Intellectualism and the Emperor’s New Clothes

By Legal Eagle

I’ve been reading the interesting string of posts on the question of intellectualism and anti-intellectualism. It all started off at PrawfsBlog, where Rick Hills explained why he was an anti-intellectual. At Slate, Eric Posner and Richard Ford mounted a defence of intellectualism, while still maintaining a dislike of deliberate obscurantism.

Hills’ example of intellectual obscurantism was Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter, a text that I have struggled through myself. Indeed, during my Arts degree, I struggled through a fair amount of very obscure Postmodern and Postcolonial writing. One of my most unfavourite writers because of his lack of clarity was Homi K. Bhabha. I was amused to see on Bhabha’s Wikipedia entry that obviously I was not the only one to have a problem:

In 1998 the journal Philosophy and Literatureawarded Bhabha second prize in its “Bad Writing Competition,” which “celebrates bad writing from the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles.” Bhabha was awarded the prize for a sentence in his The Location of Culture(Routledge, 1994), which reads:

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.

So I have some sympathy for Hills’ argument – having to navigate a sentence such as the one cited above tends to make one feel like mocking intellectual writing.

Eric Posner responds to Hills’ argument as follows:

Hills is really attacking a certain type of intellectual (the deliberate obscurantist) but confusing a subset of the class (to which he does not belong) with the class itself (to which he does belong). Then it becomes clear that Hills, an intellectual, is attacking a certain different type of intellectual: one who deliberately writes in an obscure way in order to conceal the weakness of one’s argument while intimidating potential critics. We need a term for his error: how about (for lack of any other) synecdochic literalism—mistaking the part for the whole.

This error is common. People resent lawyers, politicians, and doctors because some lawyers, politicians, and doctors act badly. But self-refutation occurs only when the speaker belongs to the class that he confuses with the subset. Consider Obama, Clinton, and McCain—all members of the elite—claiming to be anti-elitist, in much the same way that Hills claims to be an anti-intellectual. Indeed, intellectuals belong to the elite. These synecdochic literalists can’t be anti-elite without being anti-themselves. But they can oppose a type of elite, the type who uses financial, social, or (like the type of intellectual Hills criticizes) intellectual resources to shore up his position while claiming to speak for the masses that he secretly despises. So, why don’t they just say this rather than making themselves vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy?

There are a couple of different issues here. First, there’s the issue of clarity of writing which, as Posner has identified, really goes to the heart of Hills’ gripe. As I’ve explained before in a previous post, I think clarity in legal writing is seriously underrated. It’s so nice to have a well-structured and well-written legal document, but unfortunately, it can be rare. In fact, I think that some lawyers think that “using big words that no one else can understand” = “clever”. Not so. As I said in my previous post:

It seems to me that sometimes, lawyers forget why they exist. This includes solicitors, barristers, legal academics, legal aid lawyers, government lawyers, judges…indeed, every facet of the legal profession! I know that I am guilty of this sin from time to time.

The point of being a lawyer is to communicate with the rest of the word. We are the mediators between the law and everyone else. If you are a solicitor, you are trying to explain the law to your client (and sometimes other parties). If you are a barrister, you are trying to explain the law to the Court and your solicitors. If you are a legal academic, you are trying to explain the law to students. If you are a judge, you are trying to explain the law to the parties who have asked you to determine their dispute and to the legal profession at large.

Like Hills, I hate writing which is needlessly obscure. I get so angry when I spend hours unravelling an article, only to discover that the point being made is actually a very simple one that could have been made easily. It’s a waste of my time.

In such cases, the author is wrapping a simple concept up in complex words and jargon to make himself or herself seem more clever. However, no one dares say that the argument is not really that good in case they are accused of not understanding the supposed subtlety and philosophical depth of the author. I call it the “Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome. I’ll get back to this later.

However, sometimes, as Hills acknowledges, when writing in a specialised area you do have to use jargon or words which are not in ordinary use. This is generally because ordinary words are unable to express the concept or thing with sufficient specificity or clarity. Therefore, complex writing can still express valuable and useful ideas – it just takes effort to become familiar with the terms. Law is one of those areas where there are many specialised jargon words. Of course there are; we love to mince our words and dissect concepts down to the bone. I’m sorry, but I am of the firm opinion that an estoppel by any other name does not smell as sweet.

