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Thursday, August 16, 2018


[In the metaphysical poetry of 16th century England, a complaint is a song, a poem, by a spurned lover to his beloved.  Thus the title of Philip Roth’s breakthrough novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, is a witty double entendre, for the novel is both an account of Alexander Portnoy’s emotional disorders that bring him into psychoanalysis and also a love song to his beloved, which is to say, of course, to his mother.]

In the past few days, I have revealed myself on this blog to be a prig, a prude, a reactionary when it comes to English usage.  Indeed, were I more of a fan of the old TV show Seinfeld, I might even describe myself as a Language Nazi.  I quibble over presently, I fulminate against beg the question, I draw a line in the sand at the incorrect use of “transpire” to mean “happen” rather than “become known” [it originally means “to breathe about.”]

I am, of course, well aware that in these actions I stand not on solid ground but rather on linguistic quicksand.  Comparative Linguists are fond of pointing out that language evolves and grows and changes endlessly, despite the efforts of William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White.  Indeed, one often finds that although people living close to one another can understand one another quite well, one can, by a series of geographical dislocations, end up with two communities, speaking ostensibly the same language, who are mutually incomprehensible.  I once listened to Noam Chomsky on YouTube describing this well-known phenomenon.  Nobody, he observed, ever actually speaks Correct English.  What made his discourse especially delicious was that it was couched easily, effortlessly, fluently in precisely the Correct English that he was claiming no one speaks.

So why do I do it?  There are two reasons, and the purpose of this post is merely to set them forth, not, heaven knows, to try to infect others with my disorder.

The first reason is that there are endlessly many logical distinctions available to be made, and in my view one of the functions of language is to make them.  “That poses a question so urgent that it virtually demands to be raised” means something different from “That simply assumes what you claim to be trying to prove and thus reduces what you have said to a miserable tautology.”  This is a real distinction.  It can obviously be expressed in many different ways.  Which we choose is a matter of convention, and conventions in language, as in dress or body adornment, change over time.  But using “begs the question” to mean both obliterates a real distinction, and thus contributes to the coarsening and dumbing down of discourse.

The second reason is aesthetic, not logical.  One of my principal aesthetic pleasures is the contemplation of the work of an artist who simultaneously embraces and transcends the formal constraints of an art form.  Consider, as an example, the fugue.  The rules of musical composition governing the writing of a fugue are severe indeed, stipulating as they do the sequence of voices or lines, the interval at which each enters, and so forth.  In the hands of a journeyman composer, these restraints are all too evident, and conspire to produce a work that is tedious and predictable.  But not when Bach writes a fugue.  Bach plays with the rules, teases them, inverts them, all the while conforming to them rigorously.  The result is a beauty that seems both spontaneous, free form, utterly expressive, and yet is a perfect instantiation of the inviolable rules of the fugue.  Thus, we may imagine, God played with His laws of Nature as He created the world.

Language is, to be sure, a medium of communication, but it is also an art form in the right hands.  A great writer produces graceful, seemingly effortless prose that articulates with precision complex concepts while conforming strictly to the rules that define correct usage.  The language of Plato, of Marx, of Hume – and yes, of Chomsky at his best – is as much a work of art as a Bach fugue or a Dickinson poem.  It takes our breath away.

It is not easy to write in this manner, even if, like Moliere’s bourgeois gentilhomme, one has been speaking prose all one’s life without knowing it.  It requires focused attention and much practice.  I recall once watching Yo Yo Ma play the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello.  As he played, he leaned back, away from the instrument, as though he were listening to the music rather than producing it, while his arms and hands did the most complex, precise things to create that music.  Since I am an amateur mediocre violist, who has actually played one of those Suites arranged for my instrument, I have some dim sense of the years of endless work that the young Yo Yo Ma did to achieve that magical transcendence.

That, in a few words, is why I flinch when someone is described as disinterested when what is meant is that she is uninterested.


Jordan said...

But neither of these are real objections; neither rescue you from the charge of pedantry.

