Posted by: captainfalcon | October 5, 2009

The Hunting of the Snark

Here’s a roundup of some apt vitriol:

1. David Stove – a dead dyspeptic philosopher – has two pieces. “A Farewell to Arts,” written shortly before his retirement from the University of Sidney, begins, “THE FACULTY OF Arts at the University of Sydney is a disaster-area, and not of the merely passive kind, like a bombed building, or an area that has been flooded. It is the active kind, like a badly-leaking nuclear reactor, or an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle” and carries on more or less interminably in the same vein. It’s points are good – if well-worn – and it includes this notable morsel:

Marx himself, unlike his millions of devotees, knew perfectly well what his rubbishy improvisations about “dialectic” etc. are worth. In 1857 he had made certain statements in print about the course of the Indian Mutiny, then going on, and he writes to Engels about these as follows: “It’s possible that I shall make an ass of myself. But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way.” This quotation is from p. 152, Vol. 40 (!), of the Collected Works, (Lawrence and Wishart). It should be pasted over every door in every Arts faculty in the Western World…

Bertrand Russell, Andersonian,” Stove’s second piece, is, qua snark, vastly superior to “A Farewell to Arts.” It’s no more than four hundred words, and so tightly written that no excerpt can give a feel for it; it’s a masterful example of understated deadpan.

2. Martha Nussbaum has a take-down of Judith Butler (hell of a cat fight). Not that it really matters that Butler is the target; Nussbaum’s critique is a general diagnosis of the most common types of obscurantism and the motivations behind them.

3. This essay by George Orwell I’m inclined to count as snark – or at least possessed of snarky elements – because it is an extended, occasionally sardonic, attack on the personal character of Salvador Dali. Representative fun-fact:

In his painting, Le Jeu Lugubre, he says, ‘the drawers bespattered with excrement were painted with such minute and realistic complacency  that the whole little Surrealist group was anguished by the question: Is he coprophagic or not?’ Dali adds firmly that he is NOT, and that he  regards this aberration as ‘repulsive’, but it seems to be only at that  point that his interest in excrement stops. Even when he recounts the  experience of watching a woman urinate standing up, he has to add the  detail that she misses her aim and dirties her shoes.

4. This is from a while ago, and maybe isn’t as timeless as the above, but it’s a nice evisceration of Ezra Klein, who can be kind of yappy.

5. I pwn Chris like he’s made by Roxy Jezel.

Add your own.



  1. It seems Stove endorses the metric of falsifiability of a certain sort in this passage:

    “It is entirely out of the question, of course, for me or for anyone else to criticise such stuff: it is altogether below the threshold of criticisability. You might as well hope to detect typographical errors in Finnegans Wake, as hope to detect factual or logical errors in Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Heidegger, etc. It is a perfect waste of time to read authors, and wonder whether they have got things right, when there is no possible way one could tell if they had gone wrong.”

    But otherwise, good stuffs.

  2. (a) It would not be surprising to find Stove endorsing “the metric of falsifiability.” I think your inferring from the fact that he disagrees with Popper to the conclusion that he doesn’t think falsification works. (I think you think he doesn’t think falsification works because it sounds like you think you’ve got him in a “gotcha.”) That’s wrong. He’s perfectly happy to admit that if theory T predicts that o is true in C, and o is false in C, then we know that T is false.

    His disagreement with Popper, as I understand it, is not over whether falsification is one way to ascertain the truth of a contingent proposition, but over whether it is the ONLY way. In other words, it is over whether the only contingent propositions we can know are of the form “theory T is false.” He reads Popper as affirming this. The only way to know the truth value of a contingent proposition is by falsifying it. So we can only know e.g. that All swans are NOT white (and we know that by counting a black swan); we (in principle) cannot know that all swans ARE white (because the negation of that statement cannot be falsified – “some swans are not white” isn’t disconfirmed by seeing even a whole lot of white swans). But this, he thinks, is crazy. As he writes in Four Modern Irrationalists, “Popper…staggers us by denying that positive instances confirm a universal generalization.”

    (b) That said, Stove is not endorsing any metric of falsifiability in the passage you excerpt. Any metric of falsifiability will be some variant of “It is irrational to believe T if T implies “that o is true in C,” and o is false in C.” Stove is saying that “If T doesn’t imply anything [which is what it is not possible to tell whether it’s true or false implies] then T’s truth cannot be assessed.” This is just different from the metric of falsifiability. One concerns how to determine a proposition’s truth value, the other concerns how to determine whether a sentence is truth-apt.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: