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Obscurantism (from the Latin obscurans, "darkening") is the practice of deliberately preventing the facts or full details of something from becoming known. There are two common senses of this: (1) opposition to the spread of knowledge—a policy of withholding knowledge from the general public; and (2) a style (as in literature, art, philosophy, or theology) characterized by deliberate vagueness or abstruseness.[1] In this article, obscurantism in the first and second senses are explained in separate sections, below.

The term derives from the title of the 16th-century satire Epistolæ Obscurorum Virorum ("Letters of Obscure Men") based upon the real-life dispute between German humanist Johann Reuchlin and Dominican monks such as Johannes Pfefferkorn as to whether all Jewish books should be burned as un-Christian or not. The letters satirized the monks arguments for burning "un-Christian" works, Enlightenment philosophers used the term for conservative, especially religious enemies of progressive Enlightenment and its concept of the liberal spread of knowledge.

Friedrich Nietzsche distinguishes the obscurantism of metaphysics and theology from the "more subtle" obscurantism of Kant's critical philosophy and modern philosophical skepticism, claiming that obscurantism is that which obscures existence: "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."[2]


[edit] Opposition to the spread of knowledge

The first and older sense of the term 'obscurantism' refers to practices that favor limits on the extension and dissemination of knowledge. It can be seen as Plato’s “noble lie.” This is the lie that the ruler, (Plato’s philosopher king), would transmit to the people for their own good. The notion that rulers or leaders know what is best for the people can be found in all forms of totalitarianism; as Bergen Evans warned, “obscurantism and tyranny go together."[3]

Obscurantism in this sense is both anti-intellectual and elitist, as well as fundamentally anti-democratic, as it considers the people unworthy of truth. The Marquis de Condorcet wrote extensively on the phenomenon during the period of the French Revolution, when obscurantism was widespread among the aristocracy. Later, William Kingdon Clifford, an early proponent of Darwinism, devoted some writings to rooting out obscurantism in England after hearing clerics who privately agreed with him publicly denounce evolution.

Though often associated with religious fundamentalism, obscurantism is a distinct strain of thought: Fundamentalism presupposes a sincere belief in religion, while obscurantism rests on the deliberate manipulation of faith by an enlightened few.[4]

Obscurantists may be atheists or agnostics themselves, but believe that some form of religion or superstition among the masses is necessary for a stable society, and thus seek to limit to a select few the awareness of evidence that counters common belief. The term is used in this sense by modern-day skeptics, such as H.L. Mencken, in their critiques of religion,[5] and by reformers within religious movements who are also pro-science.[4]

[edit] Plato

A powerful source of supposed obscurantism is found in Plato's Republic, where he advocated the use of the "Noble Lie," the lie that the philosopher king finds necessary to guide society.

This notion is said to have been adopted by Leo Strauss and his Neo-conservative adherents.[6] Plato is also seen as a source for Neo-Platonism, Christian mysticism, negative theology, and the hermeticism, which have adopted linguistic and logical strategies that attempt to indirectly speak about the ineffable. Such tendencies are seen as obscurantist by many critics.

[edit] Leo Strauss

The philosopher Leo Strauss has also been criticized for presenting a related notion of "esoteric" meanings in ancient texts that are not meant to be accessible to the "ordinary" reader or citizen.

[edit] Bill Joy

In 2000 Bill Joy published the paper Why the Future Doesn't Need Us in which he argued (quoting the subtitle): "Our most powerful 21st-century technologies — robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech — are threatening to make humans an endangered species." His proposal to limit certain knowledge for the sake of preserving society was quickly compared to obscurantism.[citation needed]

[edit] Accusations of deliberate vagueness, obscurity, or ambiguity

In the 19th and 20th centuries "obscurantism" became a polemical term accusing authors of writing in a deliberately vague and abstruse style in order to hide their vacuousness: the writer's ignorance is obscured. Philosophers who are not empiricists or positivists are often accused of such obscurantism. For various philosophical reasons, these authors may modify or reject verifiability, falsifiability, or logical non-contradiction. From this point of view, writing which appears clouded, vague, or abstruse is not necessarily a sign of a poor grasp of the subject matter. Unintelligible writing is sometimes purposeful and philosophically considered.[7]

[edit] Hegel

Some critics associate obscurantism with the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel and those influenced by his writings, especially Karl Marx. Analytic and positivistic philosophers such as A. J. Ayer, Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper have accused Hegel and Hegelianism of obscurantism. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that Hegel's philosophy 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..."[8]

Despite such criticisms, Terry Pinkard notes "Hegel has refused to go away even in analytic philosophy itself"[9] Hegel was aware of his 'obscurantism' and saw it as part of philosophical thinking to accept the limitations of everyday thought and concepts and try to go beyond them. Hegel wrote in his essay "Who Thinks Abstractly?" that it is not the philosopher who thinks abstractly but the person on the street, who uses concepts as fixed, unchangeable givens, without any context. It is the philosopher who thinks concretely, because he goes beyond the limits of everyday concepts to understand their broader context. This makes philosophical thought and language seem mysterious or obscure to the person on the street.

