APP Editors’ Note: Otto Paans is Otto Paans. He’s currently working on a PhD in architecture at the Berlin University of Technology, and also doing a part-time MA in analytic philosophy.
At least since Bacon’s 1620 Novum Organum, the ideal of acquiring knowledge about the natural world as well as the world of human affairs has critically hinged on the ideal of a distanced, dispassionate observer who just documents the observations he makes. In philosophy and science, formal logic and clear, transparent methods have long been regarded as primary tools for this observer, and as his best guarantee for reaching reliable knowledge. What did not fit in a propositional format or a fixed, well-circumscribed methodology was if not outright wrong, at least suspect.
Partially, this attitude is related with what Karl Popper already defined as “the optimistic theory of knowledge”1 – the ideal conception that once we stumble upon “the truth” through researching and questioning, we will instantly recognize it, with a kind of direct apprehension – the direct insight that Descartes already imagined. This idea underlies the confidence placed in the scientific method and has helped considerably to establish contemporary scientism.2 Since research methods of science provide potent tools to check and critically examine statements and argumentative structures, it is not entirely strange that (especially in analytic philosophy) authors are preoccupied with proving this or that statement.
Rigor, logic, critical thinking and careful attention to methodology have been great assets in developing vast areas of thought. Progress in quantum physics, Neodarwinian biology, information and communication technology or philosophy are not imaginable without these.
The main problems are located in the utilization of these assets. In this essay, I argue that these potentially great tools to enhance human thinking have been utilized in a way that is actively harmful for the development of novel ways of thinking and researching.
A preliminary analysis of the problem situation
What went wrong? To start with, I suppose that we encounter a problem of confusing the appearance of methodological rigor with genuine critical acumen or intellectual depth. A philosophical text might be dense and hardly readable, but that is no guarantee that its structure is methodologically sound. For all we know, its content could be complete nonsense. We can certainly sympathize with the bewilderment of anyone who picks up a book by Hegel for the first time, dumbfounded by the use of language and terminology.
On the other hand, the often-made point that some philosophers write complex and obscure texts to hide their ignorance, but still want be viewed as profound can easily be refuted.3 Maybe some philosophers do not write obscure texts to hide that they have nothing to say, but to show off their devotion to methodological rigor in a small group of peers or, – to put it in other words – to underline the fact that they have mastered the appropriate language for expressing thoughts on certain topics.
How important the vocabulary in publishing has become, is demonstrated by the SCIgen computer program. A group of MIT graduate students wrote a computer program that could formulate fake scientific articles. Surprisingly enough, a number of renowned journals accepted the papers. In 2012, Cyril Labbé, a French scientist who had been utilizing SCIgen, informed publishers Springer and IEEE that they had published around 120 scientific articles that had been generated by the program. In 2010, the researcher alias that Labbé had created for these articles became even the 21st most cited scholar in the Google Scholar Database.4
I hold that in certain philosophical environments (and to an extent, scientific and artistic environments as well) professional vocabularies emerge that serve an ideological function. This function is quite simple: it serves to limit the range of concepts that can be expressed, set limits to the fields that can be addressed and regulates the progression of the discourse. We might helpfully think of these professional vocabularies as the “thought police” – they structure the type of inquiry, the legitimate approach, the appropriate topics and the language that has to be used in order to discuss these topics. When I say “ideological function” here, I do not mean to posit a centralized authority that reviews every publication and decides what will be published. The ideological structure that enforces the usage of professional vocabularies seems to me the result of a number of simultaneous developments in thinking, publishing, forms of academic organization, human psychology and commercialization that negatively reinforce each other. It would lead too far to expound on all those developments here, but it seems to me that the pressure on universities to deliver graduated students, the pressure on researchers to publish and group mentality do certainly play negative roles here.
Thomas Nagel already warned that every discipline walks a thin line between rigor and rigidity or between conservatism and innovation. The natural consequence of going too far in the direction of rigidity is that legitimate topics for discussion tend to be defined based on available methods.5
In addition, it seems that some philosophers utilize a vocabulary that is designed to make it look like as if the text possesses the level of methodological rigor that might be expected of the field one works in. Thus, not only are the legitimate topics restricted, but also the vocabulary used to discuss them has to look rigorous, distanced and methodical – even if the content is absolute nonsense.