Now on to my second point. Hills’ other concern is with people who believe that they are cleverer than the average bear. He says:

My beef is with a particular social class — the “intelligentsia” — and not with the practice of using one’s intellect to reflect on experience.  In my experience, intellectuals (as a class) are ideologically intolerant, easily offended by ordinary humor, and pretentious in their prejudices, which they disguise as universal truths. 

Linking back to my point about the “Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome”, I think that the crux of Hills’ dissatisfaction is that not only do some intellectuals present simple arguments in needlessly complex ways, but when these intellectuals are challenged by an ordinary reader who wonders what the heck they were talking about, rather than acknowledging the criticism, they respond that the reader was obviously just too dense and unintellectual to understand their wonderful argument. Therefore, anyone who doesn’t accept their idea or point of view (usually the vast majority of people) must be stupid.

I think Hills has a valid point. It is not an acceptable response to simply say that anyone who disagrees with or doesn’t understand your writing is stupid, or a fascist, or a redneck, or a unenlightened human being. Perhaps if someone doesn’t understand your writing the problem lies with your writing and not with their understanding? And similarly, perhaps if your argument is not convincing, there may be some flaws in it.

I can’t stand this kind of behaviour – it is condescending, narrow-minded and patronising. It belittles the person who makes the criticism, rather than dealing with the argument. The subtext is the notion that someone else knows what is best for me and for society, and I shouldn’t worry my silly little head about it – I’m not nearly enlightened, intelligent, principled or privileged enough to be allowed to consider the matter. I’ve seen this kind of behaviour on both the left and the right of politics, and it really gives me the pip. It’s like waving a red rag in front of a bull as far as I’m concerned (so be warned).

Anyone who makes that kind of response to an argument is not a genuine member of the intellgentsia. As far as I’m concerned, a real intellectual response takes the criticism seriously, and deals with any valid points made by the critic. One should be open minded to ideas, and welcome criticism – otherwise how can one learn? That being said, like anyone, sometimes I find criticism of my ideas difficult to take, and have to go away to think and nurse my wounds before responding. Nonetheless, I usually find that the other person has some valid points. Or I can at least acknowledge the reasoning behind the view of the other person, but in the end, we just have to agree to disagree.

Thirdly, it’s also important to remember that sometimes, an idea or concept can have merit, even though no ordinary person thinks it is of much use or benefit. It may be that the idea is too radical or too early for its time. Or it may be that it is only of interest to a specialised group. That doesn’t mean that it is worthless.

I am sure that my PhD thesis would not be of interest to the vast majority of human beings, but it is of interest to the small and elite group of academic lawyers to which I belong. And I have hopes that it is clear enough that practitioners and judges will be able to understand my ideas…and maybe even be convinced by them. (Although I suspect some of the elite and narrow-minded members of the current High Court would burn my poor PhD as a heretical mix of common law and equity, but that’s a different story for a different post). Nonetheless, I wouldn’t scoff at any layperson who thought my thesis was wrong or silly. I tend to believe that if a legal concept is against the instincts of normal human beings, then I need to rethink it, and therefore such criticisms are of use. After all, the reason why we have the law is to govern ordinary people, and it needs to be explicable and justifiable.

{Now I’d better get back to writing my conference paper – blogging creates a terrible temptation to procrastinate. I have to go and reread some articles by someone who loves using philosophical jargon to obscure his point – hence the heartfelt nature of this post.}

[UPDATE by SL – Ken Parish shares his thoughts on this issue over at Troppo]


  1. Posted June 5, 2008 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    A lot of talk about intellectuals and intellectualism is based on persuasive definitions, like debates, where each side puts their spin on the key words in the topic to get the high ground. Because intellectuals for a couple of centuries have been overwhelmingly leftwing, Orwell wrote that you would have to be an intellectual to believe some piece of dotty fantasy. Because ordinary people tend to resist intellectual fads and fashions, they get labelled “anti-intellectual” as a black mark from the pointy heads.

    Jacques Barzun wrote a book called “The House of Intellect” on the disciplines of critical thinking, straight talking and clear writing that are required to get cumulative effects from one generation to the next in scholarship. The POMOS undid that by achieving spectacular success on the back of the syllogism:
    Profound thoughts are hard to understand,
    This writing is hard to understand,
    Therefore this writing is profound.

