English stylists, and related matters
May 31, 2009
Calling Shakespeare the greatest stylist in the English language is both predictable and justified. I’m not sure a debate even needs to be held.
I’m obviously impressed by Gibbon as a writer, always have been, and would probably rank him as the second greatest writer in our language. Why is this philosophically important to a supposed philosophy blog? Why have I quoted (and will continue to quote) gems from Gibbon for months to come?
Style is philosophically important because it says things without saying them. This is meaningful to me because I think objects touch other objects without touching them; that’s the core of my position in metaphysics.
When someone speaks, there are not only the two options of saying something or leaving it in silence. They can also allude to something, or say it without saying it. Tactful people know how to do this in such a way as to create interest. And the emotional effect is much stronger when people allude rather than say something outright. This is equally visible in the erotic sphere, where a scantily clad body is often much more arousing than a fully naked one, and suggestively ambiguous utterances are much more arousing than outright lewd propositions.
Aristotle’s Rhetoric discusses the “enthymeme” at some length. The enthymeme is a rhetorical device that enables a fact to affect the mood of the audience without being stated openly. If you say of someone “he has thrice been crowned with a wreath”, a Greek audience knows that means he has been an Olympic champion three times; the indirect way of saying it is rhetorically more powerful. To use an enthymeme is to say something without saying it.
This also touches on what Aristotle says in the Poetics about how the use of a rare word in place of a common one often has a poetic effect (though if *every* word in a sentence were replaced by a rarer version, the result would just be an incomprehensible riddle). The English language, with its massive vocabulary of synonyms drawn from all possible foreign tongues, obviously has an easier time than most languages in drawing odd alternate words into otherwise prosaic sentences, while behaving as though nothing were abnormal about what was just said.
Almost all of Shakespeare is like this, and Gibbon draws on many of the same techniques. Consider a short passage I cited a short while ago:
“The subterraneous pipes conveyed an inexhaustible supply of water; and what had just before appeared a level-plain might be suddenly converted into a wide lake, covered with armed vessels, and replenished with the monsters of the deep.”
The more normal way of conveying the same information would be as follows:
“Subterranean pipes supplied an inexhaustible amount of water. The flat field of the Colosseum would suddenly be converted into a wide lake filled with ships, with strange aquatic creatures in the water.”
Now, some of the features of Gibbon’s passage might not be deliberate poetry, but might reflect forgotten stylistic quirks of the 1770’s. But all this proves is that slightly archaic language tends to have a poetic effect. I’m too tired at the moment to compare the two passages change by change and explain why each change is effective– more on that some other day.
In philosophical terms, objects are also styles. Just as it’s impossible to gloss a poetic statement into a literal equivalent, so is it impossible to define any object in terms of a literal list of attributes. An apple is not reducible to a bundle of qualities, but will always exceed any such list (this is why Husserl is right and the usual dogma of Hume is wrong).
For this reason, style is arguably the most important issue in all of philosophy. I do not exaggerate. When Socrates complains that Meno wants to know what the attributes of virtue are before he knows what virtue *is*, this would sound nonsensical to David Hume– virtue is nothing over and above its attributes. But that’s not how Socrates sees it, and not how Aristotle sees it (Derrida absolutely butchers Aristotle by claiming that he wants to prioritize a literal meaning over the dispersal of all other possible meanings; this is an interpretative war crime committed against Aristotle, as I argued in Guerrilla Metaphysics; “White Mythology” may actually be the most outrageous thing Derrida ever wrote).
At the risk of drawing an implausible number of authors into a relatively brief blog post, consider also the (underrated) thesis of (the underrated) Marshall McLuhan that the medium is the message. McLuhan’s admitted source for this thesis is classical rhetoric. It is the background that does the work, just as with Aristotle’s enthymemes, and just as with Husserl’s unified apple as opposed to the shifting surface qualities of apples that never cause us to lose faith in a single unified apple.
Consider our knowledge of people. The visible actions of people help us get to know their underlying character, but never do we treat people as a history of explicit actions that they have undertaken; this is a fantasy of existentialism, a school long since discredited. No, we read behind the known actions of a person to gain a sense of some inner personal core that has never been adequately expressed in any number of their actions or statements. We get a “bad feeling” about a person, without being able to state the exact features of their behavior or appearance that generate this feeling.
This is also why I think that emotion is underrated as a cognitive tool. Emotional reactions to people and things have to do with a general overall sense of the goodness or badness or frightening or beneficent nature of these people and things, without being able to articulate exactly what the feeling is telling us. These emotional reactions can be wrong, but so can reasoned arguments.
Finally, this is also why analytic philosophers tend to be abysmal writers even when they are clear. The fact that they have “no sense of style” doesn’t mean that they lack the ability to gratuitously sex themselves up. It means, simply, that they wrongly believe that clarity is the only virtue in good prose. The more clear the prose is, the better it is– or so they think. So it is that you see someone like Jerry Fodor write a newspaper article making the utterly ridiculous claim that he and his friends are better writers than Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. A more preposterous statement is hard to imagine. Fodor seems to believe that Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are self-indulgent and should have clarified their arguments more. Pushing things further, perhaps Fodor would prefer my “clearer” rendition of Gibbon’s passage on the Colosseum instead of the “fuzzy” original. Perhaps I’m in a harsh mood tonight, but this attitude is literally stupid. It takes something that is obviously brilliant but hard to grasp (the stylistic power of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, or Gibbon) and, if it doesn’t fit into a rather glib theory of what “clear arguments” ought to look like, then it sends it straight to the guillotine.
This shows the absolute contempt of analytic philosophers for suggestion and allusion. But suggestion and allusion are not just for the bedroom, and not just for poets. They are also for philosophers. You’re never going to see objects as they really are, so you’d better figure out how to allude to them. And that’s why I have no use for a philosopher without style.