Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Three dead ends

I stole that subject line from Brett McKay. It goes with a great post, he writes a lot of great posts. What I am going write here is more or less the same thing only I will be less specific.


Irony is supposed to mean saying one thing while meaning the opposite. There is more to it than that but that is the base notion out of which all other understandings of irony come from.

At some point, I don't know when, irony became a debating position. A debating position is a view you don't believe but adopt because it's defensible in debate. Agnosticism and deism are both debating positions. No one ever held either with anything even vaguely resembling passion but they are easily defensible  positions, safe harbours you can hide in while waiting for a war to end knowing that your positions is so difficult to assail and of so little strategic value that no one would bother.

"Irony" has come to mean taking stands you clearly don't really believe in "ironically". It is to say, "I know this all bullshit and you can tell because I'm just playing at it." Hipsters are hated for holding this position but it's commonplace since it was sold to the mass market by the two Davids (Letterman and Byrne) in the 1980s. The position is unassailable because there it never allows an argument to go to the final step.

Here is crude example of how it works. A friend of mine was a top student in philosophy in the early 1980s and she was being courted by big schools. One day a philosopher from Oxford tried to convince her to go there. Tatiana had just been talking to someone from the Sorbonne a short while before and said she was tempted to go there. The Oxford guy started to bad mouth the Sorbonne saying that it was living on its reputation and that it hadn't been a leading school in decades. Tatiana said, "But couldn't someone say the same of Oxford?" And the Oxford man, rather than argue the point, immediately conceded that the school had declined a lot in recent decades but added, "But at least we know it." Tatiana waited for him to go on and say something about what they were doing to reverse the decline but the man said nothing. Somehow, he thought that being full of crap but knowing that you were was better than being full of crap and not knowing it.

And if you can do that you never have to answer for being full of crap.

It's closely related to the Alinsky position by the way. It allows you to criticize others using their moral standards while having none yourself.

[If we look at McKay's first position, we can see how it is ironic. "Accept that masculinity is a cultural construct and choose to live a “re-defined” masculinity (or eschew masculinity as a goal altogether)." Right from the get-go, this position states that there is no such thing as masculinity. What a person who holds this view adopts as their masculinity will be, therefore, always something of an inside joke. Pushed, they will say not only that they don't real mean but that this some how grants them some sort of moral superiority because they know they are full of shit.]


The authentic view is that we already have the thing we need to become inside us and that what we need to do is strip off the various accretions that prevent us from being it. Like irony, it seems to have no core. In The Authentic Swing, for example, Steven Pressfield has his hero try to shake off all distractions even treating his conscious efforts to swing the golf club correctly so that his authentic swing, the one he came equipped with naturally, will be able to come out. In his famous essay Sincerity and Authenticy, Lionel Trilling describes authenticity by pointing to a character in a Wordsworth poem who is so overcome with grief that he is utterly unaware of anything around him.

Not surprisingly, this strategy of arriving at what is most legitimate by subtracting things is pretty much useless in real life. Again, this can become just a debating position, you criticize what you don't like but avoid having to defend what you do  like because it is defended entirely in terms of what is absent. Unlike the ironist, however, the believe in authenticity claims to have a position they cling to but claims that it can only become clear by removing the obstacles that keep it from being realized.

[In McKay's essay, the authenticity merchants blame feminism rather than advance a view of masculinity to follow: "many men who take this stance, though they say that manhood isn’t about women, are consumed with thinking about them! The focus of their lives is all about women – why they’re angry at them, why they’re not as good as they used to be, and how to pick them up and have sex with them (because while women are awful, they’re still good for one thing). Though manhood should be all about men – how men test and sharpen each other, what men need from each other in dire times, what men respect in each other – for these men their pursuit of manhood revolves around women."]


Sincerity, according to a recent book, is where all the problems begin. It's author argues that authenticity is really a form of sincerity. I'd argue that, paradoxical as this may seem, so is irony.

Sincerity is an attempt to solve a problem not unlike Dr. Johnson arguing that he really knows a rock exists by kicking it. You can get a sense of the strategy by imagining that someone is asked to prove that he really loves a woman he has just fallen in love with. A year ago he said he was in love with another woman and now that is over. How can he prove this time is different? He has no history he can appeal to because he has just fallen in love with her. All he has is a feeling"inside" and all he can do is keep reasserting that feeling more and more forcefully.

Wittgenstein used to illustrate this by scrunching up his face somewhat like someone passing a difficult stool and saying, "See, I really mean it now." It's a strategy that occurs to every twelve year old who asks for a puppy and promises his mother that he will take care of it. She, quite reasonably, asks how she can be sure he will keep that promise and he screws up his face and says, "Because, I really, really, really, ..., really mean it!!!!!"

People who push sincerity rarely realize how ridiculous they are because they are certain they have something "inside" that they can refer to. Bill never doubts that he loves Lisa because he knows that love is inside because he can feel it. It never occurs to Bill that what really drives him is a desire for sex, a fear of being alone or a combination of the two because the "it" is soooo strong. But the only strong thing is the forcefulness with which he declares this.

Wittgenstein would say, and he would be right, that sincerity arises because it looks like we can go straight to the place we want to go to. I'm here and it's right there in plain sight so I should be able to go straight there. But any attempt to do so fails because there is no road from here to there. All we have is the feeling that it must be possible.