Even if we were to use phrase "beg the question" both to point out a circular argument and to point to a question that urgently needed answering, that would by no means imply that we lose the sense of a distinction between these two. We might just use different words to bring it out. All that is lost is the connection of a particular phrase with a particular idea. My own sense based on anecdotal evidence with students is that they really only use "beg the question" in the latter sense, and are more than willing to countenance the idea of a circular argument, and obviously understand intuitively the distinction between that and what they had meant by "begging the question."

As for the second point, what you say only implies that some rules need to be followed, and that they need to be sufficiently strong and supple to make the kinds of experimentation you describe possible. The fact that the meanings of words change in no way affects the possibility of such rules and experimentation. (Or at least, it doesn't unless your first point holds; I'm inclined to think that you really only have one reason why you resist this kind of linguistic development.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jordan, I infer that you are a very serious person not much given to play.

Dean said...

Shouldn't Jordan have written, "But neither of these is a real objection; neither rescues you..."?

I'm [checks dictionary] indifferent about many linguistic disputes. Where I do have a firm conviction, I'm not inclined to view it as a battle worth fighting. But "begging the question" is a special case, because so often its misuse isn't merely misuse. Its misuse can be a real barrier to communication, inasmuch as I have to stop to consider whether I've missed a logical lapse. If I can't identify one, then I can safely assume the person who uttered it meant something else. Putative misuse of "hopefully," "momentarily," etc., doesn't usually pose this barrier, because context clarifies the intended meaning.

Anonymous said...

When someone criticizes something Bob has written his response is often to accuse the commenter of having no sense of humour, of being too serious, etc. But not always. Sometimes he is more substantive, as when he replies to thoughtful remarks with "ho hum".

A "good teacher", someone remarked on this blog recently. Really? Bob may be a good lecturer, a pontificator. Teaching requires a degree of respect for one's interlocutors, a lack of pridefulness, and the capacity to rein in one's ego to foster genuine dialogue. Bob does not much exhibit these virtues, at least on this blog. Perhaps he is better in the classroom. I am doubtful.

RobinMcDugald said...

It just so happens that I read about Lorenzo Valla this morning. (Source: Michael Massin, “Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind,” HarperCollins, 2018, pp. 43-45.)

“Valla was combative and obnoxious”

In his “De Elegentiae Linguae Latinae” “Valla . . . sought to show how the language had been corrupted and how it could be purified.”

“De Elegeniae opened [Erasmus’s] eyes to how sloppy language can obscure meanings and conceal abuses and how a knowledge of usage and idiom could be applied to challenge the claims and presumptions of ruling institutions.”

At the same time Erasmus’s “Antibarbari” written under Valla’s influence, “featured some of the humanists’ worst flaws—verbosity, arrogance, a love of polemics, and unqualified deference toward the ancients.”

Robert Paul Wolff said...

well, anonymous, leaving aside what sort of teacher I am, it is absolutely true that it discourages me when I strive to write something that is complex, light-hearted, ironic in subtle ways, and the responses are flatfooted, serious, apparently unaware of the dimensions of what I have written. Why on earth do you suppose I called my post "the pedant's complaint?" Pedant, these days, is a term of opprobrium. Now why would I call myself a pedant, if I were not engaged in laughing at myself? But simultaneously making a serious point while mocking myself. In short, speaking ironically. Really!

MS said...

The evolution of the meaning of words can have socio-political ramifications. When, for example, Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 66, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,” I suspect that he did not contemplate that the true minds could belong to individuals of the same gender. When I was growing up in the 1950’s (not that long ago in my mind), the idea that the word “marriage” could refer to a ceremony joining two individuals of the same gender would have been regarded as absurd. In fact, those who opposed the legal arguments in favor of recognizing the right of gay people to marry contended not only that this was contrary to the convention that only heterosexuals could marry, but that it warped the very meaning of the word “marriage.” An example of this thinking occurs in the final scene of one of my favorite movies, “Some Like It Hot.” (For those of you who have not had the pleasure of watching this movie, please do. Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon give the best comedic performances of their careers.) Jo E. Brown, the playboy tycoon, wants to marry Jack Lemmon, who is posing as a woman. Jack Lemmon gives Joe E. Brown several reasons why he cannot marry him, e.g., “I can never have children.” Finally, to put the kabash on Joe E. Brown;s marriage proposal, Jack Lemmon removes his wig and announces, “You don’t understand Osgood, I’m a man.” In 1959, the year Some Like It Hot was released, the idea that two men could get married was so ridiculous it was a hilarious punch line in a movie. Today, the punch line has lost its punch. And Osgood’s response, “Well, nobody’s perfect,” also takes on new meaning. So, the very meaning of the word “marriage,” has been dramatically altered in a mere generation. And this evolution has been all to the good.

