Smoke and Mirrors (and Philosophy)

Here’s a nice line from Lucretius in his De Rerum Natura:

For fools always have a greater admiration and liking for any idea that they see obscured in a mist of paradoxical language, and adopt as true what suceeds in prettily tickling their ears and is painted with a specious sound. (Book 1: 640.2-4)

The target is Heraclitus, but it made me chuckle for a few reasons. Not least in the context of “bloggery.” Or in the context of Mikhail’s recent post about philosophy as a written or oral medium. In the comments to that post, I think there was talk to the effect that if Derrida didn’t feel the need to publish everything he wrote, we’d be better off.

Anyway, the passage made me chuckle (out loud no less) this morning.  That’s good.

Oh, yes.  And there is the bit in which Lucretius refers to Heraclitus’ “unitarianism” as nothing less than “harebrained lunacy.”  We’re far too thin-skinned to talk like this today, I would imagine.  Though I do seem to remember someone telling me that Catherine Pickstock once referred to theology in America as a “vast wasteland.”  Not that such things really concern me, but nice, indeed.

7 thoughts on “Smoke and Mirrors (and Philosophy)

  1. I think it’s time ad hominem attacks made a glorious come back – I mean there’s a certain logic behind them, isn’t there? “You think that this-and-that is the case” – “This-and-that is a steaming pile of nonsense that you just made up and then you put it in nice confusing language of half gibberish, half philosophical…” – “If you insist on maintaining that this-and-that is actually true and not just a product of your imagination, you must be an fool” – “You are a fool”…

    I think the present thin-skin condition is a result of this peculiar separation between a person and his/her ideas – it’s peculiar because if you really think about it, it doesn’t really make sense in a sort of traditional “substantial self” psychology – your thoughts are what makes you who you are, if you thoughts are boring and mediocre, then clearly you must be boring and mediocre, right? No hope for me then, it seems..

  2. I agree, Mikhail, if only because the tone of mutual respect in academia is often just a hypocritical put-on. Someone’s got to resurrect the art of polemic. I think Foucault called Derrida an “intellectual terrorist” once, which wasn’t bad, but certainly no Voltaire–or Kant, for that matter. Now there was a guy who knew how to sneer.

  3. All of this makes me think that we need a science of insults because clearly when Foucault calls Derrida a “terrorist” most of us sort of grin a bit even though I think Derrida was not a “terrorist” by any means and I quite enjoy his books, i.e. despite disagreeing with Foucault’s characterization (even if only for the sake of this demonstration), I sort of also agree with it through my approving grimace, because I consider Foucault to be a worthy insulter and thus Derrida a worthy insultee… If, on the other hand, someone who does not have a status of Foucault writes that Derrida was a non-philosopher and a bad bad person on his blog, we tend to respond angrily – Who do you think you are? – even if we agree with the assessment, because it violates the rules of insultology which I think, as a science, should be (or is, because I might be just ignorant of it) as sophisticated as the studies of 17th century patronage relationships I’m reading about right now…

  4. Would be a nice course: On Insults, Insults for Beginners. There’s an introductory scene in the Symposium where Socrates insults Agathon, Agathon laughs it off. We’re to see that Agathon “gets” Socrates, but that he doesn’t take him that seriously, not yet. In the Gorgias Socrates shames his interlocutors into silence, all but Callicles, which means that being seen to be wrong matters as much if not more than being wrong.

    Nietzsche’s bit about attacking not persons but names? And yet, what’s the gap? Reputation? Victorious causes?

    Othello: a primer in the “currency” of reputation, its political economy, and the power of innuendo.

    How to distinguish teasing from insulting from slandering?

    How to determine the real audience of an insult from the ostensible one; A insults B to be seen by C to be doing so: Stephen Colbert’s routine a few years back at the Press something or other would be a privileged example. His remarks were ostensibly addressed to the press, who didn’t laugh that much, but were really addressed to viewers and other publics.


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