September 6, 2008

Regarding "Pretentious"

Youtube has become something of an intellectual clearing ground.

I wouldn’t for a minute attest to the expertise of the participants or the quality of the arguments. A multitude of serious persons advance and attack various positions by staring into a web cam and reading some short essay they’ve written on a trendy French philosopher, or on whether abortion is ever morally permissible, or on God.

This is innocuous and obnoxious; the number of arguments made by misusing technical terms is astounding, annoying, and, in many cases, will be cured when the participant enters college and has to write a paper for an expert on the topic at hand.

Someone thinks he’s a property dualist because properties do not exist. This is a pedantic philosophical distinction that you can ignore, but the “someone” in question still doesn’t know what he’s talking about. There is a person who misuses his terms. Is this O.K.?

No op-ed here will change this basic state of affairs.

My purpose here, then, is to fight an Orwellian battle over the use of a term. In this case, it is often misused as just obviously a term of abuse, an insult that nicely maps to a certain category of mistakes. The term is “pretentious,” as in “those pretentious Swedes.” (I don’t know any pretentious Swedes).

Something is pretentious if it demands attention, especially a certain “lofty” sort of attention. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is pretentious. Darwin’s Origin of Species is pretentious. Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica is pretentious. Nabokov’s Lolita is pretentious.

All of those claims betray a slight of hand and a bait and switch. The term is misused deviously and annoyingly. Calling something pretentious in absence of a critique might be a complement.

“Pretentious” most often means that something demands more than it deserves. A poem is pretentious when banal and flashy. An historical claim is pretentious when it involves difficult analysis with little concrete importance. A philosopher is pretentious when he uses difficult terms but cannot support his statements.

The effect of this ambiguity, the difference between something’s demanding attention and its failing to deserve that attention, allows Youtube talking heads (worse even than Fox News talking heads) to dismiss difficult and important thinkers by calling them “pretentious.” Of course an urbane person will see this is wrong.

Annoyingly, abusers of the term think they’re saying something impressive. This (moralistic, manneristic?) tirade is to say that you just can’t use “pretentious” as an insult without defeating the claim you mean to insult. If someone claims importance for some reason, and that reason is wrong, and you’ve defeated his claim, you can go further and rub his nose in it by noting his pretension.

If you don’t like an essay’s jargon, you can call it highfalutin and risk appearing naïve, but please do not think “pretentious” expresses your distaste with someone’s language. Raging Bull might bore you (you silly naïf), but it is pretentious only if it’s shallow.

So, when an unimpressed reader calls, e.g., Jacques Derrida pretentious for his use of certain terms, she either takes herself to have in waiting a defeater for Derrida’s corpus (what would that be?), or lacks a firm grasp of her term of abuse.

This strikes me as a rather pitiful position for one to be in, to fail even at insulting another for misunderstanding one’s words.

Property Dualism misused

Jacques Derrida misunderstood


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