Obscurantism

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Obscurantism (French: obscurantisme, from the Latin obscurans, "darkening") is the practice of deliberately preventing the facts or the full details of some matter from becoming known. There are two common historical and intellectual denotations to Obscurantism: (1) deliberately restricting knowledge—opposition to the spread of knowledge, a policy of withholding knowledge from the public; and, (2) deliberate obscurity—an abstruse style (as in literature and art) characterized by deliberate vagueness.[1][2]

Anti-obscurantist: The humanist scholar Johannes Reuchlin (1455–1522) actively opposed obscurantism.

The term obscurantism derives from the title of the 16th-century satire Epistolæ Obscurorum Virorum (Letters of Obscure Men), based upon the intellectual dispute between the German humanist Johann Reuchlin and Dominican monks, such as Johannes Pfefferkorn, about whether or not all Jewish books should be burned as un-Christian. Earlier, in 1509, the monk Pfefferkorn had obtained permission from Maximilian I (1486–1519), the Holy Roman Emperor, to incinerate all copies of the Talmud (Jewish law and Jewish ethics) known to be in the Holy Roman Empire (AD 926–1806); the Letters of Obscure Men satirized the Dominican monks' arguments at burning "un-Christian" works.

In the 18th century, Enlightenment philosophers used the term "obscurantism" to denote the enemies of the Enlightenment, and its concept of the liberal diffusion of knowledge. Moreover, in the 19th century, in distinguishing the varieties of obscurantism found in metaphysics and theology from the "more subtle" obscurantism of the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and of modern philosophical skepticism, Friedrich Nietzsche said: "The essential element in the black art of obscurantism is not that it wants to darken individual understanding, but that it wants to blacken our picture of the world, and darken our idea of existence."[3]

Restricting knowledge[edit]

In restricting knowledge to an élite ruling class of "the few", obscurantism is fundamentally anti-democratic, because its component anti-intellectualism and elitism exclude the people as intellectually unworthy of knowing the facts and truth about the government of their City-State.[4][5] In 18th century monarchic France, the Marquis de Condorcet, as a political scientist, documented the aristocracy's obscurantism about the social problems that provoked the French Revolution (1789–99) that deposed them and their King, Louis XVI of France.

In the 19th century, the mathematician William Kingdon Clifford, an early proponent of Darwinism, devoted some writings to uprooting obscurantism in England, after hearing clerics — who privately agreed with him about evolution — publicly denounce evolution as un-Christian. Moreover, in the realm of organized religion, obscurantism is a distinct strain of thought independent of theologic allegiance. The distinction is that fundamentalism presupposes sincere religious belief, whereas obscurantism is based upon minority manipulation of the popular faith as political praxis, (cf. Censorship).[6]

The obscurantist can be personally a scientist, a philosopher, a truly faithful person, a naturalist, a mischievous student, or just agnostic, but, as one member of the society, believes that religion among the populace serves the aim of social control. To that effect, the obscurant limits the publication, extension, and dissemination of knowledge, of evidence countering the common-belief status quo with which the nation are ruled — the local variety of the necessary Noble Lie, introduced to political discourse by the Classical Greek philosopher Plato in 380 BC. Hence the "stable-status quo restriction of knowledge" denotation of obscurantism applied by pro-science reformers within religious movements,[6] and by skeptics such as H.L. Mencken in critiquing religion.[7]

Plato[edit]

Plato (Silanion Musei Capitolini)

The obscurant favors restricting knowledge (publication, extension, dissemination) among the populace for the "greater good" of the nation and the City-State. Classical Greece (6th–4th century BC) provides an original and powerful source of obscurantism in The Republic (c. 380 BC), wherein Plato proposes government via the Noble Lie — the necessary mythical justification for the status quo that guides the philosopher king in ruling society. To maintaining political stability, the Noble Lie naturally classifies people, determining their places in life and society, per the proportions of gold, silver, and iron, that each man and woman contained when formed in the earth; those meant to rule contained gold, whilst those meant to serve (soldiers, farmers, craftsmen et al.) respectively contained silver and iron.[8]

It is noteworthy that Politeía ("City-State Governance"), i.e. "governing," not "government," is the original title of The Republic. Historically, the idea that rulers and leaders know best is inherent to every form of totalitarianism. In the Skeptical Inquirer magazine (September–October 2004), the article "Obscurantism, Tyranny, and the Fallacy of Either Black or White" quotes Prof. Bergen Evans: "Obscurantism and tyranny go together."[9]

