Today is

   "A word to the wise ain't necessary --  
          it's the stupid ones that need the advice."
					-Bill Cosby

Thursday, February 28, 2008

It's complicated, see . . .

Russell Jacoby writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education about academia's passion for complicating and problematizing:

To defend binary thinking is to invite opprobrium. It is true that fixed oppositions between good and evil or male and female and a host of other contraries cannot be upheld, but this hardly means that binary logic is itself idiotic. Binary logic structures the very computers on which most attacks on binary logic are composed. Some binary distinctions are worth recognizing, if not celebrating: the distinction, let us say, between pregnant and not pregnant, or between life and death. Others are at least worth noticing — for example, that between a red and a green light. You either have $3.75 for a latte or you do not. Can that be "complicated"?

Of course, to defend simplifications always and everywhere is not only anti-intellectual, but dangerous. Already in the 19th century, the historian Jacob Burckhardt feared that "terribles simplificateurs" would descend upon "poor old Europe." They did descend — upon the rest of the world as well — with facile ideas about nation and religion. We should indeed distrust them, but not by rote. Complexity for its own sake is no virtue. More turrets are not necessarily better than fewer. Perhaps it is time to return to Ockham's principle of parsimony, his so-called razor: "Plurality is not to be posited without necessity." Instead we have gone in the opposite direction. The cult of complication has led — to alter a phrase of Hegel's — to a fog in which all cows are gray.

Alan Jacobs argues that the fascination with "problematizing" likely arises partly from careerist motives:

But there’s something else, something more revelatory of the pathologies of the academic mind. “Complicating” gets you a twofer. If you arrive on the scene telling everyone that you see complexities that others have failed to note, you show your depth of thinking and your intellectual courage. (“I can dwell in the midst of uncertainties that lesser minds feel the need to resolve.”) But you are also not making any claims that are likely to be undercut. When one academic says “Other scholars have failed to note these complexities,” it’s almost unheard-of for another to say, “No, you’re just inventing all that crap, these matters are actually pretty simple and straightforward.” “It’s complicated” is, effectively, an irrefutable claim and is therefore the safest place to stand on any given issue.

So academics who talk this way gather unto themselves the aura of bold risk-taking, while simultaneously preserving themselves from any actual danger of refutation. And for an academic what could be cooler than that?

Jacoby and Burkhardt are certainly correct about the "terrible simplificateurs" who descended upon Europe and the world in the twentieth century, but let's complicate the issue by noting that some of the greatest champions of those terrible simplifications were academics and intellectuals. Once they find themselves outside the realm of academia, it seems, academics and intellectuals are probably as prone to "terrible simplifications" and binary logic as the poor schlub who thinks we can make a binary distinction between truth and falsehood. Why? Well, it's complicated, see . . .


Blogger stewdog said...

Explain the concept of structural functionalism for me one more time.

February 28, 2008 4:32 PM  

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