John Holbo on bad writing

by Chris Bertram on November 29, 2003

John Holbo has a “quite brilliant extended post”: about the whole Bad Writing debate (and I’m not just saying that because of the nice things he writes about CT). In a “follow-up post”: John has more to say about how the targets of his ire get analytical philosophy wrong: they say that it is “bobbing along in the wake of logical positivism”. This is important, because people who do “theory” in the humanities often operate with a completely false idea of what philosophers think and do – a false idea that functions for them as a lazy self-defence mechanism and comfort blanket.



Ophelia Benson 11.29.03 at 6:05 pm

“This is important, because people who do “theory” in the humanities often operate with a completely false idea of what philosophers think and do – a false idea that functions for them as a lazy self-defence mechanism and comfort blanket.”

And also, in some cases, as a handy (and automatic, not to say unexamined, unreflective, empty, meaningless etc) whipping boy and target.

That is indeed a great post (John Holbo’s). This got my attention –

“each author in turn earnestly pretends that the critics of ‘bad writing’ are saying that writing should never be difficult, or challenging, that common sense should never ever be challenged, so forth. Which obviously no one says, or would say.”

Just so. I’ve been getting a lot of comments at B&W on a Bad Writing article I wrote (mostly by way of introduction to other articles by people who know far more about ‘theory’ and related subjects than I do), and the hostile ones say just exactly that. They say it so reliably and repetitively and automatically that it’s quite remarkable. It’s as if they’d all been issued a little box, before departing on their dangerous mission to Defend Theory – a box containing along with emergency rations and condoms and first aid kit and a tiny Bible [‘Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all this stuff’], a set of instructions: ‘Ask why the critic is talking about style not substance; say that difficult ideas require technical language; say that critics who concentrate on the language and style are refusing to confront the unsettling ideas of Theory.’


Seth Edenbaum 11.29.03 at 6:50 pm

God save us all from the fans of ‘Theory’ and its enemies as well. What the theory-heads attempt, is to reconnect narrative rhetorical style and philosophical jargon. And the fail only because they want to be philosophers rather than historians or writers of prose. But they try because they know that in the real world, the line between logic and bullshit is not a line at all but a field. As I’ve said again and again and again, law and the ‘attempt at’ justice exist in this gray area. Johnny Cochran- of O.J. fame- is a lawyer not a philosopher, but he plays a part in a philosophically and morally profound structure called ‘the legal system.’
The fans of logical analysis defend a philosophy disconnected from this world of experience and ambiguity. The ideal of a man- or woman- alone with his thoughts somehow apart from social structures implications and obligations is a utopian fantasy that Marx among others ridiculed mercilessly and with good reason. It’s fine for mathematicians I suppose not the hard sciences as such are by nature amoral and peopled most often by moral idiots. Philosophy should never have that luxury.
It may be socially conservative to say so, but the creative capacity of man outside a priori structures is limited. We can not communicate without language. We can not express emotions without referring to symbols and documents of past emotion. As an example: I’ll be god damned if I’m going to get in an argument with someone who defends his vision of philosophy with references to the ‘DUNE’ trilogy. You want to study philosophy? Go to a murder trial and brush up your Shakespeare.
And by the way, Kant is absolutely brilliant on art. It’s a wonder he’s been forgotten by his children. If you want to have a little fun read the section of the Critique of Judgment that deals with esthetics and in doing so substitute the word ‘justice’ every time you read the word ‘beauty’ and law’ every time you read the word ‘art.’
What a fucking brilliant man.


chun the unavoidable 11.29.03 at 7:19 pm

Dune‘s a sestet, or whatever, nyeagh.


Ophelia Benson 11.29.03 at 7:19 pm

“And the[y] fail only because they want to be philosophers rather than historians or writers of prose.”

Yeah I’ve often thought that while reading a ‘theorist’ – ‘You obviously want to be doing philosophy and not anything related to literature so why didn’t you just get your PhD in philosophy then? Huh? Why get it in English and then pretend to do philosophy? It seems so perverse…’


se 11.29.03 at 7:31 pm

I’m sorry, but they’re trying to return to philosophy a sense of reference to the world. I’d rather share a ghetto with academic theorists than with academic philosphers. Did I not make that clear?