Leo Strauss[edit]

Political philosophy[edit]

In the 20th century, the American conservative political philosopher Leo Strauss, for whom philosophy and politics intertwined, and his Neo-conservative adherents adopted the notion of government by the enlightened few as political strategy. He noted that intellectuals, dating from Plato, confronted the dilemma of either an informed populace "interfering" with government, or if it were possible for good politicians to be truthful and still govern to maintain a stable society — hence the Noble Lie necessary in securing public acquiescence. In The City and Man (1964), he discusses the myths in The Republic that Plato proposes effective governing requires, among them, the belief that the country (land) ruled by the State belongs to it (despite some having been conquered from others), and that citizenship derives from more than the accident of birth in the City-State. Thus, in the New Yorker magazine article Selective Intelligence, Seymour Hersh observes that Strauss endorsed the "Noble Lie" concept: the myths politicians use in maintaining a cohesive society.[4][5]

Prof. Shadia Drury criticized Strauss's acceptance of dissembling and deception of the populace as "the peculiar justice of the wise", whereas Plato proposed the Noble Lie as based upon moral good. In criticizing Natural Right and History (1953), she said that "Strauss thinks that the superiority of the ruling philosophers is an intellectual superiority and not a moral one . . . [he] is the only interpreter who gives a sinister reading to Plato, and then celebrates him."[10]

Esoteric texts[edit]

Leo Strauss also was criticized for proposing the notion of "esoteric" meanings to ancient texts, recondite knowledge inaccessible to the "ordinary" intellect. In Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), he proposes that some philosophers write esoterically to avert persecution by the political or religious authorities, and, per his knowledge of Maimonides, Al Farabi, and Plato, proposed that an esoteric writing style is proper for the philosophic text. Rather than explicitly presenting his thoughts, the philosopher's esoteric writing compels the reader to think independently of the text, and so learn. In the Phædrus, Socrates notes that writing does not reply to questions, but invites dialogue with the reader, thereby minimizing the problems of grasping the written word. Strauss noted that one of writing's political dangers is students' too-readily accepting dangerous ideas — as in the trial of Socrates, wherein the relationship with Alcibiades was used to prosecute him.

For Leo Strauss, philosophers' texts offered the reader lucid "exoteric" (salutary) and obscure "esoteric" (true) teachings, which are concealed to the reader of ordinary intellect; emphasizing that writers often left contradictions and other errors to encourage the reader's more scrupulous (re-)reading of the text. In observing and maintaining the "exoteric – esoteric" dichotomy, Strauss was accused of obscurantism, and for writing esoterically.

Bill Joy[edit]

In the Wired magazine article, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us" (April 2000), the computer scientist Bill Joy, then a Sun Microsystems chief scientist, in the sub-title proposed that: "Our most powerful twenty-first-century technologies — robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech[nology] — are threatening to make humans an endangered species"; in the body, he posits that:

"The experiences of the atomic scientists clearly show the need to take personal responsibility, the danger that things will move too fast, and the way in which a process can take on a life of its own. We can, as they did, create insurmountable problems in almost no time flat. We must do more thinking up front if we are not to be similarly surprised and shocked by the consequences of our inventions."[11]

Joy's proposal for limiting the dissemination of "certain" knowledge, in behalf of preserving society, was quickly likened to obscurantism. A year later, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in the Science and Technology Policy Yearbook 2001, published the article "A Response to Bill Joy and the Doom-and-Gloom Technofuturists", wherein the computer scientists John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid countered his proposal as technological tunnel vision, and the predicted, technologically-derived problems as infeasible, for disregarding the influence of non-scientists upon such societal problems.[12]

Deliberate obscurity[edit]

In the second sense, "obscurantism" denotes making knowledge abstrusely difficult to grasp.[citation needed] In the 19th and 20th centuries "obscurantism" became a polemical term for accusing an author of deliberately writing obscurely, to hide his or her intellectual vacuousness. Philosophers who are neither empiricists nor positivists often are accused of obscurantism in describing the abstract concepts of their disciplines. For philosophic reasons, these authors might modify, or reject, verifiability, falsifiability, or logical non-contradiction. From said perspective, obscure (clouded, vague, abstruse) writing does not necessarily signal that the writer has a poor grasp of the subject, because unintelligible writing sometimes is purposeful and philosophically considered.[13][better source needed]

Aristotle[edit]

In contemporary discussions of virtue ethics, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (The Ethics) stand accused of ethical obscurantism, because of the technical, philosophic language and writing style, and their purpose being the education of a cultured governing élite.[14]

