Dark Arts 101: Be rigorous, on average

post by PhilGoetz · 2014-12-31T00:37:28.765Z · score: 17 (35 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 33 comments

I'm reading George Steiner's 1989 book on literary theory, Real Presences. Steiner is a literary theorist who achieved the trifecta of having appointments at Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard. His book demonstrates an important Dark Arts method of argument.

So far, Steiner's argument appears to be:

  1. Human language is an undecidable symbol-system.
  2. Every sentence therefore carries with it an infinite amount of meaning, the accumulation of all connotations, contexts, and historical associations invoked, and invoked by those invocations, etc. Alternately, every sentence contains no meaning at all, since none of those words can refer to things in the world.
  3. The meaning of a sentence, therefore, is not finite or analyzable, but transcendent.
  4. The transcendent is the search for God.
  5. Therefore, all good literature is a search for God.

The critics quoted on the back of the book, and its reviews on Amazon, praise Steiner's rigor and learning. It is impressive. Within a single paragraph he may show the relationship between Homer, 12th-century theological works, Racine, Shakespeare, and Schoenberg. And his care and precision with words is exemplary; I have the impression, even when he speaks of meaning in music or other qualia-laden subjects, that I know exactly what he means.

He was intelligent enough to trace the problems he was grappling with out past the edges of his domain of expertise. The key points of his argument lie not in literary theory, but in information theory, physics, artificial intelligence, computability theory, linguistics, and transfinite math.

Unfortunately, he knows almost nothing about any of those fields, and his language is precise enough to be wrong, which he is when he speaks on any of those subjects. How did he get away with it?

Answer: He took a two-page argument about things he knew little about, spread it across 200 pages, and filled the gaps with tangential statements of impressive rigor and thoroughness on things he was expert in.

For example, the first chapter discusses, with perhaps a hundred references, his opinion that the best art criticism is art made in response to art, his theory that good art is always derived from earlier art, and observations on the etymology of words; but most especially his consternation at the hundreds of thousands of articles, books, and talks on literature produced yearly by people who are not professors at Cambridge, Oxford, or Harvard. Then on page 36, he says,

The positing of an opinion about a painter, poet or composer is not a falsifiable proceeding.

I think this is the only sentence in the chapter that is a crucial part of his argument. But instead of engaging with the body of literature on what falsifiable means, whether human language is falsifiable in general (is "Ben is tall" falsifiable?), and what falsifiability has to do with the communication of information, Steiner lowlights this sentence with its syntactic simplicity, and nearly buries it in complex, learned sentences about Dante, Mozart, and hermeneutics. We dive back into litspeak, to emerge again into his argument on page 61:

All elucidation and criticism of literature, music and the arts must operate within the undecidability of unbounded sign-systems... Talk can be neither verified nor falsified in any rigorous sense.

Here one should ask: If human language is recursively enumerable, why don't people understand sentences generated by context-free grammars for English when they go past one level of recursion ("The mouse the cat the dog chased chased squeaked")? And doesn't "undecidable" mean "there exists at least one undecidable sentence" rather than "all sentences are undecidable"?

But one does not; one goes on to Steiner's opinions of Tolstoy's opinions of King Lear. It will be nearly another 20 pages before we hit the next key point in his argument, which relies on his not knowing that one can compute the sum of some infinite series. The bulk of the first 90 pages [1] is impressive displays of learning which fill in the vast spaces between the points (almost literally) of his argument.

Unless a reader pays close enough attention to catch these brief ventures outside Steiner's areas of expertise, he will come to the end of the book with (A) a summary of Steiner's argument, and (B) the strong impression that the statements in the book were learned and rigorous. And thus, the argument carries.

ADDED: After looking at the long section on the impossibility of meaning that begins around page 90, it seems Steiner is not trying to argue points 1 and 2 at all when he refers to them in chapters 1 and 2. He is merely foreshadowing. On p. 102-103 we reach the heart of his defense of points 1 and 2, which is to say "Wittgenstein said so." I'm afraid that, if I finish the book, I might find a better summary of the method here to be that the key points of his argument are defended only by appeals to authority.

[1] This pattern breaks down around page 90, where Steiner begins a long spiral into his central thesis.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Dustin · 2014-12-31T01:59:21.434Z · score: 33 (33 votes) · LW · GW

I realized I like this post because I identify with LessWrong, contrarianism, highlighting wrongness of high-status individuals, and a handful of other related concepts.

