this. Let us go with the normal simplification (necessary for results in logic to apply) that a "theory" is a set of sentences closed under logical entailment. Then we can say that theory A conservatively extends theory B if the conjunction of A and B does not contain any truths expressible only in the vocabulary of B that weren't already in theory B. Here's an example. The normal introduction and elimination rules for the logical operators do not allow one to prove Putnam's Theorem (if A then B) or (if B then A). But if you add any of the classical negation rules, such as double negation elimination, then you can prove Putnam's Theorem. This is weird, because negation does not occur in Putnam's Theorem. Classical negation rules do not conservatively extend intuitionist logic.
People worried about this stuff generally take this to count against classical negation being purely logical, but that needn't concern us. I want to argue (somewhere Robert Brandom says something similar) that lack of a conservative extension is actually an important and good thing outside of logic. Moreover, it gives us a good test for whether obscurity in philosophy is needless.
The test shouldn't be whether or not the philosophy is deep, but whether the philosophy gives you new insights stateable without the philosophical vocabulary. Does the introduction of technical vocabulary of some punitively obscure area of philosophy allow me to reason to new truths not involving that vocabulary?
This is not going to make me any friends, but I think that some continental philosophy is rebarbatively obscure because it passes the conservative extension test. One simply doesn't need to go through Husserl's account of time perception to understand exactly how the American prison system is terrible. Every aspect of the case has been made much better by journalists who work on this and they did not need to read Husserl to do so. Here the invocation of Husserl is needlessly obscure because the phenomenology conservatively extends existing debates about incarceration. In my experience one finds this kind of thing with American appropriations of Deleuze as well. Yes you can characterize hurricanes and serial killers in terms of the Deleuzian vocabulary of phase space, attractors, the virtual, etc. etc. etc. But if when you translate it out of Deleuziana you're just saying the same things that journalists have already said, then your explanation passes the conservative extension test and hence just adds needless obscurity.
I don't mean to be picking on Husserl or Deleuze here. First, I'm just gesturing at (and rather cowardly not naming names) certain characteristic recent appropriations of their work, and not just theirs. I'm pretty sure I've seen the same thing in presentations, job interviews, and the blogosphere with respect to the other figures that Chomsky's friends couldn't explain adequately to him. But this doesn't say much about those figures as much as it does the crapulent spirit of the age. The slacktivist political pretensions of some recent continental philosophy, combined with the erosion of the traditional German Idealism/Phenomenology/Post-Structuralism/Critical Theory canon, has IMHO made this kind of thing much worse, though that is probably the subject matter of a different set of posts. In any case, much continental musings about politics are set up so that it's a priori determined that you have to conclude that neoliberalism is bad. But the badness of neoliberalism doesn't need any help from continental philosophy.
I'm also not trying to say that continental philosophy as a whole is any more rebarbative, and in fact any more characteristically obscure, than analytic philosophy. But that too is properly the subject of another post. I only gave possible examples to clarify what I'm talking about. I do think it would be nice if people invested in these areas explicitly addressed the conservative extension test in their work. What in non-technical language has the detour into technical language allowed us to conclude that we hadn't concluded before?
Finally, I should note that I do have a worry about this test, one concerning the distinction between the context of discovery and context of justification. One and the same theory might fail the conservative extension test (and hence not be bullshit) for the purposes of how humans had to discover some new set of truths, but pass the conservative extension test with respect to how those truths might be retroactively justified after we've discovered them. I wouldn't think that such theories would be bullshit, but would rather have something like the status of necessary fictions. Creatures like us might need to use the theories, but perhaps creatures with a better cognitive endowment might not. But making sense of this would require at least gesturing at a decent theory of fictionality. Those of us, such as Derridean Lewis Mackie and myself, who take philosophy to be a kind of fiction, probably would have to say something special about how all of this hangs together.