Philosophically vicious

While I think there is a conceptual difference between doing philosophy and being a proper philosopher, I admit that people act as if they are substantially linked. In particular, when someone wants to accuse their intellectual arch-nemesis of being a non-philosopher, they will marshal a reliable collection of taunts or insults. The drama that ensues is usually tedious and not worth dwelling on, except for the fact that the insults that self-described philosophers level against each other actually tells us something about what they value most about philosophy. (And also, I suppose, because there is a small cottage industry in philosophy that is now dedicated to the conceptual analysis of naughty words. Recall Frankfurt on Bullshit, McGinn on Mindfucking, and Aaron James on Assholes.)

If you want to insult a self-described philosopher, you have to point to their vices. A vice is just a lonely virtue — the thing that makes traits virtuous is that they come in clusters. For example, if you have the gift of insight, but lack any other intellectual virtues, then you are a dogmatist.

As far as I can tell, ‘being philosophical’ involves the manifestation of two kinds of virtues: the right intentions (insightful belief, humble commitments), and the right reflective methods (rationality in thought, cooperation in conversation). One should expect that being philosophical means you should be able to manifest at least some of right intentions and at least some of the right ways. The aspiring philosopher must manifest the right intentions, but their work cannot be all about good intentions. By the same token, the aspirant must manifest some facility with the right methods, but the whole of their work cannot be confined to reflective methods. Philosophers actually have to help us do something, understand something.

In theory, some insults are grotesque offenses to the philosophical mind. No aspiring philosopher should want to be found guilty of being a dogmatist, worry-wart, puzzle-solver, or sycophant; if the definition of ‘philosopher’ ever countenances such habits of mind, then I will finally know that I have lost all sense of what the word means. There is a non-trivial possibility that I have never known what philosophy is, but I am comforted by the fact that I appear to be in good company. Recall the Gellner-Ryle spat, where variations on all four accusations show up in print. First, Russell admonishes Ryle for running the risk of turning Mind into “the mutual admiration organ of a coterie” (sycophancy); then GRG Mure of Oxford accuses practitioners of the OLP movement as being “long self-immunized to criticism” (dogmatism); and later Arnold Kaufner (Michigan) alludes to the possibility that the Oxford group as guilty of “precious cleverness” and “genteel subtlety” (puzzle-solvers) and “ritualistic caution” (worry-warts).

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The problem with these sorts of insults is that they are so broad that when they are used by institutional peers the words will probably have no force. These insults mark out properties of persons which would be obvious if they were true, and hence would not usually even need to be asserted. Between institutional peers, the barb of an insult is most effective to the extent that it conforms to the facts, and the extent to which the assertion actually reveals something informative about those facts. People fall more in love with the subtler insults, ones that are grounded in the truth and in a potentially surprising way. The more intemperate and thoughtless your insults, the less people need to pay attention to you.*

Most readers are aware of the fact that during the 20th century there was a distinction between analytic philosophy and continental metaphysics. This distinction was based on innumerable factors, including substantive disagreements over particular viewpoints, and wide disagreement over who counted as an authority in philosophy. And that’s fine. But whatever the initial causes of the divide, it persisted in part because each side was able to caricature the other side as unphilosophical in one of the above ways. For analytic philosophers, continental metaphysicians were seen as romantic malcontents. (Recall Russell on existentialism: “It is from a mood of feeling oppressed that existentialism stages its rebellion against rationalism… The rationalist sees his freedom in a knowledge of how nature works; the existentialist finds it in an indulgence of his moods.”) Meanwhile, continental philosophers thought of analytic philosophers as methodology-obsessed and science-craven. (My use of the past tense is strategic but fanciful.)


Some people (let’s call them romantics) talk about philosophy as if it described the expression of deep and serious thoughts on some profound issue. The romantic approach to philosophy likes to think that the primary point of philosophy is to play with ideas, to enjoy the freedom to think. Arguments are not conceived as tools, but as a canvas, and the fruit of the argument comes from weaving out authentic interconnections. The artisan delights in the avant garde, and enjoys seeing what an experimental attitude towards philosophy might bring about.

