There goes Andrew Sullivan again


I’ve been living in Academyville most of my life, which means I’ve met some of the villainous ogres the right-wingers hate: Marxists and Post-Modernists. I’ve never met two of them at the same time, though. I’ve also met Fanatical Capitalists. It’s a real slumgullion in here, but that’s part of the charm.

Enter Andrew Sullivan. Or rather, exit Andrew Sullivan, who has left his comfortable paying job slinging dull resentment of things he doesn’t understand to put on rusty armor, climb aboard a tired donkey, and begin a crusade against…critical theory? Which again, he doesn’t understand, but is absolutely sure it is about destroying the very fabric of society.

I’m no expert in this stuff — I tinker with spiders — so I tend to defer to the experts on the other side of campus, you know, the social scientists and humanities people. Unlike the Sullivans of the world, I’ve mingled enough with them to respect their intelligence and knowledge, and to know that they are as sincere in their use of intellectual tools as I am in trying to understand the genes and processes behind spider development and behavior.

So I listen when someone like Asad Haider analyzes Sullivan’s claims.

After a grandiose announcement that he was leaving New York Magazine due to a stifling political atmosphere, Andrew Sullivan has now launched a comedy career. In a post of his new “non-conformist” newsletter, Sullivan announces that he will present an analysis of contemporary “social justice” politics. This politics, he says, is the development of “an esoteric, academic discipline called critical theory, which has gained extraordinary popularity in elite education in the past few decades.” Critical theory, he says with what can only be dry sarcasm, is so powerful and omnipresent that it is “changing the very words we speak and write and the very rationale of the institutions integral to liberal democracy.”

Sullivan’s account is full of falsehoods and misinterpretations so drastic that they could only be the product of a refined wit. The neologisms he attributes to the tradition founded by thinkers like Theodor Adorno are: “non-binary, toxic masculinity, white supremacy, traumatizing, queer, transphobia, whiteness, mansplaining.” One can only hope that Sullivan branches into sketch comedy, so we might see a dramatization of Adorno’s reaction to such terms. “The intellectual fight back against wokeness has now begun in earnest,” reads Sullivan’s deadpan conclusion. “Let’s do this.”

To appreciate this joke you have to understand that there’s a second, “meta” level to it, which is that Sullivan claims to be defending principles of ethical journalism, rationality, objective truth, and informed debate, but he never refers to a single primary text of what he calls critical theory. Twice as funny.

That’s what gets me. These bozos are dead set on the idea that critical theory is evil, but over and over again they reveal that they haven’t actually read anything in the field, and don’t even have a grasp of critical theory 101. I say “they” because it’s not just Sullivan — he has a whole clown car of buffoons joining him in the same futile enterprise.

In the midst of this comic tour de force we’re introduced to other characters, who give Sullivan a run for his money: James Lindsay, better known on Twitter as Conceptual James, and Helen Pluckrose, authors of Cynical Theories. Lindsay should be recognized for one of the most audacious comic bits of this whole contemporary discourse: in an ornate blog post which claims to clarify the distinctions between categories while actually muddling them beyond recognition, he writes that postmodernists “drew heavily off the successes of Mao in his Cultural Revolution and used them to inspire Pol-Pot, who studied alongside them at the Sorbonne in Paris at the time, to go after a deconstructive Year-Zero campaign of his own.”

He links to a blog post by Lindsay which is amazing. Lindsay throws out a dense cloud of terms that he misuses, revealing that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but apparently thinks vomiting up noise makes him sound informed. The closest thing I’ve seen to it are creationist posts that spew out a chaff of molecular biology to totally misrepresent what the papers actually say. Maybe he ought to read Haider’s article to clear up some of his misunderstandings.

It’s quite a long and thorough article that summarizes many of the terms they mess up. I’ll just quote the relevant bit about critical theory.

According to Sullivan, “postmodernism is a project to subvert the intellectual foundations of western culture,” for which “the entire concept of reason—whether the Enlightenment version or even the ancient Socratic understanding—is a myth designed to serve the interests of those in power, and therefore deserves to be undermined and ‘problematized’ reason [sic] whenever possible.”

But as Foucault clearly explains, critique is not a destruction of every form of reason but a putting into question of who we are, what we think, and what we do, by studying the histories that have produced us. It doesn’t simply mean finding fault with things, “criticizing” things. Though it may certainly involve that, this isn’t what the “critical” in critical theory or any kind of critical thinking refers to. The critical attitude continues, in fact, a certain attitude of the Enlightenment, while also situating the Enlightenment in the history which is to be approached with the critical attitude.

As Foucault traces in his 1978 lecture “What is Critique,” in Europe the critical attitude arises in the context of societies in which people and their thoughts are governed by religion, and it reflects the desire not to be governed — or at least, not to be governed quite like that. Critique is “the art of not being governed quite so much.” Hence the critical attitude of the Enlightenment is to not simply accept what an authority tells you is true, but to independently determine its validity; not to follow laws because they are dictated by power, but because you have determined them to be just. Critique, contrary to Sullivan’s paranoia, is an Enlightenment attitude.

That’s precisely what I don’t get. Skeptics ought to be enthusiastically embracing critical theory, and even post-modernism, because it does all the stuff skeptics claim to appreciate. Read that last paragraph again. Only a Status Quo Warrior would think that is undesirable. But instead they’ve only embraced the fringe abuses of theory, and have happily adopted only the practice of the worst writers to string gibberish into bad essays and books.

Comments

  1. says

    When biblical “higher criticism” was in full flower and picked major holes in the notion of biblical inerrancy, the reaction among some Protestant sects was fundamentalism and the notion that certain “truths” were not to be questioned. I daresay Andrew Sullivan is aware of this, but not aware what side he is actually on.

  2. jpjackson says

    I often recommend people understand the “critical” in “critical theory” the way they approach something like film criticism. Is a film critic someone who hates film and wants to destroy the medium? No, it is someone who LOVES film and wants it to be as good a possible. So too, when critical theorists write about “reason” or “rationality” it is because they embrace those concepts and want them to be the best they can be.

  3. raven says

    … he writes that postmodernists “drew heavily off the successes of Mao in his Cultural Revolution and used them to inspire Pol-Pot,

    This is a mixture of gibberish and a common fallacy, The Murder of a Strawperson. Plus it is a lie and another fallacy, Guilt by Association.

    .1. What successes of Mao in the Cultural Revolution?
    The Cultural Revolution was a huge failure that set the stage for the rise of Post-Mao pragmatists like Deng Xiaoping, who hybridized Chinese communism with market capitalism to start the rise of China as a modern and powerful nation.

    .2. Post-modernism had nothing to do with Mao, the Cultural Revolution, or Pol Pots Cambodian genocide.
    Communism in various forms predates post-modernism by many decades.

    ..3. Post-modernism in sociology and political science was a huge failure and it died long ago.
    While I despise post-modernism, blaming it for whatever you hate isn’t very honest or useful.

  4. raven says

    Andrew Sullivan is simply using postmodernism as a scary word like Commies, atheists, Black Lives Matter, Biologist, or Democrats.
    This is a rhetorical tactic of the intellectually bankrupt.

    The reality is that rather than inspiring Marxists, Marxists actually hate postmodernism.
    Mao and Pol Pot would have sent any postmodernists they found to reeducation camps to grow rice and tomatoes.

    Wikipedia Criticism of Postmodernism-Marxist

    Fredric Jameson, American literary critic and Marxist political theorist, attacks postmodernism (or poststructuralism), what he claims is “the cultural logic of late capitalism”, for its refusal to critically engage with the metanarratives of capitalization and globalization. The refusal renders postmodernist philosophy complicit with the prevailing relations of domination and exploitation.[16]

    Marxists blame postmodernism for propping up “late capitalism”.

  5. Jemolk says

    I’d like to point out what Sullivan is doing here with Pol Pot, while we’re at it. Which is conflating him with Mao. Now, I’m not a Maoist, but it’s pretty easy and reasonable to argue that Mao was sincere in his attempt to build a better world. He also had some pretty valuable ideas. Not all of them, obviously, and obviously it didn’t end up getting where he wanted it to go, but there is value in looking at him as a leftist and predecessor to current movements who can be learned from, both successes and failures. Not so for Pol Pot. Most of the effort to paint him as communist came from capitalist powers — as did much of his support, since he was a useful pawn as a PR tool. He was actually defeated by neighboring Vietnamese communists. “Pol Pot as communist” actually has about as much truth to it as “the Nazis were totally socialists, y’all” but not as thoroughly debunked and with more remaining institutional support.

