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Popper vs. Impressive, Incomprehensible Writing

Popper is quoted in Relativism and the Social Sciences, by Ernest Gellner, ch. 1, p. 5.:

Many years ago I used to warn my students against the widespread idea that one goes to university in order to learn how to talk, and to write, impressively and incomprehensibly. At the time many students came to university with this ridiculous aim in mind, especially in Germany ... most of those ... who ... enter into an intellectual climate which accepts this kind of valuation ... are lost.

Thus arose the cult of un-understandability, the cult of impressive and high-sounding language ... I suggest that in some of the more ambitious social sciences and philosophies, especially in Germany, the traditional game, which has largely become the unconscious and unquestioned standard, is to state the utmost trivialities in high-sounding languages.

Some of the famous leaders of German sociology ... are ... simply talking trivialities in high-sounding language ... They teach this to their students ... who do the same ... the genuine and general feeling of dissatisfaction which is manifest in their hostility to the society in which they live is, I think, a reflection of their unconscious dissatisfaction with the sterility of their own activities.

The source is given as:

The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, by T. W. Adorno, Hans Albert, Ralf Dahrendorf, Jürgen Habermas, Harald Pilot and Karl Popper, London, 1976, pp. 294 and 296.

I think it's a misquote or incorrect citation in some way because it skips a page but never has ellipses to skip one or more paragraphs. The only time text is skipped it's within a paragraph. (It could be correct if there's a paragraph that's over a page long, I guess.)

I like the quote and I noticed its similar to Ayn Rand's view.


Elliot Temple on August 2, 2017

Comments (4)

a similar quote appears in Chapter 3 of The Myth of the Framework, pages 70-71

>Many years ago I used to warn my students against the widespread idea that one goes to college in order to learn how to talk and write ‘impressively’ and incomprehensibly. At the time many students came to college with this ridiculous aim in mind, especially in Germany. And most of those students who, during their university studies, enter into an intellectual climate that accepts this kind of valuation - coming, perhaps, under the influence of teachers who in their turn had been reared in a similar climate - are lost. They unconsciously learn and accept that highly obscure and difficult language is the intellectual value par excellence. There is little hope that they will even understand that they are mistaken, or that they will ever realize that there are other standards and values - values such as truth, the search for truth, the approximation to truth through the critical elimination of error, and clarity. Nor will they find out that the standard of ‘impressive’ obscurity actually clashes with the standards of truth and rational criticism. For these latter values depend on clarity. One cannot tell truth from falsity, one cannot tell an adequate answer to a problem from an irrelevant one, one cannot tell good ideas from trite ones, and one cannot evaluate ideas critically - unless they are presented with sufficient clarity. But to those brought up in the implicit admiration of brilliance and ‘impressive’ opaqueness, all this (and all I have said here) would be at best, ‘impressive’ talk: they do not know any other values.

>Thus arose the cult of incomprehensibility, of ‘impressive’ and high-sounding language. This was intensified by the (for laymen) impenetrable and impressive formalism of mathematics. I suggest that in some of the more ambitious social sciences and philosophies, especially in Germany, the traditional game, which has largely become the unconscious and unquestioned standard, is to state the utmost trivialities in high-sounding language.

>If those brought up on this kind of nourishment are presented with a book that is written simply and contains something unexpected, controversial, or new, they usually find it difficult or impossible to understand. For it does not conform to their idea of ‘understanding’, which for them entails agreement. That there may be important ideas worth understanding with which one cannot at once agree or disagree is to them unfathomable.

Justin Mallone at 6:02 AM on August 4, 2017 | #8891

Philosophy: Who Needs It – Chapter 11, An Untitled Letter

Like any overt school of mysticism, a movement seeking to achieve a vicious goal has to invoke the higher mysteries of an incomprehensible authority. An unread and unreadable book serves this purpose. It does not count on men’s intelligence, but on their weaknesses, pretensions and fears. It is not a tool of enlightenment, but of intellectual intimidation. It is not aimed at the reader’s understanding, but at his inferiority complex.