But no matter how deep you think your beliefs are, no matter how humble you are in adopting them, and no matter how sincere you are in expressing them, you owe it to your readers to show how you could be wrong. As interesting as your deep thoughts may be, if your philosophy of life can’t be assessed in public, and if you take no part in that ongoing assessment, then it is not a part of your work as a philosopher and you’re not acting like much of a philosopher when you do it. Good intentions and deep insights are not enough to acquit a writer of using obscure jargon and dubious inferences. Anthony Kenny knew and collaborated with Jacques Derrida as a young man, but his final judgment on Derrida’s work is both fair and decisive: Derrida’s M.O. was to “introduce new terms whose effect is to confuse ideas that are perfectly distinct”.

Sometimes, people are unfairly targeted as romantics when in retrospect they ought to have been given a fair shake. Marshall McLuhan is one of the most famous Canadian intellectuals from the 20th century, and his work has undeniable insight and natural modesty. He is owed due credit as a futurist and media theorist, and I am sure philosophers could learn quite a lot from his work. But while I leave it to others to determine whether or not he was a proper philosopher, I expect few would. Certainly, today’s professional philosophers do not. Max Black (anticipating Harry Frankfurt) referred to McLuhan as one of his generation’s humbuggers. All the same, I cannot help but point out that McLuhan seems to have been philosophizing, at least in the generous historical sense that I am working with. While there is no attempt at rigor, there was usually a reasonable chain of inferences and engagement in a wider Humanities-wide conversation. Of course, his dictum “The medium is the message” was obtuse — but even so, the point he was trying to make was comparably interesting.


What holds for one extreme also holds for the other. If you say that philosophy is all about method — if, in other words, you are a scholastic intellectual technician— then it is hard to see how you could make any but the most perfunctory gestures to truth or understanding. When you ask someone who is obsessed with methodology why they do philosophy, they will explain to you the importance of trading of reasons for reasons, and how the rules of the philosophical game work. They will not answer a direct question, like “What consequence does this intellectual puzzle have to our lives?”. Instead, the inquiry will be treated as intrinsically valuable in the worst possible sense of the phrase. The technician is interested in getting to the heart of the ‘rules of chmess‘ thing once and for all, and we are unaffected by the effort.

Don’t be too hard on the technician. In all likelihood, the methods-obsessed soul has been appropriately traumatized by the most odious aspects of the philosophical culture, by pointless dogmatists and contrarians. You can hardly blame them for retreating to the safety and surety of intellectual Sudoku, any more than you can blame hobbits for keeping to the Shire.

The approach from method faces an additional burden, in that it does its part in stamping out philosophy as a distinctive and productive part of the Humanities. So, critics of modern analytic philosophy can ask the philosopher to show that reasoning from the armchair is both intellectually productive and distinctively non-scientific. Of course, it is now well-known that armchair methods are not always as productive as they seem. But it is also not obvious that armchair methods are distinctively philosophical. For, contrary to empiricist prejudices, quite a lot of good science could not be done unless we used some kind of aprioristic methods — be that in the form of mathematics, metaphysics, or modelling. Hence, in order to say something distinctive about philosophy, we have to talk about a productive and interesting part of the philosophical tradition that would be tough to sell as science. At least in the broader historical picture, intentional virtues are part of the philosopher’s real estate.

It is much more difficult to mention an example of a technician, in part because they are seldom remembered or celebrated after passing on. People bother to remember McLuhan, even if he was not even wrong, because it turns out that he had a thing to say and it was important that he said it. In contrast, empty refinements of method and their application to irrelevant and inconsequential subjects is not even ‘not even wrong’ — it is not even bullshit.


* Notice: this lesson only applies when it comes to exchanges between institutional peers. It is quite a different story if there are differences in power-relations, as John Kerry learned in 2004.


  1. Since Derrida is considered an important philosopher in France and in much of Latin America, isn’t writing him off as a philosopher an expression of an Anglo-Saxon cultural bias?

    I’ve never been able to read Derrida myself, but lots of very thoughtful and philosophically trained people do in non-Anglo-Saxon cultures and consider his writings to be philosophy and in fact, good philosophy, important philosophy.