    Also, PZ — they’re not really skeptics, are they? More like people who think they’re geniuses for figuring out a single fact of reality, and now apply that know-it-all arrogance to everything they come across. Calling themselves skeptics is just them flattering themselves.

  6. raven says

    Criticism of postmodernism Wikipedia

    Criticisms of postmodernism, while intellectually diverse, share the opinion that it lacks coherence and is hostile to the notion of absolutes, such as truth. Specifically it is held that postmodernism can be meaningless, promotes obscurantism and uses relativism (in culture, morality, knowledge) to the extent that it cripples most judgement calls.

    Postmodernism is a highly diverse intellectual and artistic activity, and two branches (for example, postmodern literature and postmodern philosophy) can have little in common.

    .1. Postmodernism is such a vague term that encompasses subjects that have little in common such as art, architecture, philosophy, and literature that as a term, without defining it, it is “meaningless”.

    When I claim that postmodernism is a failure and dead, I’m referring to sociological, political, and/or philosophical postmodernism.

    .2. It’s an arguable claim but not easily.
    Postmodernism is now a Zombie with a few adherents still shambling around moaning about, “brains, brains, brains”.
    I’m not going to pay attention to the few Pomo’s left.
    It’s a derail from the subject of PZ’s OP, and not very interesting any more.

  7. KG says

    Hence the critical attitude of the Enlightenment is to not simply accept what an authority tells you is true, but to independently determine its validity – Asad Haider

    Yeah, great idea. But it’s also what all the climate change denialists, the current crop of creationists, the antivaxers, the Covidiots claim to be doing: “Do your own research!”. And it’s not wholly without justification to link this contempt for scientific expertise – which is a form of authority – to the kindred approaches of postmodernism, critical theory, and science and technology studies.

  8. says

    I have slightly more respect for someone who names Critical Theory as their target of criticism instead of Postmodernism. “Critical Theory” has a clear referent, and it is at least coherent to either criticize or defend it. Postmodernism isn’t a coherent category, it’s just the out-group homogeneity effect as applied to academia, a way to talk about an unspecified set of thinkers without having to know what any of them actually said. Haider got this right:

    “Postmodernism” doesn’t really exist, insofar as it’s understood as a current of philosophy which encompasses the French theorists Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, who never accepted the label yet are constantly invoked as its representatives.

    But what Sullivan is trying to get at is neither Postmodernism nor Critical Theory, he’s really trying to criticize social justice in contemporary public discourse, i.e. what he calls “Wokeness”. He declares an attack on the “roots of Wokeness”, but I think this vastly overstates the importance of academic thought to activists. Social justice activists may be influenced or inspired by academic thought, but we are not “rooted” in it, we are an independent stream. Case in point, Haider talks about academic critiques of oppressor/oppressed binaries and the idea of lived experience. But this has hardly stopped activists–for better or for worse.

    Rather than trying to attack the academic “roots” of social justice–something that Sullivan is severely ill-equipped to do–it would make far more sense to just directly criticize social justice as it is understood in the public realm.

  9. Akira MacKenzie says

    That’s precisely what I don’t get. Skeptics ought to be enthusiastically embracing critical theory, and even post-modernism, because it does all the stuff skeptics claim to appreciate.

    It’s simple, they fell for the mainstream-right strawman of the Postmodernist academic as the solipsistic Ivory Tower humanities professor who claims that “reality isn’t real, maaaaaan.” I mean, what’s scarier to scientifically-minded materialist to hear that there are people (no matter how small a group they are) who deny objective reality who are taken seriously (even when they really aren’t)? Smart, skeptical people know these people are full of bullshit. YOU ARE a smart, skeptical person, AREN’T YOU???

    It’s just like their flirtations with anti-environmentalism, rather than listening to mainstream climatologists and ecologists they were convicted by other “skeptics” (ahem… Penn & Teller, Dr. Bicycle-shorts) that global warming and pollution is anti-capitalist/anti-freedom myth concocted by unhygienic, quasi-communist hippies who hug trees and worship the Earth as a goddess. You don’t want science to be associated with those rabble, do you? But hey, here’s a scientist in an expensive suit to tell you way climate change isn’t really happening. (What’s that? Why should it matter if he works for the fossil fuel industry? ASSOCIATION FALLACY!!!)

    Despite believing to be masters of logic and reason, they are just as vulnerable to fallacy, emotional manipulation, and fear-mongering as any other human. It’s their ego that prevents them from seeing that.

