Aristotle on Diviners

 Posted by on 24 June 2006 at 6:01 am  Aristotle
Jun 242006

Skeptics — in the sense of debunkers of paranormal claims — often observe that supposed psychics usually speak in vague generalities, subtly allow their audience to fill in the details, then claim to have divined that information. So the psychics seem to know a great deal that they couldn’t possibly know — at least to the gullible eager to believe. To my delight, Aristotle makes the same basic point in his Rhetoric. In the course of offering five elements of the “correctness of language” at “the foundation of good style,” he says:

(3) The third is to avoid ambiguities; unless, indeed, you definitely desire to be ambiguous, as those do who have nothing to say but are pretending to mean something. Such people are apt to put that sort of thing into verse. Empedocles, for instance, by his long circumlocutions imposes on his hearers; these are affected in the same way as most people are when they listen to diviners, whose ambiguous utterances are received with nods of acquiescence-

Croesus by crossing the Halys will ruin a mighty realm.

Diviners use these vague generalities about the matter in hand because their predictions are thus, as a rule, less likely to be falsified. We are more likely to be right, in the game of ‘odd and even’, if we simply guess ‘even’ or ‘odd’ than if we guess at the actual number; and the oracle-monger is more likely to be right if he simply says that a thing will happen than if he says when it will happen, and therefore he refuses to add a definite date. All these ambiguities have the same sort of effect, and are to be avoided unless we have some such object as that mentioned.

The line about Croesus refers to this great story recounted by Herodotus.

As for those who “definitely desire to be ambiguous,” such as “those do who have nothing to say but are pretending to mean something,” I’d like to nominate the academic work of Chris Sciabarra. For example, consider the “Dialectics in Rand’s Philosophy” section of “this essay. (It’s a slightly edited version of the initial discussion of Ayn Rand’s supposed “dialectics” from the introduction to The Russian Radical, pages 16-18.) Here’s a taste:

It is this emphasis on the totality that is essential to the dialectical mode of inquiry. Dialectics is not merely a repudiation of formal dualism. It is a method that preserves the analytical integrity of the whole. While it recommends study of the whole from the vantage point of any part, it eschews reification, that is, it avoids the abstraction of a part from the whole and its illegitimate conceptualization as a whole unto itself. The dialectical method recognizes that what is separable in thought is not separable in reality.

Moreover, dialectics requires the examination of the whole both systemically and historically. From a systemic perspective, it grasps the parts as structurally interrelated, or “internally related,” both constituting the whole, while being constituted by it. For example, Rand, as a dialectical thinker, would not disconnect any single theoretical issue, such as the problem of free will, from its broader philosophic context. She necessarily examines a host of connected issues, including the efficacy of consciousness, the nature of causality, and the reciprocal relationships between epistemology, ethics, and politics.

From a historical perspective, dialectics grasps that any system emerges over time, that it has a past, a present, and a future. Frequently, the dialectical thinker examines the dynamic tensions within a system, the internal conflicts or “contradictions” which require resolution. He or she refuses to disconnect factors, events, problems, and issues from each other or from the system which they jointly constitute. He or she views social problems not discretely, but in terms of the root systemic conditions which they both reflect and sustain.

The dialectical thinker seeks not merely to understand the system, but to alter it fundamentally. Hence, a dialectical analysis is both critical and revolutionary in its implications. Thus, Rand, as a dialectical thinker, does not analyze a specific racial conflict, for example, without examining a host of historically-constituted epistemic, ethical, psychological, cultural, political, and economic factors that both generate racism–and perpetuate it. In Rand’s view, racism–like all vestiges of statism–must be transcended systemically.

Translation from Polish: Ayn Rand integrated her knowledge.

Analytic philosophers are often terrible writers, often to the point that their basic ideas cannot be understood. However, the brazen assertion of deliberate obfuscation as complex and difficult thought requires the slippery goo of postmodernism. And that’s exactly what Chris Sciabarra uses to conceal the lack of substance in his academic writings. And yes, I do think the impenetrable style of the above passage — and the rest of The Russian Radical — is deliberate obfuscation rather than incompetence or laziness. The tip-off is not merely the lack of substance underneath all those fancy words, nor the careful consistency of the style, but the simple fact that Chris routinely writes clearly and forthrightly in other contexts. So he can do better, but chooses not to.

Thankfully, most academic philosophers disdain the bullshit style practiced by Chris Sciabarra and his postmodern brothers. If they didn’t, I surely would have quit philosophy long ago.

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