Dean said...

I'm not a fan of movies, but I did treat my family to Some Like It Hot not two weeks ago. I second MS's opinion. It is a joy. My family was entirely tickled by the movie, and notably by the concluding segment. My parents (pre-me) lived in San Diego, where it was filmed, at the time. I was born mid-'59.

Jordan said...

I'm sorry to have discouraged you, Bob. I suspect you wouldn't have been if we'd just been having the conversation over a drink and tossing ideas back and forth, and could read each other's tone of voice and not just words on a screen. I like your blog a lot and know for a fact that you aren't a pedant. I work in academia, and know one when I see one.

You wrote a long and somewhat playful note, in which are embedded some arguments you apparently espouse. I was interested in the arguments, and responded to them. I admit that my response didn't exactly take into account the various shadings of complexity and irony in your original post, though I'm a bit confused as to why you would expect it to. It's a comment on a blog post, after all. I wasn't unaware of the rest of your post; I just didn't comment on it.

I promise I'm much more fun-loving in person ;)

Anonymous said...

I’m the anonymous who called you “a good teacher,” not the heckler. You are of course right to complain about the now common misuse of “begs the question,” though I suspect that the usage horse is long out of the barn here. I think we’ve lost this one. (It pains me to say this, or annoys me anyway.) Not many people study logic or Latin anymore, so few people know about, let alone care about, the historical connection of the term petitio principii. And they have “that’s an unwarranted assumption,” and locutions like that to express what they mean, when they detect a petitio. On the other hand, I suspect that for them “begs the question” means something along the lines of “that’s a question that’s just begging to be asked.” And so on. More of the contemporary taste for gush. It’s interesting to me that Merriam Webster’s 10th Collegiate Dictionary (1994) says only that begs the question means “to pass over or ignore by assuming to be established or settled.” Beg has long had the sense of to evade or sidestep, or avoid—as in begged the real problem (again from M-W, 1994). However (and this is not a good sign), the 11th Edition of M-W (2008) has this: “beg the question: 1: to pass over or ignore a question by assuming it to be established or settled; 2 : to elicit a question logically as a reaction or response (the quarterback's injury begs the question of who will start in his place).” My response to (2) is: Ugh. Seems like a lot happened to “begs the question” around the end of the 20th century. By the way, I seem to remember reading something by Thomas Nagel in which he expresses annoyance (I guess that’s what it was) at the use of “comprised of.” Comprise means to include exhaustively—as in the U.S comprises 50 states (not 49 or 51, etc.), while “comprised of” is a solecism. If I remember correctly, Nagel said that he doesn’t like comprised of (and maybe, more generally, the use of comprise to mean constitute or compose) and won’t use it himself, because he was taught long ago that it isn’t correct. He knows what’s up with this, of course.

s. wallerstein said...

Whether or not something is "pedantic" depends on the context.

If I'm in a taxi and the driver says that they don't vote because they're "disinterested" in politics, I'm not going to point out that "uninterested" is the correct word. That will just confirm their prejudice against intellectual snobs (like me) and assure that they will vote for Trump or his equivalent the next time. I'm more likely to show them that progressive candidates, if elected, will benefit working people like them and that that should motivate them to get "interested" in politics.

However, if I'm teaching composition to freshmen (which I have done), my job is to point out the difference between "uninterested" and "disinterested". That's what they pay me for. There is nothing "pedantic" (in the negative sense of the word) about showing correct word usage to people who in a university setting.

In a blog context like this one, well, one choses the blogs one visits and this is a blog where correct word usage is emphasized.

