12.15.2004

"Oh, You're Just Being Abstract"

A pet peeve of mine, and one of very few: labeling a.k.a. pre-mature judgments.

I hate judging people. You have to go through all this effort of making ridiculous deductions about the person you're judging with a minimal amount of information. And after you're done, it basically comes down to whether or not you're better than the person. If you are, then hey, life is good. If not, ah, shit, well, I have to justify why I'm not as good, lie to myself and others about it, or actually try and become better than that person. I've gone two sentences into describing this experience and I already feel nauseous.

What's particularly annoying is when people dismiss something they don't understand as intellectual, pretentious, or too abstract. This is especially the case with philosophy and even more so with continental philosophy. I can see why some people may find the language difficult, but to label it as pretentious and then brush it aside is just plain inconsiderate and thoughtless.

In its defense, I'd like to say that the language has a very specific purpose in its apparent esoterism. In philosophy, at least the kind I read, the books are describing the barely discernible nuances and subtleties of every day existence. They're filling in the cracks where mere perception falls short and where categories and schemas have no jurisdiction. And with a language that depends so much on the history of western tradition, a lot of the ideas encapsulated in certain words such as truth, justice, freedom, reason, etc. are merely assumed by the writer when playing around with them.

It's nearly impossible to make any progress in thinking while trying to make everything accessible and clear. I mean, you guys don't see this, but I've got a ton of drafts on my computer and my notebooks with grand theories of man, history, existence, etc. That one post on "The Fear of Chaos" took me a good 5 hours to write and try to organize. And I still don't think it's perfectly clear.

So it's not that these "abstract" thinkers feel good about being unable to be understood or they are insecure and need to feel better than everyone else by using a unique language, it's just that it's unbearably stifling to the process of thinking to explain the history behind every word they use before they use it. This is not to say there aren't those who unnecessarily use big snooty words to fit themselves into the contemporary and transient definition of what an academic should sound like.

One notable exception, in the pretentious or purposeful esoteric sense, are the types of thinkers referred to as Straussians (followers of Leo Strauss). Their philosophy is built around that kind of esoterism and arrogance.

Another notable exception, in the clear and unambiguous sense, is Hannah Arendt. She is both jaw-droppingly insightful and very lucid. There are many times where she does actually go through the history of western philosophy to explain her points.

One sentence from the books of thinkers like Plato, Nietzsche, or Arendt, when thought about and considered very very carefully, often times encapsulate all the wisdom from Aesop's fables, the Bible, etc. Here are some personal favorites:

"God is dead." - Nietzsche (concerns the modern dilemma)
"Ethics precedies ontology." - Levinas (an important insight concerning, in my interpretation, the dangers of totalitarianism)
"Self-awareness is when you realize that you are a dream figure in another person's dream." - Speed Levitch (not an official thinker, but this quote kicks ass)

There are others, and many famous ones that I consider to be severely misinterpreted, but you get the point. Someday, I hope to reveal how dense and deep some of these sentences are by hashing a particular quote. Two of my favorite professors were absolutely wonderful at this. The only one at Amherst College who is especially good at this is Prof. Mehta. His batting average is not high, but man, when he is on fire, he is ON FIRE.

So I urge you not to dismiss abstract thinkers merely because of the difficulty. If you're willing to think and think hard about what they are trying to say, it has the capacity to illuminate the world for you in more ways than you can possibly imagine.

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