    I assume that a society as cultured and as educated as France is is capable of deciding what is philosophy.

  2. For all I know, he is a very important philosopher, a proper philosopher.

    I can only say that I am not particularly threatened by anti-realist ideas, nor socially grounded ideas, and am very happy to talk about the philosophy of the social sciences, social and political philosophy, and their relation to more central areas of philosophical concern (language, epistemology, mind). I count, I suppose, as an admirer of some works alleged to be “continental” — e.g., Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is a perfectly admirable book. And I can’t help but teach Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, when they fit into the big picture.

    All the same, when I read much of Derrida’s works, I often find what he is saying to be unintelligible, despite having read the source materials; and whenever I do find him intelligible or in the vicinity of an interesting point, he botches it by making assertions that are both careless and false. And allegations of this sort can be supported no matter what continent one is writing in, I think.

    To find out why he had such a lasting influence, one should pay less attention to the man, and more attention to the void he was (rightly or wrongly) thought to fill.

  3. Ben:

    I share your tastes, which may be a reason I follow your blogs.

    I’m a Nietzsche fan, read Schopenhauer with pleasure and find Foucault worthwhile.

    As I said above, I’ve never been able to get far in Derrida, so I’ll accept your judgement
    about careless and false assertions.

    I don’t know why he is considered such an important philosopher by the French. Is it that the French have to always have an important philosopher just as Americans always have to have a president and thus, Americans get George W. Bush and the French Jacques Derrida?

  4. Hi Amos,

    Searle famously said Derrida ‘gave bullshit a bad name’, and Hugh Mellor, now former Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge, described the year his university awarded JD an honorary degree as ‘a bad year for bullshit’. A number of prominent philosophers (including Quine) famously signed a public letter protesting the awarding of the honour. Here’s a snippet:

    “Many French philosophers see in M. Derrida only cause for silent embarrassment, his antics having contributed significantly to the widespread impression that contemporary French philosophy is little more than an object of ridicule. M. Derrida’s voluminous writings in our view stretch the normal forms of academic scholarship beyond recognition. Above all – as every reader can very easily establish for himself (and for this purpose any page will do) – his works employ a written style that defies comprehension. Many have been willing to give M. Derrida the benefit of the doubt, insisting that language of such depth and difficulty of interpretation must hide deep and subtle thoughts indeed. When the effort is made to penetrate it, however, it becomes clear, to us at least, that, where coherent assertions are being made at all, these are either false or trivial. 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.”

    Mellor noted in an interview near the time:

    “Some of Derrida’s early work was interesting and serious. But this isn’t the work he has become famous for… That is much later work which seems to me wilfully obscure. If you spell out these later doctrines plainly, it becomes clear that most of them, if not false, are just trivial… So one objection is that Derrida goes in for mystery-mongering about trivial truisms. But he also mixes these truisms up with silly falsehoods, which, if believed and acted on, would cripple intellectual activities of all kinds. The excesses of deconstructionism have been especially unfortunate, because they imply that writings have no intrinsic meanings that are fixed or constrained in any way by the writers’ intentions or the conventions of their language; that writings are open to endless and arbitrary re-interpretation by their readers. This is obviously false, and has the most absurd implications… it is either just nonsense, if it’s not believed; or it’s very dangerous, if it is believed. I’m sure Derrida himself doesn’t believe most of the nonsense he is famous for…”

    As far as Schopenhauer goes, I don’t know if he can be beaten when it comes to ‘philosophically vicious’ remarks (though Nietzsche may give him a run) but I imagine you’ve come across his barbs about Hegel et al before…

  5. swallerstein,

    “Since Derrida is considered an important philosopher in France and in much of Latin America, isn’t writing him off as a philosopher an expression of an Anglo-Saxon cultural bias?”

    English, not Anglo-Saxon bias. The English can’t stand him, because he’s one of those bloody continentals (pronounced: bladee continental). The North Americans loved Derrida. But by the British, if he was spoken of at all, it was “that bladee Frenchman” (That’s an exaggeration – but not an over exaggeration)

    “I don’t know why he is considered such an important philosopher by the French.”