  10. says

    I took a look at Sullivan’s original article, and I think I was giving him too much credit. It’s basically a book review of Cynical Theories, so I think the authors Pluckrose & Lindsay deserve most of the credit for this bad analysis.

  11. jrkrideau says

    These bozos are dead set on the idea that critical theory is evil, but over and over again they reveal that they haven’t actually read anything in the field

    This reminds me of the economist of the Chicago school and his critique of Keynesian theory who had never read Keynes or the trenchant criticism of B. F. Skinner’s behaviourism by psychologists, and others, who have never read a single paper Skinner wrote.

    This also reminds me of all those people who talk about Galileo and know nothing about him or the complex political and scientific environments in 16th and 17th C Europe.

  12. garnetstar says

    Anyone who whines about “postmodernism” destroying the world has read too much Jordan Peterson, and has let that word salad ferment in their brain.

    “Social justice politics” is the development of an esoteric academic theory called “The Enlightenment”, which has gained extraordinary popularity in the whole world during the past few centuries. This theory s so powerful and omnipresent that it is, and has, changed the very words we speak and write and the very rationale of the institutions integral to liberal democracy.

    There, fixed that for Sullivan.

    If all you can do is regurgitate Peterson’s premises in better-written prose, you should find another job. Perhaps Sullivan’s just after the sort of money Peterson made off of this stance?

  13. mnb0 says

    “That’s precisely what I don’t get. ”
    Still it’s simple and creationists are as so often excellent examples. They are hyper-critical towards evolution theory but totally not towards their own views. They are selective skeptics. They do “enthusiastically embrac[e] critical theory, and even post-modernism” as long as it confirms their predetermined conclusions.
    Once you recognize this it becomes clear that jesusmythologists and 9-11 truthers do exactly the same. Take yourself for instance.

    “I tend to defer to the experts on the other side of campus, you know, the social scientists and humanities people.”
    Except when those humanities people are historians of Antiquity explaining that Jesus was an actual human who was born, walked around an obscure part of the Roman Empire and died. Then this tendency is the opposite. Regarding this, have you already asked yourself who you are, what you think, what you write – and why? Like that excellent advise by Foucauld? Or do you suddenly prefer “finding fault with” this specific thing called historical consensus?
    Or will you delude yourself by preferring “not to be governed quite like that”? That will be the creationist rebuttal – they don’t want their thinking to be governed quite like that by evilutionist authorities.
    These are questions you – anybody – should ask your(him/her)self, especially when challenging the scientific consensus (and yes, historical research is a branch of science too).

  14. says

    mnbo,

    It isn’t very important to me if Jesus was based on a real person or not. He still hasn’t returned within the lifetime of some of his followers.

  15. birgerjohansson says

    To avoid having my words twisted by any hypothetical ‘post-modernists’ out there, let me state I want my ‘social justice warrior-ism to be expressed through Madame Guillotine as far as corrupt politicians are concerned.

  16. hemidactylus says

    Isn’t social justice one of those overarching grand narratives pomos are allergic to?

  17. DrVanNostrand says

    Wait. I thought he was canceled by the thought police. If he’s still babbling on about whatever he likes to babble on about, what is this great “cancel culture” threat? He seems to be doing just fine.

  18. chrislawson says

    Surely this is the real giveaway: Sullivan’s opposition to terms like “non-binary, toxic masculinity, white supremacy, traumatizing, queer, transphobia, whiteness, mansplaining.” Even if he had reasonable objections to the philosophical foundations of postmodernism, it says it all that Sullivan is most adamantly against new terms that are intended to prevent the oppression and vilification of traditionally oppressed and vilified people. Does Sullivan really believe that “white supremacy” is a false description invented by postmodernists to misrepresent the KKK, Stormfront, apartheid, and Jim Crow laws?

    He is not so much anti-postmodernism (obv. since he clearly doesn’t know what postmodernism means), he is pro-oppression.

  19. chrislawson says

    mnb0–

    Being skeptical of authority is NOT the same as being a 9/11 conspiracy theorist or a believer in a historical Jesus (the latter, by the way, is hardly a loony position to take even if you don’t agree with it yourself).

    A skeptic who looks at the evidence on COVID19 will come to the conclusion that health authorities like the CDC have been mostly correct (allowing for the difficulties of rapidly changing knowledge), while the single most powerful authority in the US, the President, is dangerously wrong.