Ophelia Benson 11.29.03 at 8:09 pm

Partly clear, yes, or maybe entirely clear, maybe I’m just a bad reader.

But there are philosophers, even some analytic philosophers, who try (or tried) to do the same thing, and do it without writing deliberately obscurely. Bernard Williams and Richard Wollheim, for example. Martha Nussbaum, Simon Blackburn, and many more. And of course there are literary critics who do the same – there is M. H. Abrams for instance, who is, I think, a dazzling writer. I have yet to read any ‘theorists’ who strike me as being much good at it – but do say if you know of any.


s.e. 11.29.03 at 9:02 pm

I keep my copy of The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy on the floor by my desk. And I always thought Terry Eagleton wrote pretty well. Still, writing per se, good or bad, was not my point. I was trying to describe why American theory types, and I think they are mostly American, – would a historian like to chime in here on American intellectual insecurity?- feel the need for all the posturing. As far as illogical crap is concerned, I used to have a subscription to The Journal of Philosophy and it was absolutely unbearable to read. I found pieces as worthy of ridicule as any parody by A. Sokal; as full of self enclosed internally consistent but empty formalism as any painting by the silliest acolyte of Clem Greenberg. The point of any serious endeavor- and I mean ANY- is to look at the world through a LENS. As soon as the world goes ‘way, the value of the endeavor is gone. The fact that something can be said about a subject, does not mean that it is worthwhile to say it. One compares apples to oranges in order to learn something about either, or how we represent them. If nothing is learned about the world by the comparison, then move on. My point was and is that the disease of empty rationalism is something literary theorists and academic philosophers have in common. The fact that they are fighting over scraps is even sadder.


Billy Beck 11.29.03 at 11:15 pm

Yo, “s.e.” —

Has it ever occurred to you that you can’t have a “point” if you can’t even manage to paragraph?

What the hell is wrong with you?


s.e 11.29.03 at 11:51 pm

I was in the moment.


Ophelia Benson 11.30.03 at 1:23 am

Yeah, ten cheers for the Ox Dict of Philos. A lot of excellent jokes in there.


Ophelia Benson 11.30.03 at 1:23 am

Yeah, ten cheers for the Ox Dict of Philos. A lot of excellent jokes in there.


Ophelia Benson 11.30.03 at 1:24 am

(Oops, sorry.)


Vinteuil 11.30.03 at 2:43 am

Seth Edenbaum: It’s been a few years since I last read the *Critique of Judgment*, and, frankly, I didn’t find it all that rewarding at the time, so I hesitate to plow through it all again just on your say so. Perhaps you can help me out. You seem to suggest that, on Kant’s view, art is to beauty as law is to justice. Could you elucidate this parallel? I’m puzzled.

Kant was undoubtedly an “absolutely brilliant” man. No one less could have written either version of the transcendental deduction of the categories (even if the argument doesn’t really work, and even if there are nine or ten too many categories, just to fill out his architectonic conception).

But on art? Please. It’s no wonder at all that he’s been forgotten by “his children” (whoever they are). The man was a total innocent. Even when it comes to absolute music, where he’s on his strongest ground, he has nothing to say that will seriously illumine anyone’s hearing of the *Goldberg Variations.* And when it comes to Wagner, or Joyce, or Mike Leigh–fuhgettaboutit. There’s no there there.


Vinteuil 11.30.03 at 3:06 am

S.E. writes: “The point of any serious endeavor- and I mean ANY- is to look at the world through a LENS. As soon as the world goes ‘way, the value of the endeavor is gone.”

I have spent five minutes trying to come up with an interpretation of this passage that doesn’t make it come out obviously (indeed, embarassingly) false. No luck. Time to move on.

Note to S.E.: this is a blog. Keep it clear. No one here is likely to be dazzled by your attempts at razzle.


Seth Edenbaum 11.30.03 at 6:01 am

Dude… In the Oxford Readers series pick up the one on Aesthetics, titled… “Aesthetics.” (the Paperback edition.) Go to p.180. The discussion of the distinction between ‘genius’ and ‘taste’ great stuff. Listen to Gould’s recordings of the Goldberg Variations -both of them mind you- after reading that and maybe you’ll change your mind.
The acknowledgment that there is “genius without taste” and “taste without genius.” Whew! makes my head spin. The Goldberg Variations are only tasteful in that they are the tasteful presentation of something brilliant. Can I say The Four Seasons
was only the brilliant presentation of something tasteful?
I’m having too much fun

I don’t mean to be too glib, but it’s Saturday night and I’m drunk.