I find myself disliking Steiner, scoffing at institutions that give him position and those who give his book a good review.

All that despite barely being aware that Steiner exists and certainly never having read a thing he wrote.

Kinda scary.

I mean the criticisms might all be valid, but all I have to go on is the five minutes I spent reading this post.

comment by Gram_Stone · 2014-12-31T06:40:43.951Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I was just thinking of this before I read this and I thought of a twist to put on LW that might make it easier for me not to get sucked into groupthink: "LessWrong is not my community; LessWrong is a location." Instead of LW being equivalent to the sum of my 'colleagues,' it's more like LW is the Roman Forum.

comment by CronoDAS · 2015-01-01T12:59:20.139Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW


teh carthage was a city state based in Northern Africa and the greatest thorn in the side of the Roman Republic, fighting several wars against them. The Romans eventually conquered Carthage and incoporated its territory into their own. Of course, this implies this theme is set in Republican Rome, not Imperial Rome, contrary to indications in previous strips, but we've already established that anachronism is the least of our worries.

The Roman Forum was the administrative, commercial, and religious centre of ancient Rome. As the centre of the greatest empire of the day, it was a stronghold of collected wisdom, intelligent discussion, and skilled rhetoric by the greatest masters of language and thought.

An Internet forum has none of these features.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2014-12-31T15:38:44.948Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

I'm reminded of how a friend of mine years ago described the rhetorical style of Dianetics: "So, A, Yes, I realize that A is counterintuitive and implausible, but really, A. No, don't just take my word for it, here's a whole lot of evidence in favor of A. And here are some arguments against A, and why they're flawed. And here are alternatives to A, which turn out to be false. And given A and B, it's clear that C..." where B is completely unsupported nonsense.

comment by solipsist · 2014-12-31T05:49:31.858Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you for taking the time to write and edit a post.


Presenting polemics against something an in-group is already predisposed against really rubs me the wrong way. Putting down someones book can be great as a means to explain a broader point, but shouldn't be an end unto itself. The article "How not to say stupid things about undecidability" could be a cool; it might point out a flaw in my understanding of the consequences of the halting theorem or something. The article "A post-modernist wrote an argument for God, and it contains some flawed reasoning" isn't likely to surprise me, or to help me correct my thinking.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2014-12-31T06:09:18.355Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

It isn't about how not to say stupid things about undecidability, though, nor about the specific flawed reasoning. It's about how he hid the flawed reasoning in a forest of excellent tangential reasoning. Well, it was supposed to be. I'd better turn down the insulting tone to avoid focusing on his errors.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2014-12-31T08:42:15.045Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW · GW

I'm skeptical of this as the explanation.

You suggest that his core argument is one that draws on a multiple domains in which he is not an expert in, but he hides this by spreading out his core argument extremely thin, to the point of there being only a single sentence's worth of the argument in a whole chapter. But if the argument is really spread that thin, then very few people who read the book would actually pick up on even the rough gist of the core argument, because it would get buried under everything else.

To me, this suggests that your thesis is false, and that the things that you've picked out as his core argument aren't actually his core argument: or if they are, they are not the core argument that most of his critics became persuaded of and are responding to.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2014-12-31T18:46:26.538Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Phil makes three claims: (1) what the argument is; (2) that Steiner fails to bridge the steps in that argument because it goes outside his expertise; and (3) that most of the book is good argument irrelevant to the main thread. Point (2) requires him to be correct about point (1). But point (3), which is the point in Phil's title, does not much depend on correctly identifying the argument, or even the argument existing.

It is generally more convincing to claim to have identified a buried argument and rejected it than to claim that no argument exists. But I think it is convincing for bad reasons. That the argument Phil extracted matched his interests and expertise is suggestive that his process of extracting it was biased.

Yes, if Phil is to criticize a book for fooling readers, it is important that he look at the readers and determine what they actually took away. But your suggestion that they took an argument away from a book is absurd. How often do people do that? Indeed, looking at the Amazon reviews, it looks to me that they did not.

Added: I think point 3 is the interesting point, and Phil clearly does, too, not just because he put it in the title, but also because he said so in response to a bunch of comments complaining about 2. Which makes this post an example of its own topic of a sideline distracting from the main argument.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2014-12-31T17:15:12.675Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

That's a good skepticism to have. I've wondered myself how he will summarize it; the last chapter doesn't have any obvious recap. I have probably miscontrued at least part of his argument, since I've read only half the book. It would be more fair to have waited until I finish the book, but I don't think I'm going to finish the book.