Kant[edit]

Kant employed technical terms that were not commonly understood. Schopenhauer contended that post-Kantian philosophers such as Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel deliberately mimicked Kant's way of writing. "Because of his style which was obscure, Kant was properly understood by exceedingly few. And it is as if all the philosophical writers, who since Kant had had some success, had devoted themselves to writing still more unintelligibly than Kant. This was bound to succeed!"[15]

According to analytic philosophers[edit]

Hegel[edit]

G. W. F. Hegel's philosophy, and the philosophies of those he influenced, especially Karl Marx, have been accused of obscurantism. Analytic and positivistic philosophers, such as A. J. Ayer, Bertrand Russell, and the critical-rationalist Karl Popper, accused Hegel and Hegelianism of being obscure. About Hegel's philosophy, Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that it is: ". . . a colossal piece of mystification, which will yet provide posterity with an inexhaustible theme for laughter at our times, that it is a pseudo-philosophy paralyzing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking, and, by the most outrageous misuse of language, putting in its place the hollowest, most senseless, thoughtless, and, as is confirmed by its success, most stupefying verbiage. . . ."[16]

Nevertheless, biographer Terry Pinkard notes "Hegel has refused to go away, even in analytic philosophy, itself."[17] Hegel was aware of his obscurantism, and perceived it as part of philosophical thinking — to accept and transcend the limitations of quotidian thought and its concepts. In the essay "Who Thinks Abstractly?", he said that it is not the philosopher who thinks abstractly, but the layman, who uses concepts as givens that are immutable, without context. It is the philosopher who thinks concretely, because he transcends the limits of quotidian concepts, in order to understand their broader context. This makes philosophical thought and language appear obscure, esoteric, and mysterious to the layman.

Marx and Marxism[edit]

Karl Marx in 1861

In his early works,[18] Karl Marx criticized German and French philosophy, especially German Idealism, for its traditions of German irrationalism and ideologically motivated obscurantism.[19] Later thinkers whom he influenced, such as the philosopher György Lukács and the sociologist Jürgen Habermas, followed with similar arguments of their own.[20] However, philosophers such as Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek in turn criticized Marx and Marxist philosophy as obscurantist (however, see below for Hayek's particular interpretation of the term).[21]

Wittgenstein[edit]

Ludwig Wittgenstein's obscurantism is illuminated by the criticism of the limits-of-language proposition presented in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921),[citation needed] and in abandoning empirical explanation of linguistic description in later works. Friedrich Waismann accused Wittgenstein of "complete obscurantism" for betraying empirical inquiry;[22] this criticism then was developed by Ernest Gellner.[23] In Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer (1988), Frank Cioffi discusses "limits obscurantism", "method obscurantism", and "sensibility obscurantism" as the varieties of obscurantism found in the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein.[24]

Heidegger[edit]

Martin Heidegger, and those influenced by him, such as Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas, have been labeled obscurantists by critics from Analytic Philosophy and the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Of Heidegger, Bertrand Russell wrote, "his philosophy is extremely obscure. One cannot help suspecting that language is here running riot. An interesting point in his speculations is the insistence that nothingness is something positive. As with much else in Existentialism, this is a psychological observation made to pass for logic."[25] That is Russell's complete entry on Heidegger, and it expresses the sentiments of many 20th-century Analytic philosophers concerning Heidegger.[26]

Derrida[edit]

In their obituaries, "Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74" (10 October 2004) and "Obituary of Jacques Derrida, French intellectual" (21 October 2004), The New York Times newspaper[27] and The Economist magazine,[28] described Derrida as a deliberately obscure philosopher.

In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), Richard Rorty proposed that in The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond (1978), Jacques Derrida purposefully used undefinable words (e.g. Différance), and used defined words in contexts so diverse that they render the words unintelligible, hence, the reader is unable to establish a context for his literary self. In that way, the philosopher Derrida escapes metaphysical accounts of his work. Since the work ostensibly contains no metaphysics, Derrida has, consequently, escaped metaphysics.[13]

Derrida's philosophic work is especially controversial among American and British academics, as when the University of Cambridge awarded him an honorary doctorate, despite opposition from among the Cambridge philosophy faculty and analytical philosophers worldwide. To wit, in opposing the decision, slated for 16 May 1992, Barry Smith, editor of The Monist, W. V. O. Quine, David Armstrong, Ruth Barcan Marcus, René Thom, and twelve others, published a letter of protestation, From Professor Barry Smith and others, in The Times of London, arguing that "his works employ a written style that defies comprehension . . . [thus] Academic status based on what seems to us to be little more than semi-intelligible attacks upon the values of reason, truth, and scholarship is not, we submit, sufficient grounds for the awarding of an honorary degree in a distinguished university." [29]

Despite the academics' public letter of protestation, Cambridge University conferred the honorary doctorate upon him, albeit with a vote of only 62%.