    The test of profundity in difficult writing is whether it gets clearer when you persist and get the hang of it, so it makes enough sense to explain the rudiments to an intelligent and interested outsider. Anyone who has stuck to the task of learning in a difficult fleld in a hard science or a discipline with genuine rigor will know the feeling, and you don’t get it from POMO. I did my best when it was fairly new in the ’80s and I now count that effort as wasted time.

    In philosophy much the same can be said of logical positivism and its US franchise, logical empiricism which can be regarded as Hitler’s revenge because it was carried to the US by Jewish and other refugees in the 1930s. Recalling the old country song “she got the mine and I got the shaft” the US got the shaft (the logical empiricists) and New Zealand got the mine when Popper ended up in Christchurch for the duration. Hooray for the Antipodes!

    On the topic of the Antipodes and Popper, don’t miss the little-reported meeting of Bazza Mackenzie and Sir Karl.

  2. Posted June 5, 2008 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    The Bazza piece was put in for a bit of a joke but now I remember the original purpose of the piece which was written for the student newspaper at the Uni of Sydney. The idea was to smuggle some serious ideas into anti-intellectual heads inside the “trojan horse” of Bazza talk.

    Another plug for the Antipodes, one of the best crits of anti-humanistic high lit theory came from two academics at La Trobe Uni.

  3. Will
    Posted June 5, 2008 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    You are absolutely right, LE. The biggest mistake pseudo-intellectuals make is to assume that you have to be clever to write something really complicated. The truth is that anyone can make a complicated idea sound complicated, but it takes a really clever mind to make something complicated sound simple.

    In my experience, sociologists are particularly guilty of this unnecessary, deliberate complexity to show off and exclude outsiders, although every discipline has its offenders.

  4. Apple77
    Posted June 5, 2008 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    Good post – very interesting. You’re right when you say that although plain language is best, there are some legal terms that can’t be condensed down any more. For example, ‘not changing your mind if someone’s relying on you to do what you said you would do’ is very cumbersome…

  5. John Hasenkam
    Posted June 6, 2008 at 2:38 am | Permalink

    “What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.”


    “Most philosophers are depressed because they realise they have nothing useful to contribute.”


    When I first heard about post modernism I wanted to pick up my gun, to borrow a term from Hawking when he was referencing Schrodinger’s Cat.

    Recently I forwarded to my former collaborator a blog discussion on Mathematics: Discovered or Invented? He launched into this with full fury, initially stating that he was glad he read Wittgenstein because it taught him that many problems in philosophy exist because the questions are framed the wrong way. This is what Wittgenstein is driving at with the above quote: the game of philosophy should free you not enslave you to a particular philosophy. Life is never so neat and tidy that the universe can be rolled up into a ball, to steal a phrase from Eliot, The Love Song … . Yet some of the intelligentsia, to my mind at least, seem to suffer this delusion that we can objectively and rationally apprehend and solve all the important problems in life.

    For example, cognitive dissonance studies tend to suggest that we will often adjust our beliefs to fit our behavior. Which came first? Our personality and behavior or beliefs about the world? I once quizzed an evangelical preacher as to why people sided with Calvinism or Arminianism. He replied that in his experience it was the personality that drove the person towards these poles of theological thinking.

    We may think we rationally construct our philosophy, that out there somewhere is a golden set of rules to set us straight. But as Stanley Rosen so beautifully stated at the end of The Limits of Analysis:

    “The positive task of the philosopher is to fecundate his analytical skills with dreams, and to discipline his dreams with analysis. … There are no rules and regulations for being reasonable, and certainly no rules and regulations for dreaming reasonable dreams. In philosophy, as perhaps in everything else, one communicates best his deepest dreams by enacting them.”

    Sometimes I wonder if segments of the intelligentsia like looking in the wrong place for if they were to shift their gaze they just might realise they would be out of a job!

    For the rest of intelligentsia the jargon is often necessary. Without jargon it can take too long to get to where one wants to be. For example, in my own completely non intelligentsia area of interest, neuroimmunology, I think almost entirely in terms of acronyms and attempt to visualise the play of all those molecules. I could not possibly begin to explain to the uninformed all the myriad concepts and facts required to navigate this morass of acronyms and dynamics. It takes year of patient study and thinking just to begin to find the right way forward and one is constantly beset by contradictory data, bad experiments, and yes jargon does get in the way, even after years of study. Yet the jargon is the equivalent of conceptual compression, it allows the mind to manipulate ideas without overloading working memory capacity, which according to GS Miller at least is 7 objects + – 2(1957). Specialists need jargon, I do not accept that if one cannot explain ideas simply to the non-specialist one is being deliberately obscure.