I've spent most of my life talking a second language, Spanish, as my standard daily language (I've raised my children in that language, I've had and have relationships and friendships in that language, etc.), and in a second language questions of what is "really" the right usage don't exist. One is generally concerned that one will not say anything totally clumsy or ridiculous and that others will laugh in one's face or look at one like an idiot. To the credit of Latin Americans, no one has ever laughed at me: that only happened to me in France many years ago.

MS said...

As a postscript to my prior comment, I would like to say the following. Although, as I have said in a previous comment to a previous blog posting, Prof. Wolff, as demonstrated by his above comment, is perfectly capable of eloquently defending himself, I feel compelled nonetheless to respond to the above commentator’s criticism of his teaching abilty. Prof. Wolff is not just an excellent lecturer; he is also an outstanding teacher. He does encourage dialogue with his students, and is open to questions about his philosophical interpretations, as anyone who has watched his you tube lectures on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason would know. I also know this from personal experience, because I had the pleasure of taking his course on Kant’s ethics in 1968 (at an institution that shall remain unnamed). Aside from communicating the intricacies of Kant’s philosophy in a highly elucidating manner, he was engaging and responsive to critical questions. I say this without regard to the grade I received. And I assure you that my comment is entirely unsolicited.

s. wallerstein said...

Having been "ho-hummed" and told to "lighten up" several times during my now over 2 years of regular participation in this blog and not always because I failed to understand that irony is irony (and there is many a true word spoken in jest), well, we all have our limits and we all have our ways of signaling them. My comments have been deleted in other blogs or placed on ultra-moderation status where they took as long as 24 hours to appear, if they appeared, and that has never occurred here.

I suppose that when one comments, one hopes that what one says will be recognized as incredibly thoughtful and worthy of serious consideration by the blog owners and the other commenters, but no, people may consider one to be sophomoric, needlessly critical, intellectually aggressive or resentful, having a bad day and needing to discharge their
frustrations in a blog, etc. That's life: the world is not one's mother and in my experience at least, one's mother has definite limits as to how much of one's wisdom she will accept listening to, especially if that wisdom does not coincident with her own version of wisdom.

I have no idea whether Professor Wolff is a good teacher, never having taken a course with him. I might say that while a person of my age, 72, can be expected to accept a few "ho-hums" with a smile or a shrug, a ho-hum or two might be one or two too many for a sensitive freshman.

LFC said...

W/r/t the change from M-W 1994 to M-W 2008 mentioned above: many or most lexicographers seem to feel that if a locution becomes widely used, that often legitimizes it. They view themselves more as reflecting usage than prescribing it; others, e.g. some writers of usage or style manuals (as opposed to dictionaries), may take a more prescriptive approach. There is a philosophical (in the loose sense) divide there with probably decent arguments for both sides, at least to some extent. I myself will not use "beg the question" to mean "raises [or elicits] the question," but I recognize that the latter use has become fairly widespread.

LFC said...

P.s. on the point about simultaneously embracing and transcending formal constraints (or rules): I see what Pr. Wolff is driving at here, though I'm not sure I'd agree w everything in that passage. But I do agree that the young (and probably the older) Yo-Yo Ma could do some pretty magical things w/ the cello. In college I once or twice had the pleasure of playing in an orchestra when he was the soloist (we're a couple of years apart in age). A warm, unassuming person, besides being a superb musician.

Anonymous said...


Merriam-Webster’s has long been known as a descriptivist dictionary. When the big unabridged version of it came out around 1961, it got a lot of bad reviews from prescriptivist critics and scholars—including Columbia historian Jacques Barzun, who thought the work a massive covert political screed that was spreading the trendy but dangerous dogma of permissiveness. (He was against the ZIP Code, too, deriding it as preposterous—probably because he was aesthetically offended by the silly word ZIP. So much for his insight and prescience.) The current and other recent collegiate editions of Merriam-Webster’s do show a lot of filial loyalty to their massive descriptivist ancestor. I like them. But just because they list a usage as widespread and ensconced enough to make it into the most recent edition doesn’t mean I have to use it (begging the question is a case in point), though it’s a warning to me not to correct others for using it around me in casual or otherwise non-professional or non-technical discourse.

