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Erudition or Gobbledygook?

Tom Shipka considers whether the negativity of communicative unclarity impedes the ontological contingency of non-distance in the dialectic of being, or something.

Is it erudition or gobbledygook? How often I asked myself that question during graduate school, as I poured over the esoteric writings of philosophers Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, and Sartre and social theorist Talcott Parsons. How refreshing it was to encounter the clear, simple and accessible prose of Descartes, James and Russell.

Today, when I read the obscure, technical, polysyllabic narratives of postmodern philosophers such as Derrida, Foucault and Levinas, I find myself asking again, “Is this erudition or gobbledygook?” A popular bumper sticker spoofs postmodernism well. It says “Eschew obfuscation.”

Take an example. Let’s say that normal person Sam decides to propose marriage to his significant other. Sam might say: “I love you, and I would like to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?”

The significant other (a Hollywood actress) might reply: “Yes, of course. But let’s negotiate a pre-nuptial agreement to protect both of us.”

By contrast, a postmodern philosopher’s proposal of marriage would go something like this: “Given that there is a traditional transcendence of social antinomy and polarity in a variety of culturally sanctioned paradigms of persisting mutuality and reciprocation; and given that a multiplicity of precedents in our interactions predispose one to envision the practicality and workability, and indeed the desirability, of our acquiescing in an appropriate mode of combating social antimony and polarity, it seems prudent that you and I launch the culturally-sanctioned paradigmatic transcendence of antimony and polarity such that the overall consequence will be a maximization of multiple utilities and benefits that are beyond the reach of the isolated and not uncommonly forlorn individual.”

And how would the postmodernist significant other reply?

“In respect to the foregoing hypothesized possible future, the proffer is deemed meritorious but only contingently, the contingency being that the implementation be predicated on a mutually satisfactory and culturally-sanctioned agreement assuring that the proposed paradigmatic transcendence is non-hegemonic and liberating.”

Now isn’t that touching?

I remember interviewing Talcott Parsons at Harvard University in 1968 as part of my doctoral dissertation research, when I was a graduate philosophy student at Boston College. Based on his writings, I fully expected him to be formal, stiff, and pompous. I found him to be a charming, plain-spoken, disheveled, cigar-chomping look-alike for an ex-boxer. What a wonderful surprise! But why, when he turned to his typewriter or pen, did he change into a manufacturer of jawbreakers, in sentences that ran to half a page or longer?

I fully understand that a shared technical vocabulary is part of the world of highly educated and trained people, particularly when they deal with their peers. But all of us should remember that language is a tool to enable us to understand one another, not a weapon to impress, confuse or intimidate. Join the movement to reduce linguistic pollution. Give brevity, clarity, and simplicity a try.

© Prof. Tom Shipka 2007

Tom Shipka is professor and chair emeritus in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Youngstown State University, Ohio. His Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery is published by McGraw-Hill. He can be reached at tashipka@ysu.edu.

This article was originally given as a commentary on WYSU, a National Public Radio Affilliate.

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