  20. mailliw says

    Déconstruction is the French for empiricism.

    Having been tied for centuries to the rationalist philosophy of Descartes the French finally came to their senses and have admitted that maybe David Hume was right all along.

    Of course they couldn’t call it empiricism, that’s a British invention and French pride wouldn’t allow that, but it is still much the same thing.

    As for non-binary, well that’s what modern science tells us as far as I can see. As neuroscientist Gina Rippon points out in her book The Gendered Brain, looking for differences between “male” and “female” brains is a remarkably good example of begging the question.

  21. mailliw says

    raven @4

    Marxists actually hate postmodernism

    Marxist-Leninists perhaps; it is necessarily critical of their claims about “scientific” socialism, which is a very good example of abusing the authority of science for political ends.

    I suspect that Marx himself might have found deconstructionism interesting. But as Karl himself said “I’m not a Marxist”.
    I visited Marx’s birth house in Trier and bought a postcard with the quotation from Marx: “Doubt everything”. The other souvenir item at the Trier tourist office is a Karl Marx wine – it’s a red obviously.

  22. KG says

    Being skeptical of authority is NOT the same as being a 9/11 conspiracy theorist or a believer in a historical Jesus (the latter, by the way, is hardly a loony position to take even if you don’t agree with it yourself). – chrislawson@19

    You’ve either miswritten, or misinterpreted mnb0@13, who is complaining about PZM’s scepticism about a historical Jesus. Moreover, mnb0 is right, jesusmythologists are similar to creationists and 9-11 truthers, rejecting the consensus of relevant experts for no good reason.

  23. chrislawson says

    No, I did not misrepresent him at all. It was his choice to compare a reasonable belief (which I don’t share btw) with 9/11 truthers and creationists. In other words, he was poisoning the well. Sorry to see you step up to defend such pathetic rhetorical abuse.

  24. mailliw says

    Thanks for drawing my attention to the Asad Haider article, a very interesting and informative read.

  25. KG says

    chrislawson@23,

    Try reading what you wrote @19:

    Being skeptical of authority is NOT the same as being a 9/11 conspiracy theorist or a believer in a historical Jesus

    So you are saying being a 9/11 conspiracy theorist and a believer in a historical Jesus are similar, by contrasting both with being sceptical of authority, while mnb0 was saying, as you appear to realise, that 9/11 conspiracy theorists and jesusmythologists are similar. So you miswrote, as I suggested.

    But in any case, jesusmythologism is not a reasonable belief, it’s a load of stupid crap, maintained in the teeth of the consensus of relevant experts, exactly like creationism or 9/11 conspiracism. I refer you to a series of posts on the issue by an atheist who actually has the relevant expertise to discuss it and like me, is sick and tired of atheists making fools of themselves over it.

  26. John Morales says

    Depends on what’s reckoned to be a historical Jesus.

    The Biblical Jesus — the Jewish miracle-mongering god-man — is clearly mythical, whether or not based on some actual dude.

  27. mailliw says

    raven @3, 6

    Post-modernism in sociology and political science was a huge failure and it died long ago.
    …I despise post-modernism

    Postmodernism is now a Zombie with a few adherents still shambling around moaning about, “brains, brains, brains”.

    I would really recommend reading the Asad Haider article in full, it clears up a lot of confusion and widespread misinformation on the subject.

  28. mailliw says

    Heh. Perhaps one day you will.

    I sure you find it as fascinating as I do, that supposed critics of “post-modernism”, whatever that happens to mean, seem to be big on abuse, but remarkably low on understanding and analysis.

    If you look at the article you will find that Jacques Derrida makes the entirely uncontroversial statement that words can only be defined in terms of their relation to other words and that words cannot capture our immediate experience of the world.

    I someone were to say that words have some sort of meaning that is inherent to them and that some external force (God, Big Brother?) guarantees the meaning of the word and its connection to the thing we agree it represents, would you find this a convincing argument?

  29. John Morales says

    mailliw, overcomplicating matters doesn’t help understanding.

    Nor does pomposity.

    Consider the differing semantics of
    “I would really recommend reading the Asad Haider article in full”
    vs
    “I really recommend reading the Asad Haider article in full”.

    (One is contingent)

    If you look at the article you will find that Jacques Derrida makes the entirely uncontroversial statement that words can only be defined in terms of their relation to other words and that words cannot capture our immediate experience of the world.