Guy Tennenbaum said...

I, too, stand firmly opposed to flaunting the rules of language.

MS said...

The following comment is a bit far afield of the original focus of Prof. Wolff’s posting. (My apologies Prof. Wolff; I am not trying to hijack your blog.) After writing my comment regarding the evolution of the meaning of the word “marriage,” and reading Dean’s comment, I began reflecting on the movie Some Like It Hot and pondering what about it makes it so funny (apparently not just to me), and then questioning whether, in today’s environment of MeToo and LGBTQ movements, the film would still hold its comic appeal, notwithstanding the anachronism of the last scene I described. Would it, perhaps, even be viewed as insulting to women and gays? Part of its appeal, no doubt, is, or was, seeing two men dressed as women, imitating feminine gestures and hobbling about in high heels. Then it struck me that the audience that finds these scenes humorous is, generally, heterosexual men. I remembered that the mainstay of many male comedians in the 1950s-1960s, e.g., Milton Berle, Benny Hill, and the appeal of movies that have been popular successes (Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie) involved men dressing up as, and imitating, women. (The only exception that I can recall is Julie Andrews in Victor, Victoria,) Why do heterosexual men find these caricatures so funny? Is it because they think women, generally, are funny? Do they strike a chord with men due to a subliminal homophobic message that effeminate men are funny?

Perhaps I am over thinking this. Or, some may say, duh, of course these movies are sexist and homophobic. I can’t help it, but I still think Some Like It Hot is a funny movie, although I am not homophobic, and would like to think that I am not sexist.

Anonymous said...

To Ed Barraras:

Dear Ed: I don't know what you're getting at. Do you actually mean flaunting the rules of language (whatever those might be), which is how you put it, or flouting them? The verbs are very different and don't mean the same thing. I suspect you mean the latter, but I don't know. In either case, I don't follow you. And these "rules"--what are they, and where do they come from? Who gets to say what they are? Chomsky talks a lot about deep grammar, but that's not the same thing as usage. (Chomsky can't tell us why, for example, certain trendy uses of "begging the question" are in principle wrong or otherwise undesirable.) Maybe you're being ironic; I can't tell. So what is it: flaunting or flouting? Etc. --Sol Lipsizt

Dean said...

I can't put my finger on exactly why, but I do believe Some Like It Hot is sui generis. (I've not seen the other movies MS mentions, and my opinions about cinema are immediately suspect, because as I mentioned I do not like the medium.) It's true that the depiction of women by men in these movies is designed to provoke responses of ridicule. Lemmon and Curtis are absurd and silly in their efforts to blend in as women. But SLIH transcends those responses in various ways, one of which is that the movie abandons any ambitions for verisimilitude. (To my mind, this is one of the areas in which cinema typically fails, but that's another story.) It's difficult to suspend one's disbelief that other characters fall for their disguises. Lemmon and Curtis are both respectful of their female personae and of the "real" women with whom they interact. Marilyn Monroe's character is deeply empathetic. And so forth. I could go on.

There is a rich tradition of women in theater portraying men, namely, operatic trouser roles in which sopranos, altos, and mezzos portray young men.

Anonymous said...

To: S. Wallerstein

With respect to pedant/pedantic:
I read an online restaurant review (Yelp or Tripadvisor) about a year ago in which a whiny, omniscient millennial stereotype complained about a dinner she had recently had at a local, swank restaurant. She began her review by lamenting the “pedantic salad” she had been subjected to. I thought her use of “pedantic” to describe a salad was silly and wrong, and I figured that she must have meant “pedestrian,” which would still have been a bit much, but I probably wouldn’t have noticed it in the context. Anyway, wondering what, if any, the etymological relationship might be between pedantic and pedestrian, I looked pedantic up in the dictionary and found listed, unaccompanied by any further explanation or usage guidance, two synonyms for it: “unimaginative” and “pedestrian” (both in small all caps). One of my categorical imperatives has long been: don’t argue with the dictionary, but I don’t believe it on this one. There’s no way a salad can be pedantic, regardless of what my revered dictionary says. “Nullius in verba”—as Horace and the motto of the Royal Society put it: take no one’s word for [anything]. But that leaves us with what? I suppose that intelligent people of good-will can still converse and thereby get along. This blog is a kind (of) oasis on the internet, and Professor Wolff is to be thanked for setting it up and keeping it going.