    The physicist Feynman once advised a student that in science one addresses problems that can be solved, that if one tries to determine why the inverse square law has such utility one could risk going mad.

    We need the intelligentsia but the intelligentsia need to keep their minds focused on the important problems in society that can be addressed, all too often they seem to descend into his narcissistic inter necine debates and forget that if thinking doesn’t lead to doing then wrong thinking is evident. Indeed depression can be perceived as excessive thinking about problems but never doing anything about those problems. Hence as Camus once wrote: There are many ways of leaping, the essential thing being to leap. (The Myth …)

    For myself I can never be part of the intelligentsia. After all, what is so intelligent about spending so much time trying to understand why brain cells die and how to stop it? I know a great deal about this, everything from effective strategies to preserve cognition well into old age to preventing trauma related brain damage. Practical and important stuff, but hardly profound and certainly won’t impress anyone at parties.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s 4.00am, il1 up, da down, tnfa rising, cort falling, circadians phase delaying as usual, but 5ht still doing fine. Do need more GABA though, I always need more GABA … .

    Good stuff LE. You and SL make me think.

  6. pete m
    Posted June 6, 2008 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    “For example, ‘not changing your mind if someone’s relying on you to do what you said you would do’ is very cumbersome…”

    What about – “keep your promise”

    Not wanting to start a political argument, but Rudd could certainly tone down his mismash of anagrams and circular words.

    John – good points – agree with them all, save GABA, until you explain it.

    Ladies (ie blog owners), please give us your thoughts on the macleans / steyn human rights trial in Ontario CA. ezra levant and the macleans site have some updates, but the best bit so far has been Porter QC, upon hearing the complainants were not going to testify, saying:

    “I wont call them if they are going to be scardeypants …”

    The next day their lawyer did call 1 of them, but not before first complaining his client was stressed at being called a scaredy pants.


  7. Jacques Chester
    Posted June 6, 2008 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    One of the great deep thinkers of computer science had some remarks which seemed to be relevant:

    At a given moment, the concept of polite mathematics emerged, the underlying idea of which is that, even if you have only 60 readers, it pays to spend an hour if by doing so you can save your average reader a minute. By inventing an idealized “average reader”, we could translate most of the lofty, human goal of politeness into more or less formal criteria we could apply to our texts. This note is devoted to the resulting notational and stylistic conventions that were adopted as the years went by.

    We don’t want to baffle or puzzle our readers, in particular it should be clear what has to be done to check our argument and it should be possible to do so without pencil and paper. This dictates small, explicit steps. On the other hand it is well known that brevity is the leading characteristic of mathematical elegance, and some fear that this ideal excludes the small, explicit steps, but one of the joys of my professional life has been the discovery that this fear is unfounded, for brevity can be achieved without committing the sin of omission.

    I should point out that my ideal of crisp clarity is not universally shared. Some consider the puzzles that are created by their omissions as spicy challenges, without which their texts would be boring; others shun clarity lest their work is considered trivial.

    From E W Dijkstra’s “The Notational Conventions I Adopted, and Why”, aka EWD1300.

    Dijkstra is focusing here primarily on mathematical notation with some programming language observations sprinkled throughout, but his core concern is in common with the problem of clear legal, intellectual and professional communication outlined above.

  8. John Hasenkam
    Posted June 6, 2008 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    Pete M.

    GABA: the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. I always need more GABA because my brain won’t stop, hence the reference to circadian phase shifts, much trouble sleeping.

  9. Posted June 7, 2008 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Interesting to hear anti-intellectualism expressed in such a, well, intellectual fashion. Beyond academia, you might find intellectualism honoured more in the breach than the observance.

  10. Posted June 8, 2008 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    I really do believe that there needs to be more done about the formal normalization of efforts to violate the enuciatory modailty.

    I think that the governments of the world will need to take robust action on this matter if they’re to avoid a collapse of society into civil war.

  11. Will
    Posted June 9, 2008 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    If you want to use your GABA more effectively, try Valium.