In the New York Review of Books article "An Exchange on Deconstruction" (February 1984), John Searle comments on Deconstruction: ". . . anyone who reads deconstructive texts with an open mind is likely to be struck by the same phenomena that initially surprised me: the low level of philosophical argumentation, the deliberate obscurantism of the prose, the wildly exaggerated claims, and the constant striving to give the appearance of profundity, by making claims that seem paradoxical, but under analysis often turn out to be silly or trivial."[30]

Lacan[edit]

Jacques Lacan was an intellectual who defended obscurantism to a degree. To his students' complaint about the deliberate obscurity of his lectures, he replied: "The less you understand, the better you listen."[31] In the 1973 seminar Encore, he said that his Écrits (Writings) were not to be understood, but would effect a meaning in the reader, like that induced by mystical texts. The obscurity is not in his writing style, but in the repeated allusions to Hegel, derived from Alexandre Kojève's lectures on Hegel, and similar theoretic divergences.[citation needed]

Sokal[edit]

Deference to Authority: obscurantism internalized

The Displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter, by the idea that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is — second only to American political campaigns — the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time. — Larry Laudan, Science and Relativism (1990)

The Sokal Affair (1996) was a publishing hoax that New York University physicist Alan Sokal perpetrated on the editors and readers of Social Text, an academic journal of post-modern cultural studies that was not then peer-reviewed. In 1996, as an experiment testing editorial integrity (fact-checking, peer review), Prof. Sokal submitted a pseudoscientific article — proposing that physical reality is a social construct — to learn if Social Text would "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if: (a) it sounded good, and, (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions." [32]

Social Text published the article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", by Prof. Alan Sokal, in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue, dedicated to the Science Wars, then occurring in US academia, about the conceptual validity of scientific objectivity.[33] Amid intellectual battles about the nature of scientific theory, among scientific realists and postmodern critics, Prof. Sokal submitted his hoax article for publication. The raison de guerre being that postmodernist critics questioned the objectivity of science, usually via the criticism of scientific method and knowledge, usually in the disciplines of cultural studies, cultural anthropology, feminist studies, comparative literature, media studies, and science and technology studies. Whereas the scientific realists countered that objective scientific knowledge exists, riposting that postmodernist critics almost knew nothing of the science they criticized. In the event, editorial deference to "Academic Authority" (the Author-Professor) prompted the editors of Social Text to not fact-check Prof. Sokal's manuscript, by submitting it to peer review, by a scientist.

Hence, in the May 1996 edition of the Lingua Franca journal, in the article "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies", Prof. Sokal announced that his transformative hermeneutics article was a parody, submitted "to test the prevailing intellectual standards", concluding that, as an academic publication, Social Text ignored the requisite intellectual rigor of verification and "felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject."[32][34] Moreover, as a public intellectual, Prof. Sokal said his hoax was an action protesting against the contemporary tendency towards obscurantism — abstruse, esoteric, and vague writing in the social sciences:

In short, my concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless). There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? And yet, much contemporary academic theorizing consists precisely of attempts to blur these obvious truths — the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language.[32]

Moreover, independent of the hoax, as a pseudoscientific opus, the article "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" is described as an exemplar "pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense, centered on the claim that physical reality is merely a social construct."[35]

Appealing to emotion[edit]