The even bigger threat is that legitimate topics are defined on the basis of available vocabularies and the range of concepts that can be expressed through them. When one limits the use of language, one necessarily limits the range of expression, and consequently the reach of conceptual frameworks that can be invented.
Professional vocabularies in action
The claim that philosophical, scientific and artistic environments force authors to deploy a certain vocabulary stands in need of some justification. I will give some examples here, with the added remark that I cannot be comprehensive. I also have the hunch that we stand in need of more developed theory that investigates how language policing limits intellectual freedom. To develop such a theory would require a book, and not just an essay. The following examples are thus meant to provide the reader with a rough-and-ready idea what I mean with the term “professional vocabularies.”
One clear example can be found in natural science writing. Generally, science students are taught to keep a critical distance to phenomena they are observing. They are cautioned not to project their own biases or judgments on what they are investigating. Consequently, their writing style has to match this attitude. To underline their allegiance to the ideal of objectivity, they are taught to use the “passive voice.” For example, one might write that “to test hypothesis X, we mixed fluids A and B in a test tube and heated them for 30 seconds.” Using the passive voice, this would have been formulated as follows: “in order to test hypothesis X, the fluids A and B were mixed and heated for 30 seconds.” The underlying idea is to remove the researcher (and his implied possible prejudice or bias) from the equation altogether.6
Even on first sight, this strategy is as ideologically informed as it gets. If I observe a phenomenon under laboratory conditions, and write my report in everyday prose, does that automatically mean that I smuggled my prejudices in the text? Conversely, when I write a report on an experiment that I designed based on my own prejudices and biases but phrase the text using the passive voice, does that mean that my theory has scientific credibility?
The idea of utilizing the passive voice is to emphasize the dispassionate character of the scientist – a distant observer who just reports what he sees, and who never introduces his own opinion in the text. Paul Feyerabend already noticed that it is ordinary people, who are just as prone to error and prejudice as anyone else, invent scientific ideas, theories and concepts. To present scientists as a class of professionals immune to subjective influences is an idealization of scientific progress – one that is refuted by the history of science itself.7
Moreover, many ideas (for example that the Earth is round or that it orbits the sun) are expressed against a background of already existing ideas that exert an influence of researchers. Consequently, these ideas have to fight their way in, even if convincing evidence supports them. Feyerabend makes the case that Galileo had to employ quite some rhetoric flourishes and propaganda to get his ideas accepted in the first place.8 The problem is not that a new idea has to prove itself, but that the existing structure of ideas and concepts is hardly an objective or fair arbiter in assessing new and probably controversial points of view.
The ideal of being a distanced, dispassionate researcher is also visible in analytic philosophy. Admittedly, some areas of inquiry suffer more than others from the imposition of vocabularies. Here are two excerpts:
No doubt this account represents some kind of advance on previous attempts. The specification of the categorical state of ability requires an if, but not in the manner of the more usual hypothetical analyses. What is noteworthy, however, is that the improvement in the analysis does nothing at all to block the question of the possibility of…, which is the condition mentioned in the antecedent.9
The system of natural liberty selects an efficient distribution as follows. Let us suppose that we know from economic theory that under the standard assumptions defining a competitive market economy, income and wealth will be distributed in an efficient way, and that the particular efficient distribution which result in any period of time is determined by the initial distribution of assets, that is by the initial distribution of income and wealth, and of natural talents and abilities.10
Both examples suffer not from a lack of precision, as one might think at first sight, but instead from an overdose of it. Consequently, every statement or hypothesis is extremely bracketed and surrounded in further conditions, annotations and remarks that the reader has to follow. The overdose of nuance and preliminaries leads to an obfuscation of the structure: who can outline all the assumptions that John Rawls made to make his Theory of Justice seem plausible?
