November 24, 2009

The Prevalence of Humbug

Max Black's article "The Prevalence of Humbug" is worth reading. Max Black was a philosopher of science prominent in the middle of the last century. As best I can tell, he was the first one to say that "in the final analysis, there is no final analysis."

My hunt for this quotation led me to Black, and that led to his wonderful article about bullshit. Its first few sentences read:

"Humbug has the peculiar property of being always committed by others, never by oneself. This is one reason why it is universally condemned. No doubt we can agree that humbug is a Bad Thing; but what are we agreeing about? It proves astonishingly hard to say."


"What are we to make of the following episode? On January 25, 1980, Mary McCarthy said, in an interview with Dick Cavett on Public Broadcasting, that Lillian Hellman was "a bad writer, overrated, a dishonest writer." Well, true or false, justified or not, there was no humbug about that. But on being asked by Mr. Cavett what was dishonest about Miss Hellman's writing, Miss McCarthy continued: "Everything. I once said in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'" Well, did she really believe that one could lie by using the words "and" and "the"?"

The picture of Rorty has nothing to do with Max Black. Anyone who has seen him on the cover of Contingency, Irony, Solidarity for long deserves another photo.


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