"Important to the argument" is not a binary predicate. I picked what seemed to me the most-important parts, the pieces he could not do without. But most things are related at least indirectly. For instance, there's a section in-between the 2nd and 3rd points I picked where he dismisses the counter-theory that the choice of the literature canon is the result of a convergence, over centuries, by humanity on right judgement of works of literature (p. 67-69). This is well-reasoned and important in its own right, and it supports his catastrophic argument (everything changed because of modernism) by undercutting an opposing gradualist argument (and also bolsters his running theme of "most people are stupid", which is necessary to defend from Aumann agreement). But it isn't part of the "proof" of his thesis. On p. 87-95, he describes modernism, which is a concept used at the core of his argument, but describing it is also not part of his proof. (Curiously, he never uses the word "modernism", and seems to think his discovery of this historical transition is entirely novel.)

There are parts I didn't count as critical that seemed to be very important to him, such as his definition of art as "the maximalization [sic] of semantic incommensurability". Perhaps he works these in later. I also didn't count times when he repeats or rephrases an assertion made earlier, not to support it, but to use it as a now-proven fact to prove other things.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-12-31T17:52:09.825Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Curiously, he never uses the word "modernism", and seems to think his discovery of this historical transition is entirely novel

I would guess that a literature professor does have a conception of "modernism". Maybe for some reason he doesn't mean what his collegues mean when they say "modernism"?

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2014-12-31T18:56:13.609Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If he means something else, he ought to mention the difference. He ought to say that this was a separate transition at about the same time, or that it is modernism, but the distinctive property of modernism is different than people generally think.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2014-12-31T20:44:39.390Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

One of the more bizarre things about the book is that it sounds like it was written in 1925. His definition of art would lead directly to Gertrude Stein's "poetry"; his explication of the need to destroy the meanings of words to free the artist is a paraphrase of William Carlos Williams. He mentions Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Diderot, and Derrida, but only in passing (so far). His beliefs about language resembles TS Eliot's; his defense of it amounts to citing 19th-century French poets and early Wittgenstein. He never mentions that his definition of art and his theory of meaning are the same ones that led to post-modern art, which he never brings up even though the entire book seems to be aimed at discrediting post-modern art. He seems to be backing up to 1925 and trying to give neo-modernist theory a second go, only with Catholic mysticism this time, without citing the neo-modernists or admitting that post-modernism happened. Neither "modernism" nor "post-modernism" appear in the index. (Nothing at all appears in the index except for the names of artists, works of art, and critics, which tells you a lot about how Steiner thinks.)

His section on [modernism] begins, "We are, I believe, at present within a transformative, metamorphic process which began, rather abruptly, in Western Europe and Russia during the 1870s," and on p. 93 summarizes his discovery by saying, "It is my belief that this contract [that words can describe reality] is broken for the first time, in any thorough and consequent sense, in European, Central European and Russian culture and speculative consciousness during the decades from the 1870s to the 1930s. It is this break of the covenant between word and world which constitutes one of the very few genuine revolutions of spirit in Western history and which defines modernity itself" [emphasis his]. It is a textbook definition of modernism, yet he seems to be claiming it as his own discovery. Elsewhere he vomits references to prior works uncontrollably, yet in this section, while he continues citing at least one pre-1925 source per sentence, he cites no one past that date and gives no hint that anybody else has ever noticed this phenomenon.

His take on modernism is that it is the death of logocentrism. This is a common thing to say nowadays, and a concise interpretation of modernism. I don't think he originated that idea, either. It looks from Google like it was used this way by Tillich in 1926, Bergson in 1941, Maurelos in 1964, and Derrida in the 1970s, though I'm only looking at references to their works. Wikipedia says Ludwig Klages invented the term "logocentrism" in the 1920s.

comment by chaosmage · 2014-12-31T23:54:31.435Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If somebody had written it in 1925, it'd be in the public domain now, and could be legally ripped off.