    So, there could never a defined initial word, and therefore there are no defined words.

    (Also, there’s onomatopoeia)

  30. mailliw says

    @John Morales 32

    “I would really recommend”, well just politeness on my part, I hope; but I agree you could consider the conjunctive to be superfluous in this context.

    So, there could never a defined initial word

    Well at some point we point to the same thing and agree on having the same word for it. Later on we find that we have subtely different understandings of what this thing is – and have to use some new words. So the argument is that we can only really define words in relation to each other – and in the way we agree to relate them to reality. The words have no inherent meaning.

    As for onomatopoeia, does the sound a cow make really sound anything like “moo”? Also consider that fact that onomatopoeic words can be different in different languages

  31. mailliw says

    Consider the differing semantics of
    “I would really recommend reading the Asad Haider article in full”
    vs
    “I really recommend reading the Asad Haider article in full”.

    (One is contingent)

    When a waiter says “I would recommend the soup”, everyone understands that they are recommending the soup, not that they may say in the future that they will recommend the soup.

    So what I said is perfectly acceptable English usage, and your attempt to find ambiguity in it is wilful misinterpretation.

  32. John Morales says

    mailliw:

    … well just politeness on my part, I hope …

    Hm. Well, now you know how it comes across, intention notwithstanding.

    Well at some point we point to the same thing and agree on having the same word for it.

    … in which case, that word is not defined in terms of its relation to other words, is it?

    The words have no inherent meaning.

    Ahem.
    “Well at some point we point to the same thing and agree on having the same word for it.”

    I think you’re confusing yourself.

    As for onomatopoeia, does the sound a cow make really sound anything like “moo”?

    Well, yes, depending on its pronunciation. More to the point, it’s not defined in terms of other words, is it?

    Point being, abstruseness for its own sake may be fun, but it’s hardly edifying.

    (And let’s not get into the distinction between postmodernism and deconstruction!
    Each can be valid within its own domain, but neither is universal)

  33. mailliw says

    <

    blockquote>Well, yes, depending on its pronunciation. More to the point, it’s not defined in terms of other words, is it?

    <

    blockquote>

    I think if you wanted to find out what the word moo meant, if you were a non-English speaker, you would find it defined as the sound made by a cow, I remain unconvinced that you would immediately recognise it as the sound made by cow, but that is an experiment for the linguisticians.

  34. John Morales says

    <snicker>

    Well, mailliw, I would say you’re quite the clever person.

    (BTW, the sound made by a cow is low)

  35. mailliw says

    Point being, abstruseness for its own sake may be fun, but it’s hardly edifying.

    Are you trying to tell me you don’t like my tone or my style or that you disagree with what I have to say?

  36. mailliw says

    <

    blockquote>Well, mailliw, I would say you’re quite the clever person.

    <

    blockquote>

    I fortunately not particularly sarcastic or patronising, you win some you lose some I guess.

  37. KG says

    Depends on what’s reckoned to be a historical Jesus. – John Morales@27

    No, it doesn’t – that’s just a cop-out. Because among those who have actually studied and written about the issue – including mythicists – what “a historical Jesus” means is undisputed: a Jew of the early 1st-century CE, named Joshua (the Jewish equivalent of the Greek “jesus”) who grew up, preached and gathered followers in Galilee, was crucified in Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate, and whose life and teachings were the basis (however mythologised) for the foundation of a new sect which grew into Christianity.

    The Biblical Jesus, as described, is 100% a myth, even if he’s based on stories of other itinerant preachers of the time. Why is this even controversial? – WMDKitty@28

    It’s “controversial” because the consensus of relevant experts rejects it, just as creationism is “controversial” for the same reason. “100% a myth” means, if it means anything, that there was no historical individual whose life and teachings, however mythologised, form the basis of the stories in the Gospels. All but fundamentalist Christians accept that they were mythologised, just like the lives of most individuals of that era of whom we have any knowledge – the Emperor Vespasian is reported to have performed miracles, for example. But the consensus of relevant experts is that there was a historical Jesus – and not a bunch of “other itinerant preachers” (other than what?), but a single individual, meeting the description I gave above. Tim O’Neill, whom I referred to above without naming him, deals with the “amalgam Jesus” notion, for which there is no good evidence, here.

  38. mailliw says

    @37 John Morales

    Well, mailliw, I would say you’re quite the clever person.

