Bad Habits: Capitalisation

One of the stylistic tics I find most frustrating when reading philosophy is overeager capitalisation. I’m reading Korsgaard’s new book, Self-Constitution, at the moment, and it’s driving me to distraction. For example, she keeps capitalising Objective Reason and Objective Values. Rorty is forever doing this too, talking about Language and Truth, say, in contrast to language and truth.

Presumably, the point is to contrast reified or hypostatised ideas with more workaday ones. So, in a Wittgensteinian spirit, it will be meant to help us “bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.” Great — but it rarely turns out like that.

Wherever you see this sort of capitalisation, it’s usually a sure sign that there is a bait-and-switch going on. This is because, after making such a distinction between two ideas (objective and The Objective, reality and Reality), there is an almost irrestitable temptation to set up a straw man. This is because the second term becomes a magnet for all the most implausible ideas that might be attached to the word. It’s almost a license to create some Frankenstein’s monster position — because, after all, one is not talking about the plausible version of the concept in question, but the fishy capitalised one.

Again, the intentions may be innocent, but the execution of them rarely is. The actual effect is usually to wildly caricature any view that has the merest whiff of metaphysics about it. (Think how often you see references to Realism and Idealism — often a good indication that you are not dealing with a view which anyone actually holds.) Many of these views are guilty of related problems, but this is no honest way to convict them. So, next time you see a stray capital letter, it’s worth stopping to ask yourself whether you are dealing with a fair characterisation of the position in question. In fact, the same goes for rhetorical questions: it’s a good rule of thumb to try and answer them literally. Like wayward capitalising, they’re another tool used to paper over the cracks of the weak point in an argument.

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2 thoughts on “Bad Habits: Capitalisation

  1. I like the point about the “bad” term being a “magnet” for everything implausible about *any* such conception. But this isn’t a problem solely for users of Rortyan capital letters. It seems to be a danger for *anyone* who, like me for example, wants to combat a bait-n-switch rather than perpetrate one. People like Searle say that since *of course* there’s an objective world [bait], we should respond to the realism/antirealism debate by coming down firmly on the realist side [switch]. If we don’t distinguish between senses of “objective,” the b/s essentially goes unchallenged.

    You may be right that no one is really a Realist (although I wouldn’t be too sure!). Even so, if what one actually says about the real (or objective) leads to Realism in this sense, then we can still use the idea as a reductio, and for that it must indeed be absurd.

    In any case, the trick is to avoid dualisms, even that between (pernicious) dualisms and (benign) distinctions. So how do we do this? I myself tend not to use capital letters; but I do use the word “Cartesian” (and “platonist” too, come to think of it) in what is apparently an idiosyncratically extended sense. What should one do? What do you do? I suppose the answer is not to let orthography substitute for (or paper over the absence of) substantive explanation. Fair enough.

    You are also right to worry that too much emphasis on “everyday” as opposed to “metaphysical” uses of words can make it look like anything like “metaphysics” must be avoided (even if, like Hegel’s, it helps us avoid “metaphysics” in the bad sense!). That’s why we have to be *very* careful in our use of Wittgenstein. Again, my emphasis is on avoiding the dualism rather than coming down on the “correct” side. But that reading gets very tricky.

    Anyway, thanks for the post.

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