Bad Habits: Pedantry

Graham Harman, on his voluminous blog, considers some types of philosophical pedantry: Heidegger’s pedantry of attitude, Husserl’s pedantry of terminology, and Gadamer’s pedantry of indigestion.

Where to draw the line between pedantry and rigour can be a tender issue for philosophers, since most philosophy can appear vulnerable to accusations of pedantry from some points of view. Consider the height of the tedious analytic-continental divide, when both ‘sides’ would accuse each other of shallow pedantry. The deconstructionists’ close readings, aiming to tease out the contradictory oppositions texts were based upon, were dismissed as sophistic trickery, founded more upon subterfuge than subtly. But the accusation was readily slung back at supposed logic-chopping charlatans who had retreated from engagement with the world into scholasticism. This ought to be unsurprising though. Where there is a de facto pluralism of method, there are bound to be accusations that some people are excessively fixating on trivial matters.

Jon Cogburn asks for suggestions of names for a Brandomian pedantry, where we get ‘italics in lieu of argumentation’. How about ‘pedantry of emphasis’? Or maybe a little more suggestively, we could say this is a ‘pedantry of discernment’. The idea here would be that if only we lay the right stress on what we say then its truth will be self-evident, shining forth unaided.

Pedantry aside, Brandom’s formatting, which streches beyond italics to emboldening, underlining and the occasional font change, drives me mad. I guess he must think it’s helpful, but it often gives his texts the rhythmn of a Powerpoint presentation. It’s made me learn to use emphasis very sparingly, and my rule of thumb is now ‘if it’s not sufficiently clear without emphasis, just rewrite it’.

8 thoughts on “Bad Habits: Pedantry

  1. I’m not sure I’d call it pedantry. I call it bullshit (i.e. wasteful thinking) and it permeates both sides of the blurry divide.

    A mind is a terrible thing to waste… and then flaunt.

  2. What I found frustrating about Brandom, and I’m thinking particularly of his essay on Hegel in ‘Tales of the Mighty Dead’, is the dearth of textual references. The tone is relentlessly to the effect that ‘Hegel tells us this, Hegel’s philosophy is that; now let’s test the arguments’, but with little connection to Hegel’s texts themselves. I appreciate he is translating into an analytic register and thereby widening the audience, but it seems overly – for want of a better word – Catholic, a priestly guardianship of meaning, when he could have trusted (empowered?) the reader to test his interpretations in the text itself. I can imagine a student of Brandom’s consulting Hegel’s books after a lecture (do students still do that?) and being both bewildered and discouraged by Hegel’s writing; nothing would have prepared them for it. Of course Hegel’s words are difficult, sometimes necessarily so – their subject matter demands it. But the cost of Brandom’s analytic clarity is the bracketting-out of decades of scholarly interpretative dispute, and a palliation of that anxiety of reading and of comprehension which Hegel wanted to make philosophically thematic.

  3. Mike:

    I’m not sure I’d call it pedantry either — though, as I say, things can be readily framed in this way even with divergent philosophical approaches.


    I’m sympathetic to your assessment of Brandom (indeed, my original thesis project was going to be a critique of his reading of Hegel). There is some discussion of these issues in the comments to this post which you might be interested in.

  4. Could you link to Graham Harman’s original post? The link, currently, points back to this post and I’d be curious to read Harman before commenting.


  5. Pingback: more feedback on pedantry « Object-Oriented Philosophy

  6. Pingback: this was funny « Object-Oriented Philosophy

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