How tremendously the obsessive drive for precision can impact the clarity and relevance of the argument and treatment of the topic can be discerned from the following example:
An intentional action model represents action as the result of an intention. In fact, an appropriate description of the intention matches an appropriate description of the action. If there is a lack of fit between the two, questions are raised about the degree to which the action is intentional, or about the correctness of the individuation of either the action or the intention. Famously, in order for someone to murder someone else, he must have the appropriate intention to kill the person in question. Otherwise the action is not appropriately described as murder. An intentional action model portrays intentions as relatively unspecified internal states of agents that produce action under certain circumstances.11
No doubt, the author had the best intentions while writing this article. Its content might even be worthwhile and valuable to the respective debate. However, overdone precision leads in this example just to a series of non sequiturs that obfuscate rather than highlight the point.
In addition, structuring texts in such a way enforces not only a vocabulary on the author, but also on the reader. Thinking and argumentation is stifled and solidified in predefined structures that have to be accepted by the reader, so that the philosopher can deliver his ‘knock-down’ argument. The emphasis on precision serves here the same function as the passive voice in scientific articles: to solidify the methodological rigor of the author, transforming him in a neutral figure who just informs the reader of the outcome of the debate – without participating too much in it. Overdone precision turns the philosopher into a distanced figure who is subservient to apparent methodological rigor.
Forming professional vocabularies in order to show off the critical distance is not endemic to analytic philosophy. One cannot help to recall Slavoj Žižek’s ironic example of a deconstructionist theorist pointing to a bottle of ice tea: “If we accept the conditions of our language game, and if we accept the metaphysical notion of words signifying objects, may we not risk the hypothesis that this object can be said to be a bottle of ice tea?”12
The tendency for distancing has taken on a different form here: instead of bracketing all statements, and stating all conditions under which a statement could be true, the writer points out the flaws of the human condition. Our flawed nature entails that reality can only be accessed through layers of language games, metaphysical notions, ideological prejudices or cautious hypotheses. The philosopher, from his elevated vantage point, has to bracket all his statements in the extreme to show that he has avoided all those traps, and is now ready to show his readers the bare Truth.
In this case, the distancing serves again to prevent the philosopher from becoming too attached to his research topic: maybe everyone is fooled by appearances, but if we peel all those layers that obfuscate the sight away, we will be left with a core of Truth. Again, the optimistic theory of knowledge surfaces here. No one guarantees that we will even recognize this core of Truth once we encounter it, nor has it conclusively been proven that utilizing professional vocabularies is a foolproof way to access any form of truth at all.
Why is this a threat to real philosophy?
As remarked earlier, I contend that we need more insight into the role of professional vocabularies in action. As a preliminary attempt, I would like to present some reflections on the danger that these vocabularies pose for critical, rational reflection in philosophy:
• The situation where the professional vocabularies limit what can and cannot be discussed has serious consequences for real philosophy. It limits the type and range of concepts that can actually be developed, discussed and criticized. Imagine a dystopian world where those in power have erased all terms for “dictatorship,” “slavery” and “ideology” from everyday language. It would make the task of anyone trying to critique the existing political order extremely difficult, if not impossible. This person would have to explain to everyone what he meant by suppression or exploitation, spell out the power relations he wished to criticize, explain in minute detail why he thought the existing order was the problem etc. In addition, he would be talking to an audience that would not even have to conceptual framework to understand him. His task would be made difficult by the fact that there was no background knowledge to work from. The point is that concepts are fundamental to our thought, and that they are in need of development and maintenance in order to be able to generate critiques, novel ideas or insights at all.
• The emphasis on professional vocabularies damages critical inquiry since its utilization does not presuppose voluntary cooperation of the author. Under the guise of methodological soundness, a predefined vocabulary is thrust upon him, even before he starts writing. The professional vocabulary is not a strict methodological necessity, but an edifice that is not as neutral as it purports to be: instead of assisting critical thinking, it structures thinking in advance. The danger here lies in the fact that an author does not notice that his thinking is structured through the language he uses.13 He might hold himself to be grappling with new issues, but it is conceivable that the language he is told to use prevents him to level a real critique instead of reproducing the same ideological gesture over and over again. The painful point to be made here is that we might never be able to evade this pre-structuring of thought completely.
