May 18, 2008 7:32 PM   Subscribe

The Prevalence of Humbug. Essay (first link) by Max Black.
posted by owhydididoit (16 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

bah! humbug!
posted by nightchrome at 8:06 PM on May 18, 2008

And of course, On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:14 PM on May 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

Kudos for this. Although Black did not write much, everything I've read by him has been exceedingly clear and well-written: not always the case with philosophers.
posted by ornate insect at 8:20 PM on May 18, 2008

"Humbug" is a great word if you don't want to say "bullshit"...

I'm not sure I can think of a modern equivalent to Barnum. I'd like to say pranksters like Joey Skaggs, but Skaggs always had to adopt a different persona to pull his pranks. Barnum was always Barnum. The closest I can think of might be Frank Hansen, who promoted the "Minnesota Iceman" back in the late 1960's and early 1970's.

While I would argue that Jim Rose was every bit as good at promotion as Barnum, he's not really equivalent because he never exhibited "gaffes", or fabricated exhibits like Barnum's Fiji Mermaid or the Cardiff Giant.

I'm almost tempted to think that stand-up comedians are the modern equivalent, as you know in the back of your mind that the stories you are being told are mostly put-ons, for the effect of humor. You suspend your disbelief in order to laugh at the situations.

Perhaps parody websites like Bonsai Kittens are the true heir to Barnum's Humbug.

Of course Chris Carter is to be credited for capturing the spirit of "Humbug" with his excellent X-Files episode.
posted by Tube at 8:41 PM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Heh, I like that Max Black apparently coined the word 'metapimping'.
posted by painquale at 8:45 PM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Black's The Labyrinth of Language, published as part of the very uneven Britannica Perspectives series, got me interested in linguistics.
posted by jamjam at 9:28 PM on May 18, 2008

We can usefully distinguish between the speaker's message, as I shall call it, and his or her stance.

This is controversial. In highly politicized situations, it may become impossible to do this. See Coetzee on the paranoid in scenarios of censorship.
posted by honest knave at 11:54 PM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

I intensely disliked this article, and it exemplifies why I dislike much of academic philosophy. It's basically a blog rant, only with a pretense of intellectual rigor that enables it to place itself high above such low-class stuff. It is, after all, by a Professional Philosopher, and it has Footnotes.

The article is a highfalutin' equivalent of one of Holden Caulfield's adolescent rants, and indeed the very project of "defining humbug"—or, on a less exalted plane, "calling bullshit"—is an adolescent one. It is intensely exciting and satisfying to the clever 17-year-old to notice and point out to what one devoutly hopes will be an awestruck world that people often don't mean what they say! advertisers lie! it's all propaganda, man!! Part of growing up is understanding that, yes, people lie and deceive, they always have and they always will, that none of us—no, not even the fiery adolescent or smug philosopher—is pure and free of deceit, and the thing to do is to develop a sense of when people are trying to deceive you and a repertoire of ways to deal with it (which will be very different depending on whether the would-be deceiver is a boss, a spouse, a friend, or a random stranger), taking the situation with as much humor and good grace as possible, remembering always that you are no exception—you just don't notice your own bullshit as much. (Свое говно не воняет, as the Russians say.)

The author, like many academics (who can't write well enough to succeed as authors, can't persuade anyone they don't wield the threat of grading over, and have no power except over their students), despises literature, advertising, and politics, and loves to "pop the bubble" of "pretentious" or "dishonest" writers (in this case Mary McCarthy, who dared to use hyperbole), advertisers, and politicians. But note that all those examples are simply quotes the author disliked enough to put in his "humbug" bag and haul out for a whacking; they are not, in any objective sense, labeled "humbug"—he has pasted on the label himself ("Consider the following typical example") and hopes you won't question it.

What he admires above all things is clear, ostensibly open and straightforward, prose, the kind written by middlebrow Menckens and (surprise!) philosophers. He has no patience for rhetoric, literary effect, self-interest, or actual fallible, smelly humanity. What does he recommend at the end to the reader he hopes has fallen under his spell and succumbed to his persuasion? "Required reading might well include Flaubert's dictionary of received opinions, Frank Sullivan's interviews with Mr. Arbuthnot, the cliche expert, and some of the splendid parodies of Russell Baker." Ah, the peak of human achievement: parodies and lists of cliches! The hell with poetry, novels, and the like; god knows what sort of humbug is hiding in there. Give me the Plain Honest Man with his Plain Honest Prose!