[edit] Marx and Marxism

Karl Marx,[10] and philosophers he influenced,[11] have criticized German and French philosophy, especially German Idealism, seeing a tradition of German irrationalism, and an ideologically motivated obscurantism.[12] Marx and Marxism have been criticized in turn for obscurantism by generally positivistic methodological individualists such as Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek, who reject the reality of or appeal to collective entities such as class.[13]

[edit] Aristotle

Aristotle's ethics, because of its technical language and its being aimed at a cultured elite, has been accused of being a form of ethical obscurantism in recent discussions of virtue ethics. [14]

[edit] Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein has been criticized for his position on the limits of language,[15] and his abandonment of empirical explanation for linguistic description in his later works. Friedrich Waismann accused Wittgenstein of "complete obscurantism" because of this apparent betrayal of empirical inquiry. [16] This criticism has been further developed by Ernest Gellner.[17] Frank Cioffi discusses the various senses of obscurantism in Wittgenstein, which he designates as 'limits obscurantism', 'method obscurantism', and 'sensibility obscurantism.' [18]

[edit] Heidegger

Martin Heidegger and some of those influenced by him (e.g. Jacques Derrida) have been labeled obscurantists by critics from analytical philosophy and the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory.

Bertrand Russell wrote of Heidegger, "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."[19] That is Russell's complete entry on Heidegger, and it expresses the sentiments of many 20th-century Analytic philosophers concerning Heidegger.[20]

[edit] Derrida

René Thom and W. V. Quine have called Derrida's work "pseudophilosophy" and "sophistry." John Searle exemplified this view in his comments on deconstruction in the New York Review of Books: "...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."[21]

Controversy surrounds Derrida's work, particularly among Anglo-American academics. The University of Cambridge awarded him an honorary doctorate, despite opposition from members of its philosophy faculty. Eighteen professors from other institutions signed a letter of protest saying Derrida's work "does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigor." Signatories included Hugh Mellor, W. V. Quine, David Armstrong, Ruth Barcan Marcus, and René Thom. They described Derrida's philosophy as being composed of "tricks and gimmicks similar to those of the Dadaists." The letter also said "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."[22]

Noam Chomsky has written that Derrida uses "pretentious rhetoric" to obscure the simplicity of his ideas. He groups Derrida within a broader category of the Parisian intellectual community which he has criticized for acting as an elite power structure for the well educated through "difficult writing." Chomsky admits he may simply be incapable of understanding Derrida, but is suspicious of this possibility. [23]

Critical obituaries of Derrida were published in The New York Times[24] and The Economist,[25] both of which argued that Derrida was guilty of purposeful obscurantism.

In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Richard Rorty argues without irony that Derrida in The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond purposefully uses words that cannot be defined (e.g. Différance), and uses previously definable words in contexts diverse enough to make understanding impossible, so that the reader will never be able to contextualize his literary self. Rorty says that this way Derrida escapes metaphysical accounts of his work. Since his work itself ostensibly contains no metaphysics, Derrida has consequently escaped metaphysics altogether.[7]

[edit] Lacan

At least one intellectual, Jacques Lacan, defended obscurantism, at least to some degree. When students complained that he intentionally made his lectures difficult to understand, Lacan replied: "The less you understand, the better you listen."[citation needed] In Encore — Lacan's Seminar from 1973 — he remarks that his Écrits were not to be understood, but would produce a meaning effect in the reader similar to some mystical texts. This is not because of Lacan's obscure prose style, but partly a result of his repeated Hegelian allusions derived from Kojève's lectures on Hegel, and similar theoretical divergences.[citation needed]

[edit] Sokal

The Sokal Affair was a hoax by physicist Alan Sokal perpetrated on the editorial staff and readership of a then-non-peer-reviewed postmodern journal of cultural studies, Social Text. In 1996 Sokal submitted a pseudoscientific paper for publication in Social Text, as an experiment to see if a journal in that field would, in Sokal's words: "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if: a) it sounded good, and, b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions."[26]