    Let me try that again, well John, you are quite the sarcastic and patronising person.

  39. consciousness razor says

    If you look at the article you will find that Jacques Derrida makes the entirely uncontroversial statement that words can only be defined in terms of their relation to other words and that words cannot capture our immediate experience of the world.

    [If] someone were to say that words have some sort of meaning that is inherent to them and that some external force (God, Big Brother?) guarantees the meaning of the word and its connection to the thing we agree it represents, would you find this a convincing argument?

    I don’t understand this train of thought. If people agree to use a word for something in the world which is part of our experiences, then we do have that thing in common and it (whatever it may be) isn’t a relation between words. Because it’s a thing we experienced in the world.

    For example, if I say “John Morales” refers to the person who commented above, and perhaps you and John and others agree with this usage, it’s not clear that we needed anything else. He’s not a word or a relation between words. He’s a person, who exists in the real world that we all inhabit. That is something we definitely have in common, and there’s nothing which prevents us from making use of this fact.

    Also, you seem to be suggesting that if it were not the case that words can only be defined in terms of their relation to other words, then somehow the implications of your second paragraph follow: they have inherent meanings and that something else external to a word “guarantees” its meaning. So, what makes you think that a contradiction like that must come from the claim that it’s not the case that words can only be defined in terms of their relation to other words? Or I guess this may be about what made Derrida think that, rather than you. I honestly don’t know … is there an argument for it, or was this just a statement that he uttered (entirely without controversy)?

    It’s also kind of strange that you consider the first part a single, coherent claim, as if this relational property had something to do with being incapable of capturing immediate experiences. We first of all don’t need them to metaphorically “capture experience,” whatever exactly that’s supposed to mean. We simply use words to communicate with one another, like I’m doing with you now. And I have no idea how or why that would depend on whether words could only be defined in relation to other words. So, what’s supposed to be the logical connection between these ideas?

  40. KG says

    If you look at the article you will find that Jacques Derrida makes the entirely uncontroversial statement that words can only be defined in terms of their relation to other words and that words cannot capture our immediate experience of the world.

    I someone were to say that words have some sort of meaning that is inherent to them – mailliw@31

    Those are not exhaustive alternatives. How do you think an infant, knowing no words at all, comes to understand language? Or if two adults with no language in common are separately shipwrecked on a desert island, how could they come to understand each other? How, for that matter, could language have got started at all? A problem with postmodernist/deconstructionist/later-Wittgenstinian views of language is that they tend to regard it as a self-contained system, whereas in fact it is rooted in more fundamental forms of cognition and social interaction.

  41. KG says

    mailliw@33,
    I see that in fact you have considered the questions I raised @43:

    Well at some point we point to the same thing and agree on having the same word for it.

    But that surely means that Derrida’s “uncontroversial” claim is simply false.

  42. mailliw says

    @42 consciousness razor @43, @44 KG

    I am glad that we have some discussion going on over these things.

    I will try to clarify my position.

    1: The connection between the sounds we use to represent things we talk about are essentially arbitrary and are agreed socially (with the possible exception of onomatopoeias). Definition is defined by usage – words of themselves have no inherent meaning.

    2: Language as something defined socially, both changes over time and by which people are using it. Words in the same language may have different meanings for specialists in some area and another meaning for the layperson. Even people within the same group can have disagreements about the meaning of word.

    3: Meanings of words overlap with each other and where the boundaries are is usually blurred. This is a frequent problem in translation – where often it is very hard to find a word that matches the nuances in meaning of the original.

    4: Misunderstandings and ambiguities occur frequently. Under some circumstances we may be able to point to something and say I meant that one, but as soon as we get even slightly abstract the potential for misunderstanding and ambiguity becomes more likely. We then start to clarify what we mean by one word by using other words.

    5: Most of our thinking isn’t linguistic – but language is, mostly, how we express our thinking. So the relation of language to thought is problematic.

    Fire at Will!

  43. KG says

    mailliw@45,

    None of that is controversial – but it doesn’t seem to be what Derrida said (of course, translation or context may be responsible for that).

  44. mailliw says

    None of that is controversial – but it doesn’t seem to be what Derrida said (of course, translation or context may be responsible for that).

    Well it’s my interpretation of deconstructionism. I might have misunderstood something somewhere of course.

    I could join the dots back to Winograd and Flores, but only if it interests anyone.

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