MS said...

I hope that Prof. Wolff is not wringing his hands, thinking, "What are they doing to my blog?! I started with a serious subject and they are turning it into a form of the children's parlor game of telephone1"

I just want to thank Dean for his thoughtful analysis of Some Like It Hot and his tribute to its cinematic virtues. It sounds like you are a student of the serious theater and I do not want to detract from your dedication to that medium. I am a cinephile and have probably spent about 20% of my life watching movies, or, if you will, films. Since you enjoyed Some Like It Hot, however, I would like to recommend that you watch Mrs. Doubtfire. Robin Williams gives a tour de force performance nonpareil that will have you rolling on the floor as he portrays a father posing as an Irish governess; at the same time he poignantly depicts a father going through a divorce who is desperately devising methods to continue to have contact with his children. His suicide was the loss of a comic genius. (None of this has anything to do with the misuse of words or how they change in meaning over time.)

With that I will say good-night and retire.

Cornelius Fitzedward Pope II said...

Well, that begs the question of circularity. [This "use" of "beg the question" in the second sense of M-W 2008 above to mean "beg the question" in first sense could fairly be called vile.]

Cornelius Fitzedward Pope II said...

Of course, it only raises the question of circularity awkwardly, instead of asserting it outright, but this adds a frisson of linguistic revulsion to the expression.

Guy Tennenbaum said...

Sol Lipsizt, I was being ironic.

Danny said...

I'm distracted by this matter of 'The language of Plato, of Marx, of Hume – and yes, of Chomsky at his best – is..' complete that sentence. But I will just remark about 'Portnoy's Complaint', that if it is a love song to his beloved, then okay, but to his mother? I've read it -- it seemed to me that He loves himself too much, and one part of himself in particular.

LFC said...

Re 'Some Like It Hot': I've seen at least some of it, likely a long time ago on TV (when I had a working one). The acting may have held up ok, but I think the movie as a whole is very dated, in large part b/c of the obvious cultural changes since 1959 that MS alludes to. I'm not sure Lemmon and Curtis in drag would be seen today as especially insulting to women or gays -- partly b/c of the movie's abandonment of verisimilitude, which Dean mentions; partly b/c the stereotypical, often inaccurate link between effeminacy and homosexuality no longer has all that much resonance, I think. So, at least compared to some other movies from the 1950s, SLIH probably would not be seen today as crudely sexist or crudely homophobic; just very dated. That is, admittedly, a guess or speculation, and other people may of course disagree.

s. wallerstein said...

Almost all the movies from the 1950's and even 60's seem dated to me. I'm not a movie expert, although at one time in my life I saw a lot of them, but the only movies from the 50's and 60's that come to mind as worth seeing again are Paths of Glory (1957) and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965). Even the art movies, Fellini, Godard, Antonioni, Bergmann, which I once pretended to like no longer attract me in the least.

A good test would be what movies would you recommend to a bright 20 year old.

In Santiago university age kids sell pirate editions of books in the street (books are expensive here), so I assume that the ones that they sell are those that a kid that age (who reads, not everyone reads) are interested in. That Williams Burroughs was there struck me. There were several titles from Simone De Beauvoir (I bought one), but nothing from Sartre or Camus. Marcuse was there as was Adorno. Rosa Luxemberg, but not Lenin or Marx himself. Orwell's book, Homage to Catalonia, on the Spanish Civil War. Virginie Despentes (contemporary French feminist novelist known for her graphic descriptions), etc.

Anonymous said...

The philosophical question-begging lies in your phrase "logical distinctions". Discerning real kinds is in no way a matter of logic.

Anonymous said...

So, "real kinds" can be discerned without logic? How does one do that? Does one point to a universal?