Walt Pohl 11.30.03 at 6:49 am

I’m all in favor of free speech and all, but we need to crack down on gratuitous invocations of Marx. Seth here is guilty with “that Marx among others ridiculed…” I suggest a fine of five cents, or that he be sentenced to a correctional facility for a period not to exceed five seconds.


Vinteuil 11.30.03 at 6:56 am

“it’s Saturday night and I’m drunk.”

Well, that would explain it then.


elizabeth 11.30.03 at 2:10 pm


S.E. writes: “The point of any serious endeavor- and I mean ANY- is to look at the world through a LENS. As soon as the world goes ‘way, the value of the endeavor is gone.”

I may be myopic as I gaze through my own lens, but the point seems to be, to endeavor to understand, create and define one’s lens, and if one doesn’t recognize the connection between the inner and outer, then one may lose one’s way.


Vinteuil 11.30.03 at 2:33 pm

Elizabeth: Hmmm…I would not have supposed that to observe reality from a particular perspective (“to look at the world through a LENS”) was the same as to “understand, create and define” that perspective. But, either way, I can’t imagine why anyone would think that this is “the point of any serious endeavor – and I mean ANY.” Unless, of course, acts of interpretation and representation are the only serious endeavors. But that seems crazy.


seth edenbaum 11.30.03 at 3:44 pm

‘Unless, of course, acts of interpretation and representation are the only serious endeavors’
Why is it crazy? I’m a little surprised. Outside of mathematical sciences what else is there? And then by what process by which we decide what projects get funded?

‘I need money to study plankton’
‘But it’s more important for me to study the sun’
‘Me first’
‘No… Me!’

If you want to remove philosophy from the humanities by all means, go ahead, rational actor theory and all that. The only problem is it fails in it’s job of explaining our behavior. It’s shallow and it’s silly.

An artist may choose to develop his or her perceptions, may choose even to indulge in misperceptions. A craftsman may master a trade. But I don’t see how it is possible for someone to escape bias of one sort or another. So yes, even for a scientist I would say the most important thing is to be able to be a humanist within the context of the -what am I going to call it?- the ‘ahumanist,’ asocial, and amoral sciences.
As far as Marx is concerned I think he was commenting on Rousseau, but I don’t want to get too far into this since I don’t want to sound more bookish than I am; I just have a good memory of what little I’ve read. But since I am neither a liberal nor an individualist by ideology, and am more concerned with obligation than with freedom, I think I can make the reference without worrying too much.
I’ve always wanted to ask Steven Weinberg why he became a scientist. The answer would be most likely because of a certain kind of desire for a certain kind of truth. But truth is a metaphysical construct with a whole lot of poetical baggage. In court they don’t talk about ‘truth’ but about ‘facts’ which are much more mundane. No one spouts of about The Eternal Search for FACTS! do they?


Ophelia Benson 11.30.03 at 4:48 pm

“I’ve always wanted to ask Steven Weinberg why he became a scientist. The answer would be most likely because of a certain kind of desire for a certain kind of truth. But truth is a metaphysical construct with a whole lot of poetical baggage. In court they don’t talk about ‘truth’ but about ‘facts’ which are much more mundane. No one spouts of about The Eternal Search for FACTS! do they?”

Ooh, thanks, that’s one for Quotations.

(Law courts aren’t the only place one looks for epistemological practice, in fact law courts operate under various contraints that make them really not very good places to look for that. And believe it or not it is possible to use the words ‘truth’ and ‘true’ *without* using the words ‘eternal’ or ‘transcendent.’ As a matter of fact people do it all the time. Even lawyers and judges.)


Vinteuil 11.30.03 at 5:00 pm

seth edenbaum writes: “Outside of mathematical sciences what else is there” [besides acts of interpretation and representation]?

Well, uh, curing the sick? planting one’s garden? actually *doing* things as opposed to chattering?

But no doubt someone will rush in to tell me that even helping an old lady across the street is a way of “look[ing] at the world through a lens.



