November 22, 2006

Philosophical Insults (Frances)

Thanks to Joe for the invitation to communicate.

Nowadays philosophers rarely call one another idiots in print (things tend to get a little nastier in private). But this doesn’t mean that they don’t insult one another in their publications. I thought it might be fun to catalogue some of the insults from recent literature. I’d like people to share their favorites in the comments.

My favorites are the more subtle ones. Suppose Jones publishes a criticism of Smith and then Smith responds in print. Smith can insult Jones in many ways. One common way is to use the phrase ‘It is curious that’, as in ‘It is curious that Jones thinks that my view includes the claim that P’. What is often (not always) meant is this: ‘Jones is a f**king idiot. He thinks I said that P, when any fool can see that I said no such thing’. Similar points hold for ‘It is interesting that Jones thinks that I said that P’ and ‘The proposal that Jones makes on my behalf is very strange, even borderline incoherent’ and ‘I am surprised that Jones says that P’.

Here’s a rather different way to insult: ‘In a useful article’, as in ‘In a useful article, Jones considers the claim that P’. What is often (not always) meant is something like this: ‘Jones wrote a largely boneheaded article on the claim that P; however, by working through his confusions we will be able to see the important points more clearly.’ I hope it’s legitimate of me to point out that Davidson did this in one of his classic articles, although I can’t remember which one. When I was a beginning graduate student at Minnesota, and full of myself, I did it as well in a paper written for a class. My professor, Joseph Owens, drew a line through the phrase and wrote in the margin ‘Out’. It was clear that I wasn’t going to get away with such nonsense.

I don’t want to imply that these insults are never deserved. On the contrary, on many occasions the author is responding to some jerk. And even when one isn’t responding to a jerk, the insult can be non-personal in the sense that the author is such a lover of the truth and hater of the false that he or she hurls invectives not at people but merely at ideas that strike her as false. I once had a colleague who often publicly destroyed visiting speakers, but it was plain to most of us—and often enough the visiting speaker—that his target was the ideas he thought were false. It was never the person advocating the ideas. This made the behavior more tolerable, even admirable.

The insults noted above seem a bit subtle. But maybe that’s the wrong predicate. Perhaps not subtle but restrained?

Baker & Hacker insulted Kripke’s interpretation of Wittgenstein with real gusto. Hacker also insulted the recent history books by Soames, who like Kripke is a rather mediocre philosopher. But their insults are usually unrestrained. Over the years Dennett and Searle have traded many insults, or at least remarks that looked pretty insulting. But I’m not sure that all those were real insults. Dennett has a good sense of humor, and it comes out in his writing. So perhaps he wasn’t really insulting Searle, although his Journal of Philosophy review of Searle’s Rediscovery of the Mind seemed pretty tough to me. I can’t speak with any authority about Searle. Of course, in that book Seale seemed to be telling us that just about everyone in the philosophy of mind had been making terribly elementary and boneheaded mistakes for many years.

As any child will tell you, being ignored can be quite an insult. In that vein, I recall a footnote in an article on the nature of belief by some moderately famous person. He noted that perhaps he should consider what Dennett’s theory would do with the example being considered in the body of the essay. But he declined to make the probe, saying that in reality Dennett’s exceedingly vague remarks could hardly amount to anything like a view worth considering. Ouch!

So: what are your favorite examples—restrained or not? Please don’t reveal the identity of the insulter, at least if he or she is still alive and isn’t already well known as one who insults opponents. I realize that it is easy to thumb through Nietzsche, say, and find some pretty potent insults. But I’m more interested in contemporary writers, not least because I think it might be fun to try to figure out the identity of the insulter!

It also might be interesting to note which famous contemporaries never insulted any of their many critics. For instance, did Rawls or Lewis ever insult any of their critics?


Jeremy Fantl said...