    The French are very proud of their celebrity intellectuals. Especially the ones who get a little fame outside of France. Because the French have a sneaking suspicion that the British and Germans think they’re stupid.

    Did the French “get” Derrida? I doubt it. But it’s like Irish people being very proud of James Joyce, even though few Irish people have read his books or have a clue what they’re about. It’s that there is a writer that is so intellectually superior he’s incomprehensible to all but the finest minds in the world, and since he’s Irish, they can internalise this as some little piece of their being as being James Joyce. Needing this, is due to an inferiority complex; the Irish believe that at heart they’re ignorant peasants, intellectually inferior to their neighbours; the British. It’s true, the Irish are an ignorant peasant race, but the neighbours are no great shakes either.

    Again, something similar with the French and the Marquis de Sade. The French are very proud of de Sade too. He was an aristocrat who wrote lurid pornography that was ahead of its’ time. His significance in French intellectual culture is blown out of all proportion. De Sade was writing dirty books to scandalise and don’t believe there was much beyond that. Except the French needing an interesting character to mythologise themselves for themselves.

    I won’t get into the arguments on Derrida, but the case against him is: any ideas he’s credited with was the work of others he dressed up as his own. When Derrida is rambling on and on, and you can’t understand what he’s talking about, neither could he. That the event of Derrida was more about celebrity and performance, and a touch of the Emperor’s New Clothes – the Americans may have bought into him because they too have a sense of intellectual inferiority. In the course of time we’ll see what his actual significance is/was.

    One thing I’ve always liked about Derrida’s continentalism is its’ irritant value to English insularism. “that bladee forinner”

  6. It’s true, the Irish are an ignorant peasant race

    Making unfair generalizations about national character is such a European thing.

    [Edit to point out this is a joke.]

  7. “The English can’t stand him, because he’s one of those bloody continentals”

    How about this:

    “The Christians can’t stand him because he’s one of those bloody Jews.”

  8. BLS Nelson,

    “Making unfair generalizations about national character is such a European thing.”

    They’re all as bad as each other. Though the Inselaffen (German derogatory term for the English), are particularly and entertainingly neurotic. Hence the event of Nigel Farage, and his UK Independence Party. A group of people who know they definitely want something, though not quite sure what it is or why they want it, but they’re dead certain they want to get as far away from that bladee continent as they possibly can – geographic realities be damned.

  9. Given what Ben, Searle, Mellor, Jim and JMRC have to say about Derrida, shouldn’t we ask how and why a bull-shit artist gets accepted as a major philosopher?

    What does that tell us about the criteria of intellectual quality which reign in many universities and among many prominent intellectuals?

    Yes, I know that many prominent intellectuals accept religous dogmas that seem utterly implausible, but generally, religious belief is the result of childhood inculcation and is part of one’s sense of identity and of belonging to a family or a community, while people read Derrida, not at age 7, but supposely with their eyes wide open at age 20 or older.

    Of course many adults fall for scientology or worse charlatanry, but scientology is not taught in prestigious universities to students whose parents individually pay fees roughly equivalent to public spending on education in some African nations.

  10. swallerstein,

    “Given what Ben, Searle, Mellor, Jim and JMRC have to say about Derrida, shouldn’t we ask how and why a bull-shit artist gets accepted as a major philosopher?”

    Because there’s an element of show business to philosophy. It’s not that everything Derrida had to say was bull-shit, but there definitely was a market for the bull-shit he was selling.

    The other thing is people are a little stupid – if they hear something that’s completely incomprehensible, but sounds profound, they often believe it is profound. Especially when they see others clapping and cheering. There are recordings where you can hear him giving talks – painful streams of what you couldn’t even call bull-shit. If he gets to the end of a sentence of nonsense and adds a tone and a twist of humour in his voice, the audience laughs and applauds. (Like an idiot child who doesn’t get the joke but laughs so they don’t look stupid.)

    The English, let’s call them the insularists, did not like him, not just for the gibberish. The purpose of Insularism of the elite British institutions is to train leaders (pronounced: Leedahs) to marshal what’s left of the Empire and its’ people. To train young men how to rationalise the bombing of Arabs, and the shooting of a few protesters, and whatever it takes to restore order.