Ophelia Benson 11.30.03 at 5:31 pm

“actually doing things as opposed to chattering?”

Oh, Gawd. Not that again.

Thinking is a good thing, not a bad one. Calling it ‘chattering’ is sheer anti-intellectualism. Just for one thing, neither gardening nor curing the sick would get very far if a lot of people hadn’t done a lot of ‘chattering’ over the years to improve both endeavors. Yes yes yes, I realize that the interpretation of literary texts (for one example) is not as obviously useful or productive as agronomy or medicine. But thinking in general has all sorts of ‘uses,’ some more obvious than others. It’s also just plain a good thing, an enhancement of human life. I do wish intellectuals could learn to stop fouling their own nests.


Seth Edenbaum 11.30.03 at 6:54 pm

I’ve always wanted to do what I’m about to do in this context without shutting down the conversation and coming off as a total ass, so thank you Ophelia for giving me the opportunity.

Hey Vin, I hang sheetrock for a living; You need new cabinets?. You need your house painted? Drop me a line.

My family background is academic, other than that my credentials are nonexistent. I am very aware that I know a lot less than most people here, but my interest is in clarity, not for its own sake, but where it can be said to describe the world. If I slip badly I’m sure someone will let me know.

Isn’t there a logic to scientific problem solving that defines the right answers as being the ones that combine the simple with the efficacious? Is that combination not defined as beautiful? Clarity without reference to the world, even the world of language, has no meaning to me (that’s meaning with a small ‘m’.) As far as philosophy is concerned, literature and theatre are viable not only as subjects but as projects. Legal debate in a courtroom is merely an intellectual slugfest with rules. logic as such plays a part, but only a part. It’s theater. Jack Balkin of Yale and Balkinization has a series of articles on law as performance. (scroll down. he’s also publish articles on law and deconstruction) That is the root of my sympathy for theorists, however touched it is, often, by pity and impatience.
I went to art school. I’m from the last generation of art school graduates who learned a trade rather than computer skills. [that explains something] Beauty is important to me. But I can define it only in its relation to it’s power to describe something outside itself. Otherwise, like logic, it can become brittle. Great art, like the legal process -when it is a process- like interesting philosophy, is a ‘dynamic structure,’ combining flexibility with ‘bodily’ integrity. In the present state of affairs does logical analysis fit the definition of a dynamic structure? I’m not sure it does.


Ophelia Benson 11.30.03 at 7:34 pm

Sure, law courts are theaters. That’s exactly why (well, one reason) I said they’re not the only place people look for truth – or facts either, though I didn’t say that. Not all truth-seekers are engaged primarily or even at all in performance. Lawyers in court have to convince someone; researchers don’t always have to do that, and even if they do they often have to do it in fields where pure performance or rhetoric or charm or charisma or personality or a pretty face won’t do the job, they have to present evidence. (And in fact evidence tends to be of some use even in a court of law.)

Or have I misunderstood your point?


s e. 11.30.03 at 8:38 pm

It’s a beautiful day. What the hell am I doing indoors when I could be out watching a movie?
I’ll put it simply, and perhaps a little cruelly; but the illustration is funny, and involves large amounts of water (I just got out of the bathtub, that’s where I thought it up.)
The theorists, Judith Butler et al. are without a doubt in the deep end of the pool. I think, that is, that they’re trying to engage with the most important philosophical issues we face, as I tried to define them above. The problem is, they’re drowning; and their opponents are standing in the shallow end, in water up to their ankles(?) knees(?) doubled up with laughter. I just don’t think all things considered, that the laughter is justified, not before the people who are so amused swim out into deeper water and see how they do in it themselves.


Vinteuil 11.30.03 at 9:45 pm

Ophelia Benson: What do you have against chattering? I have nothing against it at all. I can chatter with the best of them, and sometimes do. Sometimes it is even a “serious endeavor.”

But I see no need to get all solemn about it. And to suggest that acts of interpretation and representation (i.e., chatter, for short–or would you prefer that I call it “discourse?”) are the *only* serious sorts of endeavor is false to the point of silliness.


Ophelia Benson 11.30.03 at 10:13 pm

Nice try – but ‘chattering’ is a pejorative. Chattering classes, remember? That’s not a compliment, any more than, say, ‘limousine liberal’ is.