An intelligent man will reject such a book with contemptuous indignation, refusing to waste his time on untangling what he perceives to be gibberish—which is part of the book’s technique: the man able to refute its arguments will not (unless he has the endurance of an elephant and the patience of a martyr). A young man of average intelligence—particularly a student of philosophy or of political science—under a barrage of authoritative pronouncements acclaiming the book as “scholarly,” “significant,” “profound,” will take the blame for his failure to understand. More often than not, he will assume that the book’s theory has been scientifically proved and that he alone is unable to grasp it; anxious, above all, to hide his inability, he will profess agreement, and the less his understanding, the louder his agreement—while the rest of the class are going through the same mental process. Most of them will accept the book’s doctrine, reluctantly and uneasily, and lose their intellectual integrity, condemning themselves to a chronic fog of approximation, uncertainty, self doubt. Some will give up the intellect (particularly philosophy) and turn belligerently into “pragmatic,” anti-intellectual Babbitts. A few will see through the game and scramble eagerly for the driver’s seat on the bandwagon, grasping the possibilities of a road to the mentally unearned.

Within a few years of the book’s publication, commentators will begin to fill libraries with works analyzing, “clarifying” and interpreting its mysteries. Their notions will spread all over the academic map, ranging from the appeasers, who will try to soften the book’s meaning—to the glamorizers, who will ascribe to it nothing worse than their own pet inanities—to the compromisers, who will try to reconcile its theory with its exact opposite—to the avant-garde, who will spell out and demand the acceptance of its logical consequences. The contradictory, antithetical nature of such interpretations will be ascribed to the book’s profundity—particularly by those who function on the motto: “If I don’t understand it, it’s deep.” The students will believe that the professors know the proof of the book’s theory, the professors will believe that the commentators know it, the commentators will believe that the author knows it—and the author will be alone to know that no proof exists and that none was offered.

Within a generation, the number of commentaries will have grown to such proportions that the original book will be accepted as a subject of philosophical specialization, requiring a lifetime of study—and any refutation of the book’s theory will be ignored or rejected, if unaccompanied by a full discussion of the theories of all the commentators, a task which no one will be able to undertake.

This is the process by which Kant and Hegel acquired their dominance. Many professors of philosophy today have no idea of what Kant actually said. And no one has ever read Hegel (even though many have looked at every word on his every page).

Ayn Rand at 10:29 AM on August 6, 2017 | #8897

Not only philosophy, not only Germany

I'm encouraged to have found this blog and the Yahoo group; they look good so far.

I'm a fan of Popper, but I'm not sure I've come across this opinion of his before. I completely agree.

More to my point, the late literary critic Wayne Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction (or possibly Now Don't Try to Reason with Me) criticizes other literary critics for writing incomprehensibly and encouraging it in others, notably in college. I think that Jonathan Kozol has explored this practice in our universities, in his The Night is Dark and I am Far from Home. Neil Postman must have addressed it as well in one of his many very readable and entertaining books, but I have no title to recommend.

I suppose I'm name dropping. But the problem is widespread in any field that aspires to look "intellectual" where standards are controversial and "progress" is illusory, or extremely slow (I'm thinking philosophy). Art criticism and the curating of art museums are notorious. But who can say that the critics are wrong (I'd go further and say "stupidly wrong") without alienating the "highly educated" and the snobbish? Book reviewers in the New Yorker and Bookforum tend to favor the use of "echt" and "louche" in preference to English synonyms, but the problem is much worse in books of literary criticism (which I've lately given up reading because it's a complete waste of time--I except the level-headed Booth). Unfortunately, the poison spreads; writers read the critics and write accordingly. New New York slang abounds in the New Yorker magazine for similar reasons. Or so it seems to me.

Foreign languages seem to me a way of distancing a writer from a potential reader; the writer seems to be saying, "If you're so benighted as to know no French or Latin, go away and get an education. I'm writing for a higher class of reader." There are historical reasons for expecting a reader to know Greek and Latin; but that history is now ancient and the reasons are out-of-date. A writer is entitled to select his audience (Virginia Woolf said that one writes for those few who understand), and a reader is entitled to select authors who "speak" to him/her.

The problem is vexing, but perhaps unimportant compared to current world problems.

Alan Nicoll at 1:03 PM on August 6, 2017 | #8898
Hi! Welcome!

> Not only philosophy, not only Germany

I agree. For example, the book *Who Killed Homer?* talks about how the profession of studying the classics has been destroyed by bad academics, and it contains a bunch of quotes showing the fancy way they talk to impress instead of express ideas clearly. (Being unclear helps them hide the lack of substance their ideas have...)

I agree with your examples, too. And I don't like running into bits of untranslated French in English-language books I read. I think virtually all books should be readable by a person who only knows one language. In *Who Killed Homer?* there's some Greek and Latin text, but there's always a translation too. Greek and Latin original is only included, in small chunks, when the author thinks it will be useful for English speakers to see it (because he's talking about issues like inadequate English translations).

curi at 1:12 PM on August 6, 2017 | #8899

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)