    “What does that tell us about the criteria of intellectual quality which reign in many universities and among many prominent intellectuals?”

    That they’re not all that intellectual. There are all kinds of social, political and cultural reasons why the funny stuff happens. One thing that made Derrida ultimately safe for American consumption was his incoherence.

  11. JMRC:

    Those whom I knew who were into Derrida are not stupid. I say “into Derrida” because I’m not at all sure that they had actually read Derrida, but they had read about him and talked about him all too often.

    Generally, charlatanry offers us something which is too good to be true. For example, lose 7 kilos a week without bothersome diets and
    boring exercise. On a more noble level, through our understanding of the dialectic and class struggle we will reach a prosperous and classless society, where all men will be brothers and no one will need to work.

    What does Derrida offer that is so enticing, too good to be true, if anything?

  12. swallerstein@June 20 4:34pm
    “What does Derrida offer that is so enticing, too good to be true, if anything?”

    Some things are valuable because they express insight, others because they engender insight.

    Derrida is more like the latter.

  13. Re: Philosophically Vicious
    Whether philosophy is practiced as a profession or whether it is an avocation, it is a good exercise for the mind, if approached with the right attitude. It is amusing to observe the hostilities, very non-philosophical tirades, and dogmatism, especially the new atheists; all of these behaviors are counterproductive and unworthy of the profession. A program called ‘Closer to the Truth’ in one episode had six panelists, equally divided between philosophers and physicists, each had a different opinion about the nature of reality, however, they all disagreed amicably and each ended up by saying that they did not really know. It was refreshing to see; it does not happen too often.

    The ancient definition of philosophy was love of wisdom. Wisdom was understood as one that is split into two by duality. The human microcosm was considered to be dual; even the tongue is cleft, as is the brain. To counteract this limitation, to adhere to the golden mean or the middle way, was to negotiate a path between opposites; as the truth resided in neither one of the perceived opposites but in a blend of both.

    Rather than questioning until the pupil comes up with the answer, similar to what a Zen master did with a koan, information now is generally passed on from intellect to intellect. If discrimination is not applied, this could lead to undigested or non-assimilated ‘facts’ or ‘opinions’ which can lead to a tower of babel. In contrast, the pupil of a Zen master could experience the answer and know that s(he) knows. The Socratic method works in a similar fashion.

    Something may be gained by intellectual knowledge; with enough ‘facts’ or ‘opinions’ something may click and lead to an eureka insight, if it does not it may be grounds for debate which may, or may not, be civil. The Toltecs were very averse to non-assimilated ‘knowledge,’ it may have been from a similar point of view as that of the Zen masters and of Socrates. As Heraclitus put it: there is the way of truth and the way of opinion; how much of modern philosophy is opinion? Is the tower of babel reaching new heights, with arrows being launched from the ramparts?

  14. Dregs:

    Could you give me some examples of the insights or type of insights that are engendered by studying Derrida?

    (A question asked out of curiosity, without malice.)

  15. swallerstein,

    Possibly that absolute or pure concepts don’t apply to anything outside how we think.

    I’m less interested in asserting that Derrida is valuable than I am in pointing out that writing often thought of as obscurantist is valuable not for what it says per se, but rather for what it leads the reader to reflect on in the course of interpreting what it says.

    Hence, two sources of value, one direct and one indirect. A paradigmatic example of the latter might be a Zen koan: obscurity bordering on incoherence, yet a fruitful object of reflection perhaps because of this.

  16. Dregs,

    “Possibly that absolute or pure concepts don’t apply to anything outside how we think.”

    I definitely wouldn’t credit Derrida with introducing that idea.

    “Hence, two sources of value, one direct and one indirect. A paradigmatic example of the latter might be a Zen koan: obscurity bordering on incoherence, yet a fruitful object of reflection perhaps because of this.”

    Well Derrida did not invent the Koan. (The same applies to aphorisms. They should never be interpreted or written as absolutes. Personally, I used to always misinterpret aphorisms and the intention of the writer.)