But that couldn't actually be relevant, could it? I haven't read Klages. But if Klages or Tillich aren't being referenced, maybe their writing could be worth a comparison.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-01-01T03:38:36.370Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Reading further, the argument isn't what I expected. It's just 2 steps:

  1. Language doesn't correspond to reality.
  2. Therefore, whatever meaning we find in language comes from God.

This is presented on pages 93-120. For point 1 he cites Wittgenstein, and for point 2 he cites Derrida, who wrote much later. He may be abusing Derrida, though it's hard to say what either Derrida or Steiner means by "God".

I think I understand how Steiner thinks now. He really means it when he says words are a game that doesn't correspond to reality. He doesn't argue points because he doesn't believe his statements have a truth-value corresponding to reality. Advancing a new thesis, to him, is exactly like writing a new novel that references previous novels. You don't have to ask whether the previous novels were true. You are just taking what they said as the next step in the game. That's why to him, a citation counts the same as a proof, and why he never questions whether the sources he cite are correct or contradict each other. It is enough for him that someone has said it; it is now part of the game.

comment by 27chaos · 2014-12-31T16:57:32.330Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

My interpretation is that the core argument is talked about often throughout the book, but the premises and intuitions supporting it are only mentioned occasionally. So, the audience will be aware of Steiner's claims after having read the book, and they'll walk away from the book with the feeling of having been impressed by his skill, even though they won't actually be able to recite his argument. They do get the rough gist of his argument, Phil's point is that there's almost nothing more than gist to his argument.

Additionally, Phil may have summarized. Presumably there is some redundancy within the hundreds of pages.

comment by 27chaos · 2014-12-31T16:54:08.878Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW


comment by 27chaos · 2014-12-31T16:53:34.563Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

My interpretation of his review is that the core argument is talked about often throughout the book, but the premises and intuitions supporting it are only mentioned occasionally. So, the audience will be aware of Steiner's claims after having read the book, and they'll walk away from the book with the feeling of having been impressed by his skill, even though they won't actually be able to recite his argument. They do get the rough gist of his argument, Phil's point is that there's nothing more than gist to his argument.

comment by MarkusRamikin · 2014-12-31T10:16:50.092Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hm. He does also add

[2] This pattern breaks down around page 90, where Steiner begins a long spiral into his central thesis.

So while the OP says that his explaination is what you objected to, what he actually seems to describe is that part of the book is about the core argument, other parts are, well, not really about the core argument.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2014-12-31T13:09:41.762Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I've read and enjoyed other books by Steiner. His argument probably is that bad, but it probably isn't worse than his peers. You can spend a lifetime inn the humanities without ever seeing a really rigorous argument,

Humanities types also suffer from Typical Discipline Fallacy, assuming that everybody else's discipline is as vague as theirs, hence their affiliation with relativism, etc. For their part, STEM types go in for a fallacy of gray, treating everything less rigoroust than a mathematical proof as equally fluffy.

comment by CronoDAS · 2014-12-31T04:16:43.978Z · score: 5 (17 votes) · LW · GW


comment by [deleted] · 2014-12-31T01:29:05.152Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

One wonders why you bothered reading this book in the first place. Do you prefer feeling annoyed?

comment by PhilGoetz · 2014-12-31T04:01:45.959Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I began it because I bought it as a present for someone who had it on her Amazon wish list, but it didn't arrive until after Christmas. I kept reading it because he is one of the few articulate prominent literary theorists. He draws interesting parallels and contrasts between music and literature, the antagonism between democracy and the literary canon, and other ideas. His argument that the best literary criticism is other literature is interesting, and sympathetic to my own belief that one earns the right to speak on literary theory only by writing literature. I don't agree with the book's thesis, at all, but the big spaces between the points of his argument are good. Just not at carrying the thesis of the book.

The interestingness drops around page 90, though. I can still tell what he means to say, but I keep stopping, scratching my head, and saying, "Did he really mean to say that? Is this a first draft?"

comment by RichardKennaway · 2014-12-31T07:30:25.417Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

the big spaces between the points of his argument are good

Is there anything in those parts you could excerpt to exhibit that, as you have done for the bad parts?

comment by 9eB1 · 2014-12-31T09:25:13.797Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I like this post and think you make an interesting point with good quality writing. To me, the central argument you were making was quite clear, and I thought the tone of the piece made it more memorable and compelling, like some of the essays from the sequences rather than "modern day" Less Wrong. I can't help but think other criticisms are being a little too meta-contrary. As far as I'm concerned, if more people with this quality of writing wrote on Less Wrong instead of their personal [tum]blogs, the site would be a better place. So take this as encouragement.

