More on Middlebrow Epistemology…

A while ago I wrote on “middlebrow epistemology”…

that form of argumentation that has the essential qualities of a pub argument – the factoids, the simplifications, the argumentum ad passiones – but decently covers them with a figleaf of rationality. It is, in other words, rhetoric masquerading as dialectic, emerging from our intensified cultural division, the inclusivisation of our public discourse and the need to project status in our atomised societies. It is very useful as a tool of persuasion (and, indeed, entertainment). It threatens to vulgarise the search for the truth.

In a hostile review of Tom Wolfe’s dilettantish excursions into linguistics, “E.J. Spode” comments on other aspects of this phenomenon. He observes that Wolfe’s book was received sympathetically by mainstream critics who were not equipped to understand the technical details of the ideas in question. I was reminded of Bernard Davis’ critique of Stephen Jay Gould’s immensely flawed attack on genetic determinism The Mismeasure of Men, which noted that whereas “the nonscientific reviews…were almost uniformly laudatory, the reviews in the scientific journals were almost all highly critical”. It is a fine example of middlebrow epistemology when scientific or philosophical amateurs are seen as adequate judges of technical questions; a state of affairs that is bound to enable ideas that are politically fashionable and emotionally appealing to be spread whether or not they happen to be right.

An egregious example of mainstream puffery that Spode attacks is the Globe and Mail‘s self-satisfied pronouncement that…

Wolfe is a reporter and an entertainer, an opinionated raconteur rather than a scientist, and that is why we will always report on his jocular provocations. And if they serve as an excuse to explain what universal grammar was in the first place – as it has done – then Chomsky should be thrilled

It is typical of our low intellectual standards that it is held to be good that something is discussed quite regardless of the content of that discussion. This allows we minnows to pretend that we are big fish.

About bsixsmith

I am a writer of stories and poems - published by Every Day Fiction, The London Journal of Fiction, 365 Tomorrows and Det Poetiske Bureau - and a columnist for Quillette, Areo and Bombs & Dollars.
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