Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Stop it!

I’d like to get gobby about the overuse of the word ‘surely’ in academic philosophical writing. I’ve just finished reading an otherwise fairly good book by a professional philosopher which seemed to use it every other page. I won’t say who he was, though some people who know me will know already. I dislike people saying ‘surely’ in much the same way I dislike people using the Nazis as their example of anything of which the Nazis are an example, using ‘scare’ quotes, and using italics to indicate that now what they’re saying is particularly important.

Proust (I haven’t read much of À la Recherche, but as a first year undergraduate I had to read the first 200 pages) made the point about scare quotes better than I could. Paraphrasing from memory, he said that it’s like you’re saying “I’d never use this word, but I’m talking about what buffoons call ‘____’”. But when you do this, you’re using the word yourself! (Believe it or not, I don’t have a problem with exclamation marks.) If you’re not a buffoon, why are you using the word? Why not use the word you normally use? So don’t use scare quotes, and don’t use air quotes either. You especially shouldn’t use scare quotes when you’re doing philosophy of language, because you’re probably already using quotes to talk about words, as in “my wife is Claudia, and her name is ‘Claudia’”. It’s sometimes confusing, and even when it’s clear it’s silly.

Enough’s been said about using the Nazis as an example already. The problem I have with italics is that it’s either a lazy way of adding emphasis, a patronising attempt to show the reader how to read, like a composer who puts instructions all over his scores, or it’s the writer saying “look, I know you’re not paying attention to most of the waffle I’ve suckered you into reading, but this bit’s really important”. If you’re doing that, maybe I’ll only read the italicised parts, though for some writers that wouldn’t save much time.

What I don’t like about ‘surely’ goes a bit deeper than these stylistic gripes, though. It’s not just bad writing; it’s one of three other things. It’s either bad philosophy, bad writing which leads to bad philosophy, or a brazen acceptance of the bad philosophy that even people who don’t say ‘surely’ do from time to time. The problem is that philosophers aren’t like scientists with their evidence or mathematicians with their genuine rigour. A lot of the time we just say things and hope the reader will agree. I think we do this too much, and there are other, better ways to do philosophy. Saying ‘surely’ draws attention to the fact you’re not offering an argument for a claim, but appealing to the reader to agree with you anyway. The worst is when they say something genuinely controversial, and back it up with ‘surely’. For example, they might say “surely a thing can’t have properties if it doesn’t even exist”. Well Graham Priest, Ed Zalta, Terence Parsons and a gaggle of others think things can have properties without existing, so this ‘surely’ business is either ignorant or disingenuous. There’s no shame in saying “some people think things can have properties without existing, but I don’t want to make that concession so I’m going to try to solve the problem at hand without making it”. Surely that sounds better.


  1. Well, I have had to sign in because you don't allow anonymous comments. But while you are on the Gobby Box I just want to tell you that Miguel de Unamuno agreed with you about italics. In a fun piece of point-making, he wrote the entire introduction to Niebla all in italics because he wanted people to pay attention to all of it equally.

  2. I find italics too useful to forgo.

  3. Fair enough Carl; I'm probably not completely cutting out the bacon sandwiches either. I'll be happy (or happier) if everyone just uses them a bit less.

  4. I think italics is useful if you've got particularly nice, or precise, way of stating the thing you've been arguing for in the last few paragraphs, but it's not self-contained enough to put as a separately margined proposition.

    It's true it's over used. It would be great if all papers were under 15 pages (say), and all the waffle was cut. But I think that people read papers expecting waffle, and look out for the italics so they know when to stop skim reading - I think it would take a lot to break the convention of reading and writing in that way.

    I still like "surely" too. I take "surely p" to entail "surely the people who assert not p are wrong", so the hedges about people who assert not p are redundant. It's also a good way of marking data that it would be good to preserve. It seems like it's almost universally used in philosophy as a less verbose way of saying the thing you said at the end: p is an assumption + I have a high credence in p.