    And the idea of esoteric writings where there isn’t an absolute meaning in the text, or really any meaning, but the reader should be led through a contemplation, or even when the writings have been created by the religious; a magical experience, isn’t an idea unique to Derrida. A large amount of the text in the Koran is esoteric.

    Although not that widely known. The greater volume of the writings of WB Yeats, were esoterically magic texts. And they are absolutely awful. People are fans of Yeats’ better known work are truly horrified when they read these texts.

    Derrida may have latched on to Lacan out of fashion. Lacan is difficult to comprehend – or apprehend. There is a concrete reason for this. A core concept in psychoanalysis is you can never posses the object of your desire – and this can be extended to the impossibility of apprehending anything. You circle your desires, you can not apprehend the object. Lacan circles – and to interpret Lacan you must circle the text. It’s arguable whether this is a good idea or not. though I can tell you, that under no circumstances is it possible for you to have what you desire – you can consciously agree with me, but on an emotional level you will not.

    Maybe complaining about Derrida just gives more substance to the man. And if we all shut up about him, he’ll vanish back into the aether from whence he came.

  17. Hi JMRC,

    Whether or not Derrida introduced something is a separate concern from whether it’s an aspect of his writing.

    I tend to play down the importance of originality in philosophy given that just about any idea you can think of was held by some Scholastic or another in medieval Europe. In some sense, most of philosophy is simply arguing for or against positions that are already in play.

    I don’t think any of this necessarily means that Derrida is worth reading (or worth not reading, for that matter). I was just trying to get at swallerstein’s question about why some people find Derrida valuable.

  18. Dregs,

    I don’t really want to criticise him as it gives him more significance.

    I believe there is an argument that he was a malign influence. Though not for the same reasons the English Insularists disliked him for. An example of what I mean. Back years ago when he was more fashionable. Someone I knew was doing a Phd in anthropology. Their supervisor was enthralled to Derrida. The result wasn’t what you could call sound anthropology, and it didn’t have much value as creative writing either. Calling this nihilistic and destructive can make Derrida look a little bit more sexy – in reality it was just shit.

    A sexy Frenchman with a little scandal. Like de Sade. At least de Sade left us with a useful word; sadism.

  19. Heh, that’s a funny observation qua your anthropology friend. I can see how that could be a malign influence.

  20. At least de Sade left us with a useful word; sadism.

    I almost used the word ‘differance’ in a post about deference, to mean something like “confused deference”: i.e., deference that does not function either to refer to something, to execute an action, or to provide reasons for acting. But I really don’t know if that has anything to do with what the guy meant.

  21. Jim P Houston

    From The Philosophical Lexicon’s New Entries 2008

    derrida. A sequence of signs that fails to signify anything beyond itself. From a old French nonsense refrain: “Hey nonny derrida, nonny nonny derrida falala.”

    From the same source, some might also like this:

    deleuzion, n. A false, persistent philosophical belief, unsubstantiated by evidence or argument. “He suffered from the deleuzion that Spinoza could be used to clarify Lacanian psychoanalysis.”

  22. I really like Vina’s reference to the dualism of old Philosophy. This is still, to my mind, the most compelling form of Philosophy. Seeing the coin of some object of interest for how the one side inherently obscures the other is a very important skill.

    As an artist I know the apprehension of an object is never the object itself. I can manipulate representations of the object both in my mind and on my canvas but my mind will never connect directly with the object. The same is true with an idea. I can conceive of a concept I perceive to be the like of one communicated to me by another person, but my idea of it will not be the same arrangement of neurons, potentials, dendritic connections, and chemical exchanges that prompted their communication. Duality is ubiquitous.

    Perhaps a professional philosopher would not consider explorations of the consequences I see from that Philosophy, but it prompts my kids to think. So I don’t care.

  23. This remark by Nietzsche reminds me of our discussion about Derrida above.

    “Whoever knows he is deep, strives for clarity; whoever would like to appear deep to the crowd, strives for obscurity. For the crowd considers anything deep if only it cannot see to the bottom: the crowd is so timid and afraid of going into the water”.

    The Gay Science 173