With respect to the core argument, that you can average out a bad thesis with rigorous additions, I am a little bit skeptical as Kaj_Sotala is. Would love to hear further examples of times this has occurred. It seems plausible though.

comment by 27chaos · 2014-12-31T01:13:07.979Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Misleading title. Also, shouldn't this be in discussion? It's just a book review.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2014-12-31T01:23:02.566Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Steiner convinces people of his false argument (Dark Arts) by being rigorous, on average. 99% of his statements are based on his expertise, but that does not mean his argument is 99% based on his expertise.

It is not here because the book is important; it's here because it describes an example of a deceptive persuasive technique.

comment by 27chaos · 2014-12-31T16:47:16.361Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I think a better title would be Dark Arts: A Case Study. I came here expecting a lesson in how to use the Dark Arts. But a lesson should consist of more than just pointing out an example, broader arguments and suggestions need to be made.

It is not here because the book is important; it's here because it describes an example of a deceptive persuasive technique.

You talk a lot about Steiner's use of the deceptive technique, but not a lot about the technique in general. I feel it would be better if you talked about the technique in general, how to recognize when it's drawing you in, other cases where it is used, things like that. A specific instance of Dark Arts by itself is not a noteworthy occurrence, the Dark Arts are used all the time across the planet.

comment by hairyfigment · 2014-12-31T06:45:32.601Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

A point you propose to establish from a single example. Now since philosophy appears to have much the same problem as LW comment threads - people trying to signal intelligence rather than find the right answer - the institutions you mention could correctly assess status based on this (never mind the long tradition of respecting bad arguments for religious claims). You have yet to establish that Steiner's argument persuaded anyone.

Still, in the interest of not making this comment self-referential: your central claim seems somewhat plausible.

comment by JenniferRM · 2015-01-09T06:49:51.456Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I liked the post, partly the mouse/cat/dog sentence but especially this:

He took a two-page argument about things he knew little about, spread it across 200 pages, and filled the gaps with tangential statements of impressive rigor and thoroughness on things he was expert in.

Penrose did roughly the same thing in The Emperor's New Mind. I mentioned this on OB a while back:

If you read his book he gives a fantastic pop science explanation of all kinds of subjects around computing, coding, and quantum mechanics and so on, up to the inclusion of a crowning moment of awesome when he gives an actual universal turing machine, bit for bit, that is his own design as far as I remember.

After hundreds of pages of this he gives about two pages of hand waving argument nominally related to Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem that completely drops the ball and is just gibberish when it comes to proving that human consciousness is uncomputable. He argues that since mathematicians can all agree about Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem, they must be doing something more than merely mechanically formal and thus their consciousness must be something outside the powers of a turing machine. The pages and page of quantum backstory is ignored -- I think its just there in an "argument by putting impressively difficult material next to your actual claims".

comment by juked07 · 2015-01-02T02:05:47.067Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This happens in the zombie sequence where the crux of the argument is largely 2 lines in http://lesswrong.com/lw/p8/zombie_responses/

"3. Intuitively, it sure seems like my inward awareness is causing my internal narrative to say certain things, and that my internal narrative can cause my lips to say certain things. [...]

  1. (3) seems to me to have a rather high probability of being empirically true. Therefore I evaluate a high empirical probability that the zombie world is logically impossible."
comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2015-01-02T21:52:07.080Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

7 only explicitly refers to 3, but it also requires 6 and 5 in order to actually refer to Zombie World. 1 and 2 are setting up definitions for 3. If you roll that in as understood already, then the short version is fine because the entire argument against Zombies really boils down to one point: the causal structure of P-braaains requires them to include consciousness.

That doesn't mean that lines 1, 2, and 4-6 are pointless. It also doesn't match what Phil is saying unless line 3 is both reaching outside of the realm of expertise and not emphasized. Line 3 is definitely not reaching outside the realm of expertise, and is emphasized.

If you want to raise a problem, it would be that line 4 is carrying all the weight, not 3 - except, he goes on to further talk about it for multiple paragraphs immediately afterwards.

comment by juked07 · 2015-01-03T06:05:27.184Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think lines 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 are related to the argument but 3 and 7 are the "crux" of it. I mostly meant that there is a great deal of fluff surrounding the "core argument", eg the other 5 articles in the zombie subsequence.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2015-01-05T21:15:16.131Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Most of it is nailing down what words mean, so that when that short argument is made, it isn't dismissable.