You want to see prime humbug? Here's a classic example:

With these varied examples of ostensible humbug before us, we can ask what it is about such episodes that inclines us to regard all of them, in spite of their obvious differences, as instances of the same complex phenomenon.

What do you mean "we," you pompous bastard? Speak for yourself.
posted by languagehat at 7:02 AM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

languagehat--I'm pretty sure the piece in question was not meant as a work of serious philosophy, but rather as an occasional piece (it was given at Cornell Medical School, not at a scholarly conference). It bears little resemblence to Black's more traditional work in philosophy, and it bears no resemblence to what you're calling "much of academic philosophy." You're free to dislike it of course, but I though that context might be useful. As to your claim that it's a rant, I'm not sure it was intended as such: I think it was a lighthearted attempt to do something similar to what Frankfurt recently did with his book "On Bullshit" (linked above by LobsterMitten). You make a lot of ad hominem attacks about how the article typifies academic-ese, which is a tad ironic given that the article itself lampoons academic jargon (quoting Veblen by way of Mencken; and speaking of Mencken: what's wrong with Mencken? You mention that he's middlebrow, but complain that the Black piece is "highfalutin," which seems to pull your opinion in two directions.) I re-read the passage on Mary McCarthy to see if I had misread it the first time; I don't think I have: Black seems to side with McCarthy on that one. As to your notion that Black has no appreciation for literature, I draw your attention to this paragraph:

Fortunately, literature provides wonderful portraits and caricatures of accomplished humbugs -- Dickens' Pecksniff, Uriah Heep, Podsnap, and many more; Moliere's Tartuffe and Alceste; and the confidence men of Herman Melville and Thomas Mann. And much can be learned from a long line of exemplary anti-humbuggers, among whom I include Dr. Johnson, Samuel Butler, Sydney Smith, Anton Chekhov, George Orwell, Vladimer Nabokov, E. B. White, and Adlai Stevenson.

I really think you might be missing the spirit and tone with which this article was written. Black was not naive about the world, and he was an admirer of literature in the fullest sense. And he could write, in my estimation. Just b/c we all know politicians, advertisers, journalists, and academics employ a lot of humbug, does not mean we don't have a duty to occasionally expose them. I don't think Black is saying to hell with rhetoric or poetry at all. Really, not at all. Furthermore, as I take it you are interested in language, you might try some of his work in that area. I suspect you may like it.
posted by ornate insect at 8:30 AM on May 19, 2008

He has no patience for rhetoric, literary effect, self-interest, or actual fallible, smelly humanity.

Although he never strayed too far from mathematics, Max Black had a very nuanced appreciation of rhetoric, literary effect, and discourse. A good example of his contribution to metaphor, for example, can be found in On Metaphor, ed. Sheldon Sacks.
posted by honest knave at 8:43 AM on May 19, 2008

Thanks, ornate insect. I'm perfectly willing to alter my opinion, and you're doubtless right that I've misread his attitude. I obviously have a chip on my shoulder about the sort of thing I was ranting about.
posted by languagehat at 8:58 AM on May 19, 2008

He's also writing at a time when the project of selecting some word and trying to get a sense of its conceptual boundaries by looking at examples etc was very much a live thing. Not necessary and sufficient conditions exactly, but conceptual analysis on a single word or idea. This is not as much the case anymore. And this is a kind of joking, kind of serious, effort at that for humbug (as the Frankfurt piece is for bullshit). I don't know the backstory of either piece but I take them in a humorous vein, not a finger-wagging or declamatory vein. I take it as more of a "here are a bunch of examples, I've got a theory or two about what ties them together, here it is, let's talk about it over drinks" kind of thing.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:16 AM on May 19, 2008

And I don't know about Black specifically, but certainly working philosophers today fully expect their audiences/students to disagree with them about examples, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:17 AM on May 19, 2008

Good for them, and I withdraw my rant. But it sure felt good to rant it!
posted by languagehat at 12:06 PM on May 19, 2008

I enjoyed reading languagehat's attack much more than I enjoyed reading that useless Black essay.
posted by painquale at 12:26 PM on May 19, 2008

Thanks! Glad you liked it. I had never heard of Black (glad I have now), and found the essay provocative and interesting. It got me started thinking about the word humbug, and I ran across that Barnum link as a result (itself a nice diversion I thought).
posted by owhydididoit at 10:58 PM on May 19, 2008

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