The paper, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity[27], was published in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text. On the day of its publication, Sokal announced in another publication, Lingua Franca, that the article was written as a parody, "to test the prevailing intellectual standards."[26] Sokal's paper has been described as "a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations and outright nonsense, centered on the claim that physical reality is merely a social construct."[28]

Sokal makes it clear that he created this hoax as a statement against what he perceived as an increasing tendency towards obscurantism 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.[26]

[edit] Hayek's usage: appeal to consequences fallacy

Friedrich von Hayek uses the term somewhat differently, to describe the denial of the truth of scientific theories on the basis of disagreeable moral consequences, in his essay "Why I Am Not a Conservative." This use of the term is similar in meaning to the appeal to consequences fallacy.

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Merriam-Webster Online, "Obscurantism", retrieved on August 4, 2007.
  2. ^ Nietzsche, F. (1878) Human, All Too Human Vol. II, Part 1, 27. Cambridge University Press; 2 edition (November 13, 1996). ISBN 978-0521567046
  3. ^ Estling, Ralph (September-October, 2004). "Obscurantism, tyranny, and the fallacy of either black or white". Skeptical Inquirer. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2843/is_5_28/ai_n6361536. Retrieved on 2007-08-18. 
  4. ^ a b Syed, I. (2002) "Obscurantism". From: Intellectual Achievements of Muslims. New Delhi: Star Publications. Excerpt available online. Retrieved on: August 4, 2007.
  5. ^ Mencken, H.L. (2002). H.L. Mencken on Religion. Prometheus Books. ISBN 978-1573929820
  6. ^ Seymour M. Hersh, "Selective Intelligence", The New Yorker, May 12, 2003. Retrieved on August 8, 2007.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Schopenhauer, Arthur (1965). On the Basis of Morality, trans. E.F.J.Payne. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, pp.15-16.
  9. ^ Hegel: A Biography, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, xii.
  10. ^ early works such as The German Ideology, The Poverty of Philosophy, and The Holy Family
  11. ^ György Lukács's The Destruction of Reason; Jürgen Habermas's The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity
  12. ^ See, for example, Dallmayr, Fred R., "The Discourse of Modernity: Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger (and Habermas)", PRAXIS International (4/1988), 377-404.
  13. ^ Wright, E. O., Levine, A., & Sober, E. (1992). Reconstructing Marxism: essays on explanation and the theory of history. London: Verso, 107.
  14. ^ Lisa van Alstyne, "Aristotle's Alleged Ethical Obscurantism." Philosophy, Vol. 73, No. 285 (Jul., 1998), pp. 429-452.
  15. ^ see Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
  16. ^ Shanker, S., & Shanker, V. A. (1986), Ludwig Wittgenstein: critical assessments. London: Croom Helm,50-51.
  17. ^ Words and things: An examination of, and an attack on, linguistic philosophy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979, originally published in 1959.
  18. ^ Cioffi, F. (1998), Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 183ff, chapter 7 on Wittgenstein and obscurantism.
  19. ^ Russell, Bertrand (1989). Wisdom of the West. Crescent Books. pp. 303. ISBN 978-0517690413. 
  20. ^ Amazon.com: Heidegger: An Introduction: Books: Richard F. H. Polt
  21. ^ Mackey, Louis H. (February 2, 1984). "An Exchange on Deconstruction (Reply by John R. Searle)". New York Review of Books 31 (1). http://www.nybooks.com/articles/5964. Retrieved on 2007-08-17. 
  22. ^ Barry Smith et al., "Open letter against Derrida receiving an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University," The Times [London], May 9, 1992. [1]
  23. ^ Chomsky, Noam. "Postmodernism and activism (online discussion)". http://www.cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/chomsky-on-postmodernism.html. Retrieved on 2007-08-17. 
  24. ^ Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74
  25. ^ Obituary of Jacques Derrida, French intellectual
  26. ^ a b c Sokal, Alan (May 1996). "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies". Lingua Franca. http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/lingua_franca_v4/lingua_franca_v4.html. Retrieved on April 3 2007. 
  27. ^ Sokal, Alan (1994-11-28, revised 1995-05-13, published May 1996). "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". Social Text #46/47 (spring/summer 1996). Duke University Press. pp. 217-252. http://www.physics.nyu.edu/~as2/transgress_v2/transgress_v2_singlefile.html. Retrieved on April 3 2007. 
  28. ^ 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. http://www.ams.org/notices/199610/comm-harrell.pdf. Retrieved on 2007-09-16. 

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