• Mastering a professional vocabulary might take years of study and specialization. Not because the field that one works in is so complicated, but because results, ideas and concepts have to be formulated using a certain turn of phrase. If the SCIgen computer program had not written his articles using a certain style, it would presumably have been caught out much earlier. To learn the preferred style of writing, access to an institution of higher education is necessary. Not everyone has access to institutions that teach the professional vocabulary, thus limiting discussions to a small group of academics that claim an intellectual monopoly. This hegemony has tremendous impact on the production and distribution of knowledge: if the inventors and defenders of a certain professional vocabulary are also the people who decide on who receives funds or recognition, or if they are members of editorial boards, how will new and innovative efforts at thinking and theorizing fare?
• The optimistic theory of knowledge receives a “free get out of jail” card, while there is no reason why it should. Philosophical arguments and methods can be critiqued to the level of absolute hair-splitting, but the optimist theory of knowledge is left alone, since it underlies so much of our thinking. In its wake, the professional vocabulary demands precise definitions in advance, parsimony while theorizing, elegant prose when writing the results down, full critical distance throughout and a neat solution to difficult problems to conclude with. However, no one shows that elegance, parsimony or perceived neatness are necessary conditions for theorizing. It might even be that philosophy will turn out to be wholly unable to come to terms with reality (which I suppose does not undermine its practice). Robert Nozick once compared this method of theoretical inquiry with the construction of a tower of one brick wide. Once the bottom brick is removed, the whole edifice crumbles, and all the arguments that are built on the basic premises cannot be supported.14
In short, an analysis of professional vocabularies in different fields might help to unveil the shared (and maybe unconscious) presuppositions that negatively impact real philosophy. I have tried to sketch the outlines of this issue here, assuming that this analysis can be extended considerably.
A word of caution: Gilles Deleuze once famously said that once you were trapped in someone else’s dream, you were fucked. We might be trapped in our own dream of reaching full objective distance towards our research topics by using professional vocabularies, so we might indeed be fucked as a consequence.
1. Karl Popper, On the sources of knowledge and of ignorance, in: Conjectures and Refutations (London: Routledge, 2002, orig. published 1963).
2. For a concise definition of the scientism I mean here, I direct the reader to Z’s edgy essay “Professional Philosophy, Scientism and Frankenscience.”
3. See for a seminal discussion of this type: Richard Dawkins, “Postmodernism Disrobed,” Nature, 394 (1998) pp. 141-143. Dawkins discusses here Alan Sokal’s and Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense (1999), a book that allegedly exposed the purpose behind obscurely written tests by various philosophers, notably Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida. The so-called “Sokal hoax” was named after Alan Sokal, who got a fake paper accepted in an academic journal, thereby claiming that his point about fashionable nonsense had been proven.
4. See the full article detailing this issue here. [accessed 28 December 2015]
5. Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, 2015 edn), p. ix.
6. Rupert Sheldrake, “Are we active? Or should the passive be used?,” in School Science Review, 2004.86, pp. 8-10. This article can also be found here. [accessed 12 December 2015]
7. Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (London: Verso, 4th edition, 2010) p. 3.
8. ibid., chapters 6-14.
9. David Wiggins, “Towards a Reasonable Libertarianism,” in: Gary Watson (ed.) Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) p. 111.
10. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1999 rev. edn), p. 62.
11. Heidi Maibom, “In Defence of (Model) Theory Theory,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 16, No. 6–8, 2009, p. 366.
12. See here. The excerpt is from the 2005 documentary Žižek! by Sophie Fiennes.
13. This idea is related to Michel Foucault’s concept of discursive structures, but is not the same. Foucault analysis of these structures focuses on rules that subconsciously and materially limit what we can express. However, professional vocabularies do not physically limit people to express their ideas. They may hinder innovative thought, and may be instrumental in preventing ideas in gaining recognition, but do not make it impossible in the formal sense of the word. No professional vocabulary prevents someone from printing subversive leaflets or expressing controversial ideas.
14. Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1981) p. 3.