Satire and wit to demolish puffery and dogma

Stephen Eric Bronner, at the beginning of Reclaiming the Englightenment, talks about Horkheimer and Adorno and about the ethos of the Enlightenment and says that making sense of it

is impossible without recognizing what became a general stylistic commitment to clarity, communicability, and what rhetoricians term “plain speech.”

Horkheimer and Adorno thought they needed a very difficult style in their resistance to the culture industry.

Their esoteric and academic style is a far cry from that of Enlightenment intellectuals who debated first principles in public, who introduced freelance writing, who employed satire and wit to demolish puffery and dogma, and who were preoccupied with reaching a general audience of educated readers. [pp 8-9]

Who employed satire and wit to demolish puffery and dogma – that proud Enlightenment tradition.

We need to hang on to that, embrace it and cherish it, not revile it and reject it. It’s a heritage for everyone, and everyone needs it. The fanatics and theocrats are the ones who need it most.


  1. Enkidum says

    I’d love to pretend that I’m entirely motivated by truth, justice, and reason (well, actually I wouldn’t, but let’s pretend), but a large part of my opposition to the continental tradition is purely stylistic – from Kant on, they have an unwavering commitment to obscurantism, jargon, pretension, and bullshit.

    It’s not really fair to call it “opposition” – I mean, I have read very widely and deeply in the tradition, from Kant to Gadamer (but little after that) and have gotten a great deal of value out of it. But I have always recognized myself as somehow belonging on the “other side” – the side of Descartes, of Hume, of William James, of Orwell. The side of people who, as Bronner says, are committed at the very least to trying to say what they mean as clearly as possible.

    This doesn’t mean that they’re always good or right, one advantage of the commitment to clarity is that it makes it substantially easier to recognize bullshit. You can tell that Descartes’ proofs for the existence of God are nonsense because they don’t make any sense, whereas the things he says that make sense (such as what he says about the operation of the senses) at least have a chance of being right. Or someone like Sam Harris, for all his flaws, is firmly in the Enlightenment tradition and therefore tries to say what he means reasonably clearly, which has saved me an awful lot of time because I’ve realized after reading half a book and a few essays that I don’t need to bother with him any longer. Whereas if you read Essay on Humanism by Heidegger, you have to spend hours trying to unpack what the hell he’s talking about, which requires inside knowledge of his biography, and eventually you realize that it is in part an analysis of the relationship between intellectuals such as himself and the Nazis, but partly because he’s a craven little shit, and partly because he’s committed to the stylistic traits of Continentalism, he can’t bring himself to actually say so.

    Clear writing is like requiring peer review and a complete description of methods in scientific papers: it is just one tool among many, it doesn’t guarantee truth or brilliance, but at least it ups the chances of finding bullshit.

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