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.