The economist Friedrich von Hayek used the term "obscurantism" differently, to denote and describe the denial of the truth of scientific theory because of disagreeable moral consequences. In the essay "Why I Am Not a Conservative" (1960), he disparages conservatism for its inability to adapt to changing human realities, or to offer a positive political program.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Merriam-Webster Online, "Obscurantism", retrieved on 4 August 2007.
  2. ^ Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary (1996) p. 1337
  3. ^ Nietzsche, F. (1878) Human, All Too Human Vol. II, Part 1, 27. Cambridge University Press; 2 edition (November 13, 1996). ISBN 978-0-521-56704-6
  4. ^ a b Seymour M. Hersh, "Selective Intelligence", The New Yorker, 12 May 2003, accessed June 1, 2007.
  5. ^ a b Brian Doherty, "Origin of the Specious: Why Do Neoconservatives Doubt Darwin?", Reason Online July 1997, accessed 16 February 2007.
  6. ^ a b Syed, I. (2002) "Obscurantism". From: Intellectual Achievements of Muslims. New Delhi: Star Publications. Excerpt available online. Retrieved on: 4 August 2007.
  7. ^ Mencken, H.L. (2002). H.L. Mencken on Religion. Prometheus Books. ISBN 978-1-57392-982-0
  8. ^ The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (2005) p. 660
  9. ^ Estling, Ralph (September–October 2004). "Obscurantism, tyranny, and the fallacy of either black or white". Skeptical Inquirer. Archived from the original on 2007-12-11. Retrieved 2007-08-18. 
  10. ^ Noble lies and perpetual war: Leo Strauss, the neocons, and Iraq openDemocracy
  11. ^ Khushf, George (2004). "The Ethics of Nanotechnology: Vision and Values for a New Generation of Science and Engineering", Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering, National Academy of Engineering, pp. 31–32. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. ISBN 0-309-09271-X.
  12. ^ "A Response to Bill Joy and the Doom-and- Gloom Technofuturists". 
  13. ^ a b Rorty, Richard (1989) Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Ch. 6: "From ironist theory to private allusions: Derrida." ISBN 0-521-36781-6.
  14. ^ Lisa van Alstyne, "Aristotle's Alleged Ethical Obscurantism." Philosophy, Vol. 73, No. 285 (July , 1998), pp. 429-452.
  15. ^ Schopenhauer, Manuscript Remains, Vol. 4, "Cogitata I," § 107.
  16. ^ Schopenhauer, Arthur (1965). On the Basis of Morality, trans. E.F.J.Payne. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, pp.15-16.
  17. ^ Hegel: A Biography, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, xii.
  18. ^ See his The German Ideology (1844), The Poverty of Philosophy (1845), and The Holy Family (1847).
  19. ^ See, Dallmayr, Fred R., "The Discourse of Modernity: Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger (and Habermas)", PRAXIS International (4/1988), pp. 377-404.
  20. ^ György Lukács's The Destruction of Reason; Jürgen Habermas's The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity
  21. ^ Wright, E. O., Levine, A., & Sober, E. (1992). Reconstructing Marxism: essays on explanation and the theory of history. London: Verso, 107.
  22. ^ Shanker, S., & Shanker, V. A. (1986), Ludwig Wittgenstein: critical assessments. London: Croom Helm,50-51.
  23. ^ Words and things: An examination of, and an attack on, linguistic philosophy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979, 1959.
  24. ^ Cioffi, F. (1998), Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 183ff, chapter 7 on Wittgenstein and obscurantism.
  25. ^ Russell, Bertrand (1989). Wisdom of the West. Crescent Books. p. 303. ISBN 978-0-517-69041-3. 
  26. ^ Amazon.com: Heidegger: An Introduction: Books: Richard F. H. Polt
  27. ^ Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74
  28. ^ Obituary of Jacques Derrida, French intellectual
  29. ^ Barry Smith et al., "Open letter against Derrida receiving an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University," The Times [London], 9 May 1992. [1]
  30. ^ Mackey, Louis H. (February 2, 1984). "An Exchange on Deconstruction (Reply by John R. Searle)". New York Review of Books 31 (1). Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  31. ^ Lacan, Jacques (1988). The ego in Freud's theory and in the technique of psychoanalysis, 1954-1955. ISBN 978-0-521-31801-3. 
  32. ^ a b c Sokal, Alan D. (May 1996). "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies". Lingua Franca. Retrieved April 3, 2007. 
  33. ^ Sokal, Alan D. (Spring–Summer 1996) [1994 (original version published 1994-11-28, revised 1995-05-13)]. "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". Social Text (46/47). Duke University Press. pp. 217–252. Archived from the original on 26 March 2007. Retrieved 3 April 2007. 
  34. ^ Sokal, Alan (May–June 1996). "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies". Lingua Franca. p. 2. Retrieved 27 January 2010. 
  35. ^ Harrell, Evans (October 1996). "A Report from the Front of the "Science Wars": The controversy over the book Higher Superstition, by Gross and Levitt and the recent articles by Sokal" (PDF). Notices of the American Mathematical Society 43 (10): 1132–1136. Retrieved 2007-09-16. 

External links and references[edit]