[In McKay's essay, the sincere are the men who hold the fight club position, those who are willing to go even to the end of civilization to demonstrate how real their position is. "Recognizing patriarchy’s incompatibility with the modern, techno-industrial world, these men offer another more radical solution: blow up civilization (like in Fight Club) or try to hasten its demise by opt-ing out of contributing to it, and return to a stateless, dangerous world in which primal manliness is once again needed." Hiding in that view is sincerity, a belief that what they hold to is so strong that even after everything else is destroyed it will still be real. (And you can see how sincerity morphs into authenticity here). The difference between the two comes in terms of implied forcefulness: "Ha," says the sincere man, "authenticity guy just wants to ditch feminism but I'm so sure of what I have inside me that I'm willing to destroy civilization."]


  1. Hi, Jules.

    So, if these are three dead ends, are you giving any thought to a way forward, to take instead? I'd guess that way has something to do with truth, hasn't it? Wouldn't you agree, though, that any of these postures are only dead-ends to the extent that they don't happen to coincide with a real and definite truth independent of oneself? The sincere man can be truly in love, or fighting in the cause of justice. The authentic artist (or ball player) can be a natural. The ironist can be correct in his assessment.

    Isn't it only when the pose and the "mine-ness" of it becomes more important than the relation to a reality larger than oneself that any of the above become condemnable?

    Anyway, your spiel on sincerity somehow made me think of More's reply to Roper in Bolt's A Man For All Seasons: "And go he should if he were the Devil himself until he broke the law!" Roper is appalled at the idea of granting the Devil the benefit of law, but More is adamant.
    "What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ... And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's, and if you cut them down – and you're just the man to do it – do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!"

    More, in that play, anyway, seems to me to combine what is the very best in irony, authenticity and sincerity, and--somehow--to make a success of it, to find a way forward.

    in X.

  2. More...

    Bolt's More as Ironist:
    Cromwell: ...The oath was put to loyal subjects up and down the country, and they all declared His Grace's title to be just and good. But when it came to the prisoner, he refused! He calls this silence. Yet is there a man in this court - is there a man in this country! - who does not know Sir Thomas More's opinion of this title?

    Crowd in court gallery: No!

    Cromwell: Yet how can this be? Because this silence betokened, nay, this silence was, not silence at all, but most eloquent denial!

    Sir Thomas More: Not so. Not so, Master Secretary. The maxim is "Qui tacet consentire": the maxim of the law is "Silence gives consent". If therefore you wish to construe what my silence betokened, you must construe that I consented, not that I denied.

    Cromwell: Is that in fact what the world construes from it? Do you pretend that is what you wish the world to construe from it?

    Sir Thomas More: The world must construe according to its wits; this court must construe according to the law.
    Bolt's More as utterly authentic:

    More says to Norfolk, "What matters is not that it's true, but that I believe it; or no, not that I **believe** it, but that **I** believe it."

    and sincere:

    "When a man takes an oath, he's holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn't hope to find himself again."

    See what I mean?

  3. Or, better for sincerity maybe is the conscience quote:
    "Norfolk: Oh, confound all this.... I'm not a scholar, as Master Cromwell never tires of pointing out, and frankly I don't know whether the marriage was lawful or not. But damn it, Thomas, look at those names.... You know those men! Can't you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?More: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?"

    ...The more I look at them in this light, the less they appear to me dead-ends at all.
    in X.

  4. Bolt's primary concern is personal integrity. His Thomas More shows heroic virtue when he is put in a place where he would be required to give that up. That's not my opinion but Bolt's own account of the matter. And this stands out in the quotes you provide, especially the last.

    But the question I'd want to explore is how does it come to be that Norfolk develops his conscience to be the way it is and More his to the different way his is. More seems here to allow that Norfolk would be following his conscience and therefore merits heaven. That seems wrong to me.

  5. I suppose the same seems, at times a bit, wrong, i.e. unjust, to all of us.

    Nevertheless, I believe I'm not mistaken that it is what our catechism teaches: For mortal sin to be such, it is necessary that the actor know (in his own secret little mind and conscience) that it is sinful and --then-- to choose it anyway. There has gone walking on this earth many an innocent polygamist, et cetera.

    I don't think that particular aspect of the moral dilemma, as presented by Bolt, is held by knowledgeable Catholics as controversial. Do you?

    1. Our catechism also teaches us that we have a life-long responsibility to develop a well-formed conscience. And it pretty much has to be that way otherwise you'd end up with moral relativism. To really believe in a truth outside ourselves is to be constantly checking our conscience against other authorities, particularly the church's moral teachings. Much as I love Bolt's play, it seems a little too individualistic to me.

      It's important to remember that the play is not historically accurate. More's moral integrity always comes out smelling like roses because Bolt sets it up that way.

  6. I seem to remember that in previous posts you favored sincerity over authenticity, and even gave it a positive spin. Am I misremembering, or have you changed your mind a bit?

    1. I've changed my mind a lot. Reading the reviews of the recent book on Sincerity by R Jay Magill I realized that my past defence of sincerity was unsustainable. It was quite a climb down for me, which is probably why I haven't been as honest about acknowledging the change here as I ought to have been.

      I now think that there is a perfectly legitimate ordinary language use of the word, as in, "Is she being sincere", but that it doesn't make sense to speak of either sincerity or authenticity as virtues.

      I am very sympathetic to the views expressed by Cass above as I used to think pretty much that way myself. Sincerity is of those things that just feels like it ought to be able to work. But I am reluctantly, very reluctantly, obliged to concede that it does no real work in moral argument beyond the ordinary use above where it is really another way of saying something akin to, "Is she honest."