From a recent book review in the London Review of Books:

First, commenting on the general subject matter of the book:

"One gets a whole spectrum, from (Author's Name) on quantum mechanics to (Author's Name) on the psychology of perception, to (Author's Name) on the ontology of numbers, to (Author's Name) on Chomskian linguistics, to (Author's Name) on personal identity, to (Author's Name) on the phenomenology of dreaming, with many, many intermediate stops. Could anybody conceivably have views worth hearing on all those topics? Could it be that the gods no longer punish hubris?"

Second, on one of the author's central claims:

"And finally, with a flourish: ‘The story is the paradigm. Factual statements are specialised derivatives of fictitious ones.’ Piffle."

This may be the most philosophically effective use of the word "piffle" in print. Funny that I so discourage my students from doing this kind of thing.

Trent_Dougherty said...

Interesting post, Bryan, very useful. ;-)~

Trent_Dougherty said...

OK, seriously. Since you mention Dennett, here are some jabs from Leon Wieseltier's NYT review of Dennett's _Breaking the Spell_. It's not in the "subtle" category...

*"For a sorry instance of present-day scientism, it would be hard to improve on Daniel Dennett's book. ''Breaking the Spell'' is a work of considerable historical interest, because it is a merry anthology of contemporary superstitions."

*"In his own opinion, Dennett is a hero."

*"Dennett is the sort of rationalist who gives reason a bad name; and in a new era of American obscurantism, this is not helpful."

*"Dennett flatters himself that he is Hume's heir."

*"For Dennett, thinking historically absolves one of thinking philosophically."

*"All of Dennett's splashy allegiance to evidence and experiment and ''generating further testable hypotheses'' notwithstanding, what he has written is just an extravagant speculation based upon his hope for what is the case, a pious account of his own atheistic longing."

*"In the end, his repudiation of religion is a repudiation of philosophy, which is also an affair of belief in belief. What this shallow and self-congratulatory book establishes most conclusively is that there are many spells that need to be broken."

Trent_Dougherty said...

One more: Here's a rough out from Jon Kvanvig's review of James Monmarquet's _Epistemic Virtue and Doxastic Responsibility_.

"Montmarquet seems to be on a journey with one foot nailed to the floor.  A requirement for a belief to be epistemically virtuous, we were told, is that it is voluntary in some sense, and the right sense of “voluntary” is one that allows for the formation of epistemically virtuous belief.  Any decent student in a first philosophy class could see the circularity."

To be fair, Jon has said he regrets being so, um, direct.

Joe said...

There's an idea. To insult, offend or demean someone is not always morally reprehensible. There is a clever example in the above Bryan Frances post, when he writes,

"Baker & Hacker insulted Kripke’s interpretation of Wittgenstein with real gusto. Hacker also insulted the recent history books by Soames, who like Kripke is a rather mediocre philosopher."

Admittedly, I did not at first pick up on the subtlety, having first read it uncharitably as a justification of Hacker's insults. In which case, Frances would be aiding and abetting the violation. Instead, he is of course insulting an insulter, and for that very reason, appears not to be culpable.

Richard Zach said...

I seem to remember that Russell's reply to Strawson's On Referring was pretty scathing. Not sure it's insulting, though.

Bryan Frances said...

Joe is right: my post contained an insult directed at Hacker. It looked like an insult directed at Soames and Kripke, but people who know me know that I would never say that either Soames or Kripke is a mediocre philosopher. So, I guess that's another way to subtly insult someone.

Tim Pawl said...

This is one of my favorite philosophical insults. It comes from a book published in the last 10 years:

"I once heard Keith Lehrer say, speaking of the late and much lamented James Cornman, "You either love him or you hate him. I LOVE Jim Cornman."
I LOVE [Name of philosopher - N].
No, honestly, N, I really mean it. You're a great guy and a good philospher, no matter what everyone says.
But, seriously, folks...
N has learned from Stephen Potter, or perhaps discovered independently, the following trick of disputation: "to say something so absolutely inappropriate on about five levels simultanesouly that it seems hopeless even to try to answer back." (The respected music critic, in cocktail party conversation, admits that he isn't really too keen on Wagner; Potter's colleague induces "conversational paralysis" by replying, "But Wagner's worth five hundred of your modern jazz saxophonists.") This technique is displayed with particular brilliance in N's final section on theodicy, but good use of it is made throughout his chapter. I have, however, been able to escape conversational paralysis on a few points, and I will attempt to stammer out some replies.