And – shrug – anybody can ‘engage’ with the most serious etc etc, but what of that? That doesn’t entail being any good at it. And Martha Nussbaum’s criticism of Butler, for example, is that that’s precisely what she doesn’t do. So – shrug – we seem to be inhabiting different universes here.


Vinteuil 11.30.03 at 11:31 pm

ophelia benson: OK, so I guess the answer is *yes*–you would prefer that I call it “discourse” rather than “chatter.” Consider it done. Substitute the former for the latter in my above remarks. Anything else bugging you?

Sheesh. What a…uh…but I forbear to complete that sentence, lest the enemy blaspheme.


Bluish 12.01.03 at 2:43 am

It just seems odd (suspicious?) that Left thought has moved from the goal obsessed utopianism of the last century to an almost nihilistic vision of rhetoric completely divorced from action. Is this some sort of admission of defeat? Mankind is not perfectible but he can be described in great detail?

I am reminded of a mathematical analogy. A being in a 2-dimensional world considers the concept of volume, which can only exist in a 3-D world. No amount of thinking about volume will make it relevant to a 2-D world, but heck, it beats walking that damn line all day.


s.e. 12.01.03 at 6:16 am

are you referring to critical theory, which is a sort of anti-bourgeois/ bourgeois formalism: nihilism as impotence (with all the reactionary Sadean implications, but with some moral complexity), or to analytic philosophy, which is a sort of technocratic formalism: nihilism as pure mechanism, and as mechanism, therefore, somehow moral? [don’t ask me how that works, that’s why I said ‘somehow’] Neither is left wing. But both Chomsky and Sokal are positivists. Chomsky describes himself as a follower of the philosophy of Jesus Christ (as opposed to the religion of his followers) but that doesn’t help much. He, almost literally, refuses to understand immorality. His idealism is useless in a political context, though he is a brilliant recorder and reporter of facts
I’m not opposed to activism at all. The point is to be both activist and skeptic. That’s contradictory perhaps, but I don’t see how to avoid it, and it doesn’t bother me.


Bluish 12.02.03 at 1:50 am

S.E.: Yes

P.S. Let me chew a little and get back to you. I’m a hard science technician, not a philosopher,
but I wandered into the strange forest by accident when I realized the Democratic political Party no longer represented my views, my interests, or my concerns as an American, as a wage earner (an unfortunate pinko term and I am open to alternative nomenclature), as a person who values independence, or as a citizen of the world. From my research, I learned that the ’progressive left’ co-opted the Democratic Party for a night of fun and games in the barn and when the party was over, Democrats woke up with little but ideological straw in their britches/bloomers. Which is to say the intellectuals in America attempted to implement the identity politics of Foucault and other French ’post-modern’ thinkers into the political cause of activism but when the snake circled upon itself, identity politics was premised on differences that could not be logically consolidated into a single cohesive political force. And no, they did not respect the Democrats in the morning. Instead they retreated into the politics of rhetoric, which is intentionally divorced from the ‘bricks and mortar’ of everyday reality – and they had the nerve to cry ‘anti-intellectualism!’. So Democrats are left with a less than appealing rap beat of ‘Bush-Cheney-Bad’ as nothing but a sad/poignant symbol of their one night of love that ended in lost opportunity and, in a sense, the German word, weltschmerz, a nostalgia for something that never was. In my opinion, French philosophy never played well in an American context, but I’m a numbers person. Let me chew some more and get back to you.


sennoma 12.02.03 at 4:53 pm

the hard sciences as such are … peopled most often by moral idiots

Ouch, dude. I don’t think scientists are any less (or more) morally competent than most groups of people. In fact, I’d venture to say that scientists as a group are rather better acquainted with ethical thinking than most, as a result of having to deal with the ramifications of their own work. Not that more ethical thinking in science wouldn’t be a good thing — but I think the best way to bring that about is to increase public awareness of and involvement in research, and that’s a different discussion — but jeez, “moral idiots”? That’s harsh. (Obdisclosure: I’m a molecular biologist by trade. I hope I’m not a moral idiot.)


bluish 12.02.03 at 10:27 pm

sennoma – my guess is that seth was ‘salting the stew’ – don’t lose focus over the statement.

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