  12. John Hasenkam
    Posted June 9, 2008 at 9:50 pm | Permalink


    Beware of sleep deprivation. My last formal involvement in neuroimmunology was at a conference in Brisbane where myself and NY collaborator presented a poster on circadian dynamics. My research into this reinforced to me how important stable and good sleep is. I recall one study which showed that even in the absence of sleep deprivation, just ongoing changes in circadian rhythms resulted in temporal lobe atrophy(memory area, v. important for Legal types) and measurable cognitive deficits.

    Excellent text: The Promise of Sleep: Dement.

  13. John Greenfield
    Posted June 10, 2008 at 2:42 pm | Permalink


    On the bad writing prize, La Butler herself won FIRST prize with this doozy:

    The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

    Via la revolution, Judy!

  14. John Hasenkam
    Posted June 10, 2008 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Hey John G,

    Google “Alan Sokal”. He is a physicist who had great fun with postmodernists.

  15. John Greenfield
    Posted June 11, 2008 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    John H

    Yes, I read that when it was first published in Social Text. I was living in New York at the time, and was trying to get my head around the Culture Wars taking place between the pomo Luvvies, the neocons, and the pro-sex anti-gender-feminists. The poor old Marxists – comme moi – had been shown the door long ago.

    Here, Judy Butler is trying to make Marx chic again. Just what the Left needs, a po-faced bourgeois Berkeley lesbian trying to tart Marx up in poststructuralist couture!

    Fun times. 🙂

  16. Posted June 11, 2008 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Ther’ve been a series of books and essays written around the and from the Sokal hoax. One by Sokal himself. There’s a myriad of interesting questions viz the Humanities in the age of science. I’ve got 3 essays on the Cultural Studies thing pending and SL’s prodding last week has made me vow to finish them. At least one, I hope by Sunday.

    One’s on this Emperor’s New Clothes question, another on the use of Truth in the hunanities. This latter is different in the Humanities than in the Sciences and desirably so I;d say as this recent stoush re free will shows. Of course the Trendy Humanities in their efforts to both reject and ape science at the same time have taken it to comical extremes.

    For myself I just thank Allah that my lot realised that composing fabulously ornate tripe such as quoted at #17 is not a marketable commodity.

  17. Posted June 11, 2008 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    The poor old Marxists – comme moi – had been shown the door long ago.

    it’s your own faults. You didn’t realize that Coventry City had never won the FA Cup final. 🙂

  18. Posted June 11, 2008 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    RE #22 I should add that I likewise thank Allah that I took my Arts degree from people who realised what a marketable commodity was.

  19. Posted June 11, 2008 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    Adrien, if you’re interested in doing the odd guest post over here, let me know. We’re getting guest writers to contribute every now and then if they feel they’ve got something interesting to say.

  20. Posted June 11, 2008 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    Sure. Appreciated. Might take me a while. Probably something to do with IP issues. That’s what I was going to be.

  21. John Greenfield
    Posted June 12, 2008 at 8:00 am | Permalink


    While I have no doubt post #22 was very witty and apt, I have no clue what it means! 🙂 Also, have you read the Sokal (and some French dude) book? I believe it has been translated into English.

  22. Posted June 14, 2008 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    John G.

    Yes I have read it. The joke at #22 comes from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. There’s a quiz show in which Marx, Mao and Che are competing. Sample:

    Presenter: The development of the industrial proletariat is conditioned by what other development?

    Karl: The development of the industrial bourgeoisie.


    Presenter: Yes, yes, it is indeed. You’re on your way to the lounge suite, Karl. Question number two. The struggle of class against class is a what struggle? A what struggle?

    Karl: A political struggle.

    (Tumultuous applause.)

    Presenter: Yes, yes! One final question Karl and the beautiful lounge suite will be yours… Are you going to have a go? (Karl nods) You’re a brave man. Karl Marx, your final question, who won the Cup Final in 1949?

    Karl: The workers’ control of the means of production? The struggle of the urban proletariat?

    Presenter: No. It was in fact, Wolverhampton Wanderers who beat Leicester 3-1.

    It’s always two questions viz socialist theory and then one viz what the working class actually pays attention to (ie football). As I recall it ends with Marx and Che sprung pashing. 🙂

  23. Posted June 14, 2008 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    I had a friend who used to work at a place that gave emergency accommodation. There’s a wide range of clients but the most common sort are the lumpenprol white trash types that Fat Pizza pokes regular fun at. One of his co-workers was a Trot.

    The Trot was consistently the rudist and most condescending to these people, no contest. 🙂

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