Andrew Bacon said...

Here's a good one from Russell

"The subject of infinite numbers is a technical and not very easy branch of mathematics, and those who have not studied it cannot hope to say anything sensible about it. It is quite clear from Mr. Emmet's discussion that he does not know this theory. The consequence is that some of the things he says are just as foolish as the opinion once held by common-sense philosophers that there could not be people at the Antipodes because they would fall off. [...] I should advise Mr. Emmet, before he again ventures to write on the subject, to study Georg Cantor's articles in Mathematische Analen, vols. XLVI and XLIX, and also Frege's Grundgesetze der Arithmetik [...] His only reason for thinking them nonsensical is that he is ignorant of the mathematical arguments in their favour. I do no suppose that Mr. Emmet would accuse geneticists or radiologists of talking nonsense merely because they use words he does not understand. I fail to see why mathematicians should be treated differently." -- Russell, B, 'Mathematical Infinity', Mind, Vol 67

Definately in the non-subtle category.

Duck said...

I like "this book fills a well-needed gap," which I've seen a couple of times.

I'm not sure that Kripke is well-described as a "mediocre" philosopher, but his book on Wittgenstein was very "useful" indeed - some of the subsequent literature was first-rate.

Dave M

Alex Gregory said...

I confess that I can't (possibly for the better) remember the people involved, but I recall one philosopher referring to a piece of another's work as "an unusual insight". It was beautifully ambiguous between "they're very good for having noticed this interesting thing", and "their work usually sucks".

PhilGeek said...

Describing the usefulness of a piece is not always or even predominantly an insult. One legitimate point of this locution is to convey that the piece contributed to an ongoing debate without endorsing its conclusion(s).

Marcin Miłkowski said...

My favorite insult is the last line of last Zabludowski's reply to Goodman (after a long discussion on Fact, Fiction and Forecast in JoP):

"Yes, I agree that the theory cannot be improved. It is simply false".

Anonymous said...

According to Elizabeth Anscombe's "Modern Moral Philosophy", Hume was a "sophist" albeit a brilliant one. Butler is "ignorant". Sidgwick is "rather a dull author" and consequentialism is a "shallow philosophy". Further, the work of moral philosophers from Sidgwick to the 'present day' (circa 1958) are 'of little importance.'

Anonymous said...

I take Fred Dretske's "Laws of Nature" (1977) to be the most pontificating of all papers I've read. I recall sentences like "I expect to hear charges of Platonism. They would be premature." His concluding claim struck hard: "These are inflationary times, and the cost of nominalism has just gone up." Concerning polite insults, this one, from Dretske's "Reply to Niiniluoto" (1978) arguably is the paradigm: "With enemies like this I do not need friends."

DR said...

Surely it's the differences between major English-speaking moral philosophers from Sidgwick to the present day that Anscombe said were insignificant. Their work itself was very significant, in her opinion, because of its corrupting influence.

Anscombe's review of a book by Glanville Williams starts with the assertion that "This is not a work of academic interest" and ends, after lengthy documentation of what Anscombe clearly regarded as evidence of bad faith on Williams' part, with the deadpan "Dr Williams says (165n) that there is no such thing as dishonest belief."

Anonymous said...

Tim Pawl said...

This is one of my favorite philosophical insults. It comes from a book published in the last 10 years:

"I once heard Keith Lehrer say, speaking of the late and much lamented James Cornman, "You either love him or you hate him. I LOVE Jim Cornman."
I LOVE [Name of philosopher - N].
No, honestly, N, I really mean it. You're a great guy and a good philospher, no matter what everyone says.
But, seriously, folks...

van inwagen on richard gale?

- kris

Anonymous said...

