In defence of acerbic critiques

Some people are put off by the often pointed and critical style of my book reviews. It is not my intention to offend anyone so I would like to take this opportunity to explain myself in this regard.

First of all I would echo Bertrand Russell’s description of himself in his auto-obituary: “In private life he showed none of the acerbity which marred his writings, but was a genial conversationalist and not devoid of human sympathy.” (Bertrand Russell, The Last Survivor of a Dead Epoch, 1937)

I recognise that, superficially, I would probably be far better off in both my social and professional life if I heeded Sir Francis Bacon’s warning that “anger makes dull men witty, but it keeps them poor” (Works, VII, p. 174). Nevertheless I feel that passion and disagreement is infinitely more constructive than monotonous uniformity.

Which is the more constructive form of debate: calling a spade a spade, or wrapping every word you say in cotton wool? The former is the more honest and efficient and accurate form of communication. The latter is to be preferred if people are hedgehogs who roll up in a ball, thorns out, in the face of the slightest adversity. It seems to me a better idea to try to overcome our hedgehog instincts than to devote so much effort to sugarcoating that we never get any actual discussion going.

Also, agreement is just plain boring. Where’s the fun in having people basically regurgitate your own opinion back to you, which is what happens if you surround yourself only with people who are in effect copies of yourself? Personally I will take a lively discussion with an enemy of mine any day.

But back to academic book reviews. The “gentlemen’s club” attitude expected in modern academia is a recent social construction, for which I am not aware of any compelling rationale. Feyerabend puts it well:

“The great writers of the 18th century, Hume, Dr Johnson, Voltaire, Lessing, Diderot who introduced new ideas, new standards, new way of expressing thought and feelings wrote a lively and vigorous style, they called a spade a spade, a fool a fool and an impostor an impostor. Scholarly debate was still very lively in the 19th century, the number of insults occasionally rivalling the number of footnotes. Dictionaries of recondite languages (mediaeval Latin/English; Sanskrit/English) used racy equivalents, introductions to important editions teemed with ambiguous insinuations. Then, gradually, a more measured tone set in, people became more solemn, they frowned on levity and personal remarks and behaved as if they were playing parts in a strange and highly formalized drama. Language became as colourless and indistinct as the business suit which is now worn by everyone, by the scholar, by the businessman, by the professional killer. Being accustomed to a dry and impersonal style the reader is disturbed by every deviation from the dreary norm and sees in it an obvious sign of arrogance and aggression; viewing authority with almost religious awe he gets into a frenzy when he sees someone pluck the beard of his favourite prophet.” (Feyerabend, Science in a Free Society, p. 150)

I would also like to emphasise the importance of the fact that the authors I criticise in my reviews are generally holders of fancy Harvard professorships and the like. Privilege comes with responsibility, and in my opinion it is appropriate to hold such authors to a critical standard commensurate with their favourable circumstances and considerable influence over the development of research and teaching.

One could also make the case that history shows that treating received wisdom with contempt is not such a bad idea. There was plenty of this going around in the early modern period, and that to good effect. William Gilbert expressed a rather typical attitude of scientific revolutionaries when he wrote:

“What business have I in that vast ocean of books? … By the more silly ones among them the crowd and most impudent people get intoxicated [and] declare themselves to be philosophers … [But] neither Greek arguments nor Greek words can assist in finding truth.” (De Magnete, 1600)

Similarly, the proudly uneducated Leonardo Da Vinci’s opinion of learned men was that “the words they breathe from their mouths are as wise as the winds they fart from their asses.”

I submit that the insolence of these people served them well and that it would do our century much good to try some of this medicine ourselves.