DR said...
Surely it's the differences between major English-speaking moral philosophers from Sidgwick to the present day that Anscombe said were insignificant. Their work itself was very significant, in her opinion, because of its corrupting influence.

You are absolutely correct, DR. I was quoting Anscombe, largely, from memory, but this is the actual quote:

"My third thesis is that the differences between the well‑known English writers on moral philosophy from Sidgwick to the present day are of little importance."

I also like this backhanded slap at those 'modern moral philosophers' who try to fit Aristotle into an inappropriately modern schema:

"If someone professes to be expounding Aristotle and talks in a modern fashion about “moral” such-and-such he must be very imperceptive if he does not constantly feel like someone whose jaws have somehow got out of alignment: the teeth don’t come together in a proper bite."

e said...

tyler burge on the view of semantics suggested at times by chomsky: "The idea that we name and talk only about our own cogitations seems to me beyond serious discussion." snap!

Anonymous said...

From someone prone to insulting other philosophers:

"This book is a kind of classic, and should be read if possible, provided it is read quickly and inattentively"

Anonymous said...

From a footnote (with a few elisions):

"This last clarification is offered to aid Fodor, who uses my term '...' in a multiply confused way, making a parody of my views on ---"

Anonymous said...

Here's a borderline subtle example. The opening sentence of David Velleman's reply to Frances Kamm's critique of his paper "A Right to Self-Termination?" (Ethics, 1999) is: "F.M. Kamm's critique of my essay is mainly devoted to refuting arguments I do not recognize as mine".

Leo Iacono said...

I just ran into a paper in PPR titled "You Must Think That This Book is About You". It is a response by a book's author to a reviewer who apparently focused only on those aspects of the book that were relevant to the reviewer's views. Nobody above a certain age could miss the insulting "You're so vain" suggested by the title.

Anonymous said...

From a not so subtle recent review in a major journal:

"The writing is often indigestible and obscure. It imparts an appearance of complex depth to ideas that are often simple, superficial or passé. Some of _’s thoughts may be profound, but his writing invites the charge of unnecessary complication. It can garb thoughts so fancily that it can take a few moments’ reflection to realize that they are obvious."

"The impression to be gained, as this work begins, is of an a priorist forsaking his armchair to greet those for whom philosophy has long been taken as being continuous with science. The blinding by science begins in ch.3, with snowflakes. After a brief flurry, a thaw sets in. By ch.7 science is once again ignored. One is back in one’s soggy armchair for the discussion of moral rationalism, deprived of any insights to be had from neuroscience, social psychology, or sociobiology."

After quoting the author's definition of a priori content: "On a reading of this definition as a one-way conditional, ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ would not yet be confirmed as enjoying a priori status; and on a biconditional reading, the Cogito would be denied a priori status."

"_ also significantly misunderstands the structure of his own argument in response to skepticism"

"So, if _ were right, we would have here an a priori case for the empirical explanandum that planetary orbits are by and large elliptical!"

"_ is proficient in neither elementary plane geometry nor the metamathematics of arithmetic."

"The book contains an important self-contradiction. [...] Not too blatant, to be sure, given that the [...] premises are separated by 131 pages—but a contradiction nonetheless."

Jeremy Pierce said...

Then there's this move by a very well-known and respected metaphysician. If you have nothing to say about a position you disagree with, just say that you don't understand it even though your careful and fair presentation of the position has already shown that you understand it very well!

Anonymous said...

In a recent book, ____ says that BonJour is essentially committed to radical skepticism, and that "it is only by constantly shifting his position that he avoids facing that conclusion."

Aaron Cotnoir said...

P.T. Geach after giving a certain logician's argument:

"I know the argument sounds like bosh; but don't you be fooled - it IS bosh."

Kevin said...

Very interesting post. It's been quite some time since I picket up a philosophy book or read a review, but if I remember correctly John Searle was quite effective in his critiques - especially his reviews in the New York Review of Books. As I work in the field of American history it might be interesting to compare the way scholars go about critiquing one